Destroyer of the Gods
by larry hurtado
baylor, 304 pages, $19.95
Three professors at a prestigious divinity school recently gathered around a table for a panel discussion. Their topic is perennially popular, especially in springtime: What exactly happened on that first Easter? Two of the professors were New Testament scholars, the third a patristics expert. When New Testament scholars agreed on the improbability of some of the details of the synoptic accounts, the third demurred: “I’m not a New Testament scholar, so I believe lots more than they do.”
Larry Hurtado was one of the NT scholars at the table, and he gets the joke. It turns on an inverse correlation between knowledge and belief, and pokes fun at a guild mentality. And yet while Hurtado respects the norms of his guild, he is determined to guide those of us outside it to a more robust appreciation of Christianity as a historical phenomenon and a faith. This is a rare combination. Hurtado is far from the first to take on the daunting task of explaining the character and appeal of early Christianity, but he is among the most qualified to do so this century. He proves that much remains to be said of Christianity’s origins, and he reminds us of several tensions at the heart of the faith—first-century tensions we still discuss in the twenty-first.
As his book’s title suggests, the spread of Christianity involved both destruction and construction. Historically, it was the destructive tendency of Jesus’s movement that troubled Greco-Roman contemporaries. Destroyer begins by re-establishing the essential strangeness of the Jesus movement. It’s worth noting that the Christians entered the Western literary tradition in infamy. Writing about a generation after the author of Acts, the Roman historian Tacitus introduces Christianos as a shady bunch devoted to a Judean criminal executed during the reign of Tiberius. This Christus inspired a “pernicious superstition” that broke out like a disease through the Roman empire. It was one of countless “atrocities” that had made its way from provinces to the city of Rome, like so many streams of sludge to a drain. Meanwhile Tacitus’s acquaintance, Pliny, assures us the superstition was not limited to the cities. Rather it spread like a “contagion” in the countryside too, among both young and old. These ancient testimonies are crucial for Hurtado’s task: to isolate the ingredients in Christianity that disgusted Tacitus and baffled Pliny.
At a basic level, Hurtado aims to make Christianity weird again. Christianity’s sheer familiarity has desensitized us to its radicalness. Hurtado aims to show how the “odd” became “commonplace,” by surveying the first three centuries of the Jesus movement. In fact the very concept of a book can be traced to early Jesus followers. The “bookishness” of the movement is one of the “distinctives” Hurtado describes, which helped make a ragtag group of Jewish schismatics into a global institution. It also offered a radically new way of thinking about three things: identity, religion, and morality.
The strangeness of Christianity emerges most clearly in the chapters on ancient conceptions of identity and religion. Hurtado shows how difficult this conversation is: Both these ideas are anachronistic where the pre-Christian world is concerned. The very ideas of theism and atheism owe their modern resonance to Christianity. Our notion of religion as a separate category of life is foreign to the classical world—as is the tendency to equate religion with scriptures. All of these ideas seem commonsensical today, and yet they struck the early church’s neighbors as strange.
Of course, the Jews were also strange. Hurtado is clear on Christianity’s echo of the “Jewish matrix” in which it was born. But the Jews were generally allowed their weirdness because their rulers and neighbors were able to write it off as an ethnic peculiarity. Interestingly, this line of thinking also allowed Tacitus to admire German barbarians, even for their refusal to abandon infants. A foreign people were permitted their foreign practices in both cases. But Christians did not fit into the category of “other.” Hence two of Hurtado’s distinctives: Jesus followers rapidly became “translocal” and “transethnic.” There could be no separation, no Christian ghetto. Christians are still dealing with the ramifications of this fact; we have obviously not smoothed the tension between retreating and engaging.
