We Need More Books Like This One -- Historical Fiction by a NT Scholar

I recently finished reading The Lost Letters of Pergamum, by Bruce W. Longenecker. The author is a lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog or my Virtual Office that I am a big fan of Luke -- author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. So when I saw a book about historical fiction -- a genre I particularly like -- with Luke as an important figure I immediatley ordered it. I didn't take much time to check it out, so I was kind of surprised to find it was not a narrative at all. Rather, it is a fictional collection of ancient letters between Luke -- the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles -- and a Roman nobleman named Antipas. Nevertheless, this format worked very well for me. Indeed, I found it compelling.

After a brief introduction by the supposed discoverer of these previously unknown letters. In a series of letters back and forth, we follow Antipas' and Luke's correspondence, which begins with a chance introduction. After learning of Antipas' interest in historical writings, Luke takes the opportunity to send him a copy of his gospel. As Antipas reads Luke's Gospel, he discusses it at first from a very Roman point of view. But as he reads more and begins to spend time with Christians of his city, Antipas gradually sees the faults in his Roman upbringing, his pagan worldview. He is drawn to Jesus both through the writings of Luke and through the witness and lives of the Christians with whom he fellowships. Ultimately, he joins them and dies the truly noble death of a martyr. (The reference to the death of Antipas in Rev. 2:13 is the inspiration of the story).

This book placed me in the early Christian world like nothing else I have ever read. Longenecker has taken all the books about New Testament History, Jewish history, and the larger Roman world of the time, and used them to create an authentic exchange of late first century correspondence between a pagan and a Christian. Beyond the obvious monotheism v. paganism, Longenecker does an excellent job of bringing out the differing attitudes of Roman and Christian charity. Of Christian brotherhood and its foreignness to the Roman world. Of the worship of the emperor. In short, Longenecker does an effective job of placing the reader back into the Roman world and communicating the challenges that Christians faced in it (especially Christians of any social standing).

This book is emotionally moving at times, especially in its depictions of Christian charity in a harsh world. It is also an easy read. It does not get bogged down and you find yourself looking forward to seeing how Luke responds to one of Antipas' questions or comments. Or how Antipas responds to certain passages he reads in Luke's Gospel.

Unlike some historical fiction, it does not have moments of preachiness or contrived depictions intended to prove a point. Indeed, although I am a fan of the historical fiction genre, I have found the Christian historical fiction I have read to be unimpressive. Perhaps it Longenecker's use of letters -- a format well known to students of the New Testament -- that makes it so compelling.

I found this book to be entertaining, moving, and spiritually profitable. Used copies are very affordable over at amazon. Buy yourself one for Christmas. Or a friend or family member.


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