Beckett: Review – A Week in the Life of Ephesus

Author: David DeSilva
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Bottom Line

David DeSilva’s A Week in the Life of Ephesus is a helpful novel in aiding today’s Christians in understanding what it was like to live as a Christian in the first century. It is especially insightful when the reader has in mind the context of John’s Apocalypse (Revelation). There are some helpful insights to gain from the book as well as a few problematic things worth considering. Overall, just as Revelation serves as a book of eschatological warnings and encouragement for Christians between Jesus’ ascension and Parousia, so this historical fiction serves also as a warning and encouragement to modern Christians on how to live as Christians in a pagan world that is becoming increasingly antagonistic toward the church, just as it was in first-century Rome, though far worse than today’s conditions.

Review (Spoilers!)

In this historical fiction, each first-century Christian character presents various angles from which first-century Christians struggled to live in pagan society, particularly Ephesus under Roman occupation. The character Nicolaus is the first Christian we become familiar with, who serves to represent Christians who walk the thin line between Christian living and pagan living—that is, inventing some rationale to appease the oppressive pagans in the effort to maintain his Christian beliefs relatively peaceably and, therefore, not suffer too greatly like his Christian brethren who live and speak boldly for Christ, such as Antipas (p. 92; Revelation 2:13). As Nicolaus himself says before the symposium in the Prytaneion,

“Some Christians, I grant you, are tainted by the same atheism that characterizes the Jewish people from among whom the Christos himself came, but this is far from universal. Other Christians—like myself—can be just as supportive of the authorities on whom our common prosperity depends as anyone else, and just as dutiful toward the gods… A woman of some means there [Thyatira] has helped curb the exclusivist tendencies of the group and nurtured a more wholesome respect for the city’s pantheon.”

p. 41

This woman in Thyatira could very well be Jezebel (a woman representative of her, not a literal woman named Jezebel), as in Revelation 2:20, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing My servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” Thus, Nicolaus represents those Christians whom this Jezebel figure deceives, possibly also the whore of Babylon.

Nicolaus continues, “The Christos died and returned to life to bring assurance that death is not the end and that fear of death need not tyrannize us throughout our lives.” This sounds like something Christians today can agree with. However, he adds, “For this gift I honor him, even as I honor our emperors for their great benefactions toward humankind” (p. 41). Brighton would consider this the syncretism of Jezebel (Brighton, Revelation, 83). Thus, Nicolaus serves as a warning to Christians today that there will be such Christians justifying the satisfying of the first beast (= the empire/world dominating force) in order to save face, as it were.

Another angle of Christian living is that of Christian slaves obeying their masters. Perhaps representing Ephesians 6:5 (“Slaves, obey the flesh masters with fear and trembling in a sincere heart, as you would Christ” [Greek translation]), the slave Euplus best represents this struggle. His master/dominus, Serapion, expected his whole household (including his slaves) to be present at a pagan religious festival at the beginning of the book, which Euplus refused to attend in order to remain faithful to God. While Serapion was beating him with a whip in his defiance, Euplus exclaims, “I try to fulfill diligently every command of yours. But how can I obey when you order me to disobey God” (p. 45)? Toward the end of the event, he says, “It finds favor with God when we suffer unjustly because we are mindful of his commands. I gladly submit to this as the price of honoring him” (p. 47).

In another scene, he shares something crucial with his domina, Isidora (Serapion’s wife), in representing this conflicting obedience: “The God of Jesus is the only God I’ve encountered as a living God. Every other one has just been a cold, lifeless, loveless statue toward me… And he doesn’t want his people to keep pretending that the other gods are real. I can’t make myself a willing party to the lie. If that means I must suffer a beating for doing what is right in the sight of the only God, the God who loved me, I accept it willingly, because that is what Jesus did on my behalf… I’m not angry with my master, domina. I love him. I pray that he’ll come to know that living God one day. And I will continue to serve him diligently in every matter that my heavenly master has not forbidden—and to do more for him than I’m commanded, because Jesus has taught us to do good to all people” (p. 130).

