I love exploring the New Testament’s first century context. There’s such richness of history and insight to be mined. But this isn’t just learning for learning’s sake. I’m convinced that familiarizing ourselves with the cultural context of the Bible helps us understand and apply the Bible’s truths. It helps us ask the right questions of the text. It helps us hear Jesus as He would be heard in His world. It helps us appreciate the dynamics and tensions that run just under the surface of the text – but often fuel the drama and conflict of the narrative.
So, I was excited when IVP sent a new book my way last week: A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion. Here Burge, a NT professor at Wheaton College, imagines a Roman Centurion in first century Capernaum – his work, his culture, and his interactions with an itinerant preacher called Jesus. If you’re interested in the context of the ancient world but prefer a well-told story over the wooden prose of a textbook, then Burge’s book may be for you. Yes, it’s fiction – but it may just help you become conversant in the culture in which Jesus lived and ministered. What do you think? Is this just another way to sell books… or is this a useful way to bridge the gap between scholars and the people in the pews?
If you’re interested, here’s an interview provided by IVP that helps us understand Burge’s heart behind this latest book:
Traveling Back To Roman Times
Whether it’s teaching the New Testament to undergraduates at Wheaton College or publishing commentaries on the Gospels, accomplished New Testament scholar Gary Burge is passionate about helping people understand the context of the Middle East and the unique world of ancient Judaism in order to read their Bibles better. In pursuit of these same goals, Burge recently tried his hand at writing A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, a fictional account of a Roman centurion during the time of Jesus. He gives insight into this experience in the interview below.
What compelled you to take this fictional approach?
Gary Burge: My interest in the book came from the need to explain the cultural assumptions that are always at work within the New Testament. We do this frequently in our textbooks, but this is a modality that is a lot more fun.
How did this experience differ from your nonfiction writing?
Burge: I have written extensively about the Gospel of John, and in my teaching I specialize in the Gospels and the history and culture of first century Galilee. For the past few years, I have been interested in bringing to more popular audiences the things we scholars read and discuss regularly. There is a huge gap here. Regular readers of the New Testament do not know the things we take for granted. And when we fill in the picture for them, suddenly they see that the New Testament has real life in a real living context.
Was writing fiction easier or harder for you?
Burge: I found that the genre of fiction was reasonably challenging. Those of us who write non-fiction descriptions of the Biblical world or theology don’t think about story arcs or the development of characters.
What were your goals with the story?
Burge: In this case, I wanted the main character, a centurion, to seem real: he is a violent man, he drinks heavily, he has a concubine, and he doesn’t mind visiting a brothel. And yet there is loyal side to him—not just to his legion but to those in his familia. And the narrative brings a slave into his familia. It is this relationship that I wanted to explore—and it is in this relationship that I wanted to present a difficulty that needed resolution.
Above all I did not want to write Christian fiction that converted the centurion. That would be too easy. This is a complicated man. And he wouldn’t simply become a “Christ follower” overnight. He is skeptical, he is suspicious of the Jews he controls, and he’s been disappointed by religion many times.
Who do you hope will read this book?
Burge: My intended audience is a Christian who has some acquaintance with the New Testament and would like to know more about the background of its story. Or the reader may be someone who is fully acquainted with the New Testament and has read little that is new for a long time. My hope is that this will surprise both of them.
Check it out here!