The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World
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Pax Romana, based on the context of Bruce W. Longecker’s’ The Lost Letters of Pergamum, characterizes the clash between two kinds or facets civilization and codes of morality. Underneath the extensive interlude of relative peace during the centuries-old reign of the Roman Empire was an evolving new face of belief and of moral inclination that would trigger the emergence of Christian civilization. The coming of the Christian faith during the twilight of the Roman era signaled the looming conclusion of barbarism, Caesarian politics, brutal military rule, and ruthless social system that only glorified the wicked, the well-placed elite, the ruling senators and the noblemen.
In this particular novel, Longecker introduced a new type of story-telling wherein he logically and methodically blended biblical facts and fiction. This distinctive style of the author is not to challenge the passages in the Holy Scripture or weaken the foundation of the Christian faith, but to introduce an interesting way of learning the bible and of finding its underlying purpose. This purpose was thus successfully achieved by Longecker, as his book undeniably drew more believers to discover the meaning and essence of the bible.
Longecker did not just rest on the interesting conversations between Saint Luke, one of the faithful and ever loyal disciples of Jesus Christ, and Antipas, an affluent trader and landlord of the city of Tyre (now Pergamum), he also focused on the abstract side of his writing goal, which is to illustrate the struggle between good and evil, and the clash between blind materialism or secularism and spiritual virtues.
This struggle was clearly narrated through the conversations between Saint Luke and Antipas, a name mentioned in the book of Revelation. Revelation Chapter 2, verse 13 states— “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas, My witness, My faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”
Longecker used this particular line as the foundation of the book’s fictional character— Antipas, the ‘faithful witness’ of Saint Luke. But beyond this characterization, the purpose of Longecker is to show the struggle within Antipas who, from being a role model of the Roman Empire and who embodied the moral codes of his time, was able to see the light in the words of Saint Luke and thus converted to Christianity. Like Jesus Christ’s faithful disciple, Antipas, the ever loyal witness of Saint Luke, died a martyr.
Socio-political system of the Roman Empire
One of the letters of Antipas to Luke illustrates the system and condition of his time. Here, he mentioned about the condition of the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Nazareth, as “not impressive,” including the low quality of life of the place (Longecker 62). There are also cruel depictions of the Romaic social system wherein the artisans and lowly peasants struggled to survive the vicious rule of their Roman masters.
Even without looking at the texts in the book of Longecker, these harsh realities during that period can be found in some passages of the bible, narrating the birth and life story of Jesus Christ. In the book of Mathew chapter 2, verse 1, it was announced that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. Mary, the mother of Jesus, only gave birth to Jesus in a manger. Jesus’ father, Joseph, was just a carpenter. Jesus also learned carpentry as he grew old and before he started to preach and spread the teachings of the Lord and the gospel of the Christian faith.
In terms of political system, Judea, one of the acquired territories of the Roman Empire, was under the control of Augustus Caesar. This means that King Herod, who was granted direct political rule over the state, was just a figurehead or a political puppet of Augustus Caesar. This is evidenced by a number of bible passages. In Luke 2:1-4, it is stated that it was Augustus Caesar who issued a decree that “a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.”
During that time Quirinos was governor of Syria and everyone was compelled to register, including Mary, who was still pregnant, and her husband, Joseph. The installation of a political puppet is actually one of the political legacies introduced by the Romans. They designated figureheads with limited or little authority to their acquired territories, but they still exercised absolute political power and other functions like the right of taxation.
Another social problem experienced by the Roman subjects during that era was the onerous taxation strictly imposed by the Roman Empire. Under the context of Roman taxation, Jesus Christ actually gave his own words to the people who wanted to hear his personal opinion regarding this secular matter. In the book of Matthew 22:21, Jesus Christ said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Above all these, the socio-political system during the Roman rule can be characterized by regular staging of gladiatorial contests. This characterizes moral decadence and barbarism of the time which would soon perish along with the end of the Roman Empire.
The concept of religion
The many letters of Antipas to Luke evidence the fact that there was no established religion during the Roman rule. Paganism and idol-worship were the dominant metaphysical system during the time of Luke, and history tells us that the Romans mimicked Greek religion by creating and designating their own immortal gods and goddesses collectively known today as Roman mythology. As for Antipas, he was exposed to the prevailing Greco-Roman polytheism of the period.
In one of his letters, Antipas expressed his own observation about Jesus Christ. He noted that despite the humble life of and social class to which Jesus Christ belonged, the latter came from a very long and rich lineage (Longecker 62). This explains that before he met Saint Luke, Antipas lived a secular life, following and embodying Roman’s established religious beliefs, socio-political system, and barbaric moral codes.
The moral code of Antipas’ time was not based on anything, since the concept of morality never existed under the Roman rule. To explain this conception, there is a need then to look at some historical accounts on how the Caesars ruled the world affairs during the ancient epoch. This is to say that one of the reasons why the Roman Empire fell is because of the kind or system of morality that existed throughout its reign. The rogue empire’s code of morality was based on barbarism, on brutal force, and on the power of the collective.
To illustrate this thesis, the strong grip of the empire on power weakened due to the lack of moral ascendancy of its rulers who grabbed power and killed each other through palace coups, civil wars, and bizarre religious experimentations. However, all of these were destined to end with the gradual ascent of Christianity, which was being regarded as a shadowy cult or an obscure religion by the Roman Caesars.
The main essence of Longecker’s novel is not to depict the spirit or the socio-political and religious condition of the centuries-old reign of Roman Empire. The purpose of the book is to illustrate the fierce battle between good and evil. The evil in this case were already discussed above— the moral, political, social, and religious systems propagated by a murderous, brutal and barbaric expansive republic that sought to perpetuate its power at the expense of the true quest for truth.
At the end of this great ‘quest’ was the establishment of Christianity, which in turn banished the barbaric, immoral, and polytheistic dominance of the Roman Empire. Antipas’ martyrdom was his greatest triumph, which is the emblematic victory of good over evil. With the unmitigated expansion of Christianity, the world came to embrace, for the very first time, a code of morality which ought to live; that is, morality based on Christian values.
Longecker, Bruce W. The lost letters of Pergamum: A story from the New Testament. Baker Academic: Ada, Michigan, 2003
“Luke 2:1-4.” N.d. BibleGateway.com. 4 October 2008
“Matthew 2:1.” N.d. BibleGateway.com. 4 October 2008
“Matthew 22:21.” N.d. BibleGateway.com. 4 October 2008
“Revelation 2:13.” N.d. BibleGateway.com. 4 October 2008