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The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce Longenecker Essay


Bruce Longenecker’s book generally describes how the Roman religions interacted with Christianity in the first century. In this book, the ‘lost letters’ represent the conversations (fictional) between Antipas, a wealthy individual (fictional character) from Pergamum and Luke, an ardent follower of Christ who authored the books of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. The book highlights the culture of the Roman Empire and the context of Christ’s church in the first century. The letters present the finer details of Christ’s radical life and how Christ’s actions conflicted with the dominant Roman culture. In particular, Christ’s life, as described in the letters, affected the honor-shame culture that was dominant in ancient Rome. This paper explores the effect of Christ’s life on the social norms in ancient Roman society. This theme is apparent in the book’s ‘lost letters’ exchanged between Luke and Antipas.

Plot Summary

The Longenecker’s book begins with the letters exchanged between Antipas, a pagan benefactor of the Roman cities of Caesarea and Tyre and Calpurnius, a descendant of Theophilus and a respected nobleman of the city of Ephesus. The story starts with Antipas sending a letter to Calpurnius inviting him for a gladiatorial game organized in Pergamum. The event was organized by Rufinus, a close friend of Antipas. It is through the letters that Antipas came to know Luke, a close personal friend to Calpurnius, who also helped him run his household affairs. The correspondence between them ended when Calpurnius’ firstborn died, forcing him to leave the city.

Luke, an acquaintance of Antipas, began to correspond with Antipas on behalf of his noble friend, Calpurnius. The correspondence between Antipas and Luke continued for a long time, spanning the entire 82 C.E. (First century). Unlike the letters exchanged between Antipas and Calpurnius, which tended to focus on gladiatorial events, Antipas and Luke’s correspondence focused on spiritual matters as both men shared their religious beliefs. In particular, Luke shared his Christian journey and teachings from Christ’s life. As expected, at first, the gladiatorial games, popular events in ancient Rome, also dominated their conversations. Spiritual and historical events dominated their discussions. As time went by, their conversations tended toward Christ and Christ’s life as shared by Luke. It is at this point that Antipas became curious and begun to read through Luke’s writings about Christ. His subsequent letters displayed his thoughts on Jesus and Christ’s mission in the world.

Later, Antipas and Rufinus, on Luke’s advice, joined a local Christian fellowship, the Kalandion’s group. However, Antipas soon realized that the Christian teachings in this group were contradicting what he had learnt from Luke’s writings. The group members were conscious of the person’s social status and were more interested in miracles than Christian teachings. Luke again advised Antipas to join a fellowship group whose leader was Antonius. In this group, Antonius and his household were warmly received, shown brotherly love and invited to share their experiences. It was while in this group that Antipas began to reflect on Luke’s writings and gained a deeper understanding of Christ as the son of God. In this group, all its members interacted freely irrespective of class or social status.

People from all walks of life including merchants, noblemen, women, civic leaders and workers like Simon Joseph, who at one time had worked for Antipas, interacted and shared freely as Christian brothers and sisters. The believers in Antonius’ group shared their thoughts on the impact of Christ’s life on the dominant Roman culture. Antipas had at first thought of Christ as a revolutionary figure, out to destroy the dominant culture. It was this revelation that made him abandon his pagan (Jupiter) worship and become a martyr for Christ.

Towards the end, Antipas stormed one of the gladiatorial events protesting about the culture of honor-shame that was so entrenched in the Roman society. In this event, Demetrius, a fellow Christian, was to be killed as a punishment for his actions. Antipas openly showed his opposition to the honor-punishment culture by deciding to disrupt this event to save Demetrius, a fellow Christian Brother. He is burnt alive for Christ’s sake.

