Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

Ask any man on the street what he thinks about religion and he’ll probably oblige you.  Maybe he is devoutly Muslim, or nominally Baptist, or adamantly Atheist – but he won’t give you a blank stare.  To modern man, religious belief belongs to a category, a census box.  But there was a time when the gods affected everything.  Religion was indistinguishable from normal life, and not just a set of beliefs one might pick up or put down at will.

Much of our modern concept of “religion” starts from the framework of Christianity.  Yet in ancient Rome, Christianity’s wake left the public pool of deities sputtering in surprise.  For Rome, Christianity was not simply new or unusual, but fundamentally so; dangerously so.  In Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado reveals the distinctions that set Christianity apart from, and in stark opposition with, the Roman world.

Religion: A History

Larry W. Hurtado sets out to give some historical context to our understanding of Christianity – and judging by the scholarly accolades in his bio, he’s an authority on the subject.  But for most us, words like “scholarly” and “historical” induce a silent groan.  (One glance at the book, with its ninety-odd pages of notes and sources, may make some people run for the nearest exit.)  Resist the urge.  Hurtado draws heavily on his scholastic research, but he intended the book to be “accessible . . . for anyone sufficiently curious.”

Hurtado doesn’t waste any time moralizing or giving his theological opinions.  Instead, he contents himself with laying out the facts, letting them stand in their own right.  And why shouldn’t Christianity stand in its own right?  For it does stand, with its relative Judaism, as the only religion of ancient Rome still alive some 2,000 years later.  It rose from the humblest of beginnings to shape the world as we know it, and is perhaps only rivaled in influence by Buddhism or Islam.  Christianity is nothing if not extraordinary.

God vs. gods

Because Christianity is so mainstream today, we struggle to grasp its clash to ancient Rome.  For this reason, perhaps, Hurtado spends the first several chapters simply analyzing the reactions of outsiders.  Jews (think Saul) zealously persecuted the Messiah worshipers as heretics.  Pagan writers derided them as “dissonant and out of step” (21).  Roman leaders harassed, ostracized, and killed Christ followers, hoping to stamp them out.

Rome overflowed with gods.  Besides Zeus and Co., each nation squashed under Rome’s sandal brought some gods of its own and “the tendency was to recognize and welcome them all” (45).  Why wasn’t Christianity likewise accepted?  Why all the hate?  The answer lies in Christianity’s exclusive identity: not exclusive in membership – Jews, Gentiles, poor slaves and rich elites were all accepted – but exclusive in worship.  Rome allowed for ethnic peculiarities, but Christianity was radically trans-ethnic in its exclusive worship.  If a Jew wouldn’t bow to Zeus, that was simply peculiar.  But if the chariot salesman next door rejected the gods in favor of Jesus, that was sedition.  To Rome, rejecting the gods meant implicitly rejecting the authority of Rome.

It is upon this backdrop, Hurtado explains, that New Testament writers addressed idolatry. As a reader, it’s challenging to imagine the constant struggle facing Gentile believers when everything from food to festivities involved homage to the gods.  Given the “ubiquitous place of the gods,” Christians couldn’t simply avoid all rituals without notice, but must have often refused to join in as well (49).

Naturally, Christianity’s unique identity demanded a corresponding lifestyle change for its members.  In the second half of the book, Hurtado addresses these practical differences.  For one, Christians were “bookish” people.  In the oral culture of Rome, their high regard for the Word of God set them apart.  As a result, Christians not only wrote a lot, but their writings were longer, easier to read, and even looked different.  Another difference: Christians rejected Rome’s moral failures.  Accepted practices like infanticide, extramarital sex, and pederasty (child abuse) were all forbidden under threat of God’s judgement.

Then and Now

Though I probably don’t love history as much as Hurtado does, his factual approach feels refreshing.  Unlike many books, this one does not serve simply as a jumping-off point for the author’s opinion.  Yes, the book is scholarly.  Yes, it takes effort.  But as this book shows, studying history is not merely an intellectual hobby; it also clarifies the present.

One concern of note: though I can’t substantiate Hurtado’s position, several passing statements about when and by whom the New Testament books were written made me question his view of scriptural authority (9, 100, 106).  However, these comments were fleeting and peripheral to the topic at hand.

The world Hurtado describes seems both impossibly distant and oddly familiar.  Though we cannot comprehend a world of gods and emperors and cobblestone streets, Christian distinctiveness belongs to us as to them.  It is our lot, like Christians before us, to be dubbed “dissonant and out of step.”  Christ calls all people, whether Roman slaves or Anabaptist farmers, to live faithful to the gospel in their own cultural context.  And when we look at it that way, not all that much has changed.

Bryce Bryce Wenger lives and works on a small farm near Dalton, Ohio. He has a love for music, literature, and learning. His free time is usually spent backpacking, canoeing, or otherwise enjoying nature. He is passionate about knowing God’s Word and living life to the fullest.

Sources

Hurtado, Larry W. Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Baylor University Press, 2016.

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