Friday, May 23, 2014

A legal thriller about Paul's trial before Caesar?

The Advocate. By Randy Singer. Tyndale House Publishers. pp. 496. 2014. (List Price $24.99 Hardback | $15.99 Kindle | $19.98 ChristianAudio)

In the Bible, Luke dedicates his Gospel and companion piece, Acts, to the “Most Excellent Theophilus.” Who is this person? Is it merely a reference to believers (the name means “Lover of God”), or is it a real person? Randy Singer’s fiction book The Advocate chronicles the life of Theophilus, imagining him as an Equestrian (wealthy, upper-class Roman) lawyer.

Singer has Theophilus advising Pontius Pilate at the trial of Jesus and later as a defense attorney for the Apostle Paul before Nero Caesar. But these incidents in the life of Theophilus do not make for the majority of the story. Much has to do with Theophilus’s upbringing, hazardous navigation of Roman politics, his love life, and more.

I must admit that I was a little disappointed with the two biggest draws of the book, the trial of Jesus and particularly the trial of Paul. Having a decent grasp of the themes of Luke-Acts and a better-than average understanding of 1st Century Roman society, I was expecting to see a powerful legal argument for why Christianity (the Way) should be viewed as a legitimate outgrowth of Judaism and thus granted the privileges and protections that Rome had granted the Jewish religion. Since this is a “legal thriller,” I thought some clever use of Roman law would come up during the trial, but it did not. The resolution of the trial came much too quickly and seemed rather odd, turning not on any matter of law, but on an uncharacteristic act mercy to satisfy a very characteristic pride of Nero.

Considering the historical matters, Singer does a decent job of relating Roman history and describing the depravity of Roman society and ideals. Unfortunately, probably to make readers more sympathetic to the main characters, he makes Theophilus and company opposed to these ideals, holding to a fairly Christian morality despite being pagan Romans. This distorts the true picture of Roman society and makes the main characters into outliers rather than fair representations of their time and culture. Having his upper-class, Roman citizen pupils carry cross beams to teach them about the immoral practice of crucifixion is almost as absurd as the crucifixion of Roman citizens later in the book. As wicked and sick as Nero was, there were certain rights of Roman citizens that could not be denied without undermining the whole distinction between citizen and non-citizen, a distinction that formed the whole backbone of Roman society. There’s a reason why tradition holds that Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified—one was a Roman citizen and one was not.

Additionally, at a few points in the book some characters explain to other characters the Latin roots of English words. This may be helpful to the reader, but it makes about as much sense in the novel as it does for me to explain that the word “houseboat” comes from the words “house” and “boat.”

The audio recording was well done, and I’ve appreciated David Cochran Heath’s cadence in other audio books I’ve heard him narrate.

In all, I’d say the book was “okay.” Not great, but not terrible either. The kind of reading you’d expect to find in an airport terminal.

Disclosure: I received this book from ChristianAudio in exchange for my honest review.

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