Last year, during my first semester of grad school, I took a course on the New Testament in its Greco-Roman context. While taking this course, I read a book by the New Testament scholar Larry W. Hurtado titled Destroyer of the gods – Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016). I took extensive notes while reading this particular book so I could provide a detailed discussion of my impression and thoughts on the book. All in-text citations in this blog post refer to Hurtado’s book.
I should begin with the caveat that I do not have a lot of training in the New Testament. I grew up attending church, and I took two semesters of Classical Greek while doing my undergrad, so I had some familiarity with the New Testament prior to taking the course and reading Hurtado’s book. My primary training had been in Hebrew Bible, but thankfully Hurtado’s book is intended to be comprehensible to those who are not experts in New Testament (xiii), so I believe I am able to meaningfully analyze his arguments despite my limited familiarity with the topic.
Hurtado’s primary thesis is that early Christianity was more distinct from other religions than scholars often recognize (9). The goal of the book is therefore to promote empirical analysis of the characteristics that made early Christianity distinct against the cultural and religious context in which it emerged. Based on the work of Rodney Stark, Hurtado reminds us that a balance between continuity with and distinction from the broader culture are major factors in determining the survival of religious movements (7). It is important for a religious movement to fit in with the wider culture, because the people who make up the new religious group must be able to interact effectively with and maintain advantageous connections to their environment, while at the same time the individuals in the group must also have a sense that they belong to a discrete in-group, in which they can form special familial bonds. Thus, as it relates to my personal interest in the evolution of religion, Hurtado’s study provides data that could be useful for doing evolutionary analyses of early Christianity, allowing us to apply various hypotheses about the ways religions can evolve.
At one point in the book, Hurtado mentions two customs that were common and generally accepted in the Roman era—infant exposure and gladiator contests. After describing the commonness of infant exposure in the Roman world (that is, infanticide by abandonment), Hurtado cites several sources which show that early Christians categorically rejected this practice (144-148). So far so good. However, after turning his attention to the popularity of gladiator contests, Hurtado makes no mention of any early Christian perspectives on the topic, despite subsequently suggesting that this was among the practices which were “treated as objectionable by Christians” (150). As a non-expert reader—who is supposed to be included in Hurtado’s audience—I was unsure of what exactly I should infer about the relationship between early Christian beliefs and gladiator contexts. Did early Christians directly oppose gladiator contests, or is it just to be assumed based on their other beliefs? Hurtado doesn’t clarify, although my professor for the course, a competent New Testament scholar, informs me that some ancient Christian writers did indeed directly address the issue of gladiators. Hurtado should have given references for this, as he did in the case of infant exposure.
Having focused on the Hebrew Bible during my undergraduate studies, I cannot help but comment on Hurtado’s brief discussion of Deuteronomy