Ben Witherington III fills out the story of the biblical Priscilla, or Prisca, mentioned in Acts 18 and Romans 16. The New Testament does not tell us much about her -- she's a tentmaker and church leader with her husband Aquila, both of whom work with the apostle Paul, and mentor the young evangelist named Apollos. Witherington weaves these facts about Priscilla into a coherent narrative in which the aging church leader tells her story to her adopted daughter, who is coming of age.
Witherington's story is well researched and loaded with historical and theological insight. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a historical document (e.g. Pliny the Younger). And yes, this novel has footnotes. Historical fiction is an enjoyable way to learn about life and culture in the first century, making history more accessible to students and laypeople. The chapters are short. The plot is believable. His interpretation of scripture and its context is plausible.
We're introduced to the apostles Peter and Paul as well as Apollos, the emperors Nero, Claudius, and Domitianus, seasons of persecution and pressure for the young church, the tension between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, the gladiatorial games, and even the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. We're given Witherington's conjecture about Paul's mission to Spain, his return to Rome, and his death -- none of which are recorded in the New Testament but are matters of great curiosity for biblical scholars.
If I have one complaint, it is near the end of the book, as Priscilla and her daughter discuss the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Their re-reading of Paul's letter to the Romans (chapters 9-11) is surprisingly flat. I've not read much of Witherington's voluminous contribution to New Testament scholarship, so perhaps his interpretation here is in keeping with what he has said elsewhere. For a stronger reading of that passage, see N. T. Wright's work. Still, my disappointment with this one chapter should not detract from the overall quality of the book. It remains a solid introduction to the contributions of women in the earliest churches.
Witherington's other books of this genre include A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem (IVP, 2017) and A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP, 2012).
Another outstanding book in this genre is Phoebe, by Paula Gooder (IVP, 2018) which reconstructs the life of the female deacon who delivered Paul's letter to the Romans. It's a page-turner and well worth reading!
How does a woman with a slave name end up delivering Paul's letter to the Romans? How does she have the means to undertake such a journey? How was she educated to the point that Paul chooses her to explain his letter? What did she think of the church in Rome? Gooder answers all these questions in a compelling way. She kept my attention from beginning to end. Friends who are not biblical scholars have enjoyed the book, too. Highly recommended.
One of these days, biblical scholars need to start writing historical fiction on the Old Testament . . .