Destroyer of the Gods (Larry Hurtado) -- A Review

DESTROYER OF THE GODS: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  By Larry W. Hurtado. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016. Xii + 267  pages.

                The title of biblical scholar Larry Hurtado’s latest book is rather dramatic. It could easily be used on the cover of a science fiction book, but it is in fact, the title of a sophisticated historical account of the growth and distinctiveness of early Christianity as it emerged and then evolved within the Roman world. The gods at issue in this title are the gods of Greece and Rome, which Christianity would eventually overcome with its exclusive, transethnic, monotheism.

                Larry Hurtado, author of this important book on early Christianity, is the well-regard Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh. He writes this book to counteract what he perceives to be a cultural amnesia that influences the way in which the development of Christianity has come to be understood over the past few centuries. Hurtado argues for the distinctive nature of Christianity in the face of those who follow in the footsteps of history of religion scholars who want to emphasize Christianity’s similarities over its distinctiveness. Many of these efforts suggest that Christianity is a product of its Greco-Roman environment, so that it functions merely as one more mystery cult. In fact, in some portrayals, everything from Jesus’ birth to his resurrection are seen as reflecting the influence of the age’s mystery cults. It’s not to deny that there aren’t similarities, and at times some borrowing of elements, but at the heart of things, Christianity was unique.

                When we think of religion today, we think of beliefs, rituals, ethical concerns, and laws. We tend to think of religion as a component of culture, but still separate from culture. Or at least we think we can separate out religion from its cultural context. Then we place this modern sensibility on ancient religious traditions. The reality is, the ancient Roman world understood religion very differently from our modern views. In fact, our definition of religion is influenced by Christianity, but in the ancient Roman world religion was not doctrine or ethics. It was the ritual expression of the culture. There were gods for the home, for the city, for the empire. You were expected to venerate these deities, and there was no sense of exclusivity involved. You could worship Zeus, Isis, and Demeter, along with the emperor. To say no to the gods of the nation, the empire, and the community was an act of impiety. It also made you a danger to the community.

                Christianity broke all the rules, because it rejected the idea that one could follow Jesus and worship Zeus or venerate the emperor. Now Judaism was monotheistic and was exclusive in its worship, but Judaism was different from Christianity in that the Romans viewed Judaism as ethnically bound. Christianity, on the other hand, was transethnic. In Hurtado's mind the first three centuries of Christianity's existence were formative. The characteristics that mark Christianity to this day were forged in the context of this rather hostile context. Indeed, according to Hurtado, "in that ancient Roman setting, Christianity was perceived by many as irreligious, impious, and unacceptable, a threats to social order" (p. x). We may not perceive Christianity in this way, but its early compatriots did.

                Why was Christianity deemed strange and dangerous? Could it be that their sense of exclusive devotion to the God revealed in Jesus put them at odds with their culture? This strangeness led to both social consequences and the possibility of physical death. They were considered odd, first and foremost, because they refused to venerate or honor the gods of Rome and of the home. While Rome was rather pluralistic, they weren’t given over to religious liberty, if by religious liberty one meant that religion was voluntary. Residents of the empire were expected to honor the gods. It was an act of allegiance. The fact that Jews didn't have to give religious allegiance was due to the belief their stubbornness in resisting civic religion was an ethnic rooted reality. The same couldn't be said of Christianity, which quickly crossed ethnic boundaries.

                Hurtado offers a historical look at these important questions about the foundational moments of Christianity. He notes the diversity of expression, but focuses on the proto-orthodoxy that was emerging during this era and became the leading theological vision by the fourth century. He begins the journey with a detailed description of the way in which Christianity was perceived and understood by its non-Christian neighbors, both Jewish and Pagan. The Pagan critiques are the most interesting because they seem strange to ears. To think of Christianity, as Pliny suggested, being "perverse superstition" seems beyond comprehension. By the second century Christianity had begun to be noticed. It was deemed unsophisticated and dangerous, and needing a response as seen in the responses of people like Celsus.

