I’m privileged to have Tessa Afshar on my blog today. She’s here to tell us about her new book, Daughter of Rome. I just finished reading it, and I can tell you, it’s well worth the time and money. Tessa has graciously taken the time to answer a few questions about her writing of her new book. Tessa will tell us how she came to write it, what she learned, and what she hopes we will learn. So let’s jump right in.
Your new book, Daughter of Rome is the story of Priscilla and Aquila, what made you want to write about them?
Although we know little about this extraordinary couple, what we do know is spell-binding: they saved Paul’s life; set up house churches in three different cities in the Roman Empire; shared the Gospel with many, and became influential spiritual leaders through some of the most harrowing years of the church’s history. Their marriage must have been remarkable! Priscilla served alongside her husband. The unusual mention of her name before his in several passages suggests that, indeed, on certain occasions, she might have been considered the more knowledgeable teacher and a respected leader in her own right.
An exceptional woman, a powerful marriage bond, a courageous couple who faced danger more than once for the cause of Christ. It’s the stuff good stories are made of.
We know so little about Priscilla and Aquila from the New Testament, but we do know that they were important figures in the early church. How did you go about crafting a detailed, plausible backstory for them?
I started with what I did know. Details like their names, for example. Priscilla is a nickname for Prisca, a name that may give us a clue to this fascinating woman’s background. The male version of Prisca’s name, Priscus, was a well-known Roman appellation, belonging to a noble Roman family. Prominent Roman households had a habit of naming their slaves after the patriarch. As such, Prisca (female for Priscus) could be a slave name. However, Priscilla was married, which means that she could not have been a slave, as slaves were not allowed to marry. Hence, she was either an actual member of the Priscus family or a freed slave. The latter option is not likely since the Romans rarely freed their female slaves. To me, the most plausible option points to Priscilla being a scion of the Priscus family. The storyline deals with this heritage.
The Bible tells us that Aquila, a Jew, was originally from Pontus (Acts 18:2). We know that the church had been well established in Pontus by the early 60s AD (1 Peter 1:1-2), about ten years after the events in Daughter of Rome take place. Certainly, during this period, there would have been Christians in Pontus. Yet, in spite of their extensive travels, Pontus is never mentioned as one of Priscilla and Aquila’s destinations. The plot takes this curious absence into account.
Obviously, aspects of the backstory I created are completely fictional. We don’t know anything about this couple’s courtship! But using a little historical detective work, I wove in as much real history into this novel as I could.
What kind of problems did the church face in Priscilla and Aquila’s time? How are they similar to the problems of our time? How are they different?
In the early years of their ministry (the years covered in Daughter of Rome), Priscilla and Aquila would have encountered persecution and threats from the Jewish population in Rome’s synagogues. Eventually, they were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius. In later years (which the book does not cover), the persecution of the church intensified under Nero, leading to the arrest and death of many followers of Christ, including Paul. Today, at least in the West, we don’t face the same kind of physical persecution. Our lives are not in danger.
On the other hand, the first-century church was messy. It grew explosively, especially amongst the Gentiles. This caused friction between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. People on both sides grew offended. They felt left out, put down, disrespected. The new believers, especially the Gentiles who came from a very different moral background, needed a lot of nurture and good teaching. Priscilla and Aquila would have felt overwhelmed, overworked, overtired. And in that sense, the church today has not changed at all!
From your experience, what qualities most help a woman function in a leadership role in the church?
For me, that’s like asking which fruit is the most delicious. There isn’t one right answer. Women (and men) can make effective leaders using a wide variety of abilities and gifts. Perhaps the one indispensable quality for leadership in the church is a deep and intimate relationship with our God. It is his anointing that helps us accomplish the impossible, love the unlovable, survive the unendurable, and persevere through the intolerable in order to achieve the inconceivable.
What can Priscilla and Aquila teach us about building strong marriages and strong Christian communities?
One of the first things I noticed about this couple as I studied them is that there is no Priscilla without Aquila, and no Aquila without Priscilla in the Bible. Every time Paul mentions one, he includes the other. They work together. minister together. Host together. Teach together. They are a team. Together, they are able to accomplish what neither could have done alone. This suggests a rare level of unity. Clearly, they respect each other’s talents and allow the release of the other’s gifting.
