A debut historical novel reimagines Jesus’ violent fate from the perspective of a Roman centurion who presided over the Crucifixion.
Cornelius is born and raised in Tarsus, the son of a farmer who teaches him Latin and Greek. He studies at the University of Tarsus, a “center of Stoic philosophy,” and deeply imbibes its teachings regarding the rational order of the universe, and the happiness and freedom one finds in consummating one’s destiny. Cornelius pines to become a Roman centurion, and after distinguishing himself both in training and combat, catches the eye of Pontius Pilate, soon to become the new prefect of Judea. Pilate encourages Cornelius to join him there, and the young man obliges, learning Aramaic and studying the local customs of the largely Jewish population. He befriends Jesus and his apostles, allowing them to use his villa for their gatherings. But Jesus becomes an increasingly controversial figure, feared by Rome as a political agitator and hated by the Sanhedrin as a heretic. High intelligently reconstructs the familiar historical timeline, with notably imaginative revisions: Judas’ courage and fidelity to Jesus, and Pilate’s reasonableness in the face of vexing political unrest. In addition, while Jesus is depicted as a spiritual versus a political revolutionary, his boldness is exceedingly provocative—his plan to take over the temple on Passover all but ensures his fate. In a prefatory note, the author announces his ambitious intentions, the chief of which is to show that “the teachings of Jesus seem to validate Stoic philosophy.” The novel is, in fact, peppered with discussions of Stoic natural law, though such a philosophical synthesis is never convincingly established. The chief strength of the work is its combination of historical rigor and inventiveness—High takes a venerable story and revitalizes it with a challenging new twist. But the plot develops languidly, needlessly beginning with Cornelius’ grandfather Animus, procrastinating the true drama of the tale. In addition, the dialogue is laconically leaden, written as if the exsanguination of emotion further illustrates the core of Stoical resignation.
A historically captivating, if dramatically underwhelming, tale.