Book Write-Up: A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion

Gary M. Burge.  A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion.  Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Gary M. Burge teaches New Testament at Wheaton College.  A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion is a historical fictional work about a Roman centurion in the time of Jesus.  On many of the pages, Burge provides a box that contains historical background information.  Burge also includes a helpful glossary of the characters at the beginning of the book.  The Roman centurion is named Appius, and he has a slave named Tallus, who is a covert Jew.

Here are some items:

1.  Appius was kind to his slaves, but Burge states on page 89 that a Roman head of a household “had complete authority over his slaves and could sell, punish or even kill them, since laws respecting persons did not apply to them.”  This is significant in debates about the issue of slavery in the New Testament, since the New Testament seems never to condemn slavery, and there are even New Testament passages that encourage slaves to submit to their masters.  Pro-slavery Christians prior to and during the American Civil War appealed to such passages to justify slavery.  A number of Christian apologists in recent times have responded to this apparent moral problem in the New Testament by saying that slavery in New Testament times was not as bad as slavery in antebellum America.  Burge may disagree with them, for he states that Roman masters in New Testament times had absolute authority over the lives of their slaves, who were not even treated as people under the law.

Burge may be correct when it comes to particular times in Roman history.  There may be more to the story, however.  Christian apologist Glenn Miller, for example, argues here that there were times when Roman society tried to protect slaves, or thinkers within it promoted the protection of slaves.  I Peter 2:18ff. exhorts slaves to submit to harsh masters, and I remember a professor of an Epistles of Paul class saying that the author here is trying to discourage slaves from challenging abusive masters in court.  If my professor was correct, then society back then at some point must have had legal means to protect slaves.

2.  I referred in my post here to a debate between atheist Richard Carrier and Christian apologist David Marshall about whether Christianity is reasonable.  Carrier asked why Jesus, if he were God, did not teach people in the first century rules of hygiene, which could have prevented numerous deaths.  Burge talks about hygiene in this book.  He says on page 51 that the “ancients did not understand germs, and the connection between hygiene and health would not appear until the late Roman period when soap use for cleaning the body became common.”  Yet, on page 134, Burge states that the Jews had laws in the Torah promoting hygiene.  My understanding is that the first century C.E., the setting of this book, is before the late Roman period, the time that Burge says that the connection between hygiene and health appeared.  Moreover, a number of scholars have held that the Hebrew Bible’s purity laws do not relate to health or hygiene but rather to ritual purity, and Burge himself appears to make this very point on page 115.  Although my impression is that Burge contradicts himself on the topic of hygiene, I did find his discussion informative, especially after watching that debate between Carrier and Marshall.

3.  Burge’s depiction of the Asclepius cult stood out to me due to debates about healings in the first century C.E.  I recently read atheist scholar Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, and Price discussed Jesus’ healings within the context of the testimonies about miraculous healings at Asclepius cults.  Some scholars and apologists have argued, however, that Jesus’ healings were unusual in his first century context (and perhaps more likely to be historical because they were discontinuous from Jesus’ context).  They say that what went on in first century paganism was medicine, not miraculous healing (see here and here).  In Burge’s book, the physicians at the Asclepius cult perform practical surgery rather than miracle, even though the cult has sacrifices to enlist the help of the gods.  At the same time, on page 134, some Jewish characters distinguish between their view on healing and that of the pagans, whose potions and incantations those particular Jews dismiss as magic.

4.  While I am on the Asclepius cult, I did find Burge’s depiction of first century pagan religion to be fascinating.  There was an appeal to the gods, but there was also an appeal to fatalism if things did not work out.  When a surgeon at the Asclepius cult is treating Appius for a wound that Appius received in battle, the surgeon says that “if he dies, it will be a course already set by the gods” (page 46).  In my opinion, Burge should have included a box explaining this feature of pagan religion, but the comments in the books about the gods were still informative and interesting.

5.  Burge depicts tax collectors collecting taxes for Rome in Galilee, while also stating that taxes went to the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas.  My understanding (and I am open to correction on this, after I turn my blog’s comments back on in the future) is that the Romans did not collect taxes directly from Galilee.  The Romans collected taxes directly from Judea because they had direct rule over it after 6 C.E., but, in Galilee, they had a client ruler, Herod Antipas.  Perhaps one can reconcile all this by saying that Antipas still paid tribute to the Romans, and Antipas was collecting taxes from Galileans for that tribute.  See my post here.  In any case, I do think that Burge should have provided a little more clarity or historical information about this topic, even though he did provide informative background information about Herod Antipas.

6.  Burge distinguishes between how Palestinian Jews and Diaspora Jews regarded Gentiles.  In his telling, Palestinian Jews tended to view Gentiles as ritually unclean and held that Gentiles could not be in certain areas of the Temple.  The Diaspora Jews, by contrast, were more open, believing that God accepted even uncircumcised Gentiles.  This is a view within scholarship, but there is also difference of opinion.  See here for my post about Christine Hayes’ book on whether Judaism considered Gentiles to be ritually impure.  In addition, in researching for my dissertation, I have read scholars who have questioned the conventional differentiation between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism.  I think that Burge, in a brief footnote or endnote, should have informed readers that there is diversity within scholarship about this issue, even though I respect that this book may not have been intended to be a heavy, comprehensive work of scholarship, but rather an introductory work.  Also, since a Palestinian Jew and a Diasporan Jew in the book are debating whether Gentiles should be kept out of certain parts of the Temple, Burge should have provided some documentation that Diasporan Jews had a problem with such a policy.

7.  Burge did well to inform the reader about ancient beliefs and how they may differ from our own.  When Appius challenges a Roman soldier who is harassing Appius’ concubine, Burge informs us that Appius is defending his own honor, not the honor of his concubine.  Burge also tells us about ancient views on fevers and humors, and how they influenced the sort of surgery that was performed (i.e., bleeding a person to bring down a fever).

8.  Burge depicts Appius as the centurion in the synoptic Gospels who asks Jesus to heal his sick slave.  As a reader, I am not sure if that works, for the centurion in the Gospels was liked by the Jews and built them a synagogue, whereas Appius was not particularly devout towards the God of Israel and was not especially well-liked by the Jews.  Still, it did result in some moving scenes.  Appius has a piece of art in which vicious dogs are ripping a deer to shreds, and Jesus touches the deer.  Appius is then convicted of his love for violence and resolves to get rid of that piece of art!  While Burge in an interview about the book (which was inserted into my review copy by Intervarsity) distinguishes his book from Christian fiction by saying that he does not present the centurion converting to Christianity, my impression as a reader was that Appius was pretty close to becoming a Christian!

9.  I enjoyed the debate between the Jewish elder Tobias and Appius’ military assistant Marcus.  Marcus was on a Roman power trip, and Tobias was standing up boldly for his land and his people.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and informative book.  It would be useful for an Introduction to New Testament class, as long as students remembered that there is scholarly debate about some of the issues it raises.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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