A steady stream of my RSS notices over recent weeks and months have alerted me to interest in a new book by Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. The title is dramatic enough. Search the term “destroyer of the gods” on Google’s Image search to see the dramatic scenarios it conjures. But the book is not about how Christianity “destroyed the gods” of ancient Rome (at least not directly) as the subtitle less dramatically warns.
Throughout my reading a question that kept bouncing ungrammatically around in the back of my head was, “Who is this book written for?” My conclusion is that it is written primarily for readers who will indeed find the main title, destroyer of the gods, personally exciting and rewarding. Had I been a Christian of the conservative or evangelical sort when I read it I would have been tickled pink to identify myself with a religion that had the power to overthrow the entire pantheon of ancient Rome. The tone of the book is consistent with this message of the title:
Christianity’s “constellation of devotional practices is quite simply remarkable, even astonishing.”
Paul makes an “astonishing move” in the way he reinterprets the Old Testament for his own day.
The earliest Christians did not simply come to believe that Jesus had been resurrected, but far more, Hurtado drives home to readers that they held “the startling conviction that God had raised Jesus from death”.
Christianity “both focused on Jesus and had a sense of distinctive group identity” “from an amazingly early time”.
Christianity grew “remarkably” in its first two hundred years.
“The story of early Christianity is a remarkable phenomenon. . . It is simply the case that ‘no other cult in the Empire’ grew at anything like the same speed.”
Christianity grew “by power of persuasion, whether in preaching, intellectual argument, ‘miracles’ exhibiting the power of Jesus’ name, and simply the moral suasion of Christian behavior, including martyrdom.”
Christians “demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual power of their own citizenship [of the kingdom of God”.
What was most “remarkable” in the Roman world was the Christian message that “there is one true and transcendent God . . . [who] loves the world/humanity” and actively sought the “redemption and reconciliation of individuals.”
The written outputs of Christians was also “remarkable” — “it is remarkable to have four extended accounts of Jesus’ ministry produced by as many authors and all within such a short period.” The commitment to produce the Christian writings required “strong commitment” and a “remarkable readiness” to do so.
The early Christian movement was identifiable and distinguishable particularly by the extraordinary reverence typically given . . . to Jesus along with God.
In discussing Christian worship practices in their Jewish context Hurtado uses the word “unique” near to two dozen times.
All of this emphasis on the “astonishing” and “remarkable” and “unique” is deliberate. Hurtado’s stated aim in writing the book is to shake readers from what he sees as their all too common complacency of taking so much about Christianity for granted and to appreciate how “astonishing”, “amazing”, “unique” and “remarkable” Christianity really was during its first three centuries of life. The message of the book is that early Christianity stood out like a bright shining light in the midst of a sea of benighted pagan religions and philosophical schools and primarily for this reason it was able to “destroy all other gods” and take over Western civilization.
Others will respond differently but the effort comes across to me as the strained efforts of an evangelist harnessing his scholarship for the service of preaching Christ. Just how strained, in my view, can be seen in his attempt to drive home “dramatic” implications of early Christianity’s exaltation of Jesus.
. . . . Jesus-followers, or “Christians,” whether Jewish or Gentile, also typically accorded to Jesus a place in their beliefs and worship practices that was without precedent or parallel in the wider Jewish tradition of the time. . . .
God is the author, source, and ultimate purpose of all things, and Jesus is the unique agent of creation and redemption of all things. . . .
. . . . the important point to note is that Jesus is linked with God uniquely and that this distinguishes the early Jesus-movement (early “Christianity”) from other forms of ancient Jewish religion as well as from the larger religious environment of the early Roman period. . . .
. . . . Along with the high claims made about Jesus, this constellation of devotional practices is quite simply remarkable, even astonishing. For it amounts to treating Jesus in ways that liken him to God, yet without displacing God in any way.
. . . . this seems to have been a genuine novelty. . . . To be sure . . . ancient Jewish tradition often portrayed this or that figure, sometimes a high angel, sometimes a biblical hero, and sometimes one of God’s attributes portrayed in personified mode, acting as God’s unique agent, sometimes in creation, sometimes in redemption, and/or in other tasks. . . But none of these other “chief agent” figures held the sort of huge place in the faith professions and religious practices of ancient Jews that Jesus held in circles of the Jesus-movement from the earliest years. That is, none of the “chief agent” figures gives us a proper precedent or full parallel, especially for the place of Jesus in earliest Christian devotional practice. . . .
