The universe of novels about early Christianity that would pass muster with academic scholars is small. Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean (on Jesus and his followers) and Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum (on the church in western Asia Minor) are solid enough to be used in a New Testament course, and Ben Witherington has written a few short novels in the last few years that reflect his lifetime of research as a leading New Testament scholar.
Now we have a new entrant to the field—in fact, two new entrants, the first two books in a historical fiction trilogy set in Roman Asia Minor called A Slave’s Story. The novels were written by Christopher D. Stanley, a New Testament professor at St. Bonaventure University in western New York who studies and writes about the social world of early Christianity and Judaism, with a special focus on the apostle Paul. I’ve not had a chance to read the books yet since they only came out a couple of weeks ago, but I know the author and can vouch for the quality of his research. I’ve also looked over his Website for the series, http://aslavesstory.com, and found a lot of historical background information that could be useful for anyone wanting to know more about the world in which Christianity arose.
The two books, A Rooster for Asklepios and A Bull for Pluto, trace a year in the life of Lucius Coelius Felix, a minor aristocrat from Pisidian Antioch, and his trusted slave Marcus, as they grapple with a series of major life crises: a sudden loss of social standing, a nagging and potentially fatal illness, the troubles caused by a wayward son, the nature and trustworthiness of the divine realm, the high cost of love, and the inexorable reality of death. The story is told from the perspective of Marcus, the slave (thus the title of the series, A Slave’s Story), a viewpoint that is frequently missing from both fictional and historical studies of the Roman world.
According to the author, the books are not explicitly “Christian” in the sense of promoting Christian faith, but they do offer Christian readers a unique window onto the world in which Paul and the early Christians lived and worked on a daily basis. The books give special attention to the pervasive influence of religion in all aspects of Roman society, including the place of Judaism and Christianity (and how people viewed them). One of the author’s aims in writing the books was to help Christian readers understand why some people embraced the new religion while most did not.
The books are meticulously researched, reflecting several trips to Turkey where the author engaged in careful study of the various sites where the novel takes place. His aim, he says, was to paint a vivid and historically accurate picture of the worldviews and lived experiences of ordinary people in ancient Roman society while avoiding the kinds of modernizing updates that are so common in contemporary historical fiction.
To learn more about the books, see the companion Website for the series at http://aslavesstory.com. Here you can read plot summaries of both books, download the first five chapters for free, view links to the Amazon pages where the books are for sale, and examine the background material that the author has posted so far about the social world depicted in the novels. The landing page also contains a number of positive comments from other scholars of early Christianity who have read and enjoyed the books.
If you’d rather just go straight to the Amazon pages for the books, here are the links.
The books are available in both paperback and Kindle format. The author is offering free copies of the second book to the first ten people who post reviews of the first book on Amazon or Goodreads—just send a screenshot of the review to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll be interested to hear what you think about the usefulness of these books.