Janette Oke and Davis Bunn. The Centurion’s Wife. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2009.
I know Janette Oke as the author of the Love Comes Softly series. Michael Landon, Jr. made these books into movies for the Hallmark Channel. Katherine Heigl starred in the first two.
The Centurion’s Wife is the first book of the Acts of Faith series. I could not find the second book of the series in the library, but the third book is there. It looks like the story in the third book can stand on its own, so I may read it sometime.
The Centurion’s Wife focuses on Leah and Alban, a centurion for Rome. Leah is a relative of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Her father was a Gentile, and her mother was a Jew who forsook her heritage. Leah’s father lost everything, bringing shame on the family and the enslavement of some of his daughters. Leah is now a servant in Pilate’s residence.
Alban is a centurion for Rome, but he was originally from Gaul. He is a fair-minded man, one who cares about the lives of his men. Moreover, he is the centurion whose slave Jesus healed in the Gospels (Matthew 8; Luke 7). While some have argued that the relationship between the centurion and his slave was homosexual, The Centurion’s Wife depicts it more as paternal: Alban learned to love from his slave, but Alban’s love for the slave is rather paternal. Alban has a reputation as a God-fearer, one who believes in the God of Israel but does not fully embrace Judaism, but, actually, he does not know what he believes. He wants to marry Leah, but she and others in Pilate’s family suspect that this is for his own professional advancement, since marrying into Pilate’s prominent family can lead to such advantages.
Pilate and Herod Antipas arrange a test for Alban and Leah: they are to gather information about a sect whose prophet was recently crucified, and whom the sect claims was risen from the dead. This prophet, of course, is Jesus. Pilate wonders if this sect desires political revolution against Rome, and intends to exploit the empty tomb to rally the Jewish people. In the course of her investigation, Leah becomes close to some of the women in the Christian sect, who are fully aware of who she is and why she is there, yet welcome her anyway. Meanwhile, Alban is questioning Joseph of Arimathea, Caiaphas the priest, and the Roman soldiers who guarded Jesus’ tomb. While the empty tomb is one factor that influences Alban to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, Leah and Alban are also drawn to what Jesus represents: a kingdom of love.
Alban also has to deal with his share of political intrigue, as Herod Antipas secretly helps the Parthians, the enemies of Rome.
The book reminded me of The Robe, a book by Lloyd Douglas that was made into a movie. In The Robe, a Roman tribune learns more about Jesus through interaction with people Jesus impacted. Some have said that fans of The Robe will enjoy the Acts of Faith series.
In terms of historical accuracy—-and by this I am not asking if there was a historical Alban, but rather if the book coincides with what historians say about the time period—-I would say that the book is all right. Bunn states that he received historical information from a rabbi while he was in Israel, and, while I would prefer for the reading of scholarly sources to supplement that, the book was all right, historically-speaking. Skeptics may dispute that Christianity in the first century was significantly on the radar of people in power, as is depicted in the book, but I was interested in how the book actually presented the situation: those in power had vague knowledge about Jesus and the empty tomb, and, as far as they were concerned, Jesus’ disciples may very well have stolen Jesus’ body! It was when Alban and Leah researched the issue and looked inside of the Jesus movement that they came to believe in Jesus. One Amazon reviewer questioned whether someone who was Alban’s age—-in his twenties—-would have been a centurion, since the minimum age was supposedly thirty; however, some have questioned whether this requirement was iron-clad (see the discussion here, but, unfortunately, I do not see too many references to primary sources). Something on page 127 caught my eye: I read there that Judea was originally under the control of the regional governor in Syria, but that Emperor Tiberius changed that and made Judea a full Roman province, with Pilate as its prelate, to avoid a revolt. I do not know about every single detail there, but, after Judea’s ethnarch Herod Archelaus was banished, Quirinius, legate governor of Syria, was given authority over Judea, which could be why he is mentioned in Luke 2:2 (see here).
In The Centurion’s Wife, the Jesus movement is depicted as devoutly Jewish: it keeps the Sabbath and faithfully goes to the Temple. This may resonate with seventh-day Sabbath keepers, Messianic Jews, or people who just like for the Jewish roots of Christianity to be acknowledged, even honored. The book’s depiction of the Jewish people from the perspective of Alban is also noteworthy: they were under Roman political control, and yet they carried themselves with a princely dignity. One part of the book may offend some readers: a slave flees to the Christian movement, becomes a Christian herself, and is told by the Christians to return to her master, since Christians are to spread the light of Christ until the Messiah returns. In my opinion, there is a place for being a light for Christ wherever one is, for having a strength even in bad situations; I would not say that people should always remain in the same situation, though, especially if the situation is abusive.