Notice Hurtado does admit that there were parallels in the Jewish religion, that Jewish beliefs did allow for “chief agents” to sit alongside God, acting on his behalf. But they are not “full” parallels because we have no evidence that these other figures were also worshiped alongside God. Even when he confronts evidence that such Jewish beliefs do allow for such “chief agents” to one day receive “obeisance from all the rulers of the earth” he still insists that the Christian practice was an “extraordinary” departure from any form of “Judaism” of the day:
I will cite what is sometimes offered as an exception, but I do not think it is one. In an ancient Jewish writing known as 1 Enoch, a composite writing comprising several distinguishable portions put together across a couple of centuries or more, there is a portion that is called “the Parables (or Similitudes),” 1 Enoch 37-71. In this material there appears a figure referred to variously as “the Chosen/Elect One,” “the Messiah,” and “the Righteous One,” and also in several Ethiopic expressions often translated indiscriminately as “son of man.” This figure is posited as “named” and chosen before creation (48.2, 6), and he will also be the agent of God’s final supremacy on behalf of the righteous and against the wicked (e.g., 48.4-10; 52.4-9). He will then sit upon a glorious throne (51.3; 61.8) and receive obeisance from all the rulers of the earth. But note that, along with a variety of other heavenly beings, this figure is pictured as joining in the worship of the one God (61.10-11). As glorious as he is, the “Chosen One” is not the recipient of this worship or even the corecipient of this worship with God. The conquered kings of the earth will “fall on their faces” before him and “supplicate and petition for mercy from him” (62.9), but he is not pictured as receiving the corporate worship of God’s own people. Moreover, this figure appears in dreams and visions of the future and is not the recipient of the actual devotional practices of any known ancient Jewish circle. That is, whatever these passages envision at some future point when the figure appears, there is no evidence that circles of Jews, even those who wrote the “Similitudes” of 1 Enoch, met to reverence this figure in the ways that Jesus was reverenced in early circles of the Jesus-movement.
Hurtado identifies other parallels and similarities between Christianity and “pagan” beliefs and practices but similarly dismisses them all on the grounds that they are not “full” parallels. One other example: pagan religions are said to have made no moral demands on their adherents as Christianity did; philosophical schools did make moral demands, but they were not religious cults and scholarly discussions of similarities between various philosophical schools and the early Christians are set aside. One more example: pagans treated their gods as agents to be manipulated whenever they, the worshipers, needed something from them, while Christianity taught a God who is loving to all. I waited in vain for Hurtado to reference the abundant “pagan” literature testifying to the love various pagan gods also have towards mere mortals and the primacy given in the same “pagan” literature to the importance of living a life of piety, of reverencing the gods out of a pure attitude of piety. Thus the illusion of the “astonishing” and “startling” distinctiveness of early Christianity is sustained.
Throughout the book Hurtado limits his perspective of early Christianity to proof-texting elements from the letters of Paul. Passages in Paul’s letters are cited as definitive of “the early movement”. And Hurtado always speaks of early Christianity as a singular movement, always rooted in the letters of Paul. And Paul’s letters are read naively, without any sense of awareness of the ideological battles that raged over their contents, and the many disputes over interpolations and deletions that the various parties accused one another of making. Many of Hurtado’s proof-texts in fact come from what Winsome Munro identifies as the “pastoral stream” in Paul’s letters, a series of interpolations from a second century “proto-orthodox” Christian earnestly reshaping Paul’s writings to undermine their usefulness to Marcionites and others. From Hurtado’s book one would never suspect that there were widely divergent traditions of Paul in the early years. Destroyer of the gods leaves the reader with the impression that there was a coherent Christian movement that moved directly from the first believers in the resurrection to Paul and then to all the churches. Any other variants were side-issues not worth serious attention if they were ever mentioned at all.
Gnostics, Judaizers, Docetists, Marcionites and Valentinians, the many rivals or “heretics” addressed even within the biblical literature …. they don’t exist in Hurtado’s account of what made Christianity distinctive in the first three centuries of Christian history.
Other historical accounts are read by Hurtado as naively as he reads the letters of Paul. He thus expresses no warnings for caution with respect to the reliability of the evidence for Nero’s persecution or the accounts of Christians by Roman historians. His sense of historical processes — sociological, psychological, cultural, political — is nonexistent. Hurtado’s implicit message is that Christianity won out because it was so remarkably distinctive, astonishingly unique, etc. Why would anyone join such a religion, he asks. The implied answer is that its promises and future rewards were likewise so extraordinary and startling that even martyrdom was no barrier to the growth of the movement.
Once again Hurtado brings the depth of his learning to “establish” the “truth of the gospel”. No wonder he is in demand to
preach lecture at conferences sponsored by devout believers worldwide.