This coming September, Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh (and my Doktorvater), releases his latest volume, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor, 2016).
Larry allowed me to see a pre-published version of the book and I can tell you that it is (not surprisingly) an excellent piece of work and a fascinating look at the way early Christians fit (and didn’t fit) into their Greco-Roman context.
Although most modern Western individuals see Christianity as typical of all religions around the world (usually with the “all religions are the same” line added in for good measure), this volume works to shatter that misconception. Historically speaking, argues Hurtado, Christianity was radically different than the surrounding religious world into which it was born. Here are a few of the features he points out:
1. Christianity allowed “religion” to be separated from the standard ethnic/national identity it was typically associated with. For most Roman citizens, your religion was not easily distinguished from your citzenship–the two were bound together. But, Christianity came along and people from all walks of life, all ethnicities and nationalities, began to identify themselves as followers of Jesus. The Roman government did not know how to handle this unusual new approach. Christianity was neither Jewish nor Greek (in the typical way it was conceived). Christians were a “third race.”
2. Christianity was exclusive in its worship, devoted to a monotheistic worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. Needless to say this separated Christianity quickly from the surrounding pluralistic and polytheistic culture of Rome. Indeed, it was the monotheism of Christians, and their refusal to join in the worship of the Roman gods, that made Christianity not only seem culturally odd (if not rude), but a threat to the social and political stability of Rome. To refuse the worship of the Roman gods, at least in the minds of Roman officials, was to be position one’s self as an enemy of the state.
3. Christianity was not your standard religion because of its interest in the written word. The early Christian movement, contrary to misperceptions that it used only oral tradition, was very “bookish” in nature. Christians were prolific producers, users, and copiers of texts. This was also distinctive from the surrounding Roman religions which typically did not employ texts in the same fashion and to this same degree.
4. Christianity had a distinctive set of ethics. Contrary to their Roman surroundings, Christians were committed certain practices that made them unique: they were against infant exposure/abandonment, they insisted that husbands should be sexually faithful to their wives (Romans typically allowed for a double standard where men were free to indulge sexually outside the marriage), and they were against the sexual abuse of children.
In sum, Hurtado has provided a fascinating look at Christianity in its earliest days. As always, he demonstrates serious and careful interaction with other scholars, and a thorough knowledge of the primary sources, but writes in such a way that it is accessible to the non-scholar as well. You will want to get a copy as soon as it is released in September.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is coming out right before my own book on Christianity in the second century! My forthcoming volume with IVP academic is a look at second-century Christianity (in a variety of aspects), and inevitably covers much of the same territory as Hurtado’s. My volume is mostly complete, so I didn’t have an opportunity to interact with Hurtado’s work as much as I had wished. But, I was encouraged to see how much our analysis and conclusions are very much the same (sometimes eerily so!).
You can check out the description of Hurtado’s book and pre-order it here.
Bruce Bowers says
Thank you for this interesting and timely review, Dr. Kruger, and both forthcoming titles above appear eminently relevant for today’s church! One additional note: Beyond the general milieu of Paganism, or polytheism, referred to above, the New Testament scholar David Aune gives an excellent (if abbreviated) summary of the imperial cult, or divinization of the Roman emperors (and the city of Rome itself), that contributed to the marginalization of the church in its first centuries. In the course of his magisterial exposition of Revelation (see vol. II, pp. 775-779), Aune summarizes the evidence from the classical world for emperor worship in Asia Minor, a worship which appears to inform the writing of Revelation to a persecuted Christian minority on the margins of Roman society.