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Blog / A Week in the Life of Ancient Rome: An Interview with James L. Papandrea

A Week in the Life of Ancient Rome: An Interview with James L. Papandrea

James L. PapandreaWhat do you know about the every-day living conditions of first-century Rome? How did that ancient culture impose a tremendous social cost on the followers of Jesus? What were the daily struggles of the church in Rome and how does an awareness of that time period influence readers of the New Testament in the 21st century?

Bible Gateway interviewed James L. Papandrea (@jimpapandrea) about his book, A Week in the Life of Rome (IVP Academic, 2019).

What is the premise/plot of your novel?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: The Christians in the city of Rome are waiting for the apostle Peter to return from the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). As they await news of the conference and of their fellow Christians in the Holy Land, they try to keep their heads down and avoid the notice of the Romans. But complications arise when the demands of Roman society clash with the values of the church.

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Why did you set the novel in AD 50 and where does it fit with the Bible timeline?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: A Week in the Life of Rome is part of a series and all of the books that had been written already were set in about the same time. So the idea was to see what was going on in Rome at the same time that you could read about what was going on in Corinth or Jerusalem. By the year AD 50, there were at most only a few of Paul’s letters written, so most of the New Testament had not been written yet. Paul’s letter to the Romans would be written several years later, but we can guess from that letter that there were maybe four house churches meeting in the city of Rome at this time.

How do you incorporate fiction and non-fiction in the book?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: The characters are all biblical figures, either from the book of Acts, or from the list of names mentioned by Paul in Romans (Romans 16). So they’re all real people, but many of them are unknown to us other than their names. So I developed stories and relationships that are plausible based on what we know. And I filled in the gaps with details that come together to make a story about how hard it must have been to live as a faithful Christian in those early days in the capital city.

I’m taken with the informative sidebars throughout the book. For example, explain what the Patron-client system was in ancient Rome.

Dr. James L. Papandrea: The Patron-client system is a network of relationships. These are relationships of unequal parties, but they’re mutually beneficial. The patron is the wealthier or more powerful person, who promises certain kinds of help and security to the client, who is the poorer of the two. In return for patronage, the client promises to support the patron’s business dealings, politics, and sometimes even by running errands and doing the “dirty work” that the patron doesn’t want to do himself. Everyone but the poorest people would have some kind of patron, either a wealthier person or a guild or other organization.

Describe what marriage and family relationships were like in the Roman world.

Dr. James L. Papandrea: Most people in the Roman empire did not get married, in the sense of having a legally registered marriage. Registered marriage was a contract meant to consolidate or protect wealth and foster networking relationships. Consequently divorce was extremely easy and very frequent. Laws defining adultery were written so that men could have multiple sexual partners, and prostitution was a legal and accepted part of society. The upper classes often saw children more as a burden than a blessing and abortion and infanticide were the right of every head of a household. Needless to say, the church opposed all of this.

How did the average family in Rome experience religion?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: There was civic religion—the traditional Greco-Roman gods—worshipped in rituals that were mostly meant to demonstrate good citizenship or patriotism, and then there was household religion. Household religion was the veneration of mostly unknown or unnamed gods who were thought to protect hearth and home, and family members who traveled outside the home.

How does your book help readers better understand the books of the New Testament?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: My book gives the reader the background, not only for the book of Romans, but for the New Testament as a whole. It helps readers understand the everyday life of both rich and poor in the Roman Empire: how they spent their days, what their struggles were, how they interacted with each other, and even things like how they ate their meals.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: I’ve always loved Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s got that great Christological passage in chapter 2: “Although he existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

And it also has a passage that I’ve always found comforting in chapter 3: “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: Love it! I’ve been using it for years and it’s my favorite Bible look-up site.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Dr. James L. Papandrea: I love the Scriptures, especially the New Testament. But there’s so much about the historical context that many people don’t know if they don’t study the early church. You really can’t understand the New Testament fully without also understanding the early church, and so I’m so grateful to InterVarsity Press for this series, and for allowing me to contribute the volume on the early church in Rome.


Bio: James L. Papandrea (PhD, Northwestern University) is a teacher, author, speaker, and musician. He is professor of church history and historical theology at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University, as well as a consultant in the area of adult faith formation and a regular speaker in parish and lay formation programs in the Chicago area. He is the author of A Week in the Life of Rome, The Earliest Christologies, Reading the Early Church Fathers, and Trinity 101. He studied Roman history at the American Academy in Rome, Italy.

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Filed under Books, Church History, Interviews