The Major Arguments in the Book

The Position of the Deities

Longenecker has advanced many arguments in his book. One such argument is about the first-century deities and religious doctrines. Spiritual topics, Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Christian culture dominate the conversations between Luke and Antipas. In the first century society, it was not uncommon for people including scholars and scribes to engage themselves in discussions over spiritual matters. The spiritual topics dominated most discussions because of the diverse perspectives held by the great scholars and philosophers. Even Antipas’ letters to Luke showed that he understood the ancient deities and spiritual practices in ancient Rome. Antipas and his friends were distinguished scholars and noblemen with profound knowledge of the supernatural world, but as Antipas indicated, they had a limited understanding of Jesus Christ, the reformer of the Roman society.

Longenecker alludes to the basic knowledge the great scholars of Antipas’ time had about Jesus and his mission on earth. Though they had great knowledge about Roman deities, they misunderstood Christ’s nature even branding Him the disrupter of the cultural norms. This implies that they had a limited understanding of Christ’s character, especially his loving, non-violent attitude. Longenecker’s argument highlights two important aspects of idol worship. First, in ancient times, the noblemen and the underprivileged’s worship of the deities was largely motivated by fear rather than love. Second, the ancient Romans worshipped many gods, a practice that was different from that of the early Christians who worshipped one God. Antipas, himself a pagan worshipper, served Jupiter, one of the major Roman gods, and even boastfully wrote about his pagan worship in his correspondence with Luke.

Longenecker also discusses the Roman gods. The Roman gods reigned supreme over the people, were not personal gods and punished those who criticized them. In Roman society, the Emperor was considered a representative of the deities and as such, his word represented the messages from the gods. The all-powerful Emperor was a member of the Pantheon, a group of Roman gods. In this regard, the Emperor, besides being a ruler, had the power to enforce idol worship among the people. Therefore, Antipas’ conversion to Christianity must have been a big challenge for him. It is the idea of a loving and caring God that changed Antipas’ heart to a point where he could engage in martyrdom for Christ’s sake.

The Impact of Christ’s Gospel

Another major argument advanced by Longenecker is the novel idea of a loving and caring God and the transforming power of the gospel. The idea of a relational God, whose love has no bounds, was unpopular in ancient society. In this regard, it was considered inconceivable and blasphemous to say that a god would be loving and relational to humans. No one questioned the Emperor’s godly status and therefore, saying that there is one God, an exclusive Divine Being, was not only blasphemous but was also punishable by death. Those who served the Emperor and the gods were rewarded by the Emperor. In light of this, the gospel in the first century, though considered countercultural by the nobilities, was good news to the oppressed citizens.

The Emperor and the aristocratic class viewed the gospel as undermining their social ranking, as Jesus Christ often preached equality of all men before God. In one of the letters, writing about Christians, Antipas and his close friend, Euphemos, state that “They frequently stir up trouble and have the blame of ravaging Rome, the imperial city with fire” (Longenecker 41). It is clear that the nobility disliked the message of Christ, which, they believed, amounted to a threat to the Emperor’s rule. The gospel message conflicted with the dominant culture causing confusion, though the oppressed people welcomed it as the message of hope and salvation.

Luke knew the true meaning of the gospel and shared this with Antipas and Euphemos. Later as Antipas, himself a nobleman learned the true meaning of the gospel and found that it was not a threat as portrayed by the Emperor. It required that people change their lifestyles but did not advocate for hatred or violence against Rome as the Roman officials had told the people. Initially, Antipas was proud of his association with Rome and even begun his letters by mentioning that he was the sole benefactor of the twin Roman cities of Tyre and Caesarea. However, later after converting to Christianity, he became humble; the opening statement in one of his letters reads that “Antipas, a nobleman of Caesarea; To Luke and the noble Calpurnius” (157). His humility was significant as he now considered himself, Luke and Calpurnius to be of the same social status. Also, his selfless love to save Demetrius showed that he had been greatly transformed by the gospel.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Book

The Longenecker’s book excels in many respects, which makes it a good read for people interested in the history and the challenges of the early church. First, the book’s letters elaborate on the gospel of Luke and the social dynamics of the Roman Empire. The implications of the gospel are explored throughout the book. It chronicles the events as covered by Luke in Luke’s gospel and reveals the social norms that deterred the spread of the gospel of Christ in the first century. The gospel was largely considered countercultural and a threat to the divine rule of the Emperor, which made the Emperor and nobilities to challenge the gospel mission.

