How Christianity Killed the Pagan Gods

A review of Larry Hurtado’s Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? and Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, Marquette University Press, 2016, 144 pp., $15; Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Baylor University Press, 2016, 304 pp., $19.95 paperback

Historical facts and obscure trivia provide excellent material for pub quizzes. When did the Second Defenestration of Prague occur? 1618. Who was emperor of the Joseon dynasty at the end of the eighteenth century? Jeongjo. Where did Hare te Kokai die during the New Zealand Wars? Sentry Hill.

Yet history does not come in a prepackaged narrative, and it would be a mistake to limit history to a list of names and dates. Stories help us make sense not only of the present but also of the past. How narratives should be constructed, however, is far from clear. Some reflection and likely some imagination are necessary.

Comparison is an additional factor to consider in historiography. How should one describe the history of the Romans during the Roman Empire? One way would be to describe every people group living in the geographical boundaries of the Roman Empire during the time in which imperial authority retained its influence, but the scope of this project and the limitations of our evidence make such ambitions impossible to fulfill. More importantly, writers located in the Roman Empire did not reckon everyone who lived there to be Roman. Various features distinguished Romans, Egyptians, Macedonians, and Jews/Judeans. Distinctive features often marked out a person or group in such a way as to define their identity. Thus one can ask what characteristics should be utilized to differentiate various groups and what the role of comparison is in historiography.

While multiple starting points could be found when considering Larry Hurtado’s most recent books, historiographical questions will serve our purposes well. Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? was delivered as the 2016 Père Marquette Lecture in Theology and explores the question that serves as its title. Destroyer of the gods has a twofold focus. The first and larger of these emphases concerns several features of early Christianity that make it unusual in the Roman Empire. The book secondarily examines how these distinctive features in early Christianity have become familiar qualities in present-day cultures where Christianity has had historical influence. Both books are aimed at non-specialist audiences while drawing heavily on technical research. When read together, these books highlight characteristics that made early Christianity odd, while also offering a few suggestions about why the movement of Jesus-followers continued to expand in the first three centuries.

The titular question of Why on Earth is different from the sorts of macro-questions that run along the lines of, “How did such a small Palestinian movement as Christianity come to have so great an influence within the Roman Empire and Western civilization?” Nor does Hurtado’s query limit him only to historical, cultural, or social-scientific approaches. Rather, the question enables a study of the social costs of a Christian commitment in the first three centuries with due attention to individuals. After acknowledging the diversity of early Christianity, Hurtado highlights the phenomenal spread of the movement in terms of geography, numbers, and demographics. This spread is all the more surprising in light of the costs of becoming a Christian. Particular attention is given to social and political/judicial costs. Hurtado traces the sources of various tensions to the ubiquity of the Roman gods in daily life and the Christian requirement to abstain from reverencing the traditional deities. The seriousness of these costs is attested to in reports of and worries about those who defected from Christianity. The volume concludes by offering some attempt at an answer, although Hurtado notes that he does not answer the question programmatically. His comments are brief when compared to his analysis of the consequences for conversion, but he observes something important: In addition to the various social and cultural factors that deserve to be noted, a historian must take the beliefs of individuals into account as powerful motivating factors. With this in mind, he suggests that belief in a loving God and eternal life were significant reasons to become a Christian.

Destroyer of the gods picks up where Why on Earth left off and goes beyond it by focusing on what made early Christianity distinctive in the Roman world rather than on reasons for converting. It begins by reflecting on perceptions of Christians from pagan critics, such as Pliny, Galen, Lucian, and Celsus. These criticisms highlight the notice that Romans in the upper echelons of society took of Christians and the unusual nature of what they saw there. Hurtado notes the exclusivity of worship among Jews and Jesus-followers and contrasts this with the more typical tendency to honor all the gods. However, while Christianity differed from typical Roman practices, Jesus-followers departed from traditional Jewish worship by including Jesus as central in their devotional beliefs and practices. Since their worship was exclusive and the movement was translocal and transethnic, Christians also had to forge a new kind of identity. By disconnecting political loyalty and religious practice, early Christianity, Hurtado suggests, may have influenced its Roman environment in addition to being impacted by its surroundings. Early Christians also gave a prominent place to reading and texts. Christians read corporately and in private, composed many works, copied manuscripts, and disseminated books. They overwhelmingly preferred the codex to the otherwise more popular book roll. Finally, Christian commitments came with ethical requirements that were somewhat unusual in their specific instructions but were particularly distinct in being motivated by their worship practices. Alongside this attempt to set Roman-era Christianity in its historical context, Hurtado periodically points out Christianity’s historical influence by showing that much of what was distinctive about early Christianity has become commonplace in societies where Christianity has had historical influence.

