Priscilla, Ben Witherington III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.
Summary: An imaginative rendering of the story of Priscilla, a companion of Paul, as a dictated narrative recorded by her adopted daughter Julia, as she faces possible trial before a Roman tribunal.
Priscilla (or Prisca) is one of those fascinating minor characters we meet in the book of Acts and several of the letters of Paul. Often mentioned before her husband Aquila, she is described as a tentmaker, who works with her husband and Paul to support their mission efforts. When Paul writes the Corinthians, he sends their greetings along with his own. Later, in the letters to the Romans and the second letter to Timothy, he sends greetings to them. Perhaps most significantly, Priscilla and her husband instructed Apollos, who became a noteworthy preacher, in the truth of the gospel.
This book is an imaginative filling out of her story, and that of the early Christian movement. As the story opens, Priscilla is a woman of 80, still proprietor of a tentmaking business in Rome. Her nightmares about the early Neronian persecution of Christians, during which she lost her husband, result in her determining to tell her whole story to her adopted daughter Julia, who takes it down on wax tablets to copy to papyrus.
She traces her Christian journey from the day of Pentecost, when she and her mother became followers of the Way, and were expelled from their home. Eventually, they take up tentmaking in Rome. Prisca meets Aquila, another believer. She describes persecutions of Jews in Rome and their banishing to Corinth, their encounter with and travels with Paul, their instruction of Apollos, to whom she later. attributes the Letter to the Hebrews.
Witherington creates an urgency to the account. Shortly after beginning the narrative, Priscilla receives a summons to appear in a month before the tribunal of Domitian, who has resumed the persecution of Christians. The theme of persecution runs through the narrative–the brutalities of Nero, who illuminated the city with burning Christians, banishments, the trials of Paul, of Peter and many others.
Priscilla’s narrative incorporates descriptions of everyday life, often assumed in scripture, and makes connections that help flesh out the development of the early Christian movement–the ministries of Peter, James, and John, and their writings, along with the gospels of Luke and John Mark.
The account also chronicles the ideal of Paul about Jewish-Gentile relationships in the church, and the struggle, and ultimately failure to achieve this ideal as differences separated these two and the number of Jewish followers of the Way declined. There were both external pressures from the rest of the Jewish community, and the struggle to grasp the new covenant realities that made inclusion of the Gentiles possible.
Finally, the portrayal of Priscilla and the discussion of women and their roles in the church and the world helps us understand both cultural limits and the gospel possibilities Paul envisioned. This commentary by Priscilla, responding to a question from Julia reflects Witherington’s understanding of Paul on women:
” ‘That’s true, but Paulus’s pastoral principle was ‘start with them where they are, and lead them where you want them to go.’ He knew the places Timothy and Titus served were male-dominated, especially on Crete, but if you carefully read the first letter Paulus wrote to Timothy, he mentions female deacons. 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 so. Paulus view was to change those in the body of Christus over time rather than change society at large.’ “
Sadly, Priscilla probably didn’t envision that two thousand years later the church would still be wrestling with this one.
There are times when the incorporation of explanations of daily life seem a bit artificial, and the use of Latin or Greek terms, and then explanation, while helpful from a historical perspective, seems unnatural in a conversation. Nevertheless, the narrative reflects Witherington’s extensive understanding of the New Testament and its Mediterranean context, and helps us return to the biblical narratives with fresh eyes. The extensive use of illustrations to complement the text add to the reader’s understanding and interest. The use of the impending appearance before the tribunal adds narrative tension, and offers the opportunity for a discussion of the realities of Christian hope that have strengthened believers facing persecution in every age. This is a book both to inform and encourage!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.