Have you ever had one of those moments when your spouse is excited about something, and you are too tired or irritated or plain uninterested to give them your attention? I have a feeling Priscilla and Aquila had very few moments like that. They rose above the flesh a lot and led with the spirit.
Having a strong marriage will not necessarily lead to a ministry, but in order to have a flourishing ministry as a couple, you need a strong marriage. Priscilla and Aquila must have had a powerful foundation of love and mutual respect. Sometimes, a couple mistakenly pours so much time and effort into their ministry that they forget about their marriage. But if you don’t feed a marriage, if you don’t give it intentional attention, it will unravel. Marriages aren’t built on a foundation of ministry. They are built on a foundation of Christ-like love. To me, this is what Aquila and Priscilla demonstrated.
What do you think readers will resonate with most from Priscilla and Aquila’s story?
Daughter of Rome is about two wounded, imperfect individuals whose love for each other and for God transforms not only their own lives but the lives of friend and foe alike. Sometimes, as I wrote the story, I myself felt challenged and moved by this couple’s decisions! I hope readers will have a similar experience as they delve into the story. Both in the context of marriage and in dealing with difficult people and challenging situations, Priscilla and Aquila make choices that will hopefully inspire us. They are not perfect! Sometimes, they make mistakes. Grave ones! But I think most of us can resonate with the way they turn to God in the midst of confusion and blunder and fear.
Ultimately, of course, this is a novel. It’s supposed to offer the readers some fun and a healthy diversion. So I also threw in a dog with an attitude problem, a boy with a mysterious past, and some romcom first-century style!
Do you have a favorite minor character from the book?
I find it very hard to pick a favorite. But the dog may have to win this round.
What is your hope for readers of Daughter of Rome?
I hope they will laugh and cry and fall in love. I hope they will determine to love God more and serve their neighbor better. A few months ago, a therapist told me that several of her patients came to her because of my books. I gulped and asked what she meant. She told me that the internal struggles of the characters flagged an area in her clients’ lives that needed healing. Daughter of Rome has a couple of hard-hitting threads that might touch a reader’s heart. That’s what I pray for. That the story, while it entertains, may also bless the reader with insight and the beginnings of God’s healing. May lead to forgiveness of events in their past that they still can’t forgive themselves for. May lead, ultimately to peace.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from writing this book?
I was astounded by Priscilla and Aquila’s commitment to God. They moved several times for the sake of the Gospel. They were expelled from their home in Rome, and rather than sinking into self-pity or disappointment with God for allowing this hardship, they picked themselves up and began to minister in His name where they were planted. Later, when Paul asked them to uproot themselves again and go to Ephesus, they packed their baskets and off they went without complaint.
Eventually, they returned to Rome, and ministered there in the brutal years under Nero’s reign. Because the verses that refer to them are few and short, we sometimes overlook their indomitable spirit and profound impact. Not only did they risk their lives for Paul, but their ministry was so far-reaching that Paul said all the churches of the Gentiles were thankful for them. (Romans 16:3-4)
Priscilla and Aquila challenged my soul. They challenged me to be tougher in my faith, more resilient toward hardship and spiritual attack. They challenged me to strengthen my resolve in the Lord and accomplish what I am called to do.
About the Author
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Tessa Afshar is the award-winning author of several works of historical fiction. Her novel, Thief of Corinth, was an Inspy Award finalist in the historical romance category. Land of Silence won an Inspy Award in the general fiction category and was voted by Library Journal as one of the top five Christian fiction titles of 2016. Harvest of Gold won the prestigious Christy Award in the historical romance category, and Harvest of Rubies was a finalist for the 2013 ECPA Christian Book Award for fiction. In 2011, after publishing her first novel, Pearl in the Sand, Tessa was named New Author of the Year by the FamilyFiction-sponsored Reader’s Choice Awards. Tessa was born in the Middle East and lived there for the first fourteen years of her life. She then moved to England, where she survived boarding school for girls and fell in love with Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, before moving to the United States permanently. Her conversion to Christianity in her twenties changed the course of her life forever. Tessa holds a Master of Divinity from Yale, where she was co-chair of the Evangelical Fellowship. She served in ministry for nearly twenty years before becoming a full-time writer. Tessa is a devoted wife and a mediocre tomato grower. But that has not cured her from being exceptionally fond of chocolate. Visit her online at www.tessaafshar.com