There are two gleanings from this alone. The first challenges us to reconsider how the Christian slaves in our own country’s history may have related to their slaveowners. After converting from African paganism to Christianity, perhaps these Christian slaves obeyed willingly, being cognisant of Paul’s exhortation to obey your masters as you would obey Christ, unless it contradicts God’s will, as Euplus illustrates.

The second is for today’s Christians to consider the possibility of bondage in a future empire. I’m not suggesting this is a possibility in the immediate future; I’m only suggesting it’s possible in the general future. After all, we need Christians as responsible citizens in our government lest the church goes the way of Babylon and America goes the way of the first beast. Yet this Christians must also take care lest they go the way of Nicolaus, appeasing the worship of the first beast for the sake of safety and security. With this in mind, Euplus can help today’s Christians think about and perhaps prepare for such a possible future. Are we prepared, like Euuplus, to suffer abuse for the sake of Christ’s name?

In this same vein, the way DeSilva portrays the treatment of slaves in Christian homes (e.g., Amyntas’ home) contrasts from Serapion’s. In Amyntas’ home, he treats his slave, Menes, with complete respect. On the Lord’s Day (Sunday), he considers him not his slave but a brother in Christ and is not expected to perform his usual slave duties (p. 105).

There are some problematic anachronisms in how DeSilva portrays the Lord’s Day in the first century, however. While he portrays a liturgical format that would’ve existed somewhat well, he does the unfortunate thing of utilising language from the Nicene Creed, which consists of theological vocabulary and Christian thought that didn’t exist until 300 years later (pp. 105-106). The other anachronism is the prayers the Christians in the house church participate in. The way they pray is exhibitive of the charismatic movement in the 20th century. Thus, the way they pray is about 1,800 years too early.

One last critique of this house gathering is the lack of a pastor. There is a presbyter/elder present, but the way DeSilva portrays this elder’s role as well as the existence of the house church he’s in presents the church as an unorganised mess rather than the mindset of the church catholic, which the latter was already present in the first century. Not only does DeSilva fail to portray the elder as an actual pastor, but he also fails to fairly present how the first-century Christians already perceived themselves as the church catholic. While certainly not as organised as many church bodies today, there was a presence of some organisation rather than a complete dearth of structure.

Moving on, another character to serve as a warning for Christians today is that our children are not exempt from the oppression and abuse of the first beast. While Amyntas’ son, Secundus, is at school, he gets singled out for his Christian beliefs. The teacher ensures his classmates team up against him not just intellectually but also physically, and Secundus returns home with quite a few injuries. Our children are not exempt from the beast’s cruelty.

One last character who serves not only as a warning but also as a paragon of hope is Aymntas himself, arguably the protagonist in the story. Throughout the whole story, Amyntas is struggling between being like Nicolaus who walks that remarkably thin line between Christian living and pagan living with a job opportunity or walking on the clear side of Christ and thus rejecting the worship of the first beast (thus, we see the second beast involved here as well).

After receiving a copy of John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ, Amyntas is a good Christian and is determined to defy the beasts and the whore of Babylon, knowing full well it might mean the end of his life and even his family, nevertheless confident in the Lord’s Parousia. With much bravado he says before the Roman council, “I speak of the one true, living God who made heaven, earth, and all that is therein. I speak of the God who will hold all his creatures accountable when he comes to judge the earth and its inhabitants. And I urge you all to consider the invitation he has given to us all, to be reconciled to him in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ” (p. 158). Amyntas is representative of Christ’s call to Christians to bear our cross and follow Him, knowing full well this could mean death, nevertheless looking toward His glorious Parousia.

The novel closes the same way Revelation closes—a prayer of the hope and conviction that Christ shall return, “Come, Lord Jesus” (p. 167; Revelation 22:20)! This is the prayer all Christians ought to pray in times of peace and of persecution. Until then, as John closes this book of encouragement, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21).

Bibliography

Brighton, Louis A. Revelation. Concordia Commentary. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.

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