1) What I most appreciate about Angela Hunt is how she researches the historical times, stays true to the Biblical account, and delivers insights you either hadn't thought of or wouldn't expect to find so seamlessly integrated in a novel. She does all of this so well in Risen. I really enjoyed the contrast she made between Roman thought and Jewish thought, and then how each of those ways of thinking interacted with the reality of Yeshua--Jesus. I personally value this book because I felt like it brought the post-resurrection part of the Gospels uniquely to life for me. In fact, I'd almost like to re-read that section of the book to imagine and absorb more of the real-life reality we read about in the Bible. That's the great thing about novels--you start seeing historical events through the characters' eyes, which in this case not only included the main fictional characters, but also the disciples.
2) Unfortunately, this is the last Angela Hunt book I'll be requesting to review. The sensual/sexual content, while understandable in novels based on Esther and Bathsheba, was uncalled for here. Backing up, the story alternates perspectives between Clavius, a Roman tribune, and Rachel, a Jewish widow, who are secretly sleeping together. Granted, their conversational interaction adds to our understanding of Jewish vs. Roman thought, but why does there have to be fornication in a book on the resurrection? When I was reading, I assumed this subplot was part of the film and that that was why it was included in the novelization. But the author's note at the end says that Rachel appears in the screenplay, but did not make it into the movie (which gives me a better opinion of how the movie might be than I would have thought otherwise!).
So Risen is a mixed bag for me. Part of it is so good--the insight, connection, and feeling what it would have been like to see Jesus while He was on earth! And yet, you've got a compelling and sinful affair, which although is not particularly condoned, the characters never get the opportunity to actively repent of at the end. In conclusion, I probably would recommend this book to select people, with caveats.
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Here's my super-long summary of the first quarter of the book:
Prologue: Clavius trudges towards an inn. Inside he meets the owner, who recognizes Clavius as a Roman tribune (tribune is confusingly close to tribute) despite looking every mile of his 40 days of wandering across Judea, of his process of transformation. Bored innkeepers like to hear tales--perhaps it's time to share his.
Chapter 1: Prefect Pilate is on his way to Jerusalem. Passover is approaching. Clavius reports to his commander and finds a robber of the high priest and some members of the Sanhedrin has upped the ante and taken control of a tower. From there Yeshua Barabbas and a band of mocking zealots have been successfully pummeling back a Roman centurion and his legion (because a mean rock throw can apparently do much damage in this pre-firearm age). Clavius shows up and, with a little tactical maneuvering, mops up the zealots and hobbles Barabbas, ready to take him back for Pilate as proof of Pax Romana. His commander is among the fallen.
Chapter 2: Skip across Jerusalem and we meet Rachel, bread baker, dealing with an unhappy Roman wife because Rachel has no challah to sell--it is Passover, a sabbath, and tomorrow begins the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Rachel feels like a hypocrite as she seeks to uphold God's laws. Why? Because she has rejected the levirite marriage and thus has been rejected (presumably?) by her husband's family. After her husband died, she refused to marry his teenage brother in order to give him an heir. She wished to stay alone, in Jerusalem, baking bread, and not wed to a young man who held firm to his mother's apron strings. And so she spent Passover alone, an unthinkable thing, because she did not want others to know her secret shame. (There is a hint of feminism here when the mother-in-law asks, "How could Adonai be pleased with a young woman living alone and unmarried?" "A woman's purpose is to bring new life into the world. How can you be happy just baking bread?" The context makes it feel patriarchichal in a negative sense, but maybe I'm wrong. As if it's a comment we are supposed to roll our eyes at and hurrah the independent Rachel). <--this theme is not continued in the rest of the novel
Chapter 3: Clavius learns his commander has died, due to recklessness in battle but earning glory for the family name nevertheless. Clavius' servant brings in a letter (a rolled scroll!) from Clavius' twin sister. She is with child. Clavius' other sister is a Vestal virgin and glad to not be under her father's control (continued theme from chapter 2 <--which is not continued in the rest of the novel). Pilate summons Clavius.
Chapter 4: Rachel sees a procession of criminals. One man in particular draws her notice. He wears a crown of thorns and the flesh of his back has been stripped by whips. Patches of baldness show where his beard has been cruelly ripped off. He falls, and before he rises, he says something about blessed are the childless. What does that mean? And how can the woman near her think to call this man the hope of the world?
Chapter 5: Clavius reports to Pilate who assigns him a "beneficiarii," an intern, who is more academic than soldier, not even familiar with horse riding. Pilate also gives Clavius the assignment of hurrying up the execution at Golgotha. On the way to the scene, Clavius explains to Lucius, his new companion, that battalions are rotated during the gruesome crucifixion detail lest they "[forget] they are men." When they arrive, Clavius observes that the third criminal, a "king," according to the sign, has surrendered to death quickly. Before the legionnaires throw the bodies over the side of the mount, Joseph of Arimathea and a man named Nicodemus come and claim the body of Jesus. Clavius follows them to see that this job is finished.
Chapter 6: Rachel probes a neighbor for information about the Nazarene. She had followed him to the place of the skull and then had helped lead the mother, Mary, away. The neighbor can offer no answers, except that all think he was crazy, and what does anyone ever do to Rome to deserve death?
Chapter 7: Clavius admits he wants power and prestige . . . so he can have a home in the country and enjoy peaceful days without death.
Chapter 8: Rachel's husband, a quiet, dutiful, but unaffectionate man, had been killed by a Roman stallion, his death announced by a Roman officer. Rachel the widow had then filled her nights and life with baking. Then the Roman officer began buying bread from her stand. And then he found his way to her home. She had no illusions he would ever marry her, but in Clavius' arms, she at last felt loved. *gag me now*
Chapter 9: Clavius steps out on the rampart while the sun sets and the Sabbath begins. Rachel has asked him to join her in the Sabbath prayer, but he hasn't. Yet he feels the yearning, not to honor the demanding Yahweh, but the pull of Rachel's goodness. He goes inside and writes his sister a letter, telling her he looks forward to leaving his uncivilized Judean post, but also sharing about the woman he's met, a woman that reminds him of his sister.
Chapter 10: Pilate assigns Clavius the tiresome task of sealing the Nazarene's tomb to appease the flock of black crows (the members of the Sanhedrin).
Chapter 11: Rachel prepares her matzah, remembers Passover as a child, and begins to wonder at the connections between Passover and the Nazarene's!
...the story continues when Pilate tasks Clavius with finding the missing body of the Nazarene!