Originally published on December 2014
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002
Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum is a compelling demonstration of what a fertile and well- cultivated imagination can do to advance our understanding of the New Testament world. Packaged as a compilation of fictional letters revolving around the faith journey of Roman nobleman Antipas (cf. Revelation 2:13), the book aims both to entertain and educate its readers through a story set in the historical context of the early Christian writings. The letters are presented to us through the filter of a fictional editor, a plot device that allows Longenecker to insert relevant historical details through footnotes, thereby enhancing the didactic value of the book.
The book begins with Antipas keen to advance his social standing in Pergamum, his newfound place of residence. The Antipas we encounter here is a model Roman citizen (named after no less than the Tetrarch Herod Antipas), devout pagan, firm believer in Pax Romana and civic benefactor of multiple cities. Through fellow nobleman Calpurnius, son of Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4), Antipas soon comes into the acquaintance of Luke and gains access to his gospel. This paves the way for an extended exchange of letters between Antipas and Luke, discussing the content of Luke’s historical monograph and especially its chief protagonist—Jesus of Nazareth, founder of the Christian sect.
Antipas tread cautiously at first for fear of compromising his honour. The theme of reputation and honour, attached closely to one’s societal standing, resurfaces continually in the subsequent letters. As the letters suggest, society in New Testament times was highly stratified. Strict social codes of honour and shame, and patronage and benefaction, policed the well-marked boundaries between the patricians and the plebeians. However, Antipas came to realise increasingly that the actions and teachings of Jesus—this lowly peasant artisan from humble Nazareth— radically inverted the prevailing social order. Antipas’ periodic digests of Luke’s gospel bear witness to his initial shock towards Jesus’ readiness to depart from existing social norms, then his growing understanding of Jesus’ vision of the community of grace.
Antipas soon found himself joining local Christian gatherings in Kalandion’s and Antonius’ households, and eventually developed a deep affinity for the latter group—a community that exemplified the spirit of Jesus’ radical teachings. Antipas himself was undergoing a profound personal transformation marked by a growing acceptance of—and even love for—Jesus, his mission, and his followers. He started respecting and caring for a former employee, a lowly tenant farmer whom he met at Antonius’ house. He began to shed the pompous titles he once attached to himself in his letters. Finally he believed in Christ and, in dramatic fashion, offered himself as a martyr before the emperor to save a fellow Christian.
These letters bring to life the actual world of the New Testament in a way that an academic treatise could probably never do; much like how a good period drama might educate a given audience better than a documentary. We are offered a rigorous yet accessible commentary on the historical context to the gospels, particularly the pervasive undercurrents of social honour codes and bonds of patronage and benefaction, as well as extreme segregation between social classes, that lay beneath the gospel narratives. While many of these historical details are alluded to in the letters, Longenecker also finds ways to give certain key issues explicit and lengthier treatment, through Antipas’ “historical reconstructions” on issues of interest like the Samaritans, or more in-depth responses from Luke on topics such as the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate or the great fire in Rome. This background information serves as a powerful antidote against anachronistic projections of modern perspectives into the first century world. Most valuable are Antipas’ periodic digests of Luke’s gospel, through which he interacts closely with the scriptural text and wrestles with the implications of Jesus’ teachings in his context, as a first century Roman aristocrat.
We quickly learn that the “empire of the Jewish God” that Jesus proclaimed was diametrically opposed to the existing social order. His actions of eating with tax collectors and sinners broke radically with social codes of honour and shame. His chastisement of the Jewish leaders stemmed from their self-serving alignment with these codes. Yet the manner of his death (e.g. Pilate’s treatment of him) suggests that he was not a social revolutionary. These points overturn one-dimensional modern stereotypes of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” and tease out the complexity of Jesus’ identity and ministry, while also offering useful insights on how Christians should live counter-culturally today.
It is in the area of storytelling that Longenecker’s work is found wanting. The book is by no means a page-turner, and it probably would not be fair to expect it be one. Nonetheless, certain didactic portions of the letters are painfully contrived. This is especially the case when Luke goes into encyclopedic detail on historical minutiae in response to factual questions posed by Antipas. For example, it is difficult to imagine how Luke would have found it necessary to delve into so much detail in his “brief portrait” of the Pharisees; Longenecker himself must have realised this, since he makes Luke apologise for his “verbosity” at the end of his lengthy spiel. Other portions of the letters just seem unnatural in to the flow of normal correspondence. Antipas’ and Calpurnius’ discussion on the pros and cons of gladiatorial games, informative as it is, seems out of place in an introductory exchange of letters. If Longenecker’s intent was to establish Antipas’ credentials as a staunch promoter of Rome, or to induct uninformed readers into the Roman entertainment scene, then he achieved his aims at the expense of realistic storytelling. To be sure, these quibbles pertain only to isolated portions of the letters. On the whole, Longenecker does a competent job of constructing a believable, historically-accurate narrative that traces Antipas’ personal transformation and eventual conversion to Christianity. So despite the storytelling flaws, Longenecker is mostly justified in his claim (in the Preface) that something like that truly “could have happened”.
MR. TIMOTHY ANG PEI-ZHENG
Summa Cum Laude, Grad DipCS, 2013