Gary M. Burge. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Gary M. Burge teaches New Testament at Wheaton College. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion
is a historical fictional work about a Roman centurion in the time of
Jesus. On many of the pages, Burge provides a box that contains
historical background information. Burge also includes a helpful
glossary of the characters at the beginning of the book. The Roman
centurion is named Appius, and he has a slave named Tallus, who is a
Here are some items:
1. Appius was kind to his slaves, but Burge states on page 89 that a
Roman head of a household “had complete authority over his slaves and
could sell, punish or even kill them, since laws respecting persons did
not apply to them.” This is significant in debates about the issue of
slavery in the New Testament, since the New Testament seems never to
condemn slavery, and there are even New Testament passages that
encourage slaves to submit to their masters. Pro-slavery Christians
prior to and during the American Civil War appealed to such passages to
justify slavery. A number of Christian apologists in recent times have
responded to this apparent moral problem in the New Testament by saying
that slavery in New Testament times was not as bad as slavery in
antebellum America. Burge may disagree with them, for he states that
Roman masters in New Testament times had absolute authority over the
lives of their slaves, who were not even treated as people under the
Burge may be correct when it comes to particular times in Roman
history. There may be more to the story, however. Christian apologist
Glenn Miller, for example, argues here that
there were times when Roman society tried to protect slaves, or
thinkers within it promoted the protection of slaves. I Peter 2:18ff.
exhorts slaves to submit to harsh masters, and I remember a professor of
an Epistles of Paul class saying that the author here is trying to
discourage slaves from challenging abusive masters in court. If my
professor was correct, then society back then at some point must have
had legal means to protect slaves.
2. I referred in my post here
to a debate between atheist Richard Carrier and Christian apologist
David Marshall about whether Christianity is reasonable. Carrier asked
why Jesus, if he were God, did not teach people in the first century
rules of hygiene, which could have prevented numerous deaths. Burge
talks about hygiene in this book. He says on page 51 that the “ancients
did not understand germs, and the connection between hygiene and health
would not appear until the late Roman period when soap use for cleaning
the body became common.” Yet, on page 134, Burge states that the Jews
had laws in the Torah promoting hygiene. My understanding is that the
first century C.E., the setting of this book, is before the late Roman
period, the time that Burge says that the connection between hygiene and
health appeared. Moreover, a number of scholars have held that the
Hebrew Bible’s purity laws do not relate to health or hygiene but rather
to ritual purity, and Burge himself appears to make this very point on
page 115. Although my impression is that Burge contradicts himself on
the topic of hygiene, I did find his discussion informative, especially
after watching that debate between Carrier and Marshall.
3. Burge’s depiction of the Asclepius cult stood out to me due to
debates about healings in the first century C.E. I recently read
atheist scholar Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man,
and Price discussed Jesus’ healings within the context of the
testimonies about miraculous healings at Asclepius cults. Some scholars
and apologists have argued, however, that Jesus’ healings were unusual
in his first century context (and perhaps more likely to be historical
because they were discontinuous from Jesus’ context). They say that
what went on in first century paganism was medicine, not miraculous
healing (see here and here).
In Burge’s book, the physicians at the Asclepius cult perform practical
surgery rather than miracle, even though the cult has sacrifices to
enlist the help of the gods. At the same time, on page 134, some Jewish
characters distinguish between their view on healing and that of the
pagans, whose potions and incantations those particular Jews dismiss as
4. While I am on the Asclepius cult, I did find Burge’s depiction of
first century pagan religion to be fascinating. There was an appeal to
the gods, but there was also an appeal to fatalism if things did not
work out. When a surgeon at the Asclepius cult is treating Appius for a
wound that Appius received in battle, the surgeon says that “if he
dies, it will be a course already set by the gods” (page 46). In my
opinion, Burge should have included a box explaining this feature of
pagan religion, but the comments in the books about the gods were still
informative and interesting.
5. Burge depicts tax collectors collecting taxes for Rome in
Galilee, while also stating that taxes went to the ruler of Galilee,
Herod Antipas. My understanding (and I am open to correction on this,
after I turn my blog’s comments back on in the future) is that the
Romans did not collect taxes directly from Galilee. The Romans
collected taxes directly from Judea because they had direct rule over it
after 6 C.E., but, in Galilee, they had a client ruler, Herod Antipas.
Perhaps one can reconcile all this by saying that Antipas still paid
tribute to the Romans, and Antipas was collecting taxes from Galileans
for that tribute. See my post here.
In any case, I do think that Burge should have provided a little more
clarity or historical information about this topic, even though he did
provide informative background information about Herod Antipas.
6. Burge distinguishes between how Palestinian Jews and Diaspora
Jews regarded Gentiles. In his telling, Palestinian Jews tended to view
Gentiles as ritually unclean and held that Gentiles could not be in
certain areas of the Temple. The Diaspora Jews, by contrast, were more
open, believing that God accepted even uncircumcised Gentiles. This is a
view within scholarship, but there is also difference of opinion. See here
for my post about Christine Hayes’ book on whether Judaism considered
Gentiles to be ritually impure. In addition, in researching for my
dissertation, I have read scholars who have questioned the conventional
differentiation between Palestinian and Diaspora Judaism. I think that
Burge, in a brief footnote or endnote, should have informed readers that
there is diversity within scholarship about this issue, even though I
respect that this book may not have been intended to be a heavy,
comprehensive work of scholarship, but rather an introductory work.
Also, since a Palestinian Jew and a Diasporan Jew in the book are
debating whether Gentiles should be kept out of certain parts of the
Temple, Burge should have provided some documentation that Diasporan
Jews had a problem with such a policy.
7. Burge did well to inform the reader about ancient beliefs and how
they may differ from our own. When Appius challenges a Roman soldier
who is harassing Appius’ concubine, Burge informs us that Appius is
defending his own honor, not the honor of his concubine. Burge also
tells us about ancient views on fevers and humors, and how they
influenced the sort of surgery that was performed (i.e., bleeding a
person to bring down a fever).
8. Burge depicts Appius as the centurion in the synoptic Gospels who
asks Jesus to heal his sick slave. As a reader, I am not sure if that
works, for the centurion in the Gospels was liked by the Jews and built
them a synagogue, whereas Appius was not particularly devout towards the
God of Israel and was not especially well-liked by the Jews. Still, it
did result in some moving scenes. Appius has a piece of art in which
vicious dogs are ripping a deer to shreds, and Jesus touches the deer.
Appius is then convicted of his love for violence and resolves to get
rid of that piece of art! While Burge in an interview about the book
(which was inserted into my review copy by Intervarsity) distinguishes
his book from Christian fiction by saying that he does not present the
centurion converting to Christianity, my impression as a reader was that
Appius was pretty close to becoming a Christian!
9. I enjoyed the debate between the Jewish elder Tobias and Appius’
military assistant Marcus. Marcus was on a Roman power trip, and Tobias
was standing up boldly for his land and his people.
Overall, this is an enjoyable and informative book. It would be
useful for an Introduction to New Testament class, as long as students
remembered that there is scholarly debate about some of the issues it
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Intervarsity Press.