Interview with Larry W. Hurtado, author of DESTROYER OF THE GODS: EARLY CHRISTIAN DISTINCTIVENESS IN THE ROMAN WORLD

Published on November 29, 2016 by Joshua R Monroe

Baylor University Press, 2016 | 304 pages

 

If you think Christians seem odd in today’s world, how do you think they seemed to the world in which Christianity was born? Just how was it different, you ask? And if so different from the world around it, what impact did it have?

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking today to Dr. Larry Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and author of the fascinating new book, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, in which he highlights the distinctiveness of Christianity in the world of its first three centuries.

Dr. Hurtado, welcome, and thanks for talking to us today.

Hurtado:
I’m happy to be here; glad to talk about a book, of course.

 

Zaspel:
Just how unusual was Christianity in the eyes of people in the mid-first century A.D.? In what ways did it seem strange?

Hurtado:
Well, we don’t have direct reports from outsiders from the mid-first century; but, certainly, if we extend our coverage across at least across the first two centuries, let’s say, down to about 200 or so, we certainly have reports and responses from various outsiders. Including particularly pagan outsiders, that is non-Jewish general Roman population people. And they rather uniformly have a negative reaction to early Christianity; and they rather uniformly see it as peculiar, even bizarre, and, one might even say, dangerous as far as they’re concerned. Dangerous to the social political structures of the day.

 

Zaspel:
Why did the Romans consider Christianity dangerous and subversive?

Hurtado:
Well, the first thing we have to understand is that our categories of religion, politics, economics, society are somewhat in which we imagine that each of these as a separate realm. So that we think of economics as being one realm, politics is being one realm, religion being another perhaps especially in a society such as, for example, the United States, which has an official separation of religion and state. There’s no official religion in the United States. In the ancient world, in the Roman world and indeed really through the ancient world and through many traditional societies to this day, for that matter, what we call religion and politics and society were all indistinguishable. They were all woven together. Another way to put it would be to say that the whole of all social structures, political structures, rested upon what we would call religious foundations. That is, they were seen as being upheld and supported, validated by the various gods of the Roman world. And here’s the problem: early Christians were required to reject the worship of all of the pagan gods, were required to treat them all as empty idols and refuse to participate in their worship. Instead, to embrace only the worship of the one God of the Bible, of Israel, and of his son Jesus. And so in that setting the way you demonstrated your participation, your loyalty to a family that you are part of, was that you worshiped the household gods. The way you demonstrated your loyal citizenship to a city was that you worshiped the city gods. The way you demonstrated your loyalty to your ethnos, your nation, was to worship the inherited gods of your people, and so on. And of course, in the Roman setting, also you demonstrated your loyalty to the Roman Empire by recognizing the gods that justified Rome, on which the Roman claims rested; such as Jupiter or the goddess Roma or even the deceased emperors as divine beings. The Christians, however, treated all of these as invalid objects of worship; and consequently, in that setting, where you couldn’t really distinguish religious from social and political stances, the Christians’ refusal to honor the gods was seen as antisocial, as antifamily, and even in some cases as antipolitical. As threats to all of these structures all of which claimed their validity on the basis of the gods which the Christians rejected.

 

Zaspel:
How was Christianity unique with regard to ethnicity and religious identity?

Hurtado:
Everybody in the ancient world inherited a set of gods, you might say, with their birth certificate. So if you were Egyptian or Greek or Syrian or Roman or Jewish, you inherited your religious identity, your god or gods which your birth. And it would never occur to you to ask, How should identify myself religiously?” Any more than it would occur to you as a member of a particular ethnic group today for example if you were Greek or Irish or whatever to ask, “What’s my ethnic identity?” It was given to you with your birth certificate. Similarly in the ancient world your religious identity was pretty much confirmed that way. For example, it’s very clearly illustrated in the case of Jewish proselyte conversion; that is, pagans (and there were such people, occasionally) who decided that they wanted to really, fully convert to the God of Israel in the ancient world. To do so, you underwent a full, so-called, proselyte conversion in which you renounced your ethnic background and ethnic gods and you fully became a member of the Jewish people; sort of an adoptive member of the Jewish people. So in order to fully embrace the God of Israel, according to ancient Judaism, you also had to make an ethnic conversion. That illustrates how tightly gods – Jewish, pagan, whatever – were tied to ethnic identity.

