Susan E. Hylen
Wm. B. Eerdmans, 198 pages | Published January 17, 2023
In Finding Phoebe: What New Testament Women Were Really Like, Susan E. Hylen takes readers on a journey to understand the historical place of women in the church and extend that knowledge to modern-day Christians. Alongside scripture, she offers historical documents and resources that culminate in questions to invite readers to draw their own conclusions. The structure of the book is conducive to either individual or group exploration for those eager to know what women in the time of Jesus were really like.
Dispelling long-held myths about the experiences and expectations of ancient women, Hylen provides ample evidence that women were impactful, vocal and a powerful social force in the time of Jesus. She draws on ancient letters, funeral inscriptions, and apocryphal texts like Judith to paint a vivid picture of women of different status and experience of the time.
The questions that conclude each chapter invite readers to reflect on Scripture in light of the new information. The open-endedness of this practice makes readers active participants in an ancient conversation about the education of Lydia or the role of female patrons. Additionally, Hylen uses multiple English versions to emphasize and compare the broad spectrum of translation. Rather than simply hope that readers have the ability to do the research, she creates ownership by placing the tools for understanding directly into our hands. This makes it such an accessible entry point for lay readers that I am excited to share this book with my congregation, encouraging those of any gender into their own personal discovery about these ancient women.
I expected this book to lean politically liberal, leading conservative readers to feel preached at. I was pleasantly surprised; Hylen doesn’t advocate for any one position, but simply presents information to consider. Hylen sums this up as “[t]he goal all along has not been to give you a single answer describing what the New Testament says about women’s leadership. Instead, the book has given a more accurate and broader historical picture that may allow you to think about the New Testament as its earliest readers might have understood it.”
Although targeted to the people in the pews, Hylen does not dismiss the pastor or professor. I came to the book with a bit of knowledge of women in and around the New Testament and walked away with a stronger understanding. I learned about the financial autonomy of married women, who would oversee and manage their own property and finances. Information like this might help us understand the women of the New Testament, such as Lydia in Acts. I loved the guiding questions that allowed me to feel a part of the story and to critically look at certain parts of scripture I had historically skimmed over.
I commend this book to even the most conservative congregations as a talking point. Finding Phoebe isn’t about changing opinions or “fixing” historical views of women; it is a lovingly compiled guide for those seeking a clearer picture of our favorite women of the New Testament.
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