In looking at the vast number of historical fiction books set during the time of the Old and New Testament, I knew I had to drill down what I wanted to share with you this month. I decided to stick with the New Testament and the Life of Christ because of the Lenten/Easter season. So you won’t find any Old Testament period books here though there are some amazing ones to consider.
I also wanted to dust-off some well-known Biblical, but not Christian fiction works. These aren’t considered Christian Fiction primarily because when they were penned, the Christian Fiction genre of today didn’t exist. These pioneers opened the door to the modern age of Biblical fiction and are outstanding classics in their own right.
The Man Born to be King
Published in/Preformed in: 1941-1942 as a series of twelve radio dramas, book published in 1943
Available today from: Ignatius Press
Reprinted/Published in: 1990
This first offering is not technically a book, but it is now available in book format—similar to what you would see when reading a Shakespearian play. It was originally a series of audio dramas performed on the BBC, but I can’t find a single modern reproduction anywhere. If you find one, please let me know.
Sayer’s work focuses on vignettes of Jesus’ life; from His birth through His ministry to His crucifixion, from his death to His resurrection and His going back to heaven. Her work is winsome and intimate as well as entertaining as she works to bring these well-known people to life. She gives Jesus room to have a sense of humor, and those who met and loved Him room to be human.
You’d think something this fresh and innovative would have been lauded from the start. But, you’d be wrong. In fact, The Man Born to be King took serious fire from both non-Christians and Christians when it originally aired. The non-Christians were angry that it was being broadcast over the public radio at all, seeing as it was a singular viewpoint of Christ, and the Christians were angry because it made Jesus accessible to the common man. “The Man Born to be King”
Just let that sink in for a minute; believers were upset because Sayers writing made Jesus approachable.
What was at the heart of this kerfuffle? The Man Born to be King doesn’t use the KJV Bible verses as the dialogue but allows the disciples and Jesus to speak with one another in modern language. Sayers strips away the formality of the language, and in so doing, rips off the religious coats of prettiness the church plastered over Christ’s story. The events of His life play out before the audience in terrifying realism. Of why she chose to write this way Sayers herself said:
“…God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own .. .He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators [it was] a bloody, dusty, sweaty and sordid business. If you show people that, they are shocked. So they should be. If that does not shock them, nothing can….It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all.” (p. 16-17).
Dorothy Sayers wanted her telling to be shocking and soul-waking. She succeeded.
Sayers, Dorothy L. “Introduction.” The Man Born to Be King: A Play-cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990. 16-17. Print. “The Man Born to be King.” Wikipedia. Electronic. Feb. 19, 2015.
The Silver Chalice
Author: Thomas Costain
Originally Published: 1953
Available from: Loyola Press
The first time I read this book, I was in my teens, settled under the attic eaves of my grandparent’s river house. It was storming. The fan hummed in the window, bringing the sticky outside air into the attic. The smell of mustiness and salt water were engaged in fisticuffs over my head, and the pine trees outside hissed and thrashed in the wind thunder made the glass rattle in the casing. As I turned the pages, following the words line by line, all of that faded away.
I was thousands of miles away, watching Basil get thrown into a life he did not chose by events he had no control over. I was breathing the hot, dusty air, and raging with him as he was stripped of his birthright and made a slave.
Costain weaves Basil’s story in among the first century church and doesn’t gloss over the heartache and pain that time period held. He allows Basil to suffer injustice and wrestle with doubt.
Basil meets Luke and the other disciples and the first believers of the Way, but Costain refuses to let the disciples be pious two-dimensional people. They are human beings figuring out what comes next, not vaulted saints.
When Basil is commissioned to create an outer cover for the chalice used at the Last Supper, his travels take him all over the ancient world and into the coming storm of Christian persecution. As he takes all of this in, he is drawn fatefully towards the point he has to choose whether to “see Christ” or shut his eyes and walk away.
The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Originally Published: 1961
Available from: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The Bronze Bow is set in the time of Jesus, in the hills of Galilee, and it is a masterpiece. It was recognized as one, in 1962 when it was given the Newberry Award.
Daniel Bar Jamin has a reason to hate Romans on sight. His father was crucified as a warning to Daniel’s village, not to rebel against Rome. Added to this horror are a hateful blacksmith master he is apprenticed to, a grandmother whose health is failing, and a younger sister who is fighting either mental illness or demonic possession. Fury and bitterness boil in Daniel’s heart, leaving little room for anything else
It’s no shock that Daniel runs to the hills to join the Zealots there, plotting and planning for the day when he can strike at Rome’s murderous heart. In the hills, Daniel finds not an army ready to take on Rome but ill prepared and divided rebels, and villains as great as the ones that crucified his father.
Life there has a measure of freedom, better than what he has in the village below the hills. And not everything in the hillside is about hate. He makes friends with Nathan, Sampson, Simeon called the Zealot and Joel and Thracia; brother and sister twins of a Jewish nobleman who offer him friendship.
Simeon leaves, having heard of another leader, one much more focused on the idea of a Hebrew Kingdom than the thugs in the hills. He tells Daniel that this Jesus of Nazareth is worth following, but Daniel wants Roman blood, not to listen to some Rabbi.
When word comes that his grandmother has died, and he has to return to the village, Daniel sets up his own blacksmith shop, and does what he can for his sister Leah.
But the hatred of Rome broadens and deepens in him, consuming his every thought. He begins organizing young men in the village to be a spy network for the Zealots in the hills—anything to strike at Rome and be free of the suffocating, murderous government. Nothing is worth more to Daniel’s then vengeance against Rome; not his sister’s sanity, not the love of Thracia, and especially not the teachings of a man from Galilee who seems to do the impossible.
Simeon keeps telling Daniel that this Jesus of Nazareth is onto something, and the crowds that follow the Rabbi finally make Daniel curious.
Could Jesus be the one to rally the Hebrews against Rome, and be the one that ‘trains my hands for battle, my hands to bend the bow of bronze’ as Yahweh promised in Psalm 18:34?
In a dazzling dance of words Elizabeth George Speare weaves the ideas of vengeance, hate, sacrifice, and love together so that they knot around the reader’s heart and stay with them long after the book is closed.