Hadassah is being kept in a dank cell with a “mass” of other prisoners, most of them women and children. Atretes comes looking for her and finds her there. He’s disgusted with her situation, of course, and reminded of his own days as prisoner. He’s also really, really angry with Julia.
He hated Julia so much he could taste the bile of it in his mouth, feel the rush of it heating his blood. He would enjoy killing her with his own hands if it wouldn’t mean he’d end up back in this place, waiting to fight in the arena again.
Julia has been wrong about many things lately, but she was not wrong about her decision not to marry Atretes. Also, Rivers is going full-on German barbarian here.
“Don’t hate Julia for what she’s done, Atretes. She’s lost. She’s frantically searching for happiness, but she’s drowning. Instead of grabbing hold of the one thing that will save her, she grasps at flotsam. I pray God will yet be merciful to her.”
And this, of course, is where Hadassah is.
“Merciful?” Atretes said, looking at her in stunned amazement. “How can you pray for mercy on the one who sent you here to die?”
“Because what Julia did has given me the sweetest joy of all.”
Atretes searched her face. Had confinement driven her mad?
And it goes on like this. The short of it is, Hadassah says that Julia has freed her from fear. “I’d been afraid all my life,” she tells Atretes. “I was afraid of everything.”
This would be a bit more believable if it had appeared to be actually true in this book. Hadassah spoke boldly to Marcus early on, urging him not to sell Claudius’ slaves after Claudius’ death. On multiple other occasions she has stood up to Marcus. She has also evangelized Decimus and Phoebe, knowing she could be (in this book world) sent to the arena for doing so. When she met other Christians, she risked a lot by going to them and meeting with them. She spoke out to Atretes, too, and even followed him all night once when he was mad, in order to share the gospel with him.
Hadassah always said, when she went to see John, that she struggled with fear, but the only person she never evangelized was Julia. And even with Julia, she never acted particularly afraid. Of course, it is possible to have a strong exterior and internal fears.
And on further questioning from Atretes, Hadassah does clarify that her fear has been that “when the time came and I was tested, I wouldn’t have the courage to say the truth.” In that sense, Hadassah could not face that fear outside of the circumstances at Vitellius’ party, where she was directly told to sacrifice to the emperor and declare him god.
Tears ran down her cheeks, but her eyes were shining. “And the most amazing, miraculous thing happened to me in that moment, Atretes. Even as I was speaking the words, proclaiming Jesus is the Christ, my fear fell away. The weight fit was gone as though it had never been.”
Atretes is not easily convinced.
“And now you’ll die for it,” he said grimly.
“Unless we have something worth dying for, Atretes, we’ve nothing worth living for.”
Why is Atretes here, anyway? They do finally get around to that—Atretes is having a weird dream and wants Hadassah to interpret it. He says he figured she’d know what it meant because it began after she visited him in the caves outside the city. Hadassah is all humble, of course. “I may not know the answers, but God does.”
Atretes tells her the dream—it has to do with the temple of Artemis glowing, and then crumbling. Next he sees a sculptor smash a statue of himself as he panics and feels pain. Then he’s back in Germany, drowning in a bog while his family watches. But as the bog pulls him in, “a man is there, holding out both hands to me. His palms are bleeding.” Then he hears a baby crying, laying on the rocks by the sea as the water comes in to take him. Then he wakes.
Hadassah, of course, tells Atretes that that man is Jesus. “Your salvation is at hand,” she tells him. When she turns to the baby, Atretes says that he knows that the child on the rocks is his son. “I thought about what you said to me that night you came to the hills,” he said. “I sent word I wanted the child when it was born.” Hadassah is shocked, because she definitely didn’t know that. The last she heard from Atretes was to let the child die, to put it on the rocks for all he cared.
“At first, it was to hurt Julia, to take her child from her. Then I truly wanted him. I decided I’d take the child and return to Germania. I waited, and then word came. The child was stillborn. … But she lied. The child wasn’t stillborn. She ordered it left on the rocks to die.”
Hadassah, of course, gets to tell Atretes that his son is still alive. He’s beyond elated. He proposes that he go into the arena as her champion, to fight the lions, but she refuses. “I have a champion already, Atretes,” she said. “God’s hand is in this, Atretes.” She tells him that she is not afraid to die. “Whatever happens is to his good purpose and for his glory,” she says. “I am not afraid.”
Atretes leaves and Hadassah is alone with the “mass” of prisoners, all of whom, it seems, are Christians.
The torch sputtered and someone cried out. “I’m afraid,” a woman said, and a man answered, “The Lord has forsaken us.”
“No,” Hadassah said gently. “The Lord has not forsaken us.”
And then she leads the group of Christians in singing.
I’m honestly baffled as to how I found this book so realistic when I read it as a teen. A scene like this—several dozen Christians gathered up and thrown to the lions—would not have occurred except during isolated, specific persecutions. Here, it is treated as an everyday, ordinary sort of thing—as though every week they’d round up another several dozen Christians and feed them to the lions, on the regular. Early Christian communities did not exist in that state of persecution.
Who are these Christians, anyway? Are they all people known to John? How big is the church in Ephesus supposed to be, exactly? Big enough to lose several dozen members a week to the lions and yet keep growing?
Why was John later exiled to Patmos, rather than being thrown to the lions? Over a century later, Christian writer Tertullian claimed that John was plunged into boiling oil, and that he was only exiled to Patmos when that failed to kill him. This happened under a persecution that occurred at the end of Domitian’s rein as emperor (he died in 96), over a decade after where we are in Rivers’ book (something likely close to ten years has passed since the book opened in 70 AD).
There is no contemporary evidence of any persecution of Christians under Domitian’s rein. But even just looking at the tradition about it is enough to throw shade on the way Rivers is portraying Hadassah’s situation. First, the torture and exile of the Apostle John is supposed to have happened during a specific act of persecution—initiated by Domitian at the end of his rein—and not as part of an ongoing, regular hunting out and execution of Christians. Second, there is no mention of lions being involved.
Leaving all of that aside, there is one thing Rivers has gotten very right, in a roundabout sort of way. Hadassah is eager to face the lions, and to die for her faith. That this was sometimes the case is evidenced by the writings we have from Christian leaders in later centuries urging Christians not to voluntarily turn themselves in or seek martyrdom. There are also some similarities to the narrative of Perpetua, who was thrown to the beasts (not lions specifically but beasts of all kinds) during a persecution in Carthage in 202. Perpetua, too, refused any attempt to get her out of prison, looking with anticipation toward a martyr’s death.
Next week, the arena.
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