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Carpe Librum

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Historical Novel Society

Review: Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage

Before Bethlehem - James Flerlage

I was excited to start this book, as I often find that historical fiction can be both educational and faith affirming in the case of Biblical era fiction. Unfortunately, this book failed to draw me in at any point. The characters were bland and unbelievable, and somehow the story of Mary & Joseph's betrothal was made boring.


The story is told from the viewpoint of James (writer of the book of James), who the author has made an older half-brother of Jesus. Joseph marries Mary with full intent of remaining chaste as Mary herself is the product of a miraculous birth. Mary is presented as a very unlikable person, in my opinion.


The reader is constantly told that Joseph and his family is in danger. Besides the fact that the evil Romans are in control of the region, it was never made completely clear why Joseph in particular was endangered. Some reference is made to the fact that he is born into the line of David, but I am not sure that the Romans actually tracked this or would have cared until the rumors of a savior born in Bethlehem reached Herod. This does not happen until very late in this novel.


As other reviewers have noted, this book does veer from the Biblical account in some ways that were inexplicable. Joseph is presented as an extremely pious man, and Mary does become pregnant as a virgin, but other details are changed and not for the better. I understand that there are a lot of gaps to fill in Joseph and Mary's story, but, as with any other historical figures, I prefer for the author to begin with what is known and go from there. For a more accurate portrayal of events, try Thoene's AD Chronicles.


I could have looked beyond the literary licence taken in this novel if it had been more captivating. Throughout much of the novel, Joseph toils over decisions, the family travels, and people eat. Dialog was unrealistic and at times difficult to follow. I had a very difficult time finishing this and did end up skimming some sections. I couldn't really tell where the characters were coming from or care where they were going. It was just uninteresting all around.