As a young assessore serving as legal counsel to Pontius Pilate, Theophilus comes up with a brilliant way to avoid crucifying an innocent man: “Offer to release Barabbas,” he tells his boss. But the strategy backfires, and Theophilus never forgets his role in Jesus’s death. Decades later he has an opportunity to make amends when a Roman citizen and disciple of Jesus stands trial before the deranged Emperor Nero.
Theophilus—unlike his client Paul of Tarsus—did not need to hear the Good News to be a good man; he used his position and his talent for rhetoric to help the wronged from within the system, dutifully honoring the Emperor and his pagan gods all the while. When his beloved Rome begins to fall apart around him, the message of Christ (summarized for him in writing by a visiting physician named Luke) sustains him and gives him purpose.
Setting aside the Christian theme, this is a solid mainstream novel of 1st-century Rome. I only wished for a few more details and historical quirks of the Roman legal system; the trials are sharply told but feel more like an open debate than a formal trial. Singer presents his Christian characters simply and honestly, as a counterculture united by a radical ideal of love. In his telling, the rapid spread of Christianity in Rome owes as much to Nero’s depravity and the self-destruction of Roman society as it does to the message itself.