—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 114–116—
Gary Burge’s A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion provides a brief introduction to the Roman background of the NT. It uses a fictional story, interwoven with little snapshots of key historical concepts, events, and locations.
The narrative follows the life of a Syrian slave named Tullus. The narrative begins with Appius, an important Roman centurion, and his arrest of Tullus. He assists Appius to read and to write so as to supplement Appius’s own educational shortcomings. He and Tullus develop a warm relationship that is nevertheless appropriate to the social stratification that divides them. Appius even demonstrates an element of self-sacrifice when he saves Tullus from a Parthian arrow that grievously injures him, resulting in his inability to lead combat troops, and consequently leads to his transfer to an administrative role.
This administrative role takes Appius and his familia (household) to Palestine, where he is eventually stationed in Capernaum. At Capernaum, Appius comes into conflict with the conservative Jewish leadership whom he is assigned to control, and Tullus must act as a mediator. It is here that it becomes clear that Burge intends to connect his narrative with an event recorded in the Gospels: the healing of the centurion’s slave (Matt 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10). It is a powerful moment in the story when the centurion cautiously encounters the Galilean healer, who is the only hope for his beloved slave.
The features of the book can be divided into two parts: (1) the narrative itself and (2) the background information that is interspersed within the narrative. Burge presents a compelling story, and resists verbosity even as he provides vivid descriptions of key places and events. One example of this will suffice: “The scribe heaved back and heard the air scream as the sword whipped past him and crashed into a stand of arrows on the wall. Wood splinters flew from dozens of arrows cut in half” (p.40). These terse yet exciting descriptions keep the reader interested and engaged.
The other major component of the book is the background information interspersed within the narrative. This background makes his narrative more accessible to the non-NT scholar. It is here that Burge’s research in NT backgrounds shines forth, as he illuminates key concepts, people, and events from his narrative. These episodes, though accessible, are nevertheless full enough to be useful to a wide variety of readers. There are also images associated with many of the people, places, and things that add a nice touch to the descriptions in both the narrative and the background notes.
Although both the narrative and the accompanying background information are very well done, the combination of the two within the body of the book can lead to frustration for the reader. Because the narrative flows so well, occasional background information may become frustrating to readers because it hampers its value as fiction. Intermittently, it is possible to read around these snippets, but remains nearly impossible with the more in-depth interruptions. With a textbook, this would not be an issue; but this work falls under the genre of fiction, and so becomes a reading stumbling block.
As a work of fiction, then, the blocks of background information sprinkled throughout hinder the work. It might have been more helpful to relegate the background information to endnotes or appendices in the back of the book, to clear the way for a better reading experience. In terms of educational helpfulness, though, the book as a whole shines because of the well-written narrative and accompanying background that illuminates the Graeco-Roman world.
In terms of other related works, this book occupies a niche along with others. For examples, consider only a few other historical fiction books, including but not limited to, The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce W. Longenecker and The Flames of Rome by Paul L. Maier.
A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion is a book that seems to be best suited for Bible College or seminary students in a New Testament introduction course—although it is certainly accessible to a wide variety of people. For the aforementioned students, this book is certainly going to be an engaging and entertaining way to learn about the Graeco-Roman background of the New Testament.
Bibliographical InformationGary M. Burge. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion. InterVarsity Press, 2015. Pp. 189. ISBN: 978-0-8308-2462-5. $16.00 [Paperback].
About the Author:Alexander M. Long
Alexander M. Long is a M.Div. student at Southern Seminary.