Reviews of

The Roman Army and the Expansion of the Gospel: The Role of the Centurion in Luke-Acts

In Alexander KYRYCHENKO, De Gruyter, Kai Akagi, Luke-Acts, Uncategorized on February 6, 2015 at 10:14 am

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2015.02.03 | Alexander Kyrychenko. The Roman Army and the Expansion of the Gospel: The Role of the Centurion in Luke-Acts. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 203. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014. pp. xi + 228. ISBN: 9783110344028.

Reviewed by Kai Akagi, University of St Andrews.

Many thanks to De Gruyter for providing a review copy.

This volume is the published version of Alexander Kyrychenko’s PhD dissertation from 2013, supervised by Carl R. Holladay at Emory University. It considers the literary function of the Roman centurion in Luke-Acts in light of the presentation of the Roman military in contemporary Greco-Roman and Jewish literature. Kyrychenko offers his study as concerned with narrative in its attention to the literary and thematic significance of how Luke-Acts presents Roman centurions and contextual in its examination of portrayals of the Roman military across literatures.

The book comprises six chapters, including its introduction and conclusion. The introduction notes a lack of studies relating the presentation of the Roman military in Luke-Acts to recent research of the Roman military outside New Testament studies. Kyrychenko also finds studies addressing the literary function of the Roman military in Luke-Acts to be insufficient and notes an absence of studies of centurions specifically. Kyrychenko distinguishes his study from Laurena Ann Brink’s more extensive PhD dissertation, “Unmet Expectations: The Literary Portrayal of Soldiers in Luke-Acts” (University of Chicago, 2009) by his attention to the variation in how contemporary literature portrays the Roman military.

Chapter 2 offers an account of the development, organization, and function of the centurion in the Roman military. This chapter may serve as an introduction to the organization of the Roman military for unfamiliar readers. Turning to Luke-Acts, Kyrychenko finds that it appears to consistently use the terms ἐκατοντάρχης and χιλίαρχος for centurio and tribunus militum respectively in accordance with common Greek usage. The figures act in Luke-Acts according to the attested functions and duties of these ranks. He identifies the ‘Italian cohort’ of Cornelius in Acts 10 as the cohors II Italica voluntariorum civium Romanorum and notes that the cohort of Julius in Acts 27 could refer either to the cohors I Augusta Thracum equitata civium Romanorum, as proposed by others, or the cohors I Augusta Ituraeorum.

The third chapter surveys the portrayal of the Roman military personnel across the work of twenty writers in Greco-Roman literature and in various other documents, such as petitions and records. Kyrychenko considers how the purpose of these works and the lives of their authors, particularly past military experience, may affect their portrayal of the military. He observes a mixed portrayal of the Roman military. Writers considered in this chapter include Julius Caesar, Velleius Paerculus, Tacitus, Polybius, Sallust, Livy, Appian, Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, Suetonius, Plautus, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Petronius, Quintilian, Epictetus, Juvenal, Fronto, and Apuleius.

An assessment of the portrayal of the Roman military in Jewish writings follows in the fourth chapter. Again, the works considered present a mixed portrait, but consistently one that emphasizes power. Kyrychenko contrasts the praise of the Roman military for its help of lesser allied powers in 1 Maccabees with the portrayal of Rome as an enemy of God and his people in “prophetic” literature following Pompey. Works briefly discussed in the first part of this chapter include 1QPesher to Habakkuk; 4QNahum Pesher; the War Scroll; Psalms of Solomon 2, 8, and 17; Assumption of Moses; Sibylline Oracles; 4 Ezra; 2 Baruch; Apocalypse of Abraham; works by Philo; and Talmudic sources. He devotes the largest part of the chapter to Josephus. In accordance with his personal relationship to Rome, Josephus endeavors to depict the Roman military positively while still noting flaws in the conduct of some soldiers and emphasizes its great power.

Kyrychenko analyzes Luke-Acts in the fifth chapter. The first part considers the appearances of Roman military in Luke 3:14; 23; Acts 21–23; and 27, as well as the prophecies in Luke 13, 19, 21, and 23. The remaining three quarters of the chapter discussion Luke 7:1–10 and Acts 10–11. Kyrychenko characterizes the portrayal of the military in Luke-Acts as positive and seeks to explain the appearance of military personal at narrative highpoints according to an overarching theme of Gentile mission.

The strength of Kyrychenko’s study lies in its contextual work. Its evaluation of a collection of references to the Roman military provides those in the field of New Testament studies with an introductory survey of perceptions of it. This may inform readings of the New Testament, contemporary Jewish writings, and other early Christian works. Kyrychenko has selected materials for their relevance and represented their diversity, although he gives almost no attention to the portrayal of the Roman military in other books of the New Testament or other early Christian writings. For example, the book contains only one mention of the Book of Revelation in a footnote (100n34) noting the parallel of a dragon in Revelation 12:7–9 with the dragon in Psalm of Solomon 2:25. It contains no mention of Revelation’s portrayal of Rome.

As a narrative-oriented study, the book contributes to Lukan studies by characterizing the portrayal of centurions in Luke-Acts and seeking to account for it within Luke’s narrative strategy. However, its use of narrative criticism does not extend beyond reading the references to the Roman military together as part of a unified whole. It does not use the particular vocabulary and concepts of narrative criticism, and the brevity of its chapter on Luke-Acts (42 of 189 pages), which mentions all references to military, limits development. Additionally, although usually balanced, at times it seems to read Luke-Acts too simply in favor of its thesis. For example, Kyrychenko writes, “Luke modifies the Passion Narrative to tone down the involvement of the Roman troops in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, transferring all the blame for Jesus’s death on the Jewish people and their leaders” (183). Although the observation that the portrayal of Roman military personnel is generally positive is notable, to say that Luke “transfers all the blame” seems an overstatement. Nevertheless, the book may serve as part of the foundation for more extended studies addressing how the portrayal of the Roman military in Luke-Acts relate to its narrative structure and theological (e.g., christological, soteriological, ecclesiological) themes and other parts of its ideology.

In short, this book brings together a collection of Greek, Roman, and Jewish portrayals of the Roman military, provides a concise analysis of them that appreciates their diversity, and presents an account of how these may inform a contextual reading of Luke-Acts. Those engaged in narrative-critical or theological studies of Luke-Acts or considering the view of the Roman military in Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament, and early Christianity more broadly will benefit from consulting Kyrychenko’s work.

Kai Akagi
University of St Andrews
kma3 [ at ] st-andrews.ac.uk

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