A Week in the Life of Rome (James L. Papandrea) -- A Review
A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF ROME. By James L. Papandrea. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019. 216 pages.
What was life like for first-generation Christians living in the first century? The New Testament provides some hints, and we can do historical and archaeological reconstructions, but these tend to be abstract and detached from daily life. So, how might we get our minds around the reality faced by these early Christians? In other words, is there a way of using the imagination to read between the lines? The editors at IVP Academic have been attempting to do such a thing in the "A Week in the Life Series," which offers an imaginative/fictionalized look at life as it might have been lived by early Christians during the first century.
James Papandrea’s A Week in the Life of Rome is the latest in the IVP series, and it takes us back to Rome during the reign of Claudius, not long after the Jerusalem Council had concluded. Peter has been away from Rome but is on his way back to the city. Throughout the city of Rome exist house churches, who are seeking to be faithful to their religious beliefs in a context and culture that is anything but supportive. It’s fiction, of course, but it builds on what we know about Rome, its culture, and the concerns of early Christians as expressed in the New Testament.
This is the fifth book in the IVP series. I’ve read and reviewed Ben Witherington's A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem, which I enjoyed even if I didn't agree with all of his interpretations of those events. The same is true here with regard to James Papandrea's reconstruction of life for Christians living in Rome over the course of one week.
Most of the characters in this story have real personages standing behind them. Most of the church members present here are named by Paul in chapter 16 of his letter to the Romans. The primary character is Stachys, who in this story is a freedman and client of Urbanas, another believer named in Romans 16. Stachys is said here to be the husband of Maria, the mother of Marcus (John Mark). Marcus is serving as a primary leader in the Roman church, which meets at the home of his step-father, who as the story begins is not yet fully incorporated into the church. That is, he has yet to be invited to the “Table,” even though one of the house churches meets in his house. Marcus is also described as writing a memoir of Jesus. Of course, Peter factors into the story, as does Paul, who has yet to visit Rome. Thus, to set to stage—Paul and Peter had recently participated in the Jerusalem Council, but Paul has yet to visit Rome or write his letter to the Roman Church. Peter, on the other hand, is understood in this scenario to have already arrived in Rome and is the key leader of the church in the city.
Again, in a book like this, we’re being invited to read between the lines. Most of what we have relating to the church in Rome is found in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters, and that is not much to go on. The figures in this story are mostly just names recorded in Romans 16. We know these are leaders of the church, but we don’t know much more. Tradition suggests that Peter was the founder of the church in Rome and its first bishop, but Paul makes no reference to this in his letter, nor does the Book of Acts. So, we don’t have much to go on besides imagination and theological predilections. That gives the author, in this case James Papandrea, who is professor of church history and historical theology at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, a lot of room to maneuver. The prominence played here by Peter and the antipathy we see from Mark towards Paul could be due to the fact that besides being a professor of Church History at United Methodist related seminary, Papandrea is a Roman Catholic priest (who once was a United Methodist pastor). That may account for the presence of Peter in the story. Ultimately, we simply don’t know much about life in the church of Rome in the year 50 CE, and so the author is free to reconstruct the story. We don’t have to buy everything in the reconstruction to get a picture of what life might be like for early Christians.
As the story begins, it is the year 50 CE. As noted, the Jerusalem Council has concluded, and Peter is returning to Rome. As the story begins, Stachys is visiting his patron, Urbanas, a man of importance of the Equestrian class. Stachys is freedman, who had served in the household of Urbanas, but had been emancipated by Urbanas’ father. He is also a catechumen of the Way-followers. He's not yet baptized or admitted to the Table. He wants to be freed from the requirement to address his patron as Dominus, a title that according to this reconstruction, only can be given to Jesus. Thus, we are introduced to the theme of this book—Stachys’ journey to a full and complete faith in Jesus.
Along the way we watch as these early Christians make their way in a city and culture that is not conducive to following Jesus. There are many challenges and temptations. For one thing, Claudius had banned Jews from the city, which made Peter's presence difficult, and had led to the expulsion of Priscilla and Aquila. It also made it difficult for Marcus and Maria, who are Jews. However, they are protected to a degree because Maria is married to a Roman citizen. Nevertheless, if something happens to Stachys, this would put her and her son in jeopardy. So, life is tenuous for everyone. Conversion will not do much for one’s social standing, though there are important people who are part of the congregation, including Senators.
Throughout the book Papandrea provides boxed insets, which give background information about patron-client relations, Roman currency, marriage and family customs, and more. These are set off so as to not interfere with the narrative. Along the way we learn much about Roman life, including the prevalence of prostitution, corruption, and the degeneracy of the theater and the games. We watch as the early church comes to terms with a community that includes senators and slaves, people who normally do not socialize, and yet in the church are brothers and sisters.
It's tempting to go into the details of the book, but that would take away the fun of reading it. I will say this; Papandrea's Roman Catholicism does shine through at points. It's not overwhelming or distracting, but the choice of texts and words for elements of the story, such as Table fellowship are clearly pointing to Catholic sensibilities. The same is true with who is authorized to officiate at the breaking of the bread. Of course, there is the revered figure of Peter, who might not be a central character in the story, but whose presence is always near at hand. The reader will want to decide if this is faithful to what we know from Scripture, and whether that is essential to getting a sense of what early Christian life was like.
I do want to point out the role that Marcus plays in the story. While Mark is not mentioned in Romans 16, he is connected to Peter, who is connected to Rome. What I found interesting is that while Marcus is the one who does much of the teaching, he often quotes from the Gospel of John, especially when speaking of the Table. He’s said to be writing a memoir of Jesus, which must be the Gospel of Mark, but we don’t see much of that gospel present in the story. In addition, this Marcus has a certain distaste for Paul, which I suppose stems from their earlier work together. Remember that Paul and Barnabas separated over Mark’s presence on the team. He's definitely more attuned to Peter, who is the lead figure here, or so goes this particular fictionalized narrative.
Even though this series is part of the IVP Academic brand, and is written by scholars, it is a narrative account. Therefore, it is very accessible. This is not a book written specifically for scholars, but it is intended to reflect scholarship. Thus, it differs from other more novelistic kinds of reconstructions, many of which appear in the form of romance novels. Again, while I might not embrace every interpretive move, it is enlightening, and will prove valuable in understanding the challenges faced by early Christians. If non-scholars understand that this is a fictionalized reconstruction, a book like this can help create a sense of understanding that is needed so people can feel comfortable with the biblical story. Besides, haven't you wondered about the identity of the people Paul names in Romans 16? Doesn't that intrigue you? It does me. So, with this book we can spend A Week in the Life of Rome.