Can Scripture engage our imagination? An interview with Paula Gooder

Paula Gooder, well known as a New Testament scholar with a particular interest in Paul, recently published a quite different kind of book. Phoebe is a fictionalised account of the woman named in Romans 16.1, who appears to have been the carrier of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Having just read the book, I had the chance to catch up with Paula and ask her about it.

You have written extensively on the New Testament and its interpretation in different formats—but never before quite like this! What made you think about writing in this narrative form?

There were three reasons really.  First, I love fiction and always have—I find that it is a genre that opens up my mind and allows me to ask questions in a completely different way. There is something about the emotional issues raised in fiction that brings a new dimension to the thoughts we think and the ideas we have.  The second reason is more particular to this book—two books (Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean and Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum) have really inspired me in the past.  I loved the way that they each in their different way opened up questions of interpretation, culture, social history—and so on. With fiction you can dance around scholarly debate more lightly than you can in other forms of writing and I thought it would be fun to do this with Pauline scholarship.

The third reason is completely different – there are a large number of people who would never dream of reading Pauline scholarship.  In writing this book, I was hoping to illustrate how relevant Paul and his writings remain to faith today and to tempt a few people who might otherwise never venture into exploring Pauline scholarship to do so.

You include some quite harrowing accounts of the realities of life in the first century in the story. What did you find to be the most challenging parts to write?

Some of the stories about what life was like for slaves (both male and female) in the first century was hard to write but felt really important—though researching this was far harder. The sheer brutality of everyday life was difficult to read about—if anything I watered the stories down.  Tragically, there are many people today who still suffer similar experiences through modern slavery, abusive relationships and so on and asking the question of what God’s love and freedom in Christ means in that context is important to do.  In this area I was inspired by Peter Oakes’ writing (especially Reading Romans in Pompeii) where he explores what it would have felt like for different people to hear parts of Paul’s message in Romans.

For each chapter, you add a selection of notes at the back giving the historical detail and research on which you have drawn. Did you find anything surprising or new in doing the research for Phoebe?

I think what I realised was the wealth of what we do know about the Roman world. It is easy as an NT scholar to talk about how little we know. In respects that remains true but in others we know a lot—everyday life in Rome is relatively well documented and exploring that in more detail was fascinating. My biggest surprise was internalising that most rich and poor lived side by side in many parts of Rome (with the exception of the most wealthy). That richer families lived in lower levels of tenement blocks and poorer families  higher up but in the same blocks changes how you visualize relationships.

When you are teaching about the New Testament, do you find that your audiences are particularly interested in these historical and cultural details?

Yes! It is these kinds of things that lift what is being said off the page and make it mean something. Knowing that Paul’s teaching made a real difference to everyday life never fails to fascinate people.

I dont think it is giving too much away to reveal that we never actually meet Paul in the story. Was that an original approach for you to take? What did you intend to achieve by it?

One of the features of the Gerd Theissen’s book the Shadow of the Galilean was that you never met Jesus.  The story was about the impact he had had on people during his ministry.  This always struck me as a very clever motif – so I used it in my book too.  As we can see from his letters, Paul was experienced differently by different people and communities.  This affected how they responded to his letters.  If you introduce a character into a story you have to decide who they are and how they are going to act.

If Paul is only ever in the background it is a lot easier to play with people’s responses to him and to leave hanging the question of what he was really like.  What I was trying to do was to suggest that then as now who people were, what life experiences they had had, what they thought about various issues deeply affected how they responded to what Paul had to say.  It was a lot easier to do all of this if Paul never actually appeared!

Quite early on, you picture a slave boy recounting the stories about Jesus that he has heard—and suggest that this was more prevalent in some early Christian communities than in others. You are stepping here into a large area of debate in NT studies, which might be divided into three different approaches: those who believe in ‘informal uncontrolled’ telling of stories; those following the argument of Kenneth Bailey and others who argue that there was ‘informal controlled’ telling of these stories; and those following Birger Gerhardson and Richard Bauckham who argue for ‘formal controlled’ telling of the stories of Jesus. How do you imagine the stories about Jesus being relayed—do you particularly identify with one of these approaches?

