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Mail and female

Paula Gooder has written a story imagining the life of a woman given a special mention at the end of a New Testament letter. She tells Philip Halcrow about trying to portray the world of Phoebe

Jesus was human at a time that was heavily male-dominated

IF the letter could have been stamped with a modern-style postmark, the year may have read ‘AD56’. It was sent to a group of people living in Rome. Yet it is still being read almost 2,000 years later – and not only by inhabitants of the Eternal City.

In his Letter to the Romans, which became part of the New Testament, the apostle Paul covers big themes, such as redemption and grace. But a brief reference to one person towards the end of the letter has also fascinated scholars – including Paula Gooder, who has written a work of fiction around that woman: Phoebe.

‘Scholars agree on four, or maybe five, things about Phoebe,’ says Paula.

‘First, she was a deacon in the Church at Cenchreae, on the coast near Corinth. Secondly, Paul describes her with a Greek word which is sometimes translated as “benefactor” and which is often used in society to refer to a patron – so, somebody who was wealthy.

‘Thirdly, we know that the name Phoebe was given mostly to slaves, so there’s a good chance that she was a freed slave. The fourth fact that scholars agree on is that Phoebe took the letter from Corinth to Rome.

‘Lastly, some scholars think that she was going to Rome not only to take the letter but also to get ready for Paul’s mission to Spain – which, it seems, didn’t quite work out as he planned.’

Bible scholars are unsure whether Paul reached Spain or died before. It’s one mystery among others.

In Phoebe, Paula has written an imaginative account of Phoebe’s life. In creating the story (which she insists does not claim the specialist label of “novel”), she aimed to use first-class scholarship to give people insights into the letter that Phoebe delivered and – even though he never appears – the man who wrote it.

In the story, and in a section of notes that makes up about a quarter of the book, Paula also explores the world in which Paul wrote his letter.

‘We probably don’t appreciate how different that world was from ours in terms of relationships, hierarchies and wealth,’ says Paula. ‘One of the challenges of biblical interpretation is to try to imagine ourselves back into what it felt like to live then.’

Historical research can help 21st-century people understand what was going on when Phoebe took Paul’s letter to Rome. Paula speaks of how scholars have suggested where the Christian community lived in Rome – possibly an area known as Transtiberium, today called Trastevere – and the size of their houses, a factor that would affect the number of Christians who could gather together at any one time to listen to the reading of an apostle’s letter.

Sometimes the historical background sheds light on the meaning of Paul’s writings.

‘Slaves could be adopted into an important family and inherit huge wealth, which suddenly brings to life Paul’s language about adoption,’ says Paula.

In his letter, Paul announces that, through their faith, Christians have received ‘a spirit of adoption’ and become ‘children of God, and if children, then heirs’ (Romans 8:15–17 New Revised Standard Version).

‘Paul’s language must have had a purchase for readers then in a way that it doesn’t for us – it was about the possibility of joining a new family, having a new history, a new biography, a new way of being.’

Another significant detail may change the way some people look at Paul, the Early Church and even the Christian faith.

If someone was entrusted with a letter, says Paula, they were considered a representative of the author.

‘Phoebe was probably the first person to interpret the Letter to the Romans. The people who heard it would have asked questions: what did Paul mean by this or that? Phoebe would have had to explain.’

Paula recognises that, although Phoebe may get a honourable mention and although Paul insists in one of his other letters that ‘there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28), the New Testament is still predominantly a man’s world.

‘Christianity is a historical religion,’ she says. ‘We are Christians because we believe in a historical character, Jesus. So if we want to follow this historical character, we need to think carefully about what it means for us.

‘Jesus was human at a time that was heavily male-dominated. We now live in a different world. But what fascinates me about the New Testament is that if you read between the cracks, you see some exceptions. Yes, it was written by men for men about men, but what about Phoebe, what about Lydia, what about Joanna and Mary Magdalene in the Gospels? They’re not to the fore, but they’re there – you just have to look for them a bit more carefully.’

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