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I love watching Downton Abbey, the mini-series with a chronology that begins the day the Titanic sank. And I’m a fan of the latest musical version of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s magnificent story set during the June Rebellion in Paris. If you’re anything like me, one of your favorite ways to learn history is to watch or read it in story form.
I especially like learning about New Testament backgrounds through fictionalized versions of the Bible's stories. But when I walk into bookstores or browse book sites, I often find it tough to discern what’s great from what’s so-so. Online reviews sometimes offer little more than “It’s epic,” or “I got bored on the third page.”
Because I wanted to read great works about Bible backgrounds, I did some research. What follows is the fruit of that labor—a list of works that are either considered classics, or their authors received major book awards for the stories. Some of the works mentioned here are also available in film. This list is not exhaustive; feel free to make further recommendations in the comments section.
In addition to a book on Cicero, Taylor Caldwell wrote a number of highly acclaimed stories about New Testament characters—Luke, in Dear and Glorious Physician (1959); the apostle Paul in Great Lion of God (1970); and Judas Iscariot in I, Judas (1977).
Every year around Easter, a number of TV stations air “Ben-Hur.” And while the movie is great, the book (how many times have you heard this?) is better. Way better. Lew Wallace set Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) during Tiberius’s reign in Judea. Although Wallace wrote more than one hundred years ago, his background research has stood well the test of time.
For a work set during Emperor Caligula’s reign, check out I Am a Barbarian (1967), the “memoir” of the emperor’s slave written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1941 and published posthumously more than twenty years later.
Among the best-known works set in the Early Empire Period are Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). These well-written works enjoyed a second wave of popularity when PBS made them into a TV mini-series. The first book is better than the second, by the way. In both, the point-of-view character is Claudius, the Roman emperor mentioned in Acts 11:28.
Henryk Sienkiewicz took the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature partly because of his work, Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero. The title comes from a Latin phrase meaning, “Where are you going?” and the work traces the love between a Roman patrician and a Christian woman. Quo Vadis has been translated into more than fifty languages and made into a Hollywood film.
Lloyd Douglas’s The Robe (1942) is about Jesus’ crucifixion. The Robe stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List for several years in the 1940s, and it was made into an epic movie in 1953. (And I don’t mean “epic” in its overused superlative form.)
So there you have it. A list of nine great works set in New Testament times. It’s not too long, so it's not too late to make a resolution to read nine wonderful narratives this year. They will provide you with edu-tainment as you get a better grasp of the greatest story ever told.