Some of the earliest Christians were considered atheists by their mates. How is this so? In Larry Hurtado’s new book, “Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Disctinctiveness in the Roman World” we find out! This is an exciting piece of New Testament scholarship. It is exciting because it is a book which engages with the often-asked question, “What difference does Christianity really make?” Hurtado looks at the distinctiveness of Christianity in the Roman world, focussing on the first two centuries of Christianity and at times dipping into the third. Many of his observations provide food for thought when thinking about Christianity in our own contemporary world.
The book is divided into 5 chapters:
1) Early Christians and Christianity in the Eyes of Non-Christians
2) A New Kind of Faith
3) A Different Identity
4) A “Bookish” Religion
5) A New Way to Live
Early Christians and Christianity in the Eyes of Non-Christians
The best evidence for the distinctiveness of Christians in the Roman world was accounts of Christianity as observed by outsiders. Hurtado looks first at Jewish responses to early Christianity.
The earliest Christians were mostly Jews and they were viewed with suspicion and hostility by other Jews. Saul who becomes Paul the Apostle is a great example of this. He was known for persecuting the early Christians with zeal. Hurtado explores Paul’s zeal for the law as connected to the Jewish tradition for “justifiable use of violence by Jews against fellow Jews seen guilty of some major and public violation of God’s law.” The story of Phineas illustrates this (Numbers 25:1-15). Hurtado concludes that Paul would have seen the Jesus movement as a kind of threat to the Jewish community and its way of life. Why is this? Hurtado thinks that it is likely that what Paul considered inappropriate reverence for Jesus was at the heart of the issue. It was likely that before his conversion Paul viewed Jesus as a false teacher and his crucifixion as a sign of curse.
Not only was there tension amongst early Jewish Christians and the broader Jewish population, there were also plenty of Pagan critics of Christianity. Hurtado says, “These pagan critics were members of the cultural elite of the time, such as philosophers, rhetoricians, and literary figures, people from the Roman-era intelligentsia.” (page 20)
A New Kind of Faith
In our contemporary Western society when we talk about God it is often a common assumption that we are all talking about the same deity. Hurtado argues that this is a “curious assumption” in the wider context of human history and that this is due to the “cultural impact of Christianity.”
What made Christianity so different in the Roman era from most religious practices of the time was its insistence that there is only one true God. This belief even went as far to imply impiety or even atheism compared with a Roman view of religion.
Hurtado is very keen to define what Romans might mean by religion as compared with how we might understand religion today. In the modern sense religion “can be regarded as a kind of activity distinguishable from other areas of life, such as politics, economics, or science.” In the Roman world religion wasn’t separable from the rest of life as a distinct category. “We may think of ‘religion’ as something you do on, for example, on Sundays, or, if you are Jewish, on Sabbath. But in the Roman Empire what moderns call ‘religion’ was virtually everywhere, a regular and integral part of the fabric of life.”
The Roman world was a world “full of Gods.” Hurtado says, “The most well-known deities were associated with particular peoples, particular geographical areas, particular areas of life, particular forces of nature, and particular cities. Each of the many people of the Roman Empire had their own traditional, and multiple, deities, and in that period the tendency was to recognize and welcome them all.”
The attituded then in Roman society was that one would reverence multiple gods, and this is what it means to be a “pious” Roman. The prayer to certain gods was woven into everyday life with activities such as making a journey, eating in someone’s home or at public meetings.
Here we can see where Christians stood out as distinctive. Christians only worshipped one God and anything else was considered idolatry. This would have been very difficult for Christians in the Roman Era. “Christians likely often also had to refuse to join in the worship of the various divinities and so had to negotiate their relationships carefully, especially, no doubt, those involving family and close acquaintances.”
In the Roman world, this exemption from worship of the gods wasn’t unique. The Jewish people took a stance against idolatry but it was viewed with a level of tolerance because it was regarded as a national peculiarity. But for many Christians they “could not claim any traditional ethnic privilege to justify their refusal to worship the gods.” This would make for many awkward dinner parties indeed. The exclusive claims Christians made and their refusal to join in worship meant they were even accused of atheism!
Not only was their exclusive claims of worship odd, the beliefs Christians held about God were distinctive in the Roman world. What was very strange was: “The notion that there is one true and transcendent God, and that this God loves the world/humanity.” The idea of the kind of relational terms used to describe God by Christians was foreign to many pagan texts of the Greek and Roman-era. Hurtado concludes that “early Christianity represented a new kind of what we would call ‘religion,’ something that had not quite been seen before, and something that proved revolutionary in what ‘religion’ came to mean thereafter.”
A Different Identity
In the modern Era we might indicate our religion on a census yet in the Roman Era “what we would call religious identity was conferred at birth and was not really a distinguishable conceptual category.” The exception was that there were voluntary religions that one could be part of such as the various “mystery cults” of the Roman world.
However, as we have seen earlier in the book Christians were expected to exclude themselves from the worship of the gods amongst the pressure from family and friends and in doing so would have to negotiate their commitment to following Christ and their social life. The distinctiveness for Christianity was the identity that was formed in belief and practice as followers of Jesus. This argues Hurtado, leads to what we would recognize as a separate religious identity “distinguishable from, and not a corollary of, one’s family, civic, or ethnic connection.”
