Have you heard of Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Wizardry? How about Captain Kirk and the star ship Enterprise? How about Charlie Brown or Bart Simpson? Two more. Have you heard about the Roman soldier Marcellus Gallio and his Greek slave Demetrius? Those last two are perhaps not as familiar as the first few. But in the 1940’s and 50’s those names were as familiar as the name Harry Potter is now. All of the names I have mentioned are fictional characters from popular culture– books, movies, and/or TV shows. Sixty-five years ago Marcellus Gallio and Demetrius were among the most popular.
They are the two main characters in the novel The Robe. That title might be familiar some older folks. The Robe was written by Lloyd C. Douglas, a minister for 25 years, and then an author for the rest of his life. He wrote many best-selling books and this one was the biggest of them all. It was the best-selling book in America for almost an entire year in 1942, and it remained on the best-seller list for much of the next 10 years. In 1953 it was made into a blockbuster, Academy Award winning movie starring Richard Burton. Marcellus and Demetrius were the Harry Potter and Ron Weasley of the 1940’s and early 50’s.
The Robe is primarily a novel about the ministry of Jesus, but the story of Jesus is told indirectly. The crucifixion of Jesus takes place near the beginning of the novel, and Jesus himself appears only briefly, saying nothing in those brief appearances. He is only quoted and described by others. In the novel Marcellus Gallio is the commander of the Roman troops that crucified Jesus. When the soldiers gambled for the robe of Jesus, Marcellus won. He and his slave Demetruis were profoundly moved by the little bit they did see of the man Jesus. They were impressed by his strength and courage, and Marcellus felt great remorse over executing a man known to be innocent.
The men soon find out that there was a certain power in the dead man’s robe that was in their possession. When they, and some others, touch the robe, they are strangely comforted, strengthened, and healed of all mental anxiety. Others, upon grabbing the robe in anger or disdain or ridicule, find they do not have the strength to even hang on to it, and it drops out of their hands.
In the beginning, neither Demetrius or Marcellus had any belief in any kind of religion. But they are open to faith, and the robe prompts them to want to find out more about Jesus. In the rest of the novel they try to learn all they can about Jesus, making use of every opportunity to seek out anyone who ever knew or even saw Jesus. Almost all of the Gospel stories are included in the novel; but in a most interesting way, the stories are told through the eyes of the common people in the countryside who experienced first-hand the presence of Jesus. It is a brilliant and powerful re-telling of the story, making all the old familiar stories come alive in a fresh and creative way, along with weaving in a pretty good story of its own.
Even though it is a terrific novel, some readers might be put off by the ‘magical robe’ business. To many, it may sound more like Harry Potter than the New Testament. But actually, even that part is based on the Gospels. For example, Mark 6:56 says:
Wherever Jesus went– into villages, towns, or in the countryside– they brought their sick. They begged Jesus to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.
A similar account is in Luke chapter eight. There the story is told of a lady who was healed by Jesus after merely reaching out from the crowd and touching his robe. “Who touched me?,” Jesus asked, “for I felt power go out from me.”
Marcellus and Demetrius, unbelievers that they are, at first have a psychological explanation for what seems to them to be the magical power of the robe to sooth them. But as they meet more and more people who had seen Jesus and his many miracles, it becomes ever more difficult for them to maintain their skepticism. Thus, the novel also becomes a story of struggling toward faith, and then conversion. It is in this that the book is at its very best. The two men travel around Israel in the years right after the three year ministry of Jesus, walking those same paths and visiting the same villages that Jesus visited. They met Nathaniel who had been in the boat when Jesus calmed the storm. They met the father of the bride at the wedding where Jesus turned water into wine. They met some who helped hand out food when the 5,000 were fed. And they met many who were healed by his touch and blessed by his words. All told of the wonder and delight of meeting Jesus, and how they no longer feared anything, not even death. Again and again readers find themselves saying, “Yes, it must have been something like that; it must have been an amazing and wonderful time.” (continued…)
Mark 6:53-56 — Wherever Jesus went— into villages, towns or countryside— they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
Luke 8:43-48 — A woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” Then the woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”
John 19:23-24 — When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it…” So this is what the soldiers did.
Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed;
save me and I will be saved,
for you are the one I praise.