Early Christianity comes along and from the very earliest moments, it appears, is dealing with people trans-ethnically, dealing not just with Jews, but dealing with pagans as well. And basically, as far as the pagans, the people of other non-Jewish ethnic backgrounds, are told, “You renounce your ancestral gods. You are not to continue worshiping the gods of your city or your family or ethnos anymore. Instead, exclusively devote yourself to the God of Israel and to his son Jesus; but, you retain your ethnic identity. You don’t become a Jew; you stay what you are.” What we have here is this utterly unique distinction between the God that you serve, in this case you are converting to the God of Israel, but you don’t convert to the people of Israel. So ethnicity and what we would call religious identity first emerge as separate conceptual entities in early Christianity. One of my colleagues in the field of New Testament has referred to this as Paul and the early Christian missionaries leading converts into a virtual religious no man’s land in the Roman world.

A positive point that I want to make in that chapter is that in early Christianity we see the emergence of what we would call a distinguishable religious identity. As I point out, in a sense, such as is given in the UK and perhaps in the US as well, periodically you’ll be asked, “What is your ethnic background?” So you can say, in the United States, American Indian, or in the UK you might say black Caribbean or Jewish or white British or whatever. And then there’ll be another question that will say, “Can you also indicate your religious affiliation?” It seems natural to us that ethnic identity and religious affiliation should be seen as fully disconnected categories. What I point out is that that’s utterly bizarre in the Roman world and our commonplace assumption of that seems to derive from the influence of early Christianity upon our culture.

 

Zaspel:
You identify “bookishness” as one of the distinctives of Christianity. Explain.

Hurtado:
It’s widely known, of course, that in the Roman world the vast majority of people were probably illiterate. Estimates, and they are only guesstimates, run anywhere from 80 or 90 or perhaps 95% of people in the Roman world were illiterate; at least in the sense that they probably couldn’t read sophisticated literary texts. But, all the more remarkable, therefore, that early Christianity seems to be so given to the production, reading, usage, copying and distribution of texts. In the Roman world, again, with the exception of ancient Judaism, pagan religion in general texts don’t function as what we think of as Scripture. That is, you don’t read texts as part of the worship gathering, or study texts as part of your religious activity. Instead, you perform rituals. Perform sacrifice and incense and offerings to the gods and so on. Where there are sacred texts, as there are in some cases, they are texts that are studied exclusively by the priests of this or that cult: but they don’t function as Scripture in any way that we would recognize. That is, as commonly read out, or known texts.

In Judaism you have texts that are read as Scripture in the synagogue – the books that Christians call the Old Testament – regularly read. And from this practice it appears the early Jesus movement, being largely comprised of Jews, and being originally a kind of innovation within that Jewish tradition, takes over that practice and reads Scriptures as well, originally Old Testament writings, as part of their gatherings. But very quickly, as I point out, they start producing their own writings as well. Of course, texts such as we have in the New Testament, such as the letters of Paul are written by the mid-first century, by the 50s or so of the first century, and are sent to churches for the purpose of having them also read as part of the worship gathering of churches. And then it just accelerates. By a rough count that I have made, by about 200 to 250 A.D. we know of at least 200 or 250 writings composed by Christians and copied and distributed and read. Now that’s just a phenomenal number of new texts written by Christians. Not counting the Old Testament. These are new texts composed by Christians in this period. And it’s a phenomenal number when we take into account the early Christianity still at 200 A.D. can be numbered in multiples of tens of thousands, maybe 100,000 to 200,000 or so people in the whole Roman world. And yet, massive numbers of these texts. And, when we look at the evidence of early Christian manuscripts, given the tiny percentage of Christians in the Roman world, the comparative percentage of copies of Christian texts in our extant copies of ancient manuscripts is way out of line with that. Which suggests that Christians were much more devoted to the copying and distribution of their texts than the general population at large and certainly than any other religious group.

Here’s another example: we know of various non-Christian voluntaristic religious movements of the times, such as the so-called Mithras or Mithraism or Isis worship or the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus; all of these religious movements that emerged roughly contemporary with early Christianity. And we know about them because we have oodles of shrines and altars and physical artifacts of their presence at various points in the Roman Empire so we can plot on the map where they were, worshiped, and even what kind of people worshiped, and so on. But we know very little about their beliefs or the exactness of the rituals for what they stood for or anything like that because they didn’t produce any texts. Early Christianity in the same period, that is, the first two and a half centuries, we have no alters, no images, no physical shrines or anything like that but we have some 200 to 250 texts. The contrast is almost like black and white. In fact, we can say far more about the beliefs and practices of early Christianity that we can for any other religious movement of the Roman world because they were such maniacs at producing and copying texts.

 

Zaspel:
How was Christianity different from the world around it in terms of behavior and practices otherwise acceptable in that world?

Hurtado:
They were alike in some ways, and unalike in others. They took a stance, for example, against child abandonment which is one of the things I discuss and one of the practices in the Roman world that will seem strange to us. It was quite common in the Roman setting to simply cast off a newborn infant if the parents didn’t want it. The reasons for that could be various; it could be economic. We think, perhaps, a poor family would say we’ve got enough kids we don’t want another one; so they would simply wait until the child was born and then casted away. In other cases it was, may be, gender selection. We have this very interesting letter that I cite from the Roman period in which a Roman, probably military, soldier writes home to his wife and expresses the most tender feelings toward her and toward his child and toward his parents and asked how everyone is. She apparently was pregnant, and he says, “By now, you may have had the second child. If it’s a boy, name it Marcus. If it’s a girl, cast it out.” So that’s illustrative of what I mean by saying that the people who cast away their children were not monsters; they were people of tender feelings and people who seem to be fully capable of love and so on. But so acceptable was the sacrifice, that even quite nice people, so to speak, felt free to simply shed a child by throwing it aside if they didn’t want it for whatever reason.

Early Christians sternly opposed that. This, however, was not unique to them, totally, because Judaism largely opposed the practice; as well as did some philosophers in the Stoic tradition. The difference was the social impact. Jews opposed the practice but really didn’t try to change pagan behavior. The pagan philosophers who opposed the practice and spoke against it really expected to have any influence only amongst the very small circles of dedicated students who committed themselves to philosophical training. Which is sort of like going to graduate school, going in for two or three years of serious philosophical training. So they may have had an impact on the small circles of their followers; but there’s no evidence that they sought to have a broad social impact. Early Christianity expected the behavioral demands that it made upon all of its converts from the point of baptism onward. So, taking a line from the Doobie Brothers, the early Christians “took it to the streets” and began to have, and certainly sought to have, a very broad social impact disproportionate to any other group at the time. So, studied as a social project, the early Christian impact is really unique. A similar example, and a very striking example, is that child sex was quite common in the Roman world. This was typically sex with, not only prepubescent children, but we know of examples and references to elementary school-age children being used for sexual purposes. This is not by people we would call perverts, but widely done by men who were otherwise respectable pagan guys who were married and had their own children. But they had sex with slave children because slaves were considered nonentities. So you really weren’t doing anything wrong to have sex with them, irrespective of their age or sex. Early Christians were stoutly opposed to this and one of the striking things is that early Christians seem to have invented their own condemnatory terminology. Whereas in the Roman world people who had sex with children were called pedorastais, that is a “boy lover” or a “child lover” in the sexual sense of the word, the early Christians called them pedothoros, a “child corrupter,” a “child abuser.” So they developed a distinctive vocabulary for expressing their utter horror at this otherwise widely accepted practice.

 

Zaspel:
What was the cost – or at least the potential cost – of being a Christian in that world? What were some of the possible consequences?

Hurtado:
There were consequences at almost every level. Since religion was woven into the full fabric of society at family level, at city level, ethnic level, empire level, every professional guild or association had its honorary deity to whom he gave allegiance; Roman legions each had their own tutelary deities to whom they were to offer sacrifice and express their allegiance. So there was no God free zone in the Roman world. Everything was shot through with allegiance to the deities and participation in any social relationship or activity, a dinner party, whatever, would involve typically some kind of religious gesture to an appropriate deity. So if you were expected to abstain from worship of all of these deities, your whole existence had to be renegotiated moment by moment, step-by-step, layer by layer. So if you were a Christian member of a pagan family, all members of the pagan family would be expected to gather on a regular basis and honor the deities that guarded the family. If you refused to participate in that, you would be seen as disloyal to the family. You might get all kinds of barracking abuse; perhaps even physical abuse for your trouble. And imagine if you were a slave in such a family and you are a Christian and a pagan family that owned you and you refused to honor the family gods. That would be seen a particular kind of disloyalty and given the freedom that people exercised toward slaves, you might be in for a real shellacking. At the city level, likewise, or amongst members of your guild; say you are a fisherman or a baker and you attended the monthly or periodic meetings of your guild. What do you do when they begin the meeting with an oblation to the deity of the guild? Do you manage to come in late and missed it? Do you stare at your shoes and pretend to ignore it, or what? If you were seen not to be participating, again, you could be in for a lot of abuse. The reason being – all of these structures were thought to rest upon the favor of the gods; so if you failed to honor the gods, you could be seen to be endangering the welfare of the family or the city. A radical kind of disloyalty. So you can imagine the kind of abuse that people would have gotten. And we know that it went on. Early Christian texts refer to it and pagan texts describe it. So people were denounced; their goods sometimes ransacked and confiscated: physical abuse and beatings occurred and in a number of cases people were denounced to the local magistrates, brought before them, tried, and, as the famous letter of Pliny, the governor of Pontus and Bithynia, to the Emperor Trajan, indicates in some cases they were even executed because they refused to demonstrate an appropriate social and political conformity.

 

Zaspel:
Your title is intriguing – Destroyer of the Gods – describe for us the impact Christianity had on that world. How did Christianity “destroy one world and help create another”?

Hurtado:
First of all, the title comes from an account called The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp is a second century leader in the Roman province of Asia and, according to the account, he is martyred. He’s brought before an arena and is burned alive. Now the account is probably much later than the event, but most people still think it does generally reflect an actual event. Anyway, in the account, which may stem more from the third century, as he is brought into the arena the crowd shouts, “This is Polycarp the teacher of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.” So that’s where the title comes from; and it reflects, therefore, the attitude of pagans that Christians such as Polycarp, people who spoke against their deities were destroyers of their gods. By the way, one of the epithets that was hurled against early Christians was atheists. Because in the Roman world it wasn’t a matter of what you believed in, it was a matter of honoring the gods, of participating in their worship. And so the Christian refusal to honor the gods was, as far as Romans were concerned, what they meant by atheism.

The impact… Once again to say that the whole of society and its social and familial structures rested upon these gods, so a refusal to honor these gods was a powerful kind of, you might say, sedition in some ways, perceived in the eyes of outsiders. A powerful kind of seditious act against family, against city, against your ethnic group, against the empire. And so for Christians to take that stance, they had to work very, very hard to negotiate their existence. Texts such as the epistle of Diognetus, a second century Christian text, is a very interesting text in which the author is basically saying to the larger pagan world, “we eat the same food; we drink the same water; we breathe the same air; we put on our sandals one at a time, so to speak; we are just like you; really we aren’t two-headed monsters; but we cannot worship the evil gods on which are society rests.” It’s an interesting thing how he is trying to say we are not trying to be difficult; we are good people; don’t hit us; but, we cannot embrace your gods. The problem was that in the Roman world the two things were inseparable.

So early Christianity, whatever its intentions, was highly disruptive and deemed as a revolutionary force. And for the lives of people who embraced Christianity, it was certainly revolutionary because it could result in some very profound social and economic and political repercussions. The conversion, so to speak, of the Roman empire to Christianity under Constantine is therefore still, for historians, a really interesting, noteworthy, somewhat puzzling, kind of development.

 

Zaspel:
What were some of the novel elements of Christianity that we now take for granted are part of “religion”?

Hurtado:
I mentioned a few in the book. One is this notion of religion as being, for example, I begin by pointing out in the first chapter the impact of so-called Christian monotheism or the exclusivity of the one God. In our culture today, as I point out, if you went out on the street with a microphone and asked people, do you believe in God? You would probably, unexceptionally, get people to answer and yes, no, or I’m still making up my mind, I’m not sure. Nobody would stop to ask, what is in the long history of the world, the obvious question; which is, “Excuse me, which god are we talking about?” In the West, even atheists presume there is only one God to doubt. And, by the way, can I point out, what we call atheism today is a peculiarly anti-Christian form or non-Christian form. Even atheists, as I say, presume there’s only one God to doubt. The philosophical classes which treat the problem of evil as a problem for religious belief technically speaking, the problem of evil is only a problem for monotheism. If you’ve only got one God, okay you’ve got some kind of problem. But in the traditional societies, if you’ve got multiple gods, you’ve got good gods, you’ve got bad gods, the problem of evil is not a problem – it is to be expected! Our whole philosophical world, our religious understanding has been shaped by Christianity; but we don’t realize that anymore. We don’t realize, in some sense, what kind of peculiar historical setting we occupy because of the influence of Christianity. The notion of religious belief as being separable from your ethnicity, as I already mentioned, is another heritage of the Christian influence. People will sometimes say, “I don’t like religion because it’s all about do’s and don’ts.” One of the things I point out in the book is, as I said earlier, in the ancient world religion typically has nothing to do with how you behave during the week, you might say. Religion in the ancient world is just basically how you sacrifice and honor the gods. If you wanted to learn how to live, you turned to philosophy or traditional wisdom. Early Christianity insists, taking its cue from its Jewish background, “No, no, this one true God not only insists that you worship Him, but He also has a way of life for you to live.” And that has shaped our assumptions about religion. So today we assume that religions tell you how to live. No. No, that’s basically an influence of Christianity upon our culture. We assume that religions have their sacred texts. No. No, to this day most of the traditional religions don’t. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all coming from a common Jewish background, are the exceptions. And our assumptions about that, in the West at least, are largely shaped by the influence of Christianity.

 

Zaspel:
What was it that Christianity had to offer that explains its appeal in a world so opposed to it? We must of course explain in terms of God at work supernaturally in the hearts of men, but how would you characterize its first point of appeal?

Hurtado:
In historical terms, let’s just sort of leave the God factor out of it, but just say, in terms of historical, observable factors, what can we see? That’s, I think, still the key question that has not really been adequately addressed. Not to say that people haven’t tried. From Gibbon in the 19th century, Harnack in the late 19th century onward, Rodney Stark, more recently in the 20th century, and various other scholars, have offered a number of reasons. For example, people have said early Christianity offered people close social bonds of brothers and sisters; so, particularly in the crowded urban settings where they were dislocated, maybe, from their traditional families, it may have been very meaningful to find people they could relate to as brothers and sisters. Okay. That’s true. Early Christianity offered that. But the problem is, oodles of other voluntary associations of the time did the same. So, why would you become a Christian in particular when there were these social and political costs? See, if you joined any of the other voluntary associations, or any of the other voluntary religious movements, you didn’t have to give up your ancestral deities or cease participation in your regular family, city, ethnic, religious duties. You just simply added on another one to your other repertoire of religious activities. There was no conflict. Early Christianity was the singular religious movement that posed a conflict between Christian allegiance and continued participation in these other cults. So, with all of the social consequences and political consequences involved, why on earth, if all you wanted was a bunch of buds that you could hang out with, why would you become a Christian when you could hang out with all kinds of other groups for free?

People are saying that early Christianity shared and took care of its poor and took care of its weak and its widows and so on. Yes. And that would have been attractive, probably, if you were poor and destitute and a widow, maybe joining a Christian group would have been attractive as a way of thinking you would be taken care of. But we also know that there were lots of Christians who were small business operators, self-sufficient, making their way in the world, did not need charity. So, why would they become a Christian? They didn’t need charity or that kind of handout, so to speak; and yet they had to suffer the social and political consequences of being a Christian. So why would they do that?

I could go through a list of other things. But some of the reasons that have been given are frankly banal; they don’t stack up. One of the things I try to pursue is this question. In a little book that was published earlier this year entitled, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (A little book published by Marquette University Press). I spent most of the time in the book emphasizing and explaining the significance of the question, I confess, and only in the final pages do I begin exploring some of the reasons. I think there are likely to have been various reasons for different kinds of people. For poor people, it may well be that early Christian charity was very attractive; but that doesn’t account for the social diversity. For some people, such as Justin Martyr, the Christian teacher of the middle of the second century; he says that what attracted him were the writings of early Christianity and the Old Testament Scriptures and the teachings of early Christianity, which he says impressed him as he reflected on them as more winsome, more attractive, more powerful than those of the various philosophical groups that he had dabbled in. I suggested that one of the things that’s interesting is that early Christianity proclaims, first of all, one God, almighty, all-powerful, in control of everything. On the one hand that’s a fairly fearsome powerful deity. If you’ve got multiple deities you might be able to play off one against another; but if you’ve only got one deity and this one deity is in charge of everything, then you can’t really go up against him with anything contrary. You’re under his power. And the early Christians, then, say, “Ah, yes, and this one All-powerful, Almighty God is driven by a powerful love for the world and for mankind.” Now that’s a unique notion in the ancient world. I can’t really find any evidence in pagan discourse of talk about the gods as loving the world in the way in which early Christians do. But it’s ubiquitous in the New Testament and across early Christian sources. So one of the questions I’ve asked myself is: is it possible that for people in the world, early Christian beliefs such as the belief that God passionately loved the world and that he promised a personal resurrection and personal, embodied eternal life, that these were powerful things that caused some people to think twice? Whatever it was , and the combination of factors probably varied from one person to another, in  mercantile terms, I guess, we’d have to say that early Christianity clearly had to offer goods, you might say, that outweigh the serious social and political costs involved. One of the things that I appeal for in that book is that fellow scholars should really take the question much more seriously. And we haven’t really arrived at an adequate answer yet. But it’s a remarkable thing that Christianity grew not only trans-locally, and in numbers; but also grew upward and downward through the social register all through this period despite the severe social and economic costs involved.

 

Zaspel:
What, with all its odd uniqueness and ill-status we might wonder how it survived at all! I suppose just as today there could have been various first points of contact. But with a message from God addressing the deepest human needs, and that given in the power of His Spirit carrying out his own saving purpose it is destined to succeed still.

We’re talking to Dr. Larry Hurtado, author of the fascinating new book, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, a valuable guide to understanding Christianity in its earliest context. Certainly the best-informed and most fascinating book I’ve seen on the subject. We encourage you to get a copy and enjoy!

Dr. Hurtado, thanks so much for your good work and for talking to us today.

Hurtado:
Thank you; my pleasure.

Buy the books

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

Baylor University Press, 2016 | 304 pages