Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review: The Robe

The premise of The Robe is intriguing: it purports to tell the story of the Roman soldier who cast lots and won Christ's robe after crucifying him (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; and esp. John 19:23–24). The Holy Scriptures have nothing more to say about the men who were commanded to perpetrate that heinous deed, but the author, Lloyd C. Douglas, supposes that at least one of them, whom he gives the name Marcellus Gallio, knew that what they were doing was wrong.

The first third of the book, leading up to the crucifixion, was very well written. The characters are realistic and the author's familiarity with Roman and Jewish culture is impressive (or at least very plausible-sounding).[1] But when Marcellus returns to Palestine, several months after the Crucifixion, to learn more about Jesus, he transforms into a 'straw man' atheist to suit the author's purposes.[2]

Rather than behave like a skeptic, Marcellus behaves like a believer who is only pretending not to believe. His tour of Galilee boils down to a tour through the miracles performed by Jesus. Unfortunately, the author can't resist trying to provide an alternate explanation for some of them.[3] Such watered-down miracles apparently had the effect of easing Marcellus into a belief in the power of Christ. But the doctrines of Christ are locked safely away lest Marcellus be converted by the truth or by the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Thus (at least at first) Marcellus' conversion comes across as cheesy and fatuous.

My verdict: Despite the drag in the middle of the book, it eventually picks up again and finishes on a relatively strong note. The essential message (that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation both for individuals, families, and for the human race) is eventually made clear. I enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to those who don't mind a slower read.


[1] However, several anachronisms pop up, such as referring to a group of people as "one big happy family" and someone snapping their fingers and saying "like that". In other instances Douglas rewrites Roman History to suit his purposes. For example, the heir-apparent to Emperor Tiberius for most of the book, Gaius Drusus Agrippa, was invented wholesale by the author. He also substantially alters the roles of Tiberius' Praetorian Prefects, Sejanus and Macro (whom Douglas refers to as Quintus). And Doublas condenses all of the extravagances of Emperor Caligula into the first few months—even though in reality the first two years of Caligula's reign were temperate and his excesses only came later.

[2] At this point several subplots involving Marcellus' family, Emperor Tiberius, and Tiberius' granddaughter, Diana, are all put on hold while Marcellus traipses around the Holy Land pretending to be a buyer of homespun.

[3] For example, he explains away the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand by saying that the people there all had their own food, but were all being stingy. Jesus was able to multiply the loaves and the fishes, not by His command over the elements, but by convincing the people to share what they already had. However, if this had really been the case, the people wouldn't have followed Him around hoping for more food (Jn. 6:22–26).


  1. I believe your review of the book "The Robe" is misleading to would-be readers. The novel is not a history book nor biblical essay. The author utilizes the person, crucifixion and robe of Christ to tell a story about rebirth. Christ teachings were so revolutionary in challenging the beliefs and politics of the times. The author should be commended for giving the teachings of Christ such an intriguing and timeless stage production. Every person, place and circumstance presented in the book is a testament to the strength and durability of the early Christian faith seekers. Seeing the forest from the trees is the challenge this novel presents.

  2. Even if the author's sole purpose was to tell a story about rebirth, there was no need for the wholesale invention of details that contradict historical fact (especially since these inventions do not contribute at all to the rebirth theme) nor is it an excuse for depreciating the miracles of Christ to make them more palatable.