The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World

Bruce W. Longenecker Baker Academic, Grand Rapids December 1, 2002
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Longenecker has produced a delightful little book that is both educational and entertaining. The book is a fictional account of letters discovered in the city of Pergamum that once belonged to Antipas, the martyr mentioned in Revelation 2:13 who died in Pergamum.

Longenecker’s Antipas was an aging Roman nobleman who in his younger days was a landowner of significance in Galilee and who spent most of his time in the cities of Tyre and Caesarea Maritima. For health reasons he left his business and hometown for Pergamum. Antipas was named for Herod Antipas, from whom his family benefited and for whom he maintains respect. At the beginning of the correspondence Antipas is simply an upper-class Roman, doing what many in his position do, namely, maintaining and enhancing his own position in society through acts of benefaction, participation in associations, and so forth. His interest in literature ultimately leads him into a correspondence with the Gospel writer Luke, relationships with new groups (Christians), and eventually to a new life.

During the correspondence Antipas acquires a copy of the Gospel of Luke, seeks out and finds Christians, sees life from the perspective of other classes, and questions his own life. Antipas encounters two different groups of Christians: some who do not seem to grasp the gospel message, which results in compromise (Rev. 2:14–15), and others who hold fast to their convictions despite difficulties. In the latter, Antipas sees how genuine faith works itself out in practice. This group’s lifestyle is instrumental in persuading Antipas of the Christian way.

This book is not simply historical fiction with the late first century as a backdrop for the events of the narrative. It is a well-crafted description of the context in which some of the early Christians lived. It is a book on New Testament history and culture in narrative form. Longenecker introduces many of the standard people, places, events, and issues raised in academic courses on this subject: Jewish history, Jewish sects (Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots), the sicarii, slavery, Roman customs, gladiatorial games, crucifixion, hospitality, the emperors Nero and Domitian, Josephus, John the Baptist, Pilate, the church father Ignatius, Nazareth, Antioch, the Samaritans, cynics, magic, the burning of Rome in A.D. 64, the belief in the return of Nero, the Jewish revolt, “the son of man,” and others. Also other topics are introduced such as benefaction, honor and shame, associations, the impact of the imperial cult, and city rivalries.

By choosing Pergamum Longenecker can explore the impact of imperial cults (worship of the Roman emperor and his family) on the early Christians. Pergamum was the site of the first provincial imperial cult temple in the province of Asia. It was dedicated to Augustus and the goddess Roma during Augustus’s lifetime. The worship of Augustus (and other Caesars) had a strong presence throughout the empire and was emphasized in cities like Pergamum. Longenecker demonstrates that imperial cults and imperial ideology often led to persecution of Christians. This persecution was not always life-threatening, though it sometimes was. One of Antipas’s new friends works as a stonemason and as his profession demands, he is a member of the stonemason’s guild. However, this guild (like many associations at that time) is engaged in the Pergamum expression of emperor worship. Refusal to participate results in exclusion from many opportunities for work. This was a serious problem for a man and his family when one usually was trained for only a single type of work.

Luke is presented as a careful and honest historian through his correspondence. Also the life change of Antipas is interesting to observe. A number of factors lead to his conversion over a period of time. He encounters Jesus through the Gospel of Luke. He asks good, honest questions that Luke answers in a sensitive and accurate way. Antipas sees a vital and dynamic faith in some Christians he meets. He is also able to discern and reject a false version of Christianity. He finally makes a choice that goes against his upbringing and social standing to associate with Christ and true believers. Thus, Christ, God’s Word, and a community of faith all play an important role in Antipas’s conversion.

There is little to criticize in this book, but it might have been helpful for Antipas to have had contact with someone involved in a mystery religion, and it would have helped for a little more of the religious significance of the imperial cult to have been included.

This book should challenge Christians today to examine whether they are faithfully living out the gospel or are compromising their testimony in order to make things easier for themselves and their families. Believers today do not face the challenge of imperial religion, but there is much in Western culture that tends to force Christ from His rightful place in believers’ lives. Antipas’s example (especially in the later part of the narrative) challenges readers to follow Christ wholeheartedly despite the consequences.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2006 vol. 163 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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