good booksAmong the new arrivals on the BGST Library bookshelf is a volume by my former colleague in Cambridge, Bruce Longenecker, now Lecturer in NT at St. Andrews: The Lost Letters of Pergamum. A Story from the New Testament World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003). This (as the subtitle indicates) is a work of historical fiction. It takes as its starting-point the reference in Rev. 2:13 to the martyrdom of ‘Antipas, my faithful witness’ in the city of Pergamum (on the west coast of Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey). It makes one supposition, that this Antipas had been named after Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who controlled Galilee at the time of Jesus’ ministry; and that, like the Herod Antipas after whom he was named, the Pergamene Antipas was a natural supporter of Roman power. From this the whole narrative flows. It is set in the early 90s AD, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, and is structured around a series of imaginary letters between Luke, author of the third gospel, and Antipas. As the correspondence develops Luke sends Antipas a copy of his gospel, and the later letters between Antipas deal with issues raised by Antipas as he reads through the gospel.

In effect the book asks the question: What would it be like to be a wealthy Roman citizen, born in Asia Minor and used to the privileges which came with such a status in the Roman empire, and then to come into contact with the Christian gospel? What parts of Luke’s portrayal of Jesus would seem acceptable to such a person, and what parts would seem strange or even offensive? Again, what would it be like for a wealthy Roman citizen, as he became interested in finding out more, to attend the meetings of Christian communities in a city of Asia Minor? How might such a person find his preconceptions challenged by such an encounter with the gospel?

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so will not tell you in detail how the plot works out. I can say, though, that the book deals with a number of historically interesting issues: the literary background to the NT; the nature of early Christian communities in Asia Minor; religious pluralism and the gospel in the Roman empire; the threat posed to Christians by emperor worship in Asia Minor during Domitian’s reign; and, conversely, the challenge that the Christian gospel posed to Roman power. If this doesn’t sound like promising material for a story, then all I can do is assure you that Longenecker’s book is much more readable than my summary!

The book raises important theological points, too. As a citizen of the Roman empire, Antipas believes in the power of Rome’s gods, and is inclined to see the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD) as sign that Rome’s gods are greater than the God of Israel. But, as he reads the chapters in Luke dealing with Jesus’ death and resurrection, he comes to see that matters are not as simple as that. Another very telling episode in the book is when Antipas attends a meeting made up of predominantly wealthy Christians, and reads out Luke 13–14 to them: he finds his audience excited about the healing miracle at 13:10–17, but embarrassed by the teaching of ch. 14, with its challenges to renounce status-seeking and to associate with those to whom society pays little attention. (There are still such Christians around today, are there not?)

The Lost Letters of Pergamum, then, is an exercise in historical imagination, somewhat like Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean, which used the medium of historical fiction to explore the world of Palestine at the time of Jesus. It is readable, and the story it tells is moving and challenging. However, it is also well founded in historical fact. As Longenecker notes, authors of historical novels often ‘demonstrate little knowledge of the social codes and implicit structures that animated the ancient world. In these novels, a modern story line is simply wrapped in the façade of antiquity by giving the characters ancient names, placing them in ancient cities, giving them ancient clothes and means of transport, and feeding them ancient foods’ (pp. 9–10). Longenecker’s book is much better researched than that, and gives an accurate picture of Asia Minor in the late 1st century AD. Endnotes fill in some of the historical background, comment on questions of historical plausibility. (E.g., how likely is it that the Pergemene Antipas was indeed named after Herod Antipas? Not unlikely, as it turns out.) You really will learn quite a lot about the historical context of early Christianity by reading this book. As Longenecker notes, the story he tells is one that ‘could have happened’ rather than one which he can actually demonstrate did happen. Yet it brings the world of the early church to life and reminds us that our own life stories as Christians stand in continuity with those of past generations of believers whose heirs we are and whose labours we aim to build on.  

(Reviewed by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)

CHAPEL

Chapel on August 13 was taken by Dr Ng Peh Cheng, who spoke on the topic of prayer.  Following is a summary of the message.

The discipline of praying should be the spiritual habit of every Christian.  It is not an option, even as communing with God is not an option when one desires to know God more deeply and to serve Him more faithfully. One of the subjects the first batch of theological students in the school of Jesus had to learn was to watch and study the prayer life of the Master Teacher (Mark 1:35, 6:46).  In His ministry on earth, Jesus faced every challenge with wisdom from God the Father (for example, Luke 6:12-16). He  overpowered crises with the shield of prayer (for example, Luke 22:40-42). The act of keeping close to the Father through praying governed His life and ministry. Likewise, we are to keep mastering and exercising the discipline of praying when we face temptations or when we experience difficulties in our quest to walk closer with God as we seek to accomplish His will for us on earth as it is written in heaven. Chapel ended with an application of the message as students, staff and lecturers prayed in groups.   

Chapel on August 20 will be taken by Dr John Lim. On August 27, Rev. J. Uday-Kumar, principal of the Calcutta Bible College, will be the guest speaker.

NEWS BITS

  1. New Admissions

  • Mr. Clive Lim Chai Hock (Dip.C.S.) is a member and Deacon-in-charge of an outreach ministry at Mt Carmel Bible-Presbyterian Church. He is a Managing Director and holds diplomas from the Institute of Admin. Management, Singapore Polytechnic and a Master’s degree from the Asian Institute of Management.

  • Mr Abel Choy Kar Wai (Dip. C.S.) is a member of Mt Carmel Bible-Presbyterian Church and is actively involved as a Bible Study and Worship Leader. He is the Director of a software company and a graduate of Nanyang University of Singapore (B.Sc), the National University of Singapore (B.Sc, Hons) and University of Essex, UK (M.Sc in artificial intelligence).

  1. Gifts received. We wish to thank Ms Regina Tan B P for her gift to us. We are not able to send her a personal note as we do not have her contacts.

  2. During his recent visit to Vancouver, Dr Quek Swee Hwa was glad to be able to fellowship with BGST alumni, Amos Gan, Beh Soo Yeong, Rebecca Lee, Quek Tze Ming and Sharon (his daughter), as well as other Singaporean students. He also met with Dr James Houston, Dr Don Lewis, and other Faculty members at Regent College, and he went on a shopping spree for books for BGST Library from the excellent collection at Regent College Bookstore. 

A BLESSED BIRTHDAY TO ... 

Mr Gary Wong  18/8

Pastor Edmund Wong  18/8

Ms Daisy Yeo  19/8

Mr Koh How Eng  20/8

Dr Chia Hwee Pin  21/8

flower pot

Mdm Kang Kyung Im  22/8

Mr Joseph Heng  22/8

Mr Francis Lim  23/8

Mr Tan Tee Khoon  24/8

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This page is updated on 23 Aug 2003 by Leong Kok Weng
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