The masses were made to believe that Christians were out to start a new, rival empire, hence the dislike of Christianity in the first Century. Antipas’ conversion and subsequent martyrdom underscored the gospel’s implications on the dynamics of the Roman society. Therefore, this book offers readers a fresh and detailed perspective on the authorship of Luke’s gospel of the New Testament.

Another major strength of this book relates to its depiction of the first-century world and culture. It gives insights into the ancient world spanning the biblical regions of Ephesus and Pergamum (Turkey) and Rome. The author also illustrates how honor codes were held in high regard in the first-century society. Antipas, in his letters, boastfully remarked that he controlled two large Roman cities of Caesarea and Tyre, which clearly shows his obsession with power and political affiliations. On the other hand, Christianity’s message of egalitarianism was viewed as a threat to the Emperor’s rule. The book would help Christian readers to the challenges faced by the early Christians, which were fuelled by the common belief that Christianity was a threat to the social structures of the first century Roman Empire.

Longenecker also makes Christian readers appreciate the early church’s caring and loving nature. In one of his letters to Luke, Antipas, commenting about the Christian fellowships, states that the Christians helped others “regularly as an attempt to extend gestures of goodwill to members of the group and others” (93). This highlights the spirit of selfless love that dominated the early church. Thus, by reading the book, modern Christians can learn to extend love and care for others in need of help.

Though the book’s account of the early church makes good reading, it has some weaknesses, especially in its presentation. First, the book is a compilation of letters between Antipas and Calpurnius, and later Luke. Though many of the depictions are historically accurate, the reliance on letters as the mode of presentation weakens the plot of the book. Also, in this form of presentation, it is difficult to identify the author’s personal views or sources of information. Another problem with this book is the practice of martyrdom, which, in the book, shows that one is a believer. However, this practice may have limited contemporary application or relevance among modern Christians.

Also, the fact that the book’s account is fiction but the events and regions are historically accurate may affect the reader’s ability to discern factual information from fiction. It would have been a lot easier if the author based the book on an actual event or place in history.


The culture of honor-shame occurs throughout Longenecker’s book, which mainly revolves around the correspondence between Antipas and Luke. One example of statements that highlight this theme is when Antipas, while writing to Calpurnius, a wealthy man who acquaints Luke with Antipas, remarks “I did, however, take the occasion of the banquet to praise you before Quadratus as a man of honor in our neighboring city of Ephesus” (33). This underscores the high esteem with which the honor codes were held in ancient society. Also, Luke’s response to Antipas that “I assure you that I find no dishonor in being a Christian” (44) indicates honor motivated people’s actions.

The culture of honor-shame also emerges when Antipas, in his response to Luke, states, “If Jesus the Nazarene is associated with John who baptizes and who opposed Herod Antipas, I will be intrigued to discover from your narrative whether Jesus followed the path of social unrest that John seems to flirt with or the path of honor” (64). After his first meeting with members of the Kalandion’s fellowship group, in his communication with Luke, states that, “the gatherers simply assembled themselves in small groups throughout the house, without any special interest in arranging themselves according to the social customs of honor (90).

In the same letter, Antipas, referring to Antonius’ humility and kindheartedness, states that “All of my natural impulses are repelled by the thought of Antonius’ action, and my instincts label it an impractical, irresponsible, and ultimately dishonorable action” (92). In my view, these examples highlight the true foundations of early Christianity. However, the Christians’ actions were misconstrued as countercultural and therefore a threat to the Emperor’s rule.

Work Cited

Longenecker, Bruce. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: a Story from the New Testament World. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003. Print.

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