The study of early Christianity within the Greco-Roman world is a crowded field. There are classic textbooks (e.g. Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]) and detailed studies which illuminate areas of the discipline (e.g. Robert Louis Wilken’s Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 2nd ed. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003]). But the most recent offering from one of the field’s leading lights, Larry Hurtado, stands out for its accessibility and its interest in the distinctive contributions of early Christianity to the modern Western world. Hurtado says Destroyer of the Gods is “not a technical monograph” but a book “intended for a wide spectrum of readers” (p. xiii), which shows that many of our “commonplace notions” about religion originated “in the rambunctious early Christian movement” (p. 2). The book comprises five main chapters, the first being an introduction to outsiders’ perceptions of the early Christians with the remaining four focusing on the movement’s most distinctive traits.
The ancient figures surveyed in the first chapter include Tacitus, Pliny, Galen, and Celsus. Hurtado notes frequently-cited remarks such as Tacitus’s observations that Christianity is a “deadly superstition” and it produces “hatred against the human race” (p. 21). But Hurtado is more interested in the even-handed comments of Galen, noting with interest his observation that Christians are mostly of “subelite social levels” but nonetheless possess virtues that rival “genuine philosophers” (p. 27). Hurtado concludes that the attention given to Christianity by elite thinkers in the first two centuries CE highlights its departure from religious norms and its rapid social success.
The second chapter focuses on the nature of religious belief in antiquity, which was almost exclusively polytheistic. The Christian refusal to worship what they called “idols” was distinctive—in fact, the terms used in the New Testament for “idolatry” and “idol temple” are unattested in pagan literature (p. 51). Of course, Jews were monotheistic, but Christianity quickly spread to Gentiles, for whom there was no precedent for such exclusivity. The lack of images in early Christian worship highlighted the radical transcendence of their God. But unlike the transcendent deity postulated by philosophers, such as Plato, the Christian God could be engaged directly by humans because he loved them.
Another distinctive trait of early Christianity was its voluntary, trans-cultural nature. In antiquity, one’s religious identity was decided at birth. The Romans generally worshipped within their traditional pantheon which included Jupiter, Juno, and Mars. The only religious groups which were truly voluntary were the so-called “mystery religions” and the philosophical schools. But as noted earlier, one’s decision to join these groups did not entail the rejection of other religions as it did in Christianity. Hurtado concludes that Christianity’s unhinging of religion from ethnicity led to arguably the first declaration of religious liberty by Tertullian less than two centuries later: “It is a fundamental human right ... that everyone should worship according to one’s own convictions” (p. 103, quoting from Tertullian, To Scapula, 2).
In the fourth chapter, Hurtado traces the modern assumption that one’s religion is centered upon sacred scriptures to early Christianity—a “bookish” religion (p. 105). By contrast, Roman religions either did not have sacred texts or these were reserved for the priest and not to be read in group gatherings (p. 110). The Christian interest in texts translated into a literary output that was at once sweeping and detailed. For instance, between the preserved letters of Seneca and Cicero, the longest single letter is 4,134 words whereas Paul wrote several letters longer than this: Romans (7,101 words), 1 Corinthians (6,807 words), and 2 Corinthians (4,448 words).
Finally, Hurtado highlights the unique ethical demands of early Christianity. Although many pagans cultivated a rigorous ethic, such as the philosopher Epictetus, this was largely motivated by the avoidance of shame rather than responsibility for one’s self and others. The Christian insistence on holiness led to relatively novel responsibilities, including a new sexual ethic: fidelity to one’s wife and the rejection of child abuse. Elite pagan writers such as Juvenal and Lucian not only tolerated but celebrated sex with children, referring to the παιδεραστής (one who has sex with boys/children), a term which was altered by the early Christians into the pejorative παιδοφθόρος, meaning “destroyer ... of children” (p. 167). Most importantly, Christian standards of behaviour were corporate—there were no double standards for social elites.
Those interested in the distinctive qualities of the early Christian movement owe Hurtado a great debt. This volume covers the basic landscape illuminated by other books, but it does so in fewer pages, with arguably fresher insights, and in a manner that is easier to read. Most importantly, Hurtado succeeds in demonstrating how early Christianity has shaped, even created, the Western world. But lest some fear that Hurtado builds a false contrast between Christianity and other Greco-Roman movements, “distinctiveness” is, after all, a slippery historical term. It should be recognized that many resemblances between Christianity and other religions, especially Second Temple Judaism, are observed. What emerges is an even-handed enquiry which only claims distinctiveness once other explanations have been considered (e.g. p. 82–94).
The main weakness of Hurtado’s work is the lack of reflection on early Christian thinking relating to Jesus’s death and resurrection. In particular, Hurtado fails to discuss how the earliest Christians were able to bravely face suffering and persecution by drawing inspiration from Christ’s own death. A crucified deity was preposterous to the ancient mind (e.g. 1 Cor 1:22), even impious given the depiction of Christ as a donkey in the famous “Alexamenos graffito” discovered on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It seems that Christian approaches to suffering were at least as distinctive as the other values and behaviours considered by Hurtado. This volume also lacks a developed discussion of the Christian understanding of divine grace. Although the distinctiveness of this tenet is debated, this oversight seems more conspicuous than ever in light of John Barclay’s recent Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), which highlights the novelty of Paul’s emphasis on incongruous grace in the first century.
Despite these reservations, I think this book is a phenomenal work that deserves a wide readership amongst scholars, pastors, and interested laypeople. Although it is not written as a prophetic call to action, Hurtado’s observations about the earliest Christians provide significant fodder for those interested in modern Christianity’s cultural witness.