Collectively these volumes make a cogent and persuasive argument for the distinctive nature of certain aspects of the early Christian movement. Such a claim makes sense not only of what certain members of the movement wrote about themselves but also of the ways their critics viewed them. This claim should be contextualized within scholarship on early Christianity where much of the emphasis falls on the similarities between various elements of early Christianity and the Greco-Roman world. Within this environment, Hurtado’s work redresses an imbalance by highlighting ways in which the movement is distinguished. His argument that Christians forged a new kind of identity, one based not on ethnicity or locality and which largely disconnected religious identity from political loyalty, provides a useful instance of contrast with much of the Roman environment in which Christianity sprang up. This contrast is easily overlooked because it seems so natural to those in the modern West.

As with any book, however, there remains more to study, explore, and consider. In particular, the answer to the question why anyone became a Christian requires more attention. Christian belief in a loving and transcendent God and teachings about eternal life provide a useful place from which to begin to answer the question posed in Why on Earth, but one should press these answers further. For example, how does God’s love relate to the proclamation of a crucified Messiah? Hurtado rightly points out the unusual and often compelling articulation of Christian love, but a link to Jesus’s important role in worship seems to be a natural step to make for at least some early Christian writers. One may also wonder what effect teaching about eternal life had for life in the present. One way to begin to answer this question might be to consider Hurtado’s comments about eternal life, which occur in Why on Earth, alongside his discussion of Christian ethical teachings, which takes place in Destroyer of the gods. Of course, it is perfectly legitimate to separate the discussions in two different publications. For those who want to press these studies further, though, tying these threads together may be one way to move forward. Nevertheless, these books are to be commended as thorough historical studies that highlight early Christian distinctives and oddities in a nontechnical manner.

Yet the adjective historical brings us back to the questions with which the review opened. Hurtado himself says something about his historical methodology as well as the history of early Christian historical scholarship in the introduction and appendix of Destroyer of the gods. He lays out his aims to write a historical study in the introduction and acknowledges that many such studies occur in the service of ideological concerns. While he rightly disavows any pretense of objectivity, Hurtado endeavors to write a historical inquiry into distinctive features about early Christianity without writing as a Christian apologist or skeptic. In the appendix of the same volume, he briefly sketches the treatment of early Christian history among scholars with a particular focus on the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (history-of-religions school). These bookends illustrate Hurtado’s historical intentions and awareness, both of which come through clearly in Why on Earth and Destroyer of the gods.

Even so, the historical studies in these books did not begin as prefabricated narratives. Imagination is required at several points in Hurtado’s work by virtue of its being a historical study with limited source material from which to work. For example, scattered statements about the best way to live are taken from early Christian and Roman writings and formulated into a cogent chapter arguing for the distinctiveness of early Christian ethical teachings when compared to those of Roman society. To my mind, Hurtado is persuasive, but inferences must be drawn and imagination must be utilized in order to come to such a conclusion. The role of imagination is more evident when answering the question, why would someone become a Christian? Answers could vary widely, and a complete answer might include several social, cultural, political, and theological factors. The work of a historian requires imagination in order to reconstruct history responsibly. There is a certain amount of guesswork involved, but such imagination should be disciplined. Hurtado’s is. Both books construct well-reasoned arguments and make inferences based on detailed knowledge of the texts in question. They also disseminate this information to a broad audience. Other readers may construct matters differently, but doing so will require an examination of the primary texts along with rigorous and imaginative thinking in order to construct a compelling narrative.

In addition to inferences and imagination, the comparative task is also necessary for historiography in order to distinguish the entities under discussion. In the case of these books, the comparative work is aided by the recognition that Christians and Romans were categories that made sense to many of the writers mentioned in the book. Yet these terms were not used in the same way in every instance. Christian distinctiveness in a Roman world might mean something different depending on how one defines the terms. Precisely this sort of work is required in order to make any sense of the world that meets us in the texts from the Roman Empire. Ideally, comparison would acknowledge both similarities and differences, and Hurtado does not acknowledge as many similarities between early Christians and their Roman neighbors as he could. However, he omits these intentionally in an attempt to rebalance scholarship. Someone might move this project further by taking early Christian distinctives into account when placing Christianity in its Roman environment. To move a step beyond, it would be helpful to think about how to take such detailed comparative work and place it into a cogent historiographical narrative.

Such are not Hurtado’s aims in these studies, but books that address significant issues in scholarship and raise overarching questions are to be highly recommended. Hurtado’s clear and well-reasoned voice serves as an authoritative guide through the tangle of earliest Christianity in its Roman environment. From Roman accounts of early Christian oddity to early Christian book culture, Hurtado collects arcane pieces of knowledge that could well serve as material for pub quizzes and amasses them into a plausible and largely compelling analysis. It remains to be seen how someone else will take his work and build upon it.

Jonathon Lookadoo studies Christian origins, focusing particularly on the first two centuries of Christian history. His dissertation looked at high priestly and temple metaphors in Ignatius of Antioch, and he is the translator of Olavi Tarvainen’sFaith and Love in Ignatius of Antioch(Eugene: Pickwick, 2016; originally published as Glaube und Liebe bei Ignatius von Antiochien, Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Gesellschaft, 1967).