In the last few years, the genre of “scholarly novel” has become popular. By scholarly novel, I mean a serious scholar writes a story in a particular context in order to illustrate some aspect of biblical culture. IVP Academic published several short stories in their “Week in the Life” series. For example, David deSilva’s A Week in the Life of Ephesus (2020) or Holly Beers, A Day in the Life a Greco-Roman Woman (2019). Ben Witherington wrote a novel on Priscilla (IVP 2018) and Paula Gooder wrote an excellent novel about Phoebe (IVP 2018). These kinds of books are very popular; The first edition of Bruce Longenecker’s Lost Letters of Pergamum (Baker 2016) was a popular textbook and sold over 30,000 copies! The scholarly novel is not new; Paul L. Maier’s “documentary novel” Flames of Rome (Doubleday, 1981; Kregel 1991) is an example of a scholar creating a story from their academic research.
There are others, but perhaps the best example of this kind of historical novel is James Michener’s The Source (1965). I often recommend this book to people traveling to Israel with me in order to orient them to the history and culture they will experience in Israel.
Christopher Stanley’s A Slave’s Story is like these scholarly novels, but is quite different. Like these novels, Stanley draws on his thirty years of academic experience both writing and editing academic books and articles as well as extensive, on-site research into the locations described in the books. But Stanley’s book is far more detailed than the Week in the Life series or even the popular Lost Letters of Pergamum. The first volume of the series is over 500 pages long with no illustrations or sidebars. This is in every sense of the word a historical novel.
Stanley made considerable effort to ensure the historical and cultural accuracy of every detail in his novels. This included careful on-site research at most of the places mentioned in the books. I exchanged several emails with Stanley this summer before I read the first novel. He explained the extent of his research for the Pergamon Asklepion as an example of his methods. Most of Asklepion open to visitors is from the second century CE or later. Stanley was not content to visit the tourist site and use that as a background for his novel. He read through the five-volume German archaeological report on the site in order to describe the Asklepion as it would have appeared in the mid-first century. To be clear, this is a novel and Stanley uses some artistic license and imagination, but his imagination is at least plausible regarding the archaeology of first century Pergamum.
One thing I appreciate out the story told in these novels is that early Christians like Paul or the other apostles do not appear in person in the books. There are a few characters that mention Paul as a controversial person, but this is not an overt attempt to tell the story of Paul’s mission or even Christian origins. Stanley’s emphasis is on the pervasive role of Roman religion in the world of the first century.
From the very first pages of A Rooster for Asklepios, Stanley describes household worship and Roman worship and devotion to their gods. His goal for the trilogy is to expose readers to ancient worldviews and realities of life for ordinary people in ancient Greco-Roman society and not to create an evangelistic Christian story. In the course of the novel, the reader encounters more Jews than Christians. Stanley describes Jewish attitudes toward Roman religious practice and shows how alien the Diaspora Jews would have seemed to their Roman neighbors.
The plot of A Rooster for Asklepios follows a slave named Marcus, a household manager for a wealthy Roman citizen, Lucius Coelius Felix. The book begins in Pisidian Antioch with the announcement Claudius has ascended to heaven (i.e., died) and the new Emperor Nero has taken the throne. This dates the beginning of the story to October 13, in A.D. 54. Lucius suffers with some sort of debilitating stomach ailment. He attempts to find relief through a local doctor and the local temple of Asklepios. After bringing a rooster to offer as a sacrifice, he is permitted to sleep the Temple and is told a by a priest the god wants him to travel to Pergamum and visit the Asklepion. The bulk of the novel narrates this eventful journey via Ephesus to the famous healing center at Pergamum.
There are several memorable sub-plots which illustrate aspects of the Roman world of the first century. First, Lucius’s son competes in the local games honoring Men Askaenos. Men is the moon god, and the name Men Askaenos is the version of the god worshiped in Pisidian Antioch. Stanley’s detailed description of the way a Roman citizen was expected to take part in the festival illustrates how important local gods were to a community. It is virtually impossible for Lucious not to attend the festival and be an excellent host for other wealthy Roman citizens. As I read this section of the novel, I could not help but relate this to Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the struggle that congregation faced as residents of a Greco-Roman city like Corinth. In addition, the descriptions of the games themselves clear up many misconceptions of how athletes competed in the ancient world, including unfair play and cheating.
A second important feature of the book is Stanley’s descriptions of travel in the bid-first century A.D. To travel from Pisidian Antioch to Ephesus and then on to Pergamum not only too a great deal of time, but a great deal of planning. Lucius must prepare not only a wagon in which he and his wife can travel comfortably, but also a second wagon to bring food and wine, money and even camping supplies. Before leaving his home, Lucius collects letters of introduction to people of proper status along the way who might open their homes to him and his entourage. An important Roman citizen like Lucius would not stay in the typical roadside inn! It is hard not to read the travel sections of the book without thinking about Paul’s travels along similar roads. Did Paul have letters of recommendation to open doors to homes as he traveled? Would Paul have an entourage similar to Lucius? This may explain why he traveled with so many people, there was safety in numbers (and more people to handle the baggage).
A third feature I found important is Stanley’s description of the Asklepion. In some respects, an Asklepion is like a medical clinic. A wealthy, sick person like Lucius has access to the best physicians while living at the Asklepion. However, these medical skills are combined with worship of Asklepios and quite a bit of showmanship. Stanley vividly describes the first-century state-of-the-art medical procedures, but also the aspects of the Asklepion which are more like a mystery cult. When Lucius finally has the chance to sleep inside the temple and perhaps receive a dream from the god, the slave Marcus witnesses how the priests manipulate the sick into thinking they have had encounters with the god in their dreams.
I will not spoil the plot too much, but since the second book brings Lucius and Marcus to healing waters of Hierapolis, things do not go as planned at the Asklepion. The god is not quite the savior Lucius was expecting.
There is a second book in the series, A Bull for Pluto. Leaving Pergamum, Lucius and Marcus travel to Hierapolis on their home to visit the healing waters of the city and the mysterious Temple of Pluto. (I will post a review when I finish reading it.) Stanley says the first two books come to a satisfactory conclusion and can be read as together without waiting for the third planned volume.
Stanley maintains a website for A Slave’s Story with plot summaries and a generous five-chapter sample of both books. More important, the website has links to background material relating to the locations described in the novels. Under resources there are links to images, maps, blogs and other items of interest conveniently organized by the sections of the book. This site addresses one frustration for me as I read the novels. I wanted more documentation! Several times I wanted to check the footnotes to see what primary sources Stanley followed for a particular practice. Most readers will want to browse this site as they read the novels.
Conclusion. Although this is a challenging book compared to other recent scholarly novels for the New Testament, it is one of the best. Stanley has created an interesting plot line which is rich in details illustrating the Greco-Roman world of mid-first century Asia Minor. I highly recommend this book for people who are planning on visiting Turkey since most of the “Seven Churches” tours or Pauline Missionary Journeys tours include Pergamum and Ephesus. Like The Source, Christopher Stanley’s A Slave Story offers modern readers a detailed and accurate presentation of the culture and worldview of the Greco-Roman world.
NB: Thanks to NFB Publishing for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.