Wandering Jude does not normally put 1st century historical fiction in the same category as conversionist novels, simply because 1st century Christianity was really a nascent form of Judaism, one of many Jewish sects. But some authors seem to think that 1st century Jews are alike in every way to their 19th, 20th, or 21st century co-religionists. Not so, says the Wanderer. Here are some samples:
Joel: A Boy of Galilee.
Annie Fellows Johnston, our favorite authoress of Chattanooga Jews and Shirley Temple vehicles, wrote this in 1904. She states in the preface that "it has been the purpose of the author to present to children ... as accurate a picture of the times of the Christ as has been given to older readers through "Ben Hur." With this in view, the customs of the private and public life of the Jews ... have been studied so carefully that the descriptions have passed the test of the most critical inspection. An eminent rabbi pronounces them correct in every detail. While the story is that of an ordinary boy, living among shepherds and fishermen, it touches at every point he gospel narrative, making Joel, in a natural and interesting way, a witness to the miracles, the death, and the resurrection o fthe Nazarene."
Throughout the book, Joel seems to be quick to believe in "Rabbi Jesus", especially when he notices (or others point out) the apparent fulfilled messianic prophecies. When Jesus dies there are some doubts all around, but after witnessing the risen Jesus, Joel believes anew, as does his Aunt Leah. She says "Oh, I believe then that He is the Christ!" ... "I have thought all the time that it might be so, and the children are so sure of it." "And Uncle Laban?" questioned Joel. She shook her head sadly. "He grows more bitterly opposed every day." (p. 250).
Uncle Laban is not the only Jew opposed to Jesus in this book. But every book must have its villain, no doubt.
The Bronze Bow.
Acclaimed children's novelist Elizabeth George Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal Award for The Bronze Bow. "Set in Galilee in the time of Jesus, this is the story of a young Jewish rebel who is won over to the gentle teachings of Jesus." Wikipedia describes the controversy, which has not been insignificant.
Forbidden Gates A Story of Stephen, the First Martyr.
Denise Williamson wrote this historical novel in 1990. The blurb on the back cover tells us that "Nathan Bar Benjamin was only one day away from the ceremony marking his entry into manhood when he met a boy named Dorian on the streets of Jerusalem. Dorian's quest to enter the forbidden gates of the Temple led Nathan to break the Jewish law and become a fugitive. But it was Dorian's older friend Stephen who showed Nathan what it means to be a real man of God."
Nathan and his father are among the Jews in this book who become believers in Jesus (although their conversion doesn't occur until near the end of the book).
Wandering Jude notes that scholars disagree whether the modern bar mitzvah ceremony has its roots in the 1st century or earlier, but we won't quibble about this minor detail.
A Voice in the Wind
Well-known and prolific Christian novelist Francine Rivers wrote A Voice in the Wind in 1993. The main character, Hadassah, is a young Jewish woman in first century Rome who becomes a believer in Jesus. A question that is implied in the following article from the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin is this: Is it legitimate for Christian authors to use Jewish characters for Christian means (and ends) if they are writing solely for a Christian audience? See http//www.jewishsf.com/bk030530/et33a.shtml
Wandering Jude answers this implied question with a qualified yes. Be careful out there, Christian novelists. Writing religious fiction (which can easily become propaganda) is tricky enough, but utilizing main characters from another religion can put your book on dangerous shoals. Be honest about what your protagonists are really doing and who they really are. Avoid stereotypes and try not to convert too many characters to your own personal philosophy of life.