Let’s see, where were we? Oh, right—Marcus tried to rape Hadassah, got angry when she wouldn’t acquiesce, and went and got his own villa in the city so he wouldn’t have to see her all the time. Julia has been flourishing in her role as hostess at Marcus’ parties, playing every room and making connections, but Marcus is angry with her (and handsy with her) because he wants his sweet, innocent baby sister back.
Julia is obsessed with Atretes, the gladiator she’s been sending for for sex, but Atretes, too, is becoming violent with her. Julia’s conniving friend Calabah is trying to convince her to enter a marriage of convenience with a “homosexual” so that she will already be married if Atretes, who is controlling and jealous, wins his freedom in the games—so that she can tell him “no” to his marriage proposal but keep him in her bed.
Somehow I think we all know that is going to go south in a hurry.
But all of this leaves out Decimus and Phoebe, who this week call Hadassah in and ask her to tell them about her God. Hadassah, remember, has been waiting for this for a very long time. This is part of the promise Rivers is offering the teenage girls who frequently make up her readership: That if you live out your faith, and serve, and serve, and serve, eventually unbelievers will notice and ask you to tell them about your beliefs—and just like that, you get to proselytize them!
Having grown up in an evangelical home, I like this message better than the guilt I sometimes felt (and that Hadassah feels) for not sharing the gospel message on every street corner. If I really believed that everyone who wasn’t saved was going to hell, I used to wonder, shouldn’t I be warning people everywhere I go? The trouble is that that can get socially awkward in a hurry, and not in a productive way.
So when I left home for college and found myself among people who weren’t evangelical Christians for the first time, I took the approach Rivers spotlights here—I thought that if I lived out my faith it would be obvious that I was different, and that people would notice and want what I had and ask about it, giving me the opportunity to share the gospel. Of course, it didn’t actually happen that way.
Everyone notices Hadassah’s mojo, though, and it does happen that way for her.
We quickly have problem, however. After Decimus and Pheobe call Hadassah in and ask her about her god and she declares herself a Christian—which Decimus suspected but Phoebe did not—Marcus walks in. That’s right. Marcus, who is supposed to have his own villa and all, chooses this exact moment to show up. And surprise surprise, it does not go well.
“Messiah means ‘the anointed one,’ my lady. God came down in the form of man and lived among us.” Hadassah held her breath and then said, ‘His name is Jesus.”
“Was,” Marcus said and entered the room. Hadassah tensed when he spoke. He saw her cheeks bloom with color, but she neither moved nor looked up. He gazed at the gentle curve of her neck and the soft strands of dark curling hair that lay against the nape of her neck. “I’ve done some investigation on this Jewish sect over the past few weeks,” Marcus said roughly.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’d buy Marcus as the angry, lustful master Hadassah has to escape—and even as the vengeful master who tries to dash her faith out of spite—but I don’t buy him as the love interest, which is what he is. I’m trying to fathom how I found him so attractive when I read this book as a teen. He’s an abusive lout who takes pleasure in inflicting pain on others and can’t keep his hands off the women in his life.
Marcus, you see, has been busy.
He had paid men to research the cult, and they had brought him the name of a retired Roman centurion who lived outside Ephesus. Marcus had ridden out to talk with him.
Marcus tells his parents that “This Jesus the Christians claim as their messiah was a rebel crucified on a cross in Judea” and that “Hadassah’s faith is based on emotion rather than fact, on a desperation for answers to unanswerable questions.” This does not sound like a first century Roman man speaking. Did they even differentiate between “emotion” and “fact” the way we do? Remember that Roman society was full of a huge variety of gods and sects. People followed Mithras, or Isis. This isn’t to say that there weren’t also atheists—there were—but this entire conversation sounds like it is taking place in the late twentieth-century U.S., when Rivers wrote it, and not the context of first century Rome, awash with beliefs and cults.
If this book were written by someone who had taken the time to research the history and culture, Marcus would have a philosophy. He might have been a Stoic, or an Epicurean. He probably wouldn’t be nothing, which is what he appears to be in Rivers’ work. A book where characters with first century Roman philosophies and beliefs encountered and interacted with characters with first century Christian beliefs could have made for an interesting read, but this isn’t it.
Marcus goes into the whole story he heard from the centurion, telling his parents that “The Jews were hungry for a savior and were easily convinced that he was their long-awaited messiah” and that “They expected him to expel the Romans from Judea, and when he didn’t, his followers turned on him.” This isn’t exactly what I took away from the gospels—I’ve read them many times and never got the idea that “his followers turned on him.” Judas betrayed him for money (and not because he refused to raise an armed rebellion), and his other disciples deserted him at the end, leaving to hide, but they did not “turn on him.”
Of course, this is presumably Marcus’ spin on the story—a story, by the way, that is extremely anti-semitic.
