THEOPHILOS: A Novel
by Michael O'Brien
(Ignatius Press, 2010, hardback, 448pp, $49.90. ISBN: 978-1-58617-368-5. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Both the Gospel of St Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are addressed to "Theophilus" (in Greek Theophilos), however, apart from the name, virtually nothing is known about him. In his latest novel, Michael O'Brien makes him the protagonist.
The bulk of the novel is set in AD64 and 65, in Crete and the Holy Land, the period of Nero's persecution of the early Church and the last years of relative peace prior to the Jewish Wars.
Theophilus is Luke's mentor and father figure. Like Luke, he is a physician, however, unlike Luke, Theophilus is a non-believer, upset by the fact that Luke has lived elsewhere for a number of years because he has joined what Theophilus believes to be a cult. Not even the Gospel of Luke, which Luke wrote to him, has convinced Theophilus of the claims of Jesus.
The bulk of the novel is set in the Holy Land whence Theophilus travels from his home in Crete to learn more about Jesus and the Church. Much of this section of the novel is in the form of eyewitness testimonies, some of which are from believers, others from Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Many of these "eyewitness" accounts come from those whom readers have met in the Gospels.
Although a work of fiction, most of the testimonies are in fact based on incidents in the gospel, to which O'Brien brings new insights. During the course of his travels, Theophilus is reunited briefly with Luke. But the two are again separated when Luke receives a message from Paul requesting him to travel to Rome. When Theophilus returns to Crete a series of circumstances compels him to consider whether he will accept or reject Christianity.
What emerge from reading Theophilus are the challenges that faced many in accepting the claims of the Church. Other facets of the novel that strike the reader are the references to Catholic beliefs and practices. Thus, there are clear references to the Assumption of Mary, and the use of incense in the Eucharist.
Although there is a tradition of Catholic novels set in the early Church, whose authors include Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, most novels known to readers such as The Robe and The Big Fisherman are written either from a non-Catholic perspective or de-emphasise elements of faith and practice associated with Catholicism. Another interesting facet of the work is the reconstruction of first century life. Thus, Hebrew, Aramaic - and where appropriate Greek - forms of characters' names are used, for example, in most of the eyewitness accounts, Jesus is named Yeshua.
Theophilus is an interesting novel. Although it is fairly slow in the opening sections, the eyewitness accounts are more effective in engaging the reader, although it could be argued that there are a few too many of them to sustain some readers' interests.
In his afterword, O'Brien emphasises the fact that although the work draws on material from the Bible and the works of Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, Theophilus is essentially a work of fiction. Obviously, the author makes certain assumptions, for example, a date of composition of Luke's Gospel which is earlier than that accepted by many biblical scholars.
Notwithstanding the comments noted, this novel was an enjoyable read.