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