Casting Lots by William D. McEachern
Book Review by Thomas A. Timmes
Some book reviews are easy to write and some are difficult. Casting Lots falls into the latter category, but not because it is poorly written, or based on a flawed premise, or has a weak story line. It’s challenging because it is so good! It’s like a diamond of great price with many glittering facets waiting to be discovered, but it is well-hidden and requires patience to find.
The author, William D. McEachern, was born in New York City and is a graduate of Duke University with a bachelor of arts in religion and psychology with a focus on early Christianity. Latin and Greek classes and reading about Caesar fueled his love of Rome and ancient history, which he has studied for half a century. As a practicing tax attorney for more than thirty-six years, he is now pursuing his passion for writing and presents a unique blend of law, religion, and history.
I found myself humbled by the book in that it showed me how much I still need to learn about ancient Rome, writing, and the art of storytelling. McEachern excels in descriptive writing to the point where the reader feels, hears, and sees the marvelous ancient temples spread across the landscape, the bustling city crowds going about their business, and the wind blowing across the bow of a ship crossing the Adriatic Sea. He also has an amazing knowledge of the minutia of daily living in the ancient cities of Rome, Greece, and Judea, which keeps the book solidly grounded in its historical period. And as far as spinning a good yarn, this book boasts an intriguing premise which is closely guarded until the very end.
Casting Lots tells the story of Lucinius, a pitiable Greek slave and physician, who is ordered by his brutal and sickly master to learn more about a Judean man named Jesus in hopes of his receiving a miraculous cure. His master has unsuccessfully tried everything else and is desperate.
The story takes place between 54 AD and 61 AD, some years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and is written in a daily journal format by Lucinius. At the bidding of his master, Lucinius searches for and eventually finds Roman Centurion Gaius Cornelius Balbus, who supervised the crucifixion of Jesus. Cornelius, now a retired primus pilus under Pilate, takes Lucinius on a long journey by foot from Rome to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Then they travel by ship to Greece and Jerusalem during which time Lucinius records Cornelius’ numerous stories about Caesar, Sulla, Pompey, and others. The stories perplex Lucinius and the reader because Cornelius tells the stories as though he was actually present when the events occurred, and he even claims to have heard the words spoken by these men—which is impossible! Yet Cornelius insists that he has perfect knowledge of the innermost thoughts and actions of these men.
Most of the book is taken up with Cornelius’ stories of Rome’s past, which is of interest to the reader, but it’s puzzling in how it all relates to Jesus and finding a cure for Lucinius’ master. In fact, Jesus is only mentioned in a few pages at the beginning of the book and a few at the end, so one needn’t be religious to enjoy the book.
Lucinius dutifully records all the stories Cornelius tells him and eventually comes to believe that Cornelius is telling him the truth when he says he has firsthand knowledge of events that took place before he was even born—because he was there! Lucinius goes on to write his own account of the life of the healer who was crucified by Cornelius, and curiously Lucinius uses the same language as Cornelius when he explains to a friend how he knows the stories about which he writes. “It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first...”
To nitpick one small item, I must mention that in the book Pilate accuses Cornelius of contradicting him in front of the Jews at the moment Jesus died. Cornelius says, “Surely, this was the Son of God,” meaning that Jesus was an innocent man since the Son of God can’t be guilty of any wrongdoing! Pilate is told what Cornelius said and confronts him. “So you (Cornelius) held my judgment up to ridicule by the Jews.” This implies to me that Pilate had found Jesus guilty, yet on three separate occasions Pilate told the High Priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man;” “I don’t find this man guilty of anything;” and “I find no basis for a charge against him.” I have to conclude, therefore, that rather than contradicting Pilate, Cornelius’ statement was essentially agreeing with Pilate, and the confrontation would never have occurred.
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Despite the lack of bloody battles or stories about infamous Emperors, palace intrigues, or barbarians overrunning the Empire, Casting Lots held my attention with its superb, descriptive writing, its in-depth knowledge of ancient life, and Cornelius’ puzzling stories. For those looking for a book with a new and refreshing format and style, I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of Casting Lots.
Thomas A. Timmes is the author of the Legio XVII three-book series. His latest book, Legio XVII: The Eagle Strikes, was published in June.