                In chapter two Hurtado shows how Christianity was a new kind of faith. In the ancient world no distinction was made between devotion to the gods and the rest of life. Religion was simply an expression of one's culture, but for Christians it was much more. They made a distinction between culture and nation and the God revealed in Jesus. Religion was about ritual for the Romans, while little thought was given to beliefs. In a world full of gods, with temples and rituals, to worship one God who lacked idols was incomprehensible. Now there were growing numbers of trans-ethnic religions emerging at the time, including the Mithraism, which was popular among the soldiers, and the cult of Isis, which had spread widely from Egypt. But neither of these religions was exclusive. Thus, Christians were accused of atheism. it had some of the markings of Judaism, but it transcended them, by moving beyond ethnicity.

                With the exception of Judaism, which had a strong ethnic identity, ancient religions were non-exclusive. Worshiping thee emperor was pledging allegiance to the ruler. To say no to this call to worship was to say no to the government. While voluntary religions were emerging, they were non-exclusive. With Christianity ethnicity and religious identity were separated, the same was true of political loyalty. As Hurtado notes: "Christians refused to honor the gods on which Roman rulers claimed to base their political authority; but Christians affirmed, nevertheless, a readiness to respect pagan rulers, pay taxes, and in other ways be good citizens" (p. 103). What Christians wanted, interestingly enough, was religious freedom. As Tertullian argued, worship can't be coerced, but one could be a good citizen without the religious test. In this Christianity was revolutionary.

                One distinctive that I found fascinating was its bookishness.” Judaism was also “bookish,” but Christianity took this even further in its emphasis on "reading, writing, copying, and dissemination of texts" (p. 105). To say that Christianity was bookish doesn’t mean that Christians were all literate people. As Hurtado makes clear, all that a community needed to disseminate written material was one person who could read the material to the people. In his chapter on bookish Christianity, Hurtado explores among other items, the canonization process that over time standardized texts, beginning with the Pauline letters and then the Gospels, so that by the second century early Christian texts had begun to take on scriptural status. But it wasn't just the texts that came to be seen as scripture that were shared. Numerous works were produced during the second century and beyond. Christian texts were unique as well in their length, at least when we think in terms of letters. Few if any ancient letters were as lengthy as Paul's. Even Philemon is relatively large in comparison to other Roman letters.  Another intriguing development was the Christian embrace of the codex, the forerunner of the modern book, at a time when the scroll was the preferred form of book.

                As I noted earlier, Hurtado points out that for the most part religion equaled ritual. Christianity, much like Judaism, emphasized behavior. The difference between Christianity and Judaism, is that Judaism didn’t try to influence the culture beyond its own community, while Christians sought to share their values more broadly. In some ways they were closer to the philosophical schools than the religions in this. Among the practices that Christians opposed was the Roman practice of infant exposure. Romans seemed have few qualms about this, but Christians rescued infants and opposed the practice. They also opposed gladiatorial spectacles. Christians tried to fit in where they could, seeking to be good citizens, but they also believed that faith had behavioral expectations. Somewhat uniquely sexual expectations were applied to males as well as females.

                I'm not a biblical scholar or a historian of early Christianity. Yes, I've studied the eras under consideration, and thus I have some acquaintance with the matters at hand, but not expertise in them. Nonetheless, I believe that Hurtado has offered us a compelling case for the unique nature of early Christianity. I found his emphasis on the way in which contemporary understandings of religion, especially the separation of religion from culture, have their roots in the Christianity that emerged in this early period. I believe that book, which is very accessible to the non-specialist, will be very helpful in understanding the roots of Christianity, and how we might live out our faith in the contemporary context, so that one might give allegiance to Jesus and be a good citizen (without giving ultimate allegiance to the state). This is a needed challenge to our cultural amnesia, and thus I highly recommend it.


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