“One of his own disciples betrayed him to the high court. This Jesus was sent to Pontius Pilate. Pilate tried to free him, but the Jews themselves demanded he be crucified because he was what they termed a ‘blasphemer.’ He died on a cross, was taken down and entombed, and that was the end of it.”
Who was in charge? Pilate. Whose fault was Jesus’ execution? The Jews’.
Marcus says that this centurion he talked to was at the tomb when the body of Jesus was stolen; Decimus asks why this centurion wasn’t executed for neglecting his duty, if the body was stolen on his watch.
Marcus had asked the same question. “He said Pilate was sick of being used by the Jewish factions. His wife had been tormented by dreams before this Jesus was brought to him, but the Sanhedrin and Jewish mob forced him to hand this messiah of theirs over for crucifixion. Pilate washed his hands of the whole matter. He wanted no further involvement with these religious fanatics and wasn’t about to sacrifice good soldiers over the missing body of one unimportant dead Jew!”
Consider the claim being made here—“the Sanhedrin and Jewish mob forced [Pilate] to hand this messiah of theirs over for crucifixion.” Forced him? This telling makes it sound like the region was in the midst of insurrection after all, and it was the Sanhedrin and “Jewish mob” that were leading it! We can’t write this away as more of Marcus’ spin, as this is essentially how the gospels tell it, too, and as we’ve already heard similar from Rivers earlier in the book.
If this was pointed out to her, Rivers would likely claim that she can’t this narrative, that it’s in the Bible and that’s just how it happened. Of course, the various books of the Bible have always been written within specific contexts and under certain pressures. The gospel writers likely had incentive to play up the role of the Jews and play down the role of the Romans. Evangelicals, though, cannot accept that—because the idea that the Bible is infallible and inerrant in every word is central to their theology.
And so we’re left with evangelicals like Rivers blithely repeating the exact narratives that have led to Christian persecution of Jews—and don’t think it’s over. Even today there are people who use these narratives to discriminate against Jews. I’m increasingly horrified at the casual anti-semitism that was clearly far more common in 1990s evangelicalism than I remember from my childhood.
Oh and by the way, Marcus is still handsy.
“No,” Hadassah said softly. “He arose.”
Phoebe’s eyes went wide. “He came back to life?”
Marcus swore in frustration. “No, he didn’t, Mother. Hadassah, listen to me.” He knelt and turned her roughly to face him. “It was his disciples who said he arose, but it was all a hoax planned to further the spread of this cult.”
Hadassah asked what the disciples had to gain from claim that he rose, and launches into a litany of morbid deaths:
“James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Andrew was stoned in Scythia. Bartholomew was flayed alive and beheaded in Armenia. Matthew was crucified in Alexandria, Philip in Hieropolis, Peter in Rome. James the Less was beheaded by order of Herod Antipas. Simon the Zealot was sawn in two in Persia. And none of them recanted.”
So, funny story—Philip is supposed to have died in 80 A.D., and it’s currently just after 75 A.D. That makes Hadassah’s foreknowledge and use of the past tense extremely interesting.
More interesting, though, is Hadassah’s use of late twentieth century Christian apologetics arguments.
Here’s an interesting question. How did first-century Christians proselytize to Gentiles? The closest we come, probably, is the sermon Paul gives in Athens in roughly 52 A.D., as written down in Acts 17:
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.”
29 ‘Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.’
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’
Note the focus on coming judgment—that’s not something Hadassah mentions at all. Instead, she gives Decimus the gospel message like this:
“My lord, to accept God’s grace is to live with hope. If you but confess your sins and believe, the Lord will forgive you. Ask and he will come to dwell in your heart, and you will have the peace you crave. You only have to believe.”
That is not a first century telling—the idea that Jesus comes and lives in your heart came later, and there’s no discussion of the coming judgement. Remember, Jesus initially preached that that generation would not pass away before the son of man returned in judgement. Those in the early church assumed that the son of man was returning soon, while they still lived.
Decimus saw love in her eyes, the kind of love he had always longed to have from his own daughter.
FFS, Decimus. Your daughter loves you, and if you’d stop wishing she was someone other than who she is, for one second, you would see that. SMH.
This section is frustrating, both because the entire presentation of the gospel, including Marcus’ pushback, feels like something out of the twenty-first century, and because Marcus is, once again, an ass. There is lots that is assumed here—Hadassah never explains sin and judgement, for example. She tells Decimus that he will be forgiven if he confesses his sins and believes—but did the Romans even have a concept of sin? There’s an assumption that Hadassah’s words come in a context already familiar with sin and judgement.
And on top of that, there’s the anti-semitism.
So there you have it. I’m frustrated. I want Marcus to go away, and I want Hadassah to actually be a first century Christian, and apparently I can’t have either.
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