Ah yes! Occasionally I allowed myself the luxury of either reporting a scholarly debate or (as in this instance) poking it. I was doing that here. I think the three stances you describe are too restrictive and I was trying to illustrate this by imagining something that falls between formal and informal; controlled and uncontrolled.  It is of course possible to imagine lots of other options too.

In my opinion people will have shared the Gospel stories in all sorts of ways – these ways may have become more formalised at a later date but this early (late 50s AD) it was surely not programmatic?  I was also trying to illustrate that different communities might have reacted to the stories of Jesus in different ways.  More Pauline communities may have less knowledge of the stories of Jesus than other communities.

You state quite clearly that your story is an imagined reconstruction—though one which is very well informed by research. How important do you think the imagination is in reading Scripture?

I think it’s essential! Whether we are aware of it or not our imaginations play an important role in biblical interpretation. If you don’t believe me just think about a story from the gospels and there’s a fair chance that you have in you mind what various characters look like or who was present in what scene. Sometimes our imaginations are supplied by artwork or other popular depictions (like nativity plays!). The problem is that because we rarely interrogate our imaginative framework we allow it to inform our interpretations of the Bible without thinking about it too much.

So imagination is vital already—what I’m trying to do is bring this aspect of interpretation into the foreground and to ask a range of questions about our imaginative assumptions—the foremost of which is what women are you imagining in your stories?  I would argue that many more should be present in our imaginative scenery than we normally allow for!

Your overall concern in ministry is to make ‘the best of scholarship available in an accessible and interesting way.’ What do you see as the most important aspect of encouraging the growth of biblical literacy in our contemporary culture?

At the risk of being really obvious—we need to find ways to help people read it at all! There are so many barriers to reading the Bible for so many people that our key task today is to try and diagnose what those barriers are and do our best to dismantle them.  One of my key concerns about Paul is that some people perceive his writings to be unreadable and irrelevant.

An added dimension is the popular assumption that Paul will not inspire a female reader.  I have lost count of the people who, over the years, have expressed extreme surprise that, as a woman, I have chosen Paul’s writing as my chosen area of research.  So what I was trying to do in Phoebe was to find a way to communicate why Paul fascinates me so much, and to provide tools that might enable people, who might not otherwise read his writings, with a way in to seeing why what he was saying was so important at the time he first wrote—and remains so today.

Paula, many thanks for your time—and thank you for this fascinating exploration offering a window into the lives of some of the first followers of Jesus in Rome.

(My review of the book will follow next week.)


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3 thoughts on “Can Scripture engage our imagination? An interview with Paula Gooder”

  1. Thank you for this, Ian. This looks like a fascinating book. Have you read Naomi Mitchison’s “The Blood of the Martyrs”, a story of the church under Nero, with slaves telling stories of Jesus and sharing community love, as almost literally the only things they had? It is not theologically sound, but very moving! Paul and Luke appear, sympathetically portrayed.

  2. Thanks, Ian, and thanks, Paula.
    I have long struggled with the fact that some Christians (especially in some traditions?) are suspicious of the imagination. Of course it can take us to places we would rather not go and can lead us to reimagine Scripture in ways that bear little resemblance to the original context – Medieval art and Left Behind, for example. But on the other hand it can enable us to enter the biblical narrative in a way that analysis of ‘facts’ and discussion of propositions, essential and valuable though they are, cannot. There are many tools in the interpreter’s tool box.
    It is many years since I read The Shadow of the Galilean (perhaps it is time for a reread as it has just been returned by someone to whom I lent it about 15 years ago) but remember that it opened up several new insights. Reading Romans from Pompeii I found enthralling and illuminating (thanks for pointing me to it, Ian). Lost Letters from Pergamum is on my wish list; now I need to add Phoebe.

  3. Thank you Ian (for the article) and Paula (for writing the book). I thoroughly appreciated Paul’s insightful teaching at Spring Harvest, based on John 17. So, a quick visit to another site and now I’m waiting for Amazon to deliver Phoebe for my summer holiday reading!

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