This is a very odd book. Odd but not in a bad way, at all. It is a well written and imaginative book that does not fit any box. After reading it, my best description is that it is historical fiction. The author, Paula Gooder insists that it is not a novel, that is easy to agree. It is a well-crafted story anchored on imagination, theology and well-researched history.
Foremost New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright had once said that “for too long we’ve read biblical narratives with 19th-century eyes while asking 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with 1st-century eyes and 21st-century questions.” PHOEBE is a historical imaginative fiction that reimagines the 16th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Rome. It imagines the happenings around the characters mentioned in that letter with a 1st-century eye. The central character is a lady called Phoebe. She was a deacon and patron in Corinth who travelled and delivered the letter to the community in Rome.
Irrespective of one’s position in the deity of Jesus, it is a historical fact that he had distinct followers who began gathering around the Roman empire in the first century and has spread to almost everywhere else in the following centuries. In addition to the theological underpinning in the narrative, the book uses Phoebe, the central character to explore the historical context of the culture in which the Roman church thrived, despite being a prosecuted minority. It also explores slavery in the 1st-century Roman empire as a background to slavery in the New Testament. Also explored in details is the role and position of 1st-century women in the Church vis-a-vis the Roman and Asia minor societies.
In PHOEBE, all of these explorations are based on rigorous research of Roman history and a fertile but believable imagination. it is an imagining of what it was like to be Phoebe as a partner of Paul and a female leader in a 1st-century society steeped in patriarchy.
This is a very good read. It is an atypical one which helps ask questions which would have been asked by the original audiences who were first-hand witnesses to these narratives. Paula Gooder made a wise choice in avoiding footnotes. That would have ruined the fictional nature of the book. Instead, she has over 100 pages of notes at the end. The notes are divided to match the chapters of the book and give a detailed background into the research and historical studies that guided the imaginative story that is the great read called PHOEBE.