Enjoyable, but not deep; engaging, but not powerful.
Marcellus Gallio has no use for religion of any kind, and nor does his slave, Demetrius. Both men have different reasons for denying the supernatural, true - Marcellus because he has been raised with no respect for the Roman gods, Demetrius because he cannot reconcile the evil of the world with the existence of a God - but they have an equal amount of disgust for "superstition." But the paradigms of both are radically changed after Marcellus is ordered to take command of the Roman garrison Minoa in Palestine. Once there, Demetrius and Marcellus find themselves caught up in a struggle involving a Galilean named Jesus, and when Marcellus puts the Man to death and wins His robe, it marks the beginning of a journey to discover who this Jesus was.
Right and wrong are fairly clearly delineated, though an irksome facet of the story involves marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. The excesses and immorality of the Roman Empire are denounced, as is the greed of the Jewish rulers (Pharisees and scribes). Marcellus deceives a number of people about his purpose in traveling through Palestine, fearing that if they should learn that he is a Tribune, they would not offer any information about Jesus. Demetrius gets into several fights, though with justifiable causes.
The whole story is centered around the life of Jesus, and the premise deals with what happened to the robe for which the Roman officers threw dice. The author gives the robe a sort of power - for good or ill, depending on whether the one who touches it is a believer or not - and it comes across in some places as a relic. Several of Jesus' miracles are related, and there are a couple extra-Biblical stories involving either Him or the Apostles. There was one instance in which the author very clearly read into a passage what is not actually told; that is, that Ananias (of Ananias and Sapphira fame) died of a heart attack. Several Biblical stories are told from either Demetrius' or Marcellus' perspective. As mentioned in the Morality Box, one (possibly two, though not explicitly) believing character marries an unbeliever.
In a section of dialogue between Marcellus and another Roman, Jehovah is greatly disrespected. This does, however, accurately show the Roman view of the Jews and of their religion. In another part where Marcellus and Demetrius speak with a Jew, Jehovah and the Messiah are spoken of with respect. Douglas says in one place that someone is "as old as Jehovah, and just as cross" - a comment probably meant to be a mental remark on Marcellus' part, but this is not clear.
The theology of "The Robe" is not very thorough or evangelical. While it is stated a few times that Jesus is divine - the Son of God - there is no mention of the foundational points of sin and repentance. The Christianity portrayed is much more "moral," basically teaching that we all ought to live good lives. The ascension is not mentioned (though the resurrection is), but the facts that Jesus is coming again and that all who believe on Him will have eternal life do show up repeatedly.
Christ's crucifixion is depicted, but not in graphic detail. Demetrius bludgeons a man for making advances on a young woman; he also attacks a jailer when the man refuses to give him water, and sustains a knife wound. One character takes a severe sword wound. Persecution of the Christians is a theme in the latter part of the book.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Marcellus becomes drunk several times (again, in the earlier part of the book) and so do a few other characters. Caligula's drunkenness also comes into the story.
It is clear that a Roman woman is having or has had an adulterous affair, but this fact is mentioned only briefly and in relation to another point. There are several passionate kisses and embraces. A woman's lack of virtue is mentioned twice. Diana, Marcellus' love interest, is the subject of several untoward advances from other men; a Roman makes advances on another woman and is disciplined severely (see Violence).
Crude or Profane Language or Content
In the beginning part of the book Marcellus is said to swear by the Gods. Emperor Caligula is also said to swear prolifically.
"The Robe" is somewhat hard to review. Judged purely as a novel, it is very good; while the middle part is made up of little more than walking and talking, Douglas' style of dialogue makes even this part engaging, and the action in the first and last parts is quite enjoyable. The two main characters, Marcellus and Demetrius, are very well-written and sympathetic, and the way they interact as friends despite their master-slave relationship was finely done.
The theology, however, wasn't as good. The light way in which Douglas handles the Scripture, particularly in his interpretation of the things mentioned in the Spiritual Content box, made the spiritual aspect of the story shallow and often flimsy. Also, by not presenting the entire Gospel, it was difficult to tell what the author was saying is actually necessary for regeneration (not a word used in the novel), and the fact that nothing is said about repentance robbed the story of the majority of its power. The full beauty of the Church in its early years was lost. Coupled with this was the marriage between the believer and the unbeliever, which was "resolved" in a superficial way.