A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman

A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman January 28, 2021

Holly Beers
A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman.
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2019.
Available at IVP.

Review by Janelle Kenny

Holly Beers’ historical novel, A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman follows Anthia, a Greco-Roman woman from Ephesus, through the daily activities, challenges and worries that characterised life in the first-century Roman Empire. As an associate professor of religious studies, Holly Beers combines her biblical and historical knowledge in a personal, informative and engaging format. The book’s storyline focuses on the confrontation of Paul and the growing Christian community with the polytheistic beliefs of Ephesus. The dangers and difficulties of life as a woman are highlighted, such as childbirth and domestic violence, as well as challenges that affected all people, such as poverty and social inequalities. The author contrasts the nature of Roman society with the new, counter-cultural community of Christians.

The New Testament presents the story of Jesus and the new Christian community from the perspective of believing apostles and church leaders, who are involved in spreading the gospel, planting churches and discipling believers. Holly Beers’ effectively brings to life the other side of the story. She writes from the perspective of those who were being exposed to the gospel for the first time, as it spread throughout the world in the first century and confronted the social, cultural and religious norms of that time. In doing so, she highlights the challenges that people in the first century had to grapple with in deciding whether to follow Jesus, which I had not considered in detail before reading this book. These challenges and decisions can be transposed into today’s society, whether in Australia or elsewhere. Firstly, the gospel challenges existing social, religious, and cultural frameworks in every society. When people are exposed to the gospel, their entire worldview is challenged. Secondly, the gospel requires every person to make a decision about whether or not they will follow Jesus. A decision for Christ can expose a person to social, familial and cultural rejection. This was a particular concern of Anthia, as she was confronted with what it might cost her to transfer her allegiance from the Ephesian gods to Jesus.[1]

The themes of honour and shame, which were foundational in Roman society, are presented in the book in the context of marriage relationships and religious beliefs.[2] Anthia’s fear of the cost of following Jesus, along with her husband’s reaction to her interaction with Christians, were barriers to her acceptance of the gospel.[3] This was perpetuated by the honour and shame culture in which she was immersed and the expectation that she would comply with her husband’s wishes and worship his gods.[4] I learnt from this book that women didn’t choose the gods that they worshipped, but were required to adopt their husband’s gods upon marriage.[5] This emphasizes that it was counter-cultural to call each person, including women, to make a decision about whether they would follow Jesus. This theme highlights the importance of understanding the worldview of those you are ministering to, in order to contextually present the gospel and understand the barriers to faith.

The worship of many gods, which was prevalent in Ephesian society, is contrasted to Christian monotheistic beliefs. The book presents stories from Acts 19 from Anthia’s perspective, highlighting their confronting impact on a society that was grappling with the gospel. The book also emphasizes the way in which worship of their many gods was seamlessly woven into every aspect of life.  They would call upon particular gods in response to particular life events, for example, Artemis for childbirth and protection, Amphitrite and Glaukos for fishing yields, and Asclepius for healing.[6] In contrast, the book presents Paul and the Christians using the phrase ‘one true God’ (see similarly 1 Corinthians 8:4-6).[7] This would have had particular impact for people like Anthia, who had grown up worshipping many gods. Anthia and her family and friends at different times wondered whether the gods were not acting because they had not sacrificed enough or because the gods were angry with them.[8] The author highlighted the stress this caused, both in terms of the financial cost and the fear of upsetting the gods.[9] As Anthia grappled with the gospel message, she feared that this would upset the gods and cause harm to her, her family or her city.[10]

The distinctiveness of the inclusive Christian community is highlighted in stark contrast to the hierarchical, unequal Roman culture. Anthia is surprised and attracted by the unity of all people in the body of Christ, regardless of wealth, citizenship, ethnicity, gender or social position.[11] She was drawn to this community for its love and the value it placed on all members and their contribution.[12] This book has brought to life verses such as Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 3:6 and Colossians 3:11. It was truly counter-cultural for the church to be so inclusive and accepting of all people, regardless of their circumstances or characteristics. It also highlights the application of Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12 regarding the unique and valuable contribution that every Christian brings to the community through their spiritual gifts. Finally, this book illuminates the household codes in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:1. It is clear that the behaviour and standards that Christians were called to were different to the norm of their society, particularly in loving wives, valuing all children and treating slaves with kindness and respect.[13] The book emotively highlighted the unique attractiveness of a truly loving, others-centered, united and inclusive community of believers. I was attracted to the presentation of the Christian community as loving, welcoming and embodying the teaching of Jesus. Our churches today are in a different context, where separation of people of different genders, ethnicities and social statuses is less of a concern. However, division and prejudice can still be present in more subtle ways. The church needs to be a welcoming place for all people and a community that displays the characteristics of Jesus. While this will look different in our context to first-century Ephesus, the same principles apply.

In summary, Holly Beers’ book effectively highlights the distinctiveness of Christian beliefs and community to that of first-century Greco-Roman society. She encourages the reader to consider the challenges faced, particularly by women, but also by society in general, both in daily life and when confronted with the gospel. This narrative intimately portrays the people to whom the New Testament was originally written and provides cultural context for a rich understanding of New Testament passages. This book has successfully illuminated the historical background to the New Testament in an accessible and relatable manner, through the lives of characters not unlike ourselves as they wrestle with daily life and their response to the gospel.

[1] Holly Beers, A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019), 112, 126, 161, 163-166.

[2] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 25, 52, 81, 112, 118, 126, 133, 154, 161, 163-164.

[3] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 112, 126, 161, 163, 166.

[4] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 26, 101, 112, 126, 161, 163-166.

[5] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 26.

[6] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 14-17, 29, 32, 37, 49, 57-62, 67, 69, 96, 109.

[7] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 33.

[8] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 14-15, 61, 73.

[9] eg. Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 14-15, 29, 49, 58-59, 61, 67-69, 77-78, 83, 122, 133, 160.

[10] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 58, 70, 78, 122.

[11] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 46-47, 119-129, 140-142, 148, 164-166.

[12] Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 119-129.

[13] See eg. Beers, Greco-Roman Woman, 12-14, 25-26, 33, 82, 90, 94-95, 101, 110, 144-145, 154, 157-158, 161, 163.

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