April 10, 2015
A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion
by Gary M. Burge
When I started writing A Week in the Life of a Centurion, a fictional story about a Roman military officer in the first century, I had two immediate reactions: it definitely felt intimidating—I mean, how many New Testament scholars do this sort of thing? And second, I began to realize the possibilities that this writing has to open the world of the first century to the average reader.
Each of us likes stories (which explains why Jesus taught in parables) because they invite us into a drama we understand. Historical fiction lets us think about the setting of that drama in new ways. And in this case, the setting is the same as the setting of the New Testament.
If I did this, I decided, a number of things had to be true. First, the story had to be fun. Who says New Testament books need to be boring or dry? Students need to like this book. Second, the story had to explain things the average person does not understand about first-century life. Therefore I wrote sidebars throughout the book explaining why this or that happened, and these become windows into culture that we rarely see in the usual commentaries. For instance, I explain how women could be gladiators in a traveling blood-sport show and what this looked like.
Third, the storyline had to have believable characters. In my case, I wanted to develop the centurion from the Gospel account in Matthew 8 (also Luke 7). Above all, he needed to be a real Roman officer with all the trappings of Roman military life. His name is Appius and he is the senior centurion (the Primus pilus) of the Third Roman Legion called Gallica, based in Syria.
Appius and his household arrive in Capernaum due to a crisis they neither predicted nor wanted. And there he is forced to integrate into the Jewish community of this small village. Don’t expect the book to end with a tidy conversion. This story is messy. And it leaves us asking a lot of questions.
For teachers and pastors, this book can bring to life a world that is now lost to us. But it can also spark interest in the New Testament in entirely new ways. Biblical characters become real people, and stories take on life. For instance, many biblical characters need to be filled out richly from their context: the woman the well, the Pharisees, the apostles. But this has to be done carefully and with historical and culture sensitivity.
I can see books like this being used in student groups for discussion. I also know friends who teach introductory courses in New Testament who plan to use it as a supplement to the usual textbooks. The sidebars will serve as a cultural guide to ideas that are presupposed in the Bible. I also know that pastors are frequently looking for new ways to refresh their knowledge of the biblical world. Either way, books like this are an unexplored platform for us to open the biblical world in new and dramatic ways.
Gary M. Burge (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. His passion in teaching, research and writing is how the unique world of the Middle East in antiquity shapes how we read the New Testament today.