Customer Reviews: The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World
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VINE VOICEon November 6, 2004
Having a strong interest in New Testament history and being a fan of historical fiction, I was immediately interested in this book. I was a bit surprised to find it was not a narrative, but simply a fictional collection of ancient letters between Luke -- the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles -- and a Roman nobleman named Antipas. This format, though, is well used. Indeed, it is compelling.

We follow Antipas' and Luke's correspondence, which begins with a chance introduction. As Antipas reads Luke's Gospel, he discusses it at first from a very Roman point of view. But as he reads more and begins to spend time with Christians of his city, Antipas gradually sees the faults in his Roman upbringing, his pagan worldview. He is drawn to Jesus both through the writings of Luke and through the witness and lives of the Christians with whom he fellowships. Ultimately, he joins them and dies the truly noble death of a martyr. (The reference to the death of Antipas in Rev. 2:13 is the inspiration of the story).

The value of this book is that it places the reader in the early Christian world like nothing else I have ever read. Longenecker has taken all the books about New Testament History, Jewish history, and the larger Roman world of the time, and used them to create an authentic exchange of late first century correspondence between a pagan and a Christian. Beyond the obvious monotheism v. paganism, Longenecker does an excellent job of bringing out the differing attitudes of Roman and Christian charity. Of Christian brotherhood and its foreignness to the Roman world. Of the worship of the emperor. In short, Longenecker does an effective job of placing the reader back into the Roman world and communicating the challenges that Christians faced in it (especially Christians of any social standing).

This book is emotionally moving at times, especially in its depictions of Christian charity in a harsh world. It is also an easy read. It does not get bogged down and you find yourself looking forward to seeing how Luke responds to one of Antipas' questions or comments. Or how Antipas responds to certain passages he reads in Luke's Gospel. Unlike some historical fiction, it does not have moments of preachiness or contrived depictions intended to prove a point.

Very enjoyable. And, very profitable.
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on May 15, 2008
Longenecker certainly came up with a creative idea when he wrote this book. Two New Testament figures predominate - Luke the famous (at least in our day) physician and author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles exchanges correspondence with a lesser known NT individual Antipas (the faithful witness of Revelation Chapter 2).

The only perhaps more creative "what if and maybe so" story would be a 12 year-old Paul and Jesus (they were about the same age) discussing theology together in the temple together -perhaps at Gamaliel's feet.

Buy this - it is fascinating
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VINE VOICEon October 27, 2010
When judged by the standards of general fiction, this book isn't very good. Better than most non-Lewis Christian fiction, sure, but that bar is so low that the comparison means nothing. A reader interested in this work should approach it as a more engaging way for an historian to flesh out the cultural context of the early church in the Roman Empire, and it succeeds at that task. The structure of this book is certainly intriguing, as Longenecker writes a series of fictional letters that chronicle a nobleman of Pergamum as he begins a friendship with Luke (author of Luke and Acts, from the Bible) and seriously examines the question of who Jesus is. The letter-writers in this book deal with problems of the exclusivity of Christ, as well as church/state issues and basic questions about the divinity of Jesus and the literal nature of the Gospel of Luke. The story builds to a foregone conclusion (I have seen other reviews that treat the ending as a big spoiler, which I think misses the point, since the introductory pages give the one Bible verse mentioning Antipas, in the context of where his story ends, but I will respect other reviewers by adopting a similar stance to spoiling the ending).

