Destroyer of the gods
Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World
Imprint: Baylor University Press
304 Pages, 5.50 x 8.50 in
- Published: May 2017
"Silly," "stupid," "irrational," "simple." "Wicked," "hateful," "obstinate," "anti-social." "Extravagant," "perverse." The Roman world rendered harsh judgments upon early Christianity—including branding Christianity "new." Novelty was no Roman religious virtue.
Nevertheless, as Larry W. Hurtado shows in Destroyer of the gods, Christianity thrived despite its new and distinctive features and opposition to them. Unlike nearly all other religious groups, Christianity utterly rejected the traditional gods of the Roman world. Christianity also offered a new and different kind of religious identity, one not based on ethnicity. Christianity was distinctively a "bookish" religion, with the production, copying, distribution, and reading of texts as central to its faith, even preferring a distinctive book-form, the codex. Christianity insisted that its adherents behave differently: unlike the simple ritual observances characteristic of the pagan religious environment, embracing Christian faith meant a behavioral transformation, with particular and novel ethical demands for men. Unquestionably, to the Roman world, Christianity was both new and different, and, to a good many, it threatened social and religious conventions of the day.
In the rejection of the gods and in the centrality of texts, early Christianity obviously reflected commitments inherited from its Jewish origins. But these particular features were no longer identified with Jewish ethnicity and early Christianity quickly became aggressively trans-ethnic—a novel kind of religious movement. Its ethical teaching, too, bore some resemblance to the philosophers of the day, yet in contrast with these great teachers and their small circles of dedicated students, early Christianity laid its hard demands upon all adherents from the moment of conversion, producing a novel social project.
Christianity’s novelty was no badge of honor. Called atheists and suspected of political subversion, Christians earned Roman disdain and suspicion in equal amounts. Yet, as Destroyer of the gods demonstrates, in an irony of history the very features of early Christianity that rendered it distinctive and objectionable in Roman eyes have now become so commonplace in Western culture as to go unnoticed. Christianity helped destroy one world and create another.
Chapter 1. Early Christians and Christianity in the Eyes of Non-Christians
Chapter 2. A New Kind of Faith
Chapter 3. A Different Identity
Chapter 4. A "Bookish" Religion
Chapter 5. A New Way to Live
Index of Ancient Sources
Index of Subjects and Modern Authors
This is a fascinating survey of the features that made Christianity distinctive in antiquity and so—ultimately—successful. Hurtado discusses the Christian concept of an exclusive veneration of God, the trans-ethnic and trans-local religious identity, the central role of books and learning and distinctive and challenging forms of behavior within their ancient context. The glimpses into the first three centuries may even inspire contemporary Christians to find their identity and negotiate between social assimilation and difference.~Jörg Frey, Chair of New Testament Studies, University of Zürich
Hurtado sets out to awaken us from our ‘cultural amnesia,’ to remind us that the origin of Christianity and its remarkable success has more to do with its ability to distinguish itself from other religions in antiquity than to be one with them. Hurtado challenges readers to reconsider what have become common assumptions of religion today—that there is a single God and that religious affiliation is a voluntary choice. Without the distinctive rise of Christianity, none of these would be so.~April D. DeConick, Chair of the Department of Religion, Rice University
Comprehensive and quietly authoritative, Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods offers its readers a three-centuries’ tour of the Christianizing Mediterranean. The sweep of his panorama never sacrifices the liveliness of telling detail. For those who ask, ‘What was distinctive about this new religious movement?’ Hurtado offers thoughtful answers. Make room for this book, whether on bedside table or in classroom syllabus—or both.~Paula Fredriksen, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University
In this very accessible and readable book, Larry Hurtado shows how really distinct early Christianity was in comparison to its surrounding cultures of Greco-Roman paganism and Judaism. This was not only true for aspects of early Christian life that are somewhat familiar to many of us, such as its stricter sexual code, but even here Hurtado shows that the early Christians took their code ‘to the streets’ and opposed the double standard of their day. D estroyer of the gods is an exciting read across a wide range of interests in early Christianity coupled with many comparisons to religious life today.~Jan N. Bremmer, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, University of Groningen
In this lucid and wide-ranging book, Larry Hurtado convincingly shows how novel and distinctive early Christianity was in the religious world of the first century. He argues that early Christianity was in many respects a different kind of religion, and was revolutionary in the way that ‘religion’ has been understood ever since. Along the way, Hurtado sheds much light on the New Testament and on second century Christianity. He hopes to enhance ‘our appreciation of the remarkable religious movement’ that was early Christianity, and he admirably achieves exactly that.~Paul Trebilco, Professor of New Testament, University of Otago
Clear and enlightening, Hurtado’s coverage of the first centuries of Christianity explains why it was different, more philosophy than religion, and how its emergence as the supreme religion in the Roman world is less paradoxical than usually argued. This account is the nearest one can get to meeting an early Christian and quizzing them.~Robin Cormack, Emeritus Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art
Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament language, literature, and theology in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, discusses the history and evolution of ecumenical Christian practices in this elegantly straightforward book...Hurtado does an excellent job of walking readers through...how very odd early Christianity was for its place and time and how it came to overturn and replace ancient systems and beliefs. Hurtado writes with a measured tone and learned authority. Those wishing to know more about early Christianity will find much here.~Publishers Weekly
Hurtado’s book, written to appeal to a wide audience, explains just how odd and objectionable Jesus’ followers, their counter-establishment church, and even their writings looked during the first three centuries of the Christian movement.~The Christian Century
Hurtado’s clear and well-reasoned voice serves as an authoritative guide through the tangle of earliest Christianity in its Roman environment. From Roman accounts of early Christian oddity to early Christian book culture, Hurtado collects arcane pieces of knowledge that could well serve as material for pub quizzes and amasses them into a plausible and largely compelling analysis. It remains to be seen how someone else will take his work and build upon it.~Jonathon Lookadoo, Marginalia Review of Books
In Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Larry W. Hurtado provides an in-depth survey of the features that made early Christianity unusual in the Roman world. Hurtado’s exploration of the distinctive features of early Christianity is informative, exciting to read, and enlightening.~Steven Shisley, Reading Religion
- The PROSE Awards Category of Archaeology & Ancient History