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Book Review: The Centurion’s Wife (Acts of Faith, Book One) by Davis Bunn and Janette Oke

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Struggling through a life of unexpected poverty, Pontius Pilate’s adopted niece finds herself a household servant in the near-palatial quarters of his uncle. Waiting upon Pilate’s wife Procula, she witnesses the disturbed dreams, anxiety, and ill health of her mistress following the crucifixion of a rabbi called Jesus. Upon learning of her unwilling engagement to a Roman centurion she’s never seen, such trivial matters quickly drop into the background as her angst overcomes such peripheral details.

The sharp spike of unrest in Jerusalem following Jesus’ death and the rumours surrounding His resurrection raise Pilate’s hackles. Seizing upon the suit of a Roman centurion (Gaulish by birth) for his niece Leah, he concocts a plan in conjunction with Herod to send the strikingly young centurion Alban to gather information. His fear of a possible revolt spurs him to use Leah as a bargaining chip. Binding the two together in a Judean betrothal ceremony, they are now legally wed though their marriage will not be complete until a condition is met of Pilate’s choosing. Though traditionally the preparation of a dwelling place, Alban’s task is to confirm Jesus’ death, solve the mystery of the empty tomb and ascertain the likelihood of a rebellion.

While Oke and Bunn are both highly prolific, best-selling authors who’ve achieved astounding levels of success in both their solo and co-authored titles, this is my first introduction to their work. The Centurion’s Wife marks the first in their latest co-written series of historical fiction leaving the shores of 18th century Acadia for 1st century Israel. Alban is in fact the fully-fleshed rendering of the centurion described in Matthew Chapter 8, whose belief in Jesus’ healing power made his servant well. Plucked from the pages of scripture he and his intended encounter a cast of notable Bible figures: Joseph of Arimithea, Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany, amongst others.

Leah and Alban walk parallel paths through the multi-layered political structures of Jerusalem in search for the answers to their question. Their steps soon intertwine as they discover the truth is not to be found within the courts of established rulers, but rather amongst the humble disciples of Jesus. Drawn inexorably by love, patience, and prayer, the pair find themselves moving towards a definitive decision that will forever change them both. While these two journeys of spiritual exploration mirror each other they are largely independent, though sources and information is freely shared.

As Alban comes to see Leah as a real woman and more than a stepping-stone in his career, his feelings quickly develop into a potent blend of chivalry, honour, and self-sacrificial love. His desires to serve, protect, and provide for her reflect the deep love Christ has for His church; few women can resist a love like this.

Though taking place over a remarkably short period of time for biblical fiction — the period between Jesus’ death until slightly after Pentecost — the story is rather slow-moving. The betrothed couple’s unwitting entanglement in the delicate balance of power exhibited between Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas enriches the reader's understanding of occupied Jerusalem’s political arena. Unfortunately these interchanges slow the pace and at times result in a lack of engagement.

With a minor, nameless character from the Bible fulfilling the necessary components of biblical fiction, Bunn and Oke had a vast horizon of storylines to choose from. However, they turned pens to a purpose and examined the events surrounding Jesus resurrection. This apologetic for the Christian faith set in fiction is gentle, personal, and blends seamlessly with the story.

The Centurion’s Wife is a well-behaved novel, dependably serving up anticipated outcomes. Predictability in no way mars the tale however. Everything concludes as it should, and happy tears sprinkled the pages of my copy.

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About Jennifer Bogart