A Week in the Life of a Slave

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.


A Week in the Life of a Slave


John Byron


InterVarsity Press

Publication Date:

July 2, 2019




168 pages


The story of Onesimus doesn’t take up much space in the Bible. The New Testament letter containing his name takes up maybe two pages in most Bibles. However, its context—the apostle Paul speaking about a runaway Greco-Roman slave to the slave’s Greco-Roman master—speaks volumes about what the gospel’s view of slavery and Christian community. John Byron reveals the story’s layers by reimagining how Paul met Onesimus, and what kind of church Onesimus’ master Philemon would have attended. As the story progresses, Byron shows how Paul’s words had huge consequences for both slave and master and still teach us something today.

John Byron is a historian, and shows his credentials. He fills the book with little details—what different social classes wore, the prevailing philosophies of the day, the kind of houses that upper-class Roman citizens lived in—that paint a detailed picture of first-century Roman society.

The central plot is well-constructed. Byron divides the action between Paul and Onesimus in Rome pondering their next move, and one of Philemon’s fellow Colossian Christians pondering whether to include her slaves in church meetings. The combined perspectives show how terrible Roman slavery was, and yet how Roman citizens saw slavery as irremovable from their culture. Understanding both ideas is key to seeing how Paul’s words to Philemon formed a countercultural statement—to treat slaves like free people, as siblings in Christ. The dual perspective also makes it clear that from the start, Christians struggled to be countercultural—a point that books like Cultural Christians in the Early Church by Nadya Williams discuss in more detail.

The difficulty is that while Byron constructs a good plot and makes good points, he doesn’t provide a style that serves those elements. The descriptions are clunky—historical factoids feel jammed into the story rather than carefully inserted. Characters (Paul aside) feel more like chess pieces than like living people. The narrator’s voice feels dry, rarely capturing the drama in the story.

Admittedly, this isn’t an unusual problem. Other books in InterVarsity’s A Week in a Life series (such as Ben Witherington III’s entries A Week in the Life of Corinth and A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem) have equally dry writing styles. Writing history while writing an engaging story is no simple task.

It’s also difficult to tell this kind of story (filled with historical terms, plus maps and archeological maps and tables explaining the terms) in a short space. Every entry in the A the Week in the Life series is under 200 pages, so the historical details must come soon and come frequently. For comparison, Markus McDowell covers the same subject as Byron in his 2018 book Onesimus: A Novel of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but in 336 pages (about twice the length of Byron’s book).

It’s also fair to say that if Byron’s storytelling is dry, at least it’s not camp—the more common issue. Many writers, perhaps inspired by biblical epics like Ben-Hur or historical fiction novels like The Robe, aim for over-the-top storytelling. However, melodrama or outright camp only works—as they did for historical fiction novelists like Irving Stone or biblical epic filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille—with an engaging storytelling style and something clever bolstering the silliness. Minus those traits, camp is just shrill silliness (for example, see Bryn Litfin’s Constantine’s Empire trilogy, also written by a historian).

However, it’s not impossible to write engaging historical fiction in a short space. A Week in the Life also includes contributions by historians Holly Beers (A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman), Gary M. Burge (A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion), and James L. Papandrea (A Week in the Life of Rome). Each of these writers has their own style—Papandrea leans most into melodrama—but they each give an entertaining prose style that balances telling a fun story with deploying facts.

Byron’s book is certainly informative. He also uses current research—making it a more accurate look at Onesimus than, say, Edwin Abbott Abbott’s 1882 novel Onesimus: Memoirs of a Disciple of St. Paul. However, a historical fiction novel lives and dies on whether it engages readers. It’s hard to escape the sense that Byron needed either to redraft the story to polish the prose, or a Jerry B. Jenkins-style collaborator to handle the storytelling.

Well-intentioned and well-researched, but without the engine to engage readers.



2.5 out of 5 stars

Suggested Audience:

Christians who like Biblical fiction or historical fiction set in early church times.

Christian Impact:

Byron draws a detailed picture of what religions were active in first-century Rome—paganism, Stoicism, the new religion that would eventually be called Christianity. He also makes a clear argument that while Paul may not have outright criticized Roman slavery in his letter to Philemon, his words amounted to an exhortation to cease treating Onesimus like a slave.


ECLA readers seeking more fiction about the apostle Paul may enjoy the following:


A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series)



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