Priscilla – A Novel

Priscilla – A Novel October 21, 2019

Ben Witherington III
Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian
Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic
Available at IVP and Koorong

By Laura Thierry

A particularly joy-inducing trend in biblical scholarship at present is that of the biblical scholar turned novelist. In response to the reality that we are narrative animals wired for story, this inclination to teach through historical novels seems a delightfully fitting and humane move that promotes rich Scripture-vibed imaginations. It is from within this growing movement that Ben Witherington III gives us Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian. In a similar vein to Paula Gooder’s Phoebe, Witherington employs his rich and nuanced knowledge of the first-century world of the Biblical texts, ignites it with fecund creativity, and fashions an imaginative and historically embodied picture of the Biblical character Priscilla.

One element of this style particularly helpful to a student of the biblical text is the sense of chronology that the story instills into its reader. The way in which Witherington imagines Priscilla’s story from young teenagehood, through marriage, running a business, adopting a child, and the experience of widowhood, juxtaposed with the Biblical events of Pentecost, the Jews’ expulsion from Rome, Stephen’s martyrdom, Paul’s arrival in Corinth, and the great fire of Rome, line up the likely Biblical chronology against the mean of a normal human life-timeline. This enables the reader to gain a ‘lived’ and sequential sense of the biblical text.

Each chapter is footnoted with explanations of various Greek and Latin vocabulary, links to various biblical examples, and other helpful commentary. The inclusion of images of various artifacts mentioned throughout adds to the effect of imaginative immersion in the first-century world. While the narrative does not move as quickly or suspensefully as Gooder’s Phoebe, Witherington’s slower world is dynamic in detail. In addition, Witherington’s spoken-word style poems at the beginning of many chapters are a delightful inclusion.

However, perhaps the loveliest element of this book was its ability to open the female world of early Christian women, on the basis of real historical understanding, in such a way that honours and dignifies the reality that Christian women had real women’s lives. The fact that almost the entire novel is arranged as a series of conversations between Priscilla and her adopted daughter provides an imaginative and rich example of what female friendship might have looked like within the first century. The inclusion of little details, like what weddings would have been like, or the experience of going to the market place, add vivacity to one’s reading of the actual biblical text. The worlds of work and Patronage, marriage and infertility, suffering and celebration, fasting and feasting, are explored with a richness that springs from the generative fusion of historical enquiry and empathetic imagination.

This little volume serves as an excellent resource for New Testament overview courses, and an enchanting and accessible introduction to the world of the New Testament for congregation members. I will be placing a copy into the hands of several young women from our young adults group. Highly recommended for any reader who desires to have their imagination kindled with an exploration into the biblical and feminine worlds of the first century.

Laura Thierry a PhD student at Ridley College, researching medieval hagiography, Christology, and theology of the body.

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