A “Bookish” Religion
The notion of sacred texts at the centre of religion is one that Hurtado insists we have inherited mostly from Christianity. He calls Christianity “bookish” meaning “that reading, writing, copying and dissemination of texts had a major place – indeed, a prominence – in early Christianity that, except for Jewish circles, was unusual for religious groups of the Roman Era.” This bookish nature developed from Christianity’s roots in Judaism. “The practice of reading sacred texts as a regular part of communal worship was shared by synagogues and the early churches, and in this they were distinctive in the Roman world of religious practice.” At first the texts that were read in worship were from what we call the “Old Testament.” However new texts were included in early Christian worship, the first of which would have been the reading of Paul’s letters addressed to churches in various locations. Soon these texts became considered as scriptures. Hurtado cites 2 Peter 3:15-16 which refers to Paul’s letters as “Scriptures.” The Gospels were also read as scripture and attested to by Justin Martyr. “At least in the church practice that Justin knew and approved in mid-second century Rome, Gospels were being read in corporate worship and so were being treated as scripture along with ‘Old Testament’ writings.” Hurtado also makes the claim that there is decent evidence to suggest that they were also read privately by individuals. He gives examples of manuscripts which suggest reading for personal study or edification rather than corporate reading. This makes Christianity different from any other kind of religious group in its time (apart from the synagogue in some respects).
Not only was Christianity “bookish” in its reading of texts in worship but also in the amount of literature produced in the first three centuries. Hurtado lists these at length (you can read the book for that). The point is the sheer output of writing. In addition to this there were innovations and adaptions to literary conventions made by Christians. For example, the length of the letters written by Paul for example were astonishing compared with the average letters of the time. As well as this they copying and circulation of texts shows the massive effort involved in getting the Christian message out there.
The preferred method of Christian literature was the codex. Hurtado describes this as “the ancestor of the modern leaf book.” This was another distinctive in a time where the preferred method was usually a bookroll or scroll. Hurtado says this preference must have been “conscious and deliberate” and that “in preferring the codex they were at odds with the larger book culture of the time.” It would definitely have the effect of making Christian writings physically distinctive.
A New Way to Live
In this chapter, Hurtado makes the point that today we might think of “religion” being about morality and behavioural requirements yet in the ancient world this wasn’t necessarily the case. Christianity’s emphasis on social and behavioural practices was rather unusual. Hurtado is careful not to stereotype all practices of the Roman period as “depraved or cruel” but he does insist on pointing out that they were “engaged in some practices, that, hopefully, we would regard as abhorrent today.” Some examples he gives are infant exposure, gladiatorial contests and spectacles, and Roman sexual practices.
Infant exposure was the practice of discarding unwanted newborn babies who would either be left somewhere obscure to die or be brought up as slaves. This exposure was widely practiced and not looked upon with moral outrage. “The only wide-scale criticism of the practice, and the only collective refusal to engage in infant exposure in the first three centuries AD, was among Jews and then also early Christians.” The Gladiator contests of Roman life are probably more well known in popular culture so I won’t go into them here. The one point to make is the bloodthirsty and violent nature of these spectacles were a prominent part of civic life.
Hurtado once again makes the point that Christians had to wrestle very publicly with their new way of life that meant they lived with many tensions. Christianity was “a new way to live.” In contrast, “Roman-era religion did not typically have much to say on what we might term ‘ethics’, ‘do’s and don’ts’.”
One example that Hurtado uses to highlight this ethical difference at length are Roman-era views of sexuality in contrast with the early Christian developments. Today many think Christian views of sex are often viewed as quaint, irrelevant, or retrograde. However, in the earliest days of Christianity in the Roman world, Christian views on sex were radical.
Hurtado gives examples:
-Paul warns the believers not to engage in porneia, which we might translate as “illicit sex.” 1 Thessalonians 4:6-8. Porneia is defined as “a wide subset of extramarital sexual activity.”
This was distinctive in the Roman world because there were several sexual activities outside of marriage that were broadly accepted such as sex with prostitutes, courtesans, and slaves. In fact, there was a double standard when it came to sex. Wives were expected to honour their husbands by remaining faithful yet men we allowed a lot of freedom to have sex with others as long as they weren’t someone’s wife or a freeborn virgin.
In his sexual ethic Paul lifts the bar, expecting men to be as faithful as they expect their wives to be and more because of the faithfulness and love of Jesus. Also, the early Christians spoke out against the sexual abuse of children. In the Roman world of Paul’s time sexual use of children was practiced commonly. The early Christians became famous for this. These examples all show that “The behavioural expectations placed on early Christians were demanding and represented at a number of points a sharp departure from what was tolerated and even approved in the larger Roman culture.”
This book provides many examples of just how distinctive Christianity was in the Roman-era. It also highlights the impact of Christianity on our world and how many of the things we take for granted as “religious” stem from early Christian practice. Reading this book made me wonder how Christians might be distinctive today, particularly when it comes to behavioural and social practices.