I read this book in my Pauline Epistles course, and it is the story of Onesimus from the book of Philemon. I wrote a five page book report on the paper, and this is the first half of that paper. I have left off in the middle of the report, so tune in later this week for the rest of the paper.
Patricia St. John’s historical fiction book, Twice Freed tells the story of Philemon’s slave Onesimus. In the Bible, the book of Philemon is only twenty-five verses long, but St. John extends the story into over two hundred pages. When thinking of books of this nature, the question has to be raised as to whether it is adequate or appropriate to extend the biblical text in such lengths. The biggest problem is that there is no way that anyone today knows exactly what happened during the first century. Therefore, when someone attempts to write a book such as this, readers have to remember that the majority of the book is purely speculation and really has no relation to the biblical text. That is not to say that these books are heretical or false, it is just to say that Scripture is limited as to the historical background in most of the New Testament letters, so all the details are purely left to interpretation and imagination. However, with all of these “problems” facing St. John in this book, she conquers them quite well.
Over all, I feel like Twice Freed is a well written story. When thinking about how fiction books are written, I tend to want them to be exciting, with a good plot, and not one that drags on and on. If the book does not grab my attention at the beginning, or if the suspense level decreases half way through the book, I will struggle the rest of the way through. At times, I might not even finish the book. Thankfully, Twice Freed is not this type of a book. The book begins in an exciting fashion, and I think that is partly due to the fact that I was curious as to how St. John was planning on interpreting the story of Philemon. But the book did not lose its sense of excitement. Most of this is because the book is targeted to a much younger audience, and if the book does not remain exciting and interesting then kids would refuse to continue reading the story.
Twice Freed is not the first book of this type that I have read. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have also taken a stab at writing historical fiction. They are currently in the middle of a series that looks at the lives of the four writers of the Gospels. I have read the first two books in this series, dealing with John and John Mark. It was actually interesting to see some of the same ideas and speculations come up in Twice Freed when Onesimus was speaking with John Mark during the end of the book. LaHaye and Jenkins center John Mark’s story around that of Peter and show how John Mark was present during Jesus’ ministry. They also focus in on how John Mark loved being with his mother, which according to them, might be one of the reasons as to why John Mark left Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Just like LaHaye and Jenkins, St. John takes a similar approach in interpreting the life of John Mark.
But in some ways, St. John’s task was much greater. Whereas LaHaye and Jenkins have chapters and chapters of information to build off of (the Gospels and Acts), St. John only has twenty-five verses. She really has to be creative in developing a storyline that will fit the few details that are mentioned in the book of Philemon. But again, I do feel that she accomplishes this task. The biggest aid to anyone who attempts to write a historical fiction book based off of the Bible is the fact that Luke wrote the book of Acts. Acts is the only book of history in the New Testament, and it helps fill in some of the gaps that Paul’s letters leave out. It helps put the life of Paul in perspective and has even helped many scholars take a stab at ordering the letters of Paul chronologically. Knowing this suggested order of letters and how they correlate with the events recorded in Acts (primarily Paul’s trips), writers such as St. John can build off of a basic framework already in place.
One of the greatest benefits of writing or reading one of these books comes in this reorganization of Paul’s letters. Many times I feel like we decide that we are going to read through one of Paul’s letters and we neglect to think about the context in which it was written. True, we can still gain much insight and find applications for our lives today by just reading the letter. However, if we know the reason why Paul wrote the letter in the first place, then our reading and understanding will only be enhanced. Too many times we forget that the New Testament was real. These were real people that Paul wrote to who had real problems that needed to be dealt with. Instead of viewing it like a story, we tend to see it as an instruction manual. We in essence have lost our sense of imagination. St. John takes hold of that imagination and ponders about what life might have actually been like for the Apostles and the early Christians.
I really appreciated the wide use of cities and characters that St. John included within the story. At the beginning, when it was primarily Philemon, his family, and Onesimus mentioned, I began to think that this story was going to really be stretched only focusing on them in their town. I was pleased to see that St. John included other cities and characters to help tie the story into other letters of Paul. The first big instance in which she does this is when Philemon travels to Ephesus (where he is converted). Now although this is purely speculation (as is much of the book), I felt it was appropriate for St. John to connect Philemon with Paul directly as she did in this scene. Philemon speaks directly with Paul and eventually becomes one of his students. Therefore, it is absolutely appropriate for Paul to directly write to Philemon at the end of the story.