A Feature Review of
Finding Phoebe: What New Testament Women Were Really Like
Susan E. Hylen
Reviewed by Beth Jarvis
Susan E. Hylen’s Finding Phoebe: What New Testament Women Were Really Like invites us to look at the cultural norms of wealth, social influence, modesty, and silence in the Greco-Roman world and reflect on how these norms might have impacted women in the New Testament church. One quickly sees that women’s leadership was not so simple. There was not one kind of woman or one clear formula for how a woman should act in church. We cannot simply say all women were silent or all women prophesied. Much like today, we see a vast array of gifts, circumstances, and needs in each community and how these needs might require an individual to step up and advocate for that community. The culture was patriarchal and that was part of the experience of women in the church. However, as Hylen points out, the men and women of the New Testament lived in tension with the world around them.
Sometimes, women prophesied. Sometimes they advocated for and supported the furthering of the gospel, because that was what was needed. For first century Christians, though, seeing women use their gifts, resources, or social standing to meet a need wasn’t necessarily uncommon. That also happened in the larger society. Using primary sources, Hylen shows how women managed households, owned property, ordered food, signed receipts and made deals with tradespersons. Women worked. Not unlike today, their work supported their families and, often, larger communities. When a woman advocated for her family this was seen as virtuous and praiseworthy (134). Can we then, as modern readers, draw a line over to the church and ask how a family of believers in Rome might view a woman who came with a letter asking them to love each other fairly as brothers and sisters in Christ? Hylen says “yes,” and shows us how to do that.
Most scholars today think Phoebe, who is mentioned in Romans 16:1-2, was the one who delivered Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. There is a lot of conversation about what it meant to deliver a letter and also what her titles, “a sister, a deacon, and a benefactor” meant to the church. Hylen’s main question is how shocking would it have been for a woman to be called a benefactor and a deacon, based on cultural norms. How would they have received her? She argues the Roman church probably wasn’t shocked by Phoebe’s gender. It would not have seemed strange for them to see a woman performing the letter. They likely knew how to receive a fellow benefactor of Paul’s. Hylen invites us to listen in and to find women, like our sister, Phoebe, offering us a message on behalf of Christ, helping us navigate the tensions of our own culture.
In each chapter, Hylen pulls excerpts from letters, receipts, grave stones, and literature to demonstrate the diverse roles women held at the time. She then compares these primary sources with specific New Testament passages and provides reflection questions to help readers interact with the nuances of scripture. Hylen shows us how to do a close read of the biblical test. For the young seminarian or Sunday school group or book study, the structure of this book is a gift for this reason. One of my favorite pieces of advice that Hylen gives in the opening of the book is to actually write out answers to the questions. At first, I didn’t do this because the questions were simple and the answers seemed basic. However, when I listened to Hylen and actually wrote out my answers, I found I was slowing down and actually listening to the text. Reading more closely, I found myself sitting with New Testament women differently. I found new insights around what it means to be a disciple, a leader, and a faithful follower of Jesus.
To be a disciple is to imitate Christ. Living this out involves humility. It involves following, which often means giving something up for the sake of someone else. We praise Paul for this. Paul gave his education, citizenship, and tent-making skills to grow the church. So, what did women have to give as they sought to imitate Paul as Paul imitated Christ (Phil 3:17)? Hylen suggests women also had propriety, education, and sometimes financial means by which to enact their discipleship. There were a variety of ways that women came into property: Through inheritance, marriage, or business. The historical records show women could own the same kinds of property as men (17). None of this is meant to imply that men and women were equal status or that this was not still a patriarchal culture. However, knowing that women were responsible for property provides insight into how we might interpret the women in the New Testament. As they looked to imitate Christ, they had to discern what to do with their resources. There is no one formula. Just a call to faithful discipleship. And faithful discipleship could include sharing one’s resources.
For some this meant leadership. Good leaders help their communities thrive. One form of leadership that was common in Paul’s time was worked out through the patron-client relationships. A patron was someone who “used their social standing to advocate for their family and their clients” (64). Both men and women could be patrons as both could have social status, through property, education, or family. In this hierarchical culture, women could outrank some men. For example, Hylen points to inscriptions about Junia Theodora, a citizen of Corinth, who provided help when her countrymen were in political trouble. They honored her by paying for five inscriptions praising her for her efforts. Christians would have been familiar with this form of leadership and have thought that helping a community with your resources was something both men and women were capable of.
Finally, being a faithful follower of Jesus involves times of silence and speech, regardless of gender. Hylen invites us to look at the larger cultural understanding of silence. Modesty and self-control were high social values at the time. Silence and plain clothing were two examples of how one could practice self control, modesty, and generosity. Both men and women could practice these virtues. Plain clothing demonstrated an ability to think of someone other than yourself (95). Silence demonstrated understanding the power of words and social order, especially contextual hierarchies. A silent woman or man could be viewed as someone capable of leadership because of their modesty and self-control. When they did speak up it was clear that they were not acting for themselves, but on behalf of someone else or the greater good. Hylen suggests that Phoebe, traveling so far to deliver a letter for Paul, could have been understood in this way. The believers in Rome may not have seen a contradiction between Phoebe, the virtuous woman, and Phoebe, the benefactor. As Paul writes, “I commend to you, our sister, Phoebe.” She was offered to them (and to us) as an example of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.
Hylen’s invitation to find Phoebe is a difficult task for believers today. We still want one fail-safe way to understand women’s roles and leadership in the church. This conversation has caused so much pain, but I believe reading this book with a group of church elders or a Sunday school class or lay leaders could make this conversation easier. The chapters are short and the reflection questions are simple and interactive. I would also recommend this book for the seminarian struggling to find a bridge between her classroom and the church. She will find her sisters in this book and, in doing so, will find some courage.
I recently took part in a young women minister’s retreat. It was a small gathering of mostly women in their 20s, discerning their first year in ministry. At the end of our retreat, we read Romans 12:1-10 standing around a kitchen table. For a few minutes we stood in silence, then we said only the words we felt the Spirit led us to say. We broke bread and served communion. And when invited to either be silent or sing, we chose singing. Led by the Spirit, we spoke words of gratitude into each other’s lives. By their words, those young women showed me the faith of Christ, and that maybe we don’t have to look too far today to find Phoebe.
Beth Jarvis is the director of the Emmanuel Christian Seminary's Ministry Resource Center at Milligan University, which helps ministers thrive in ministry ( https://ministryresource.milligan.edu ). She is an ordained minister in the Independent Christian Church and holds an MDiv from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. She and her husband, Daniel Silliman, live in Johnson City, Tennessee.
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