Review – Phoebe by Paula Gooder

I don’t normally do such a full review for one book, but this is a really important book in the genre I write in (biblical fiction/ narrative theology). Enjoy! 

Canon Dr Paula Gooder is already known for her intelligent, scholarly New Testament insight and analysis, which combines academic rigour with readability. With this new book, Phoebe, Gooder has added another important element to theology: imagination.

A portrait of the early church:

Gooder tells Phoebe’s story of encountering the church in Rome, with an imagined backstory of slavery and hardship that interweaves themes of forgiveness. It is a compelling story and easy to read, but more importantly it provides insight, with no effort from the reader, into a new church without much hierarchy, where Paul’s theology is taken seriously but questioned and disliked, church meetings are ‘Jesus stories’ shared over meals and slavery can mean a life of cruelty or the start of an affluent life.


What I found particularly moving is the way Gooder writes about the cost of forgiveness and the necessity of repentance. Though sometimes the characters themselves feel a little distant because much of the action is reported rather than experienced, the stories are powerful without resorting to sentimentality and feel fresh and relevant today.

Why teach theology through narrative?

Phoebe is a wonderful book that you can gobble up in one enjoyable sitting and come away with the spirituality and historical context of Paul’s New Testament. I am already biased, because my own book is the same genre, but I believe more theology should be taught in this way. The Bible is largely narrative – why must we always turn it into verbal maths?

Like my Those Who Wait, she also provides a helpful section of theological notes at the end for those who want to know where fact and fiction meet. Readers of Paula Gooder’s other theological books will know what a gem these concise, clear and meticulously-researched notes are.

How does Phoebe fit into the growing market of biblical narrative/ biblical fiction?

Gooder has offered a significant contribution to the growing field of ‘biblical fiction’ or ‘narrative theology’ (depending on how much imagination is involved and how much it’s designed to teach). Within this field, authors John Blase, Ed Cyzewski and Bishop Stephen Cottrell offer reflective poetic, lyrical retellings, Francine Rivers gives popular historical novels with emotion-filled love stories, Corinne Brixton’s historical fiction provides context to theology by transporting you to the traditions, customs and tastes of the Bible. (My own book sits halfway between Gooder’s and Stephen Cottrell’s – lyrical and theologically researched but designed as a devotional and a church teaching resource.)

Gooder herself has said that it’s not a novel, exactly, because she’s not a novelist; we don’t have the sensory details of historical fiction and her writing is strong and lean rather than poetic or reflective. Phoebe is first and foremost theology, in an accessible and creative form, much like the classic theological work, The Shadow of the Galilean by Gerd Theissen which uses story to illustrate the culture and issues of the time.

Why buy Phoebe?

What’s special about Phoebe is Paula Gooder’s ability to teach complex theological issues simply, via good story. Phoebe reignites the passions of those who’ve fallen out of love with Paul’s New Testament, gives lovers of the Bible accessible theology and ‘aha!’ moments as they realise what ’slave and free’ together meant for the first-century church, and provides an essential resource for Bible teachers and preachers. Highly recommended.

Get Phoebe from:

And if you liked Phoebe then you’ll also love my own book, rated 5* – Those Who Wait, a creative journey through the lives of four Biblical characters wrestling to find God in a season of waiting. For personal devotion or group study.

Get Those Who Wait from:

  • Always, if you can – your local Christian bookshop, Eden or CLC
  • Support your local high street£7.65 with free delivery
  •  £7.53 or £5.99 from or from $5.99

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4 Responses to Review – Phoebe by Paula Gooder

  1. Michael Allen 18th May, 2019 at 1:57 pm #

    Dear Tanya,

    Many thanks for your review of “Phoebe.” I must buy it now!
    thanks too for your receptive remark that ot others’ grief stirs up our own. Is it all right to admit that others apparently sailing through life with minimum diificulty brings out the worst in me?



  2. Martin Horton 24th January, 2019 at 12:30 pm #

    Cracking review, Tanya! As prayer diary editor and writer of prayer emails and possibly blog post stories and articles in the future, this sounds like a must read for me. Thank you and God bless, Martin

  3. Martin Horton 24th January, 2019 at 12:30 pm #

    Cracking review, Tanya! As prayer diary editor and writer of prayer emails and possibly blog post stories and articles in the future, this sounds like a must read for me. Thank you and God bless, Martin

  4. Naomi Hill 23rd January, 2019 at 7:26 pm #

    ooh so glad you liked this – me too! I’m on my third read through, definitely finding it feeding my soul and my passion for church-as-radical-family 🙂

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