My main problem with this book is that the first two-thirds (if not more) are so exposition-heavy that they completely lack a believable voice. The letters, rather than being real conversations, are along the lines of, "Perhaps you don't know what a gladiator contest is like. Let me explain it in detail." "Thank you, perhaps you don't know anything about your emperor, let me explain him for you." "Thank you, perhaps you don't understand our polytheistic system or how honor functions within it, let me explain it for you." It goes so far that Luke writes letters that are the equivalent of, "I know that you're an employee of the Democratic Party, and we don't know each other, so let me begin our relationship with multiple insults about President Obama" - not believable in the slightest. Part of this quality makes sense, as two strangers will likely write about less personal matters in the early days of their friendship, but mostly it feels like Longenecker just wants readers to learn. For that reason, I think this book works best as a supplement to a study of Luke, Acts, or Revelation. On its own, it's not good enough for a casual read by someone interested in fiction.
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on May 17, 2004
Longenecker uses a "sanctified" and informed imagination to recreate a possible correspondence between Luke (of Gospel fame) and Antipas (Rev 2:12-13). Using historical fiction, this work introduces the reader to the way in which Christianity would have been perceived in a 1st century world dominated by Roman culture. Longenecker creates a scenario where ancient letters are discovered in an archeological dig in the city of Pergamum. These letters reveal a correspondence between Antipas, a nobleman originally from Tyre and Cesarea, with first Calpurnius, the son of Theophilus (Luke 1:3), and then Luke himself. The result is the introduction of Antipas to Christianity and a house church that is meeting in Pergamum. The result for the reader is that she will be introduced to not only the way in which Roman noblemen perceived Christianity, but also some possible apologetic reasons that occasioned Luke to write the Gospel that bears his name.
This book would be a good resource for a pastor to recommend to his congregation in order to help them connect the New Testament to its historical setting (Along with "The Shadow of the Galilean" by Theissen). Unlike much Christian fiction that has two dimensional characters involved in predictable plots, Longenecker has created a scenario that accurately immerses the reader into the 1st century Roman world by way of an intriguing plot with believable characters. As Longenecker writes in his introduction, "this account probably did not happen, but it could have."
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on May 22, 2009
Fiction often intends to provide a story that allows the reader to escape into a place of enjoyment apart from their everyday world. This story does this effectively. Fiction also often intends to make a point throughout its narrative to move the reader closer to a particular perspective. I believe this story accomplishes this purpose as well. Rarely, although sometimes, fiction intends not only to persuade, but to teach. Sometimes it intends for the reader not only to enjoy the story, but to learn from the story. The challenge of writing a narrative that entertains, persuades and teaches should be obvious, yet Bruce Longenecker's "Lost Letters of Pergamum" does just that, and does it rather effectively.

One would not expect fiction to be coming from a world-class historian. Longenecker has held lecturing positions at the Universities of Durham, Cambridge and St. Andrew's. His research of second temple Judaism and the earliest Christian history garners the respect of historical scholarship around the globe. Having gleaned from some of his other works, I was surprised to find this volume. Fiction? From a historian?

The book flows easily through a fictional dialogue between Antipas (Rev. 2:13), and Luke, the author of the third New Testament gospel. Through the stories intertwined in the dialogue, Longenecker aptly engages the reader while also teaching about Greco-Roman culture, second temple Judaism, Cynicism, mystery cults, first century locales and various other interesting topics. Throughout the narrative, Longenecker describes the interaction of Antipas with a Christian community, struggling to support each other, while living under various types of persecution. Longenecker also describes Antipas' interaction with both the Jesus that he finds in the text of Luke's "monograph" (the gospel) and the Jesus he finds in the midst of this community of believers. I believe that the reader cannot help but encounter this same Jesus when reading through Longenecker's story.

At this point of a review, I will usually include a short description of the negative aspects of a book. I do not have any to list.

As someone afforded the opportunity to teach on New Testament topics, and first century history, I will gladly use this book as an introduction to the first century world. Of course, it is not comprehensive and should be used alongside a more typical introduction, such as The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within Its Cultural Context or The New Testament Story. I heartily recommend this book as an innovative, enjoyable and effective way of learning New Testament culture.
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on September 8, 2005
Bruce Longenecker's "The Lost Letters of Pergamum" takes as its premise the discovery of ancient letters buried for almost two millennia in the lost city of Pergamum. These letters contain correspondence between Antipas (the martyr mentioned in Revelation 2:13 from the city of Pergamum) and Calpurnius (resident of neighboring Ephesus and son of Theophilus). Through that correspondence Antipas is introduced to Calpurnius's friend and house guest Luke. Luke is, of course, the author of the Gospel of Luke as well as the Acts of the Apostles, both dedicated to the inquisitive Theophilus, and is happy to take up the correspondence with Antipas as well as present him with a copy of the Gospel.

The discovery of the letters and correspondence is, of course, pure fiction but the dialogue is intriguing, illuminating and also a unique manner of acquiring a basic understanding of Roman culture, society and the background for the New Testament world. The description of the gladiatorial contests is almost unbelievable given the carnage described and the bloodlust of the audience. One excerpt from Antipas' description to Luke of these contests will suffice to underscore this: "The slaves....many of their hands already amputated, were torn to bits one at a time by lions, bears, or panthers while chained to chariots or hanging from crucifixes" p. 66. All the while the crowd yelled for more. The reader will also learn about ancient practices such as house rules and the strata of Greco-Roman society in which in almost a caste-like manner people are hobbled in advancement simply due to their family ancestry. Antipas, in fact, marvels that during the gatherings of these house churches that societal hierarchies are discarded and prominent high-ranking socialites serve the peasants. Antipas, being a member of aristocracy/ruling class is privilege but as his faith awakes these seemingly important pedigrees begin to lessen in relevance.

This is a quick read but one that will profit one's understanding of the New Testament world tremendously. The book is divided into letter collections compromised of an average of two or three individual letters. These letter collections are brief (10 pages average) and can be read in one setting. I would recommend that you first read the corresponding passages in Luke's Gospel (the author lists the text under discussion). Then read the entire "Letter Collection" that discusses that passage, that way the content of the letters and the issues involved can more readily understood. The appendices give further useful information including a listing of the main characters. This is especially helpful to keep track of who's who. Take some time to read this book, you will be enlighten in your understand of the culture and times of which inhabit the New Testament world.
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on December 5, 2014
For people who look at Christianity in the western world today, it can be hard to understand the explosive growth of the early, living Christian church and also the way it rocked the boat and drew the anger of the establishment. This well researched book takes the reader back to the age when Christianity was still a new and virulent meme, overturning people's lives and values. The words are largely put in the pen of an imaginary Roman aristocrat and scholar who is exposed to these new ideas for the first time, and it follows his gradually increasing fascination with the message until it drives him to the choice between survival and acting on his newfound belief.It also shows some of the diversity that already existed in the young church, and the split between the faction that would become the historical Church and other groups that would fall by the wayside.

The book is pretty clearly slanted to favor Christianity, and chances are that whatever your stance on this religion, you will come out of reading the book without any change of heart. But I believe that whichever side you are on, unless you are a history geek you will also gain a deeper understanding of early Christianity and the differences between society then and now.
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on January 19, 2016
I enjoyed this book. I found the historicity great and really brought me into the time. I liked how the story truly is plausible. While completely fiction, there is much within the pages to learn of 1st-2nd century Roman Empire. I think this is worth a light read. It is not as deep as many other books, but a great book that can be finished with 2-3 sittings and really stir your brain for hours longer.
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This is an innovative work both of historical fiction as well as biblical scholarship. The Lost Letters of Pergamum are in fact pure fiction, but the underlying truth is that there were far more letters going around the ancient world than we often realise. To think that Paul and the other apostles only wrote the handful we still have stretches credulity.

This is also an interesting and creative way of introducing biblical issues of interpretation. We take for granted the histories written based upon letters in the New Testament and other similar writings - actual history texts were few and far between, particularly when it comes to early Christianity. The few references in major historians of the time show how seemingly insignificant the original Christian community was in context of the time.

Longenecker begins in earnest with the idea that there has been a discovery of lost letters (akin to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls - indeed, the discovery of New Testament writings would be a major event). Antipas, who is mentioned in the book of the Revelation to John, died as a martyr in the city of Peramum, in Asia Minor, but not before being subject of a good volume of correspondence. Antipas is a correspondent with the gospel writer Luke, and also keeps his own sort of journal or record of events. These are laid out in an interesting development that shows the growth of faith, practice, and ultimate call to martyrdom, as was not uncommon in the early church.

Longenecker introduces interesting historical items in the course of the correspondence and journals. For example, one of the charges against Christians by the Romans was that they were atheists - while this may seem a strange thing to charge Christian believers with today, in fact what the Roman authorities meant by this was that the Christians didn't honour the Roman gods. While the Jews had a special dispensation to permit them not to worship Roman gods, this was not a general trend (and caused suspicion against the Jews, too). When the gods include the ruling elite of the empire, to refuse to worship them borders on treasonous activity.

Longenecker borrows from the scholarship of Ben Witherington III, prolific writer and New Testament scholar, to flesh out some of the details. There is an appendix at the end of the volume that organises the facts from the fictional aspects, so that the careful reader can be certain as to what was wholly created for this narrative, and what has a stronger basis in fact. Descriptions of urban life, rural life, economic situations, political figures and more are all drawn from historical documents and analyses.

This is a fascinating book, done in a style so as to enhance the appreciation of the reader of biblical texts for the kind of material that he or she is reading. This is good for the general reader as well as for study groups, youth groups, and classroom texts.
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on June 7, 2016
The author makes it clear at the start this is fiction. The detail with which references to post-resurrection times draws the reader in. It is easy to believe that this story could have happened. It leaves me feeling amazingly blessed that early Christians were devoted to being sure that Christ's lessons had to be preserved and passed down from generation to generation.
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