With The Lost Letters of Pergamum, Bruce W. Longenecker tries to find truth in a subject that’s truth eludes us. Historical fiction typically takes a historical event or time period and creates characters and scenes to fit within those parameters. Longenecker’s novel is unique in that he develops a compilation of letters, the existence of which we know to be true, and fills in the content of those letters himself. While The Lost Letters of Pergamum is fiction, it may be the case that Longenecker is not far from the truth. When reading the letters, one notices a pattern in the format that they take. This format says lots about etiquette and communication at the time.
For the first half of the novel, when Luke and Antipas are gradually getting to know each other, the letters assume the following format:A response to a logistical concern brought up in the previous letter. (This usually involves what to do with Stachy’s, Antipas’ messenger.)One or two paragraphs with the “meat” of what they’re trying to talk about. Most of it this concerns Luke’s manuscript of the Jesus story. Finally, posing a brand new logistical concern and sometimes talk of daily life. As their relationship progresses and they become more comfortable with the other, they start to get straight to the heart of the issue rather than “beating around the bush.” This is a very interesting indication of what social interactions might have been like in New Testament times, especially between two mutual friends who have never met in person before. The themes of this interaction are quite similar to those of today, especially if one looks at patterns of modern communication.
Perhaps the novel’s greatest success is it’s depiction of Antipas’ conversion to Christianity. The book’s format is great for showing this type of change, due to the personal and reflective nature of letters. In the beginning, Antipas’ primary concern with Christianity is its rejection of the status quo. In an early letter from Antipas and Euphemia to Luke, they question his connections with the Christians, saying “their reputation throughout the empire is suspect” (41). Their clashes of religion are polite, yet firm; We see this in the “sign off” of their letters, in which Luke will say “may the God of goodness go before you”(47) and in the next letter following scrutinizing Christian claims, Antipas will end with a prayer to Neptune, Jupiter, and the emperor Domitian! (55) In the end of the novel, Longenecker utilizes “showing and not telling” to reveal Antipas’ new devotion to Jesus.
Antonius, a new player in the story, writes to Luke using with novelistic detail to portray the death of his friend Antipas and reveal his sacrifice to the Christian cause he once looked down upon.Where the novel succeeds is with emotional and the development of the relationship between Luke and Antipas, but there is very little of either in the first three quarters of the book. Novelist Edward Morgan Forster once said that “.
..’The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. But ‘the king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot” (“The Difference Between Story and Plot”, Aerogramme Writers’ Studio). Unfortunately, there is too much story in Lost Letters, and not enough plot.
It would hard to incorporate more plot, considering that Longenecker is confined to parameters of truth and the syntax of letters at the time. However, I think the novel would benefit from a few more personal moments.