Among 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.
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?
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!
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?)
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 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.
A BLESSED BIRTHDAY TO ...
Gary Wong 18/8
Edmund Wong 18/8
Daisy Yeo 19/8
Koh How Eng 20/8
Chia Hwee Pin 21/8
Kang Kyung Im 22/8
Joseph Heng 22/8
Francis Lim 23/8
Mr Tan Tee Khoon 24/8