The Advocate, I am realizing how important knowing and recognizing the Roman (and Greek) context of the New Testament is.
Randy Singer's story revolves around his imaginings of who Theophilus (of Luke and Acts fame) could have been. I realized through the course of this book how little I ever really learned about Roman culture (I'm kind of surprised about this frankly). The audiobook is 15 hours, so it took many days to listen to. During this process and the few days since completing it, I have been starting to view various New Testament passages differently, considering the Roman culture in which much of it (especially the texts attributed to Paul) were written. It helped me challenge some assumptions about interpretation and really pushes against some traditionally conservative interpretations (in my opinion). I have long firmly believed we have to interpret Scripture in the original historical and cultural context (as much as we are able). The Roman context is absolutely central and very unique and different from traditional Jewish contexts. Suddenly, various stories make even more sense.
For instance, the phrase "Jesus is Lord" seems particularly significant in contrast to Caesar is Lord of the Roman Empire. The divinity of the emperor was standard belief, and acknowledgement of his role and power was in that phrase. While I've heard pieces of that before, becoming immersed in a fictional framing of the culture gave the phrase new life. It also reminded me of the particularity of much of Scripture to a particular time and place. Would we say "Jesus is Lord" if the Incarnation occurred today? It doesn't have the same meaning that it did living in the Roman Empire.
Especially post-Constantine, much of Western Christian culture specifically is derived from Roman culture (probably more than Jewish culture). I wasn't familiar with the tradition of the Vestal Virgins; ladies who were married to the state and sworn to remain virgins (until their 30 year duty was completed). Could this have been the precursor to the Roman Catholic nun tradition?
Even the trial and execution of Jesus was centered in Roman culture. Yes, the Pharisees may have brought Jesus to Pilate, but Pilate has a backstory (and Singer's characterization is compelling) and thought process that is distinctly Roman in origin. We mustn't forget that crucifixion was not a Jewish rite. It was Roman with a long history in asserting power and dominance.
One of the more disturbing parts of Singer's book is the vivid explanation of the violence and fundamental lack of value of human life that was prevalent throughout Roman culture. When reading Scriptural references regarding the ways people treat each other and the role of slavery, having a better understanding of what this looked like in Rome (rather than in US history) really helps us better interpret the Bible. Verses that seem to reference a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement are given a completely new clarity in this Roman context, providing a particular framework for people to understand Jesus' sacrifice in a way they could understand.
One of the things that I really appreciated about this story is how Jesus' story was presented as rather tangential for the vast majority of the book. While some Christians may not like this, it really puts context to the initial impact of Christ's life on the Roman Empire--people didn't pay too much attention. Even when Paul is introduced (far past the halfway mark), he doesn't initially seem to be a major player in Theophilus' life. This approach helped me better understand the possible context Paul is entering and speaking to when he pursues his ministry to the Gentiles.
The flow and content of the book was rich and engaging. It's been a while since I listened to an audiobook that I wanted to keep running after my commute was over. David Cochran Heath's narration accentuated this, bringing dynamic life to the characters. The characterizations of famous historical characters and events sparked my interest and prompted me to spend a good amount of time reading even more about Roman history. Again, it's been a while since a book prompted me to do further research on a topic, so I give Singer a lot of credit!
Readers/listeners should remember this is historical fiction, and it is not intended as a hermeneutic guide, as far as I'm aware. But it's one of the stronger Christian fiction stories out there. It's definitely one that is not as cheesy as many and doesn't get too heavy-handed. It takes a fairly traditional view of how Scripture was written, for better or for worse, but I think people of all stripes can enjoy the story as an opportunity to explore a possibility of the origins of Theophilus and the books of Luke and Acts.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”