“A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion” by Gary Burge

Many thanks to IVP for providing me with a copy of A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge.

Brief Summary

For the sake of those who desire to read “A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion”, I’ve abstained from producing an in-depth summary that spoils significant points of the plotline.

Gary Burge’s most recent publication envelops the reader into the cognitive environment of 1st century Palestine. His historical fiction, with small excursuses on specific topics relating to the story, follows the life of a Roman centurion named Appius and his slave Tullus. Captured at Emesa, Tullus quickly becomes Appius’ most trusted slave within his familia. Upon return to Appius’ villa, the Galica legion, of which Appius is the primus, moves to Dura-Europos to provide reinforcements for another legion. After a successful battle against the Parthians, Appius is severely injured, resulting in the loss of his position as primus and transitioning to Caesara, from where Pontus Pilate deems him leader in Galilee to collect taxes. In Galilee, several events unfold resulting in better diplomatic relations between Jews and Romans, which are strained by the various forms of extremism for both people groups. Eventually, he trusts the Jews enough to rely on Yeshua bar Josef to heal an injured servant of his.

Critique

               Too often scholarship distances itself from emotion and the living, breathing human being. Burge does the opposite and animates characters in a way that grips the reader’s attention. Even though the book was an easy read, the believable nature of his characters resulted in my own desire to journey with them. Much of this was accomplished by his willingness to include the violence, gore, and sexuality of 1st century Rome. Stylistically, he wisely avoids presenting Roman life as a polemic over and against 1st century Jewish beliefs. While there are clearly moments where a division is present, they are never present because of a polemic. In fact, polemically oriented writing may have been difficult because Burge introduces a wide spectrum of 1st century thought. These divisions are present because many distinct social groups, even distinct groups within Roman and Jewish cultures, clash. According to Burge, he “wanted the main character, a centurion, to seem real: he is a violent man, he drinks heavily, he has a concubine, and he doesn’t mind visiting a brothel” (IVP Academic Q&A with Gary M. Burge). Burge does this well and it is the strongest point of his story.

My own critique is more of wish than anything else. His fiction is brief and excellent as a supplementary book to New Testament courses. But there are many areas where I was expecting more information about topics. The wish was not for more exposition, which turns a well-written story into a confused textbook, but for the inclusion of more characters that could have helped develop a more comprehensive view of ancient Roman society. This would be a challenge and likely result in a far thicker and more complicated plotline though. Regardless of the points of which I hoped for more detail and characters, his work accomplishes what it set out to do and constructs a truthful and lifelike image of 1st century Palestine/Rome.

Conclusion

               Praiseworthy for the style and believability for his work, Burge’s brief historical fiction is absolutely essential for a variety of audiences. For a layperson seeking to grasp 1st century Roman and Jewish culture, Burge allows them to experience the world personally and realistically without the mundane nature of a textbook. And his brief excursuses allow a basic introduction to the 1st century world. For students studying the New Testament, Burge provides an easy to read introduction that is full of valuable information necessary to proper contextualized readings of the New Testament. And even for the active scholar, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion is an easy read that allows for a relaxing and enjoyable experience as the world of antiquity is again made alive. And I thoroughly and completely enjoyed the read, practically unable to put the book down. Overall, the believability of Burge’s story and introductory nature of it make for an outstanding reading experience that should be experienced by all students, scholars, and laypersons.

Click here to purchase A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge through my Amazon Associate store.

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The Truth About Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Growing up, my church never addressed the issue of Judaism’s history and how it regarded Christianity. As I began to explore how Judaism and Christianity were related, much of what I came across often claimed that Judaism had no connection to Christianity after the 1st century. That is false. In chapter 4 of “Christianity In Jewish Terms”, David Ellenson explores the Jewish view of the Christian God. While it is clear that many of the earliest Rabbinic writings were polemic against Christianity, as Judaism and Christianity developed parallel to each other over 1200 years, the 12th century records an moment of relationship between Christianity and Judaism. 12th century Rabbi Isaac spoke of Christianity as follows:

“Although [Christians] mention the name of Heaven, meaning thereby Jesus of Nazareth, they do not at all events mention a strange deity, and moreover, they mean thereby the Maker of Heaven and Earth too; and despite the fact that they associate the name of Heaven with an alien deity, we do not find that it is forbidden to cause Gentiles to make such an association…” (Christianity In Jewish Terms, 73).

There were strands of 12th century Judaism that accepted Christianity as being, in some sense, orthodox. Commenting on Rabbi Manechem’s stance on Christianity (1300’s), historian Jacob Katz states that Christians “recognize the Godhead” and “believe in God’s existence, His unity, and power, although they misconceive some points according to our belief” (Christianity In Jewish Terms, 74). Katz continues by pointing out that Rabbi Menachem believed Christians should not be included in the category of idolatrous.

Why does this matter? Even if Christianity and Judaism are unable to completely reconcile beliefs and the differences in beliefs, it is clear that they are not distinct to point of complete separation. Acknowledgement of this closeness is essential because, although Rabbinic Judaism is quite different from 1st century Judaism, Judaism does help to illuminate Jesus’ works in the Gospels and the words of the epistles. This reconciliation towards peace between Christians and Jews also allows both groups to complete what they are called to do: work for the healing of the world.