Finding Phoebe, Susan E. Hylen. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2023.
Summary: A careful examination of the social status of women in the New Testament world, challenging many of our preconceptions of women in the early church.
I’ve been challenged of late that many of the things I thought I knew about the status of women in the New Testament world lack grounding in either the best socio-cultural research of Jewish and Greco-Roman society of this time, or in the biblical texts pertaining to women. For example, Caryn Reeder’s The Samaritan Woman’s Story (review) challenged my assumption (and that of most interpreters) that the Samaritan woman was a sexually “loose” woman.
In this work, Susan E. Hylen looks at the social world of New Testament women, exemplified in the brief portrait of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2. considering their access to wealth and property, their social influence and status, important virtues of women, and the question of women speaking and being silent. What is unique about her treatment is that in each chapter, she will present pertinent cultural and biblical background material and then offer passages of scripture that she will invite readers to examine in light of this information, with the result of reaching one’s own conclusions.
Hylen begins with establishing the fact that women commonly owned and controlled property, roughly one-third of all property in the Roman empire. Property that a wife inherited from her father remained hers and was not controlled by her husband and some women could be very wealthy, for example, Judith in the Apocrypha. The woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany was likely one such wealthy women, as were those who supported Jesus’ itinerant ministry. Women were commended for the use of their wealth in building public works. They oversaw households on their husbands behalf, or as single or widowed persons, were the head of the household. Phoebe may well have been one such, named as she is as a benefactor of Paul’s. Women also engaged in a variety of occupations outside of household management, from producing cloth to selling food to even being gladiators!
As we know, one of the elements of social influence and status was patronage. Women, as well as men, were patrons, offering loans and assistance, making civic gifts and exercising civic leadership. As already noted, Phoebe was one such person, and thus came highly attested by Paul, to the Romans. While the extent of literacy is somewhat hard to determine, the extensive existence of contracts as well as written receipts suggests that it may have been more common than thought, and that women, while less educated on average than men, were educated to the extent families were able, and thought needed. Some, particularly those with significant influence, were highly educated and that this may have been the case with Phoebe.
So, what made a woman virtuous. Hylen talks first of modesty, which may have had less to do with what was covered or exposed than the choice of simple rather than extravagant garb. It did mean sexual faithfulness, to a higher standard than men but also was associated with self control in civic relations. The virtuous woman was industrious, both inside and outside the home, including in her business and civic endeavors. They were loyal, which meant more than faithfulness. They managed resources well for their heirs, preserving family wealth as well as investing in one’s community. Also, they helped foster marital harmony, with the marriage not being a power struggle, but two people working respectfully of each other to advance the status of one’s family, especially since both often had property resources at their disposal.
Finally, Hylen discusses conventions around speech and silence for women. There is much evidence of women speaking in social, business, and civic settings, often with women engaged in advocacy. In both cultural and biblical texts, women engage in prayer and prophecy. There was a flexibly applied “rule of silence.” Silence in the culture reflected self-control, one being silent in the presence of social superiors, which could apply both to women and men. This also meant that there were situations in which women spoke. It is likely that Phoebe’s was one such situation as a benefactor, a deacon, and Paul’s emissary to Rome, likely bearing, and perhaps even explaining Paul’s letter.
Hylen portrays a more complicated picture than we’ve often heard. While men did have greater status, women also had status and influence, and used it in the household, over their property, and in their business, civic, and religious interests. Yet modesty and self-control meant women also knew when to speak and to be silent. Though there is much we would like to know about Phoebe, it is evident that she was someone who may have navigated this world of status and influence and skill as a trusted ministry partner with Paul, and that there were others like her, who may serve as models of ministry and agency for women today.
I appreciated the approach of this work, combining needed background with the opportunity to engage biblical texts in light of that background. This is a good resource for both individuals and groups wanting to work through the question of women’s influence in the New Testament and what this means for today.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.
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