The impulse to withdraw is clear in Pliny’s account: Christians refused to participate in the Greco-Roman temple-industrial complex, and were therefore bad for business. Pliny complains to his employer, the emperor Trajan, that Christians refused to buy sacrificial animals, and traffic in the temples was dangerously low. The world full of gods memorably recounted by Keith Hopkins would suffer should some upstart come along and “destroy” all but one of them. Upstanding citizens of ancient cities and villages were irked by their neighbors’ refusal to partake in the religious cafeteria. Crucially, Hurtado points out that it was likely a majority of Christians who abstained, even in this early period. This runs counter to the hypothesis that most Jesus followers found ways to accommodate the regnant culture (seen recently in a monograph likening them to closeted homosexuals of the twenty-first century).
The ancient ideal of a “peace among the gods” lies behind Pliny’s worries, and this ideal also motivates both the official persecutions and the popular criticism of Christianity. Peace (and prosperity) among men depended upon the pax deorum, which correct sacrifice and rite could encourage, if not ensure. Historically, it has led to an orthopraxy-versus-orthodoxy distinction that, if logical, is decidedly out of favor. Hurtado’s accomplishment here is to transcend this academic chestnut by keeping his focus on a final, most significant distinctive: Christians wanted to change the world. The ultimate goal of the pax deorum, by contrast, was to maintain the status quo. However disappointed moderns may be in the lack of outright rebellion in St. Paul—whose Corinthian letters Hurtado reads closely and fruitfully—we must understand how countercultural he was. The significance of “idolatry” to the New Testament letters is one example: Paul gives the Greek word a pejorative sense that it had never had outside of Judaism. His prescription of agape, moreover, was simultaneously “preposterous” and “winsome” in its first-century context.
Changing the world came at a high price. At an extreme level, that price was martyrdom, but Hurtado reminds us that becoming a Jesus follower was hard for every convert, first because its moral standard was uniform: Age, gender, and socio-economic meant nothing in the new Christian moral economy. Second, the moral standard was high, and it demanded a comprehensive reorientation in terms of faith, identity, and behavior. Hurtado shows that Christianity cost its adherents more than any other ancient association. There were cults and so-called mystery religions available to ancients, but their members faced less friction among neighbors than do twenty-first-century vegans. Joining the cult of Isis, for example, did not require anyone to separate from his or her family. It was just as likely increase one’s status. Compare this to the first Christian female martyr whose name is known to us: St. Perpetua was executed, after being estranged from her father. (In fact, she was “comforted by his absence” while in prison, since it meant relief from his efforts to convince her to apostatize.)
I wish Hurtado had gone farther to show just how radical, and radically Christian, the idea of changing the world is, particularly in its ancient context. I would also have liked more analysis of the various tensions at the heart of the Jesus movement. First, there is the obvious cultural dynamic of inhabiting the world without being formed by it. Pliny’s letters show that by the early second century, significant numbers of Jesus followers were already taking a stance apart from regnant polytheism—a position their neighbors noticed and abhorred. The reader will also come away with an awareness of the push of its exclusivity over against the pull of its universality, but she’ll need to do more reading in order to articulate just what’s going on there. The same could be said of the weirdness of a Christian orthodoxy that is somehow more capacious than most heresies, which tend towards a sort of puritanism. More research is needed to show how these dynamics relate to the strange combination of a faith that is both winsome and preposterous.
Finally, I sense a gap in this book that liturgy could have filled. Though Hurtado discusses cultural and intellectual reasons for the success of the Jesus movement, this volume would have benefited from a discussion of the intangible impetus of spiritual experience—of the winsomeness of the liturgy. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a guild master to wander too far out of his guild. Yet Hurtado has discussed the way in which revelatory experience can lead to religious innovation elsewhere; the lack of such a discussion here is no doubt due to the constraints of a short, accessible book. Hurtado’s seventy pages of endnotes allow interested readers to track down more information. Baylor University Press has performed a service in producing a well-bound hardback that costs thirty dollars. The work should enrich Christian formation across a wide ecumenical spectrum, but it will also help the latter-day Pliny, who wonders what all the fuss is about.
Joshua Kinlaw teaches classics and history at the City University of New York.