Review of ‘The Robe’ (a novel)

Have you ever wondered what happened to the Roman soldier who, at Christ’s crucifixion, cast the winning lot for the robe? That is the premise of this 1942 New York Times bestseller, written by Lloyd C. Douglas. The Robe follows Marcellus Gallio, a Roman patrician, and his Greek slave Demetrius. One night at a party, Marcellus made an unguarded remark about the emperor’s heir. His punishment was to be made the commander of a dreary military outpost in Palestine, which is how he came to be at Golgotha that day. A series of events leads up to his making a journey through Judea, Samaria and Galilee on a quest to find out more about Jesus. The garment known as the Robe (yes, with a capital ‘R’) shows up every now and then in the narrative, greatly affecting all who touch it.

I loved the first 100 or so pages and the last 100 or so pages: Rev. Douglas certainly had the talent for writing captivating sentences. Why that skill took its leave in the middle portion of the book escapes me. In addition to being boring, I found the central section to be rather perplexing on account of the anachronisms it contained, and the author’s theology.

As with other novels in the historical fiction genre, it is difficult to tell whether the author departed from the historical record by design or by accident. Granted, Douglas wrote ages before Google and Wikipedia when fact-checking involved hours and hours at a library. On that basis, I can forgive him for messing up the genealogy and chronology of the Roman emperors. But I would have expected an ordained minister to display more knowledge and/or respect for the biblical record.

The events described in the novel cover a period starting from several weeks before the crucifixion through to a year and a half after it. In this relatively short time, there are numerous Gentile believers—our protagonists included. But wouldn’t that invalidate the need for Peter’s vision in Acts 10? The Jews and Gentiles in the novel are also rather chummy with each other, travelling and eating together[]. A keen reader of the Bible would know that Jews didn’t interact with non-Jews any more than they had to (Acts 10:28, 11:2). Douglas takes other liberties with what we know from Acts, for example placing events that are recorded in Acts 7, 12 and 3 in one chapter. In that order. It just felt so wrong reading Douglas’s fictional account of Stephen’s martyrdom that I was driven to put down the novel and pick up Acts chapters 4-6.

As regards his theology, Lloyd Douglas was a man of his time. One of the prevailing thoughts of his day was that the biblical miracles all had natural/ scientific explanations[1]. (Thankfully, that kind of reasoning isn’t as popular as it once was. But doesn’t it make you wonder what biases we are blind to today that will be glaringly obvious to a person living 70 years from now?) Hence, the feeding of the 5,000 was a miracle of generosity: Everyone who’d been sitting on their packed lunches pulled them out on seeing the boy’s noble deed of sharing. Other miracles are recounted in the book, but it seemed to me that the characters believed in them against their better judgment. Conspicuously absent is the Holy Spirit (Pentecost is never mentioned), and an angel is written out of a story.

The emphasis is on Jesus’ ethical teachings, with only one mention apiece of sin and repentance. To oversimplify things, being a Christian according to The Robe is about treating slaves well and being a pacifist. And resisting hostile authorities. Incidentally, all the opposition to the Christians comes from the Roman authorities and not the Jewish religious leaders as we read in the early chapters of Acts. The author may have chosen that plotline in light of WWII, or simply because it made for a more compelling story.

Conclusion

I find reading writers from previous generations to be a mind-stretching exercise, as they tend not to write in the dumbed-down manner of contemporary authors. For example, I picked up the following words: persiflage, tatterdemalion, withal, prating, addlepated, dunnage and badinage. Indeed, from a literary point of view, I find much in The Robe that is commendable. However, when it comes to worldview, which is what matters more to me, I’m not so sure.

So, if you want to read a good story set in the 1st century, go ahead and dig into The Robe. If you want to know more of Jesus of Nazareth, read the Bible.

[1] To learn something about early twentieth century liberal theology, listen to these three talks or read this article.

Correction
[] It turns out it was possible for Jews to eat with Gentiles, provided that the Gentiles hadn’t prepared the food themselves. Source: James G. Crossley, The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity, pages 145-154. In case you’re wondering, no I haven’t read the source material; I just saw it referenced elsewhere.

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