A pleasant journey through the second century Roman empire, as seen through the eyes of its Christian inhabitants, by a reliable guide whose life’s work is the serious study of the subject. Students of the era will enjoy recognizing persons, surviving texts, and the various Christian movements of the time; those who are unfamiliar but curious to learn more will find helpful pointers in the author’s endnotes, which also provides a dramatis personae clearly indicating which characters were historical and which fictional. I only wish that my Kindle edition had included a link to the appropriate note at the end of each chapter, as I would have enjoyed reading this material as I went along.
The plot was a bit thin, but it mainly serves to drive the exploration of the setting, which is the real point. The main characters were a bit flat, and their dialogue tended to be overly earnest: though whether this is due to a lack of skill in the author, or a lack of cultural competence in this 21st century reader, I couldn’t say. But Justin’s quandary of what to do when faced with scrolls containing variant readings of the gospels, additional gospels outside the four that he knows, and his struggles to discern how to most faithfully carry out his vocation as a scribe in the face of these challenges have a genuine ring.
Eighteen centuries later, our approach to these varying surviving texts, both in and out of the canon, tends to be systematic and somewhat abstract. It had never occurred to me to wonder what a scribe of a church who had preserved one textual tradition would do when faced with another. The Scribes gives this abstract issue a human face, and is the hidden prize of this little book.