Ben Witherington III is Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, near Lexington, Kentucky, where he has taught since 1995. He is the author of over sixty academic and popular books, including the Christianity Today award-winning The Jesus Quest (1995) and The Paul Quest (1998) as well as commentaries on the entire NT. Witherington is ordained in the United Methodist Church.
Background and Purpose of the Book
From Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880) to Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe (1942) to the more recent Mark of the Lion trilogy (1993–1995) by Francine Rivers, the first-century NT era has been the setting of many entertaining novels. In recent years, IVP Academic has enlisted biblical scholars to write works of historical fiction that educate readers about the NT. These include a novel by Paula Gooder in 2018 about Phoebe (see Rom 16:1–2)1 as well as the seven-volume Week in the Life series (2012–2020), which includes two volumes by Witherington. To this recent corpus of Bible-based historical fiction, Witherington adds a novella about the NT figure Priscilla (see Acts 18:2, 18–28, Rom 16:3, 1 Cor 16:19, 2 Tim 4:19).
Witherington seeks to fulfill two purposes in writing Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian. Foremostly, he answers the question, “Who was Priscilla?” Referencing common questions about this enigmatic biblical woman, he posits answers to questions such as: “Why is she mentioned before her husband? Does her instruction of Apollos mean that women taught in the church? What is her story?”2
Secondly, recognizing Priscilla’s recurring presence in the NT (mentioned six times in four books and living in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus), Witherington seeks to “help readers connect the events and correspondence in different New Testament books.”3 Thus, he hopes to write a narrative introduction to the NT centred around one important, and usually neglected, figure of the early church.
Content of the Book
The reader is introduced to Priscilla in Rome circa AD 96, now an eighty-year-old woman who oversees her tent-making business. Plagued by nightmares about the fire of Rome, Priscilla therapeutically tells her story to her adopted daughter Julia, who chronicles it for posterity.
We learn that Priscilla (a more personal form of the name Prisca) was a Gentile God-fearer within the Jewish community and eventually became a believer in Christ by attending Pentecost celebrations in Jerusalem, even being present at Peter’s famous sermon (see Acts 2).
Prisca continues her story chronologically, telling of her marriage to Aquila, the situation that forced them to move to Corinth, and their eventual meeting of the Apostle Paul. Their ministry with Paul takes them to Ephesus and eventually back to Rome. Prisca goes on to educate Julia about the fire of Rome, the death of Peter and Paul, the destruction of Jerusalem, and events that happened during the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96). There is also an attention-grabbing back story about Priscilla and her relation to the Roman authorities.
Along the way, the reader learns about NT figures like Apollos, Junia, Mary Magdalene (or Miryam of Magdala as Witherington calls her), Peter, and especially Paul. The reader is given copious details about Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, the Roman emperors, and daily life in first-century Greco-Roman culture. In the style of a textbook, Witherington’s work of fiction contains over 160 footnotes, more than forty pictures and maps, many Greek and Latin words, and dozens of quotations from ancient sources.
Critical Engagement with the Book
The format is conducive to interspersed biblical, historical, and theological teaching, where Witherington exhibits his professorial passion and experience. As a result, many of Witherington’s opinions about the NT books and the early church shine through Priscilla’s narrative.
Concerning the composition of the NT books, Witherington holds to a traditional Roman location of the writing of Paul’s Prison Epistles (121) as well as Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles (although he believes Luke penned these letters under Paul’s direction, making sense of the oft-noted vocabulary and style; 9, 167–68). He also thinks Apollos wrote the book of Hebrews (24, 155, 162), Peter wrote 1 Peter (87), and that John Mark wrote his Gospel using the notes and reflections of the Apostle Peter (144, 176).
Other thought-provoking views include Witherington’s belief that first-century believers released their slaves as a result of their faith in Jesus and early apostolic teaching (7, 137). Also, he believes that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7–10) was poor eyesight as a result of his Damascus-road experience and subsequent beatings (51, 89).
Readers of Priscilla Papers will be especially interested in the way Witherington portrays women in the early church. He describes Priscilla as a wise and faithful disciple of Christ, as well as a leader in the first-century church. Witherington believes Priscilla’s name to be placed before her husband Aquila’s in Rom 16:3 and Acts 18:26 because she, unlike Aquila, was a Roman citizen and therefore had higher social standing (36). He also emphasizes Prisca’s teaching of her co-worker Apollos, without positioning her over her husband in terms of church prominence and leadership (23, 71, 72).
Reflecting his career-long interest in women in the NT,4 Witherington exhibits a respectful and nuanced attitude when introducing the reader to other NT women. Without pigeonholing these women into unhelpful female stereotypes (or leaving their femininity behind altogether), Witherington portrays them as invaluable contributors to the early Christian movement. For example, he describes Phoebe (Rom 16:1–2) as a house assembly leader and believes she not only delivered, but also read Paul’s letter to the Roman church (60).
Witherington also states that Euodia (whom he identifies with Lydia, mentioned in Acts 16) and Syntyche were leaders in the Philippian church (138). Although Priscilla focuses her story on the early Christian movement after the ascension of Christ, she also tells Julia about the importance of female disciples during Jesus’s ministry, including Mary of Magdala, Susanna, and Joanna (106). Fascinatingly, Witherington believes Joanna (Luke 8:3, 24:10) is the same person as Junia (Rom 16:7).5 He furthermore believes that Junia was an important apostle (97-100) and not merely “well known to the apostles” (ESV) or “noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles” (HCSB, CSB).
In one conversation Julia says, “I’ve heard some say that Paulus silenced women and prevented them from using their God-given gifts,” to which Priscilla shakes her head “vehemently” and says “this is far from the truth” (58). In another conversation, Priscilla states that “Paulus had no issues with women leaders in his congregations” (138). Rather, Priscilla explains the difficult Pauline texts in light of their historical and cultural context, saying, “those texts were never meant to exclude women from praying or prophesying or teaching or whatever they were gifted and called by God to do” (168). In agreement with non-hierarchal complementarian (that is, egalitarian) theology, Witherington exhibits NT church leadership as based on Spirit-given gifts rather than gender.
Perhaps the book’s strengths are also its weaknesses. Although all will benefit from this novella, non-academic readers may find themselves overwhelmed by the plethora of historical details, footnotes, and references to the ancient world. Witherington is not an unskilled writer of fiction, but it is clear that this is didactic fiction nonetheless.
Witherington does succeed in his didactic aims. As a master NT exegete and historian of the first century, he presents a historically plausible and interesting overview of the figure of Priscilla, as well as of the NT and the cultures in which it arose. Incredibly, he does this in just twenty-nine pithy chapters spread over 191 pages. This short length may mistakenly lead students and studious pastors to judge his work as lacking in academic rigour.
Hopefully, students, pastors, and many other Christians will pick up this book to educate themselves about the coherent narrative of the first-century church and especially the prominent role of women in this movement. Furthermore, one hopes that those who read it will be challenged to serve Christ and his church in the tradition of Priscilla herself, to the full extent of their Spirit-empowered gifts—regardless of their gender.
1. Reviewed by Michaela Miller in Priscilla Papers 33/3 (Summer 2019) 28.
2. Back cover.
3. Back cover.
4. Since 1981, when he earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the role of women in the Gospels and Acts, under the supervision of Methodist NT scholar C. K. Barrett at the University of Durham, England.
5. See pp. 97–100 and Witherington, “Joanna: Apostle of the Lord—or Jailbait?,” in BRev (Spring 2005) 12–14, as well as the interpretation of Richard J. Bauckham in his Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2002) 109–202.