I think more Christians need to read historical fiction. I know I do. Having recently finished Randy Singer’s The Advocate, I feel like I am only now re-emerging out of the Roman Empire of the first century back into life 2,000 years later.
The Advocate is the brilliantly detailed story of life under Roman rule as seen through the eyes of Theophilus, the “Most Excellent” one to whom Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.
History doesn’t give us the luxury of knowing who Theophilus really was, but Randy Singer, using his creative imagination derived from real-life accounts, gives us an excellent insight as to how the life of this recipient of Luke’s writings might very well have played out.
As an advocate whose job it is to defend clients before the Emperor, Theophilus comes into contact with some of the most famous and infamous influencers of life in first century Rome.
Introduced to us in his younger days, we see Theophilus learn to debate under the tutelage of such a great intellect of the time as Seneca. Prior to that though, we are taken through the childhood and adolescence of the young advocate, an adolescence that includes a brutal betrayal at the hands of a friend-made-enemy, none other than a pubescent Caligula.
As Theophilus graduates from his schooling under Seneca, he is sent to the province of Judea, governed at the time by a certain Pontius Pilate.
It is during this time that Theophilus has one of his most formative experiences. Present for the trial of a Nazarene named Jesus, Theophilus learns that this young preacher has been causing quite a stir in the region, most recently by having the gall to overthrow the tables of the moneychangers in the very Temple itself. It was this subversive act that has led the religious authorities to make serious moves towards having the rabble-rousing upstart eliminated once and for all.
As Theophilus learns something of what Jesus is about, he gets the strong sense that the Nazarene’s trial is a major miscarriage of justice. Whether Theophilus will have the courage to stand up for Jesus though is a decision that will shape his career for many years to come.
As he spends the following years plying his wares under Pilate, Theophilus starts to learn of rumours of a strange new sect called The Way spreading its influence in the region. He quickly discovers that his sect is going around claiming that Jesus the Nazarene is alive, having been raised from death a few days after his brutal crucifixion.
It is this story’s details like this, woven into documented history, that transport the reader right back into the midst of first century life with all its colour, richness, difficulty and ordinariness.
It was for this reason that I couldn’t put this book down. It brought history to life for me by eloquently detailing the daily living, the politics, and the oppression of life under the authority of Rome. And reading the accounts we see in the gospels, intertwined with the creative license of the fictional storyteller, I felt like I was peering through a window watching the unfolding of history itself.
Theophilus is eventually transferred from under the jurisdiction of Pilate to the very centre of Roman rule itself to work under the Emperor. It is in Rome where he is set to experience at once all the glamour and corruption of the life of those who ruled one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known.
Eventually the unforgettable impact of the Nazarene on him all those years before comes back to haunt Theophilus. He is introduced to a leader of The Way, Paul of Tarsus, who is now facing charges of making the treasonous claim that there is a greater Lord than Caesar. Knowing that such sedition is punishable by death, Theophilus must decide again whether or not to defend a man who just might be innocent.
As he comes to know Paul over the years, the magnetic influence of the great apostle grows on Theophilus. As a result, his journey inevitably leads to a head-on collision with the very authority of the Emperor himself.
Reading The Advocate reminded me somewhat of another epic of historical fiction, the story of Ben Hur. It is in the famous movie of the 1950s that we see the life of the young Ben Hur lived out against the backdrop of the influence of the same Nazarene who impacted Theophilus so powerfully. Such is the drama with which The Advocate draws you in that you may wonder if Theophilus and Ben Hur ever met each other!
The allure of this story is seen in a number of ways. The social and political realities of the time help us better understand the impact of Jesus. This is seen most powerfully in the passion and indomitable faith of the first followers of The Way. The fact that it made me want to live like them is testament to the eloquence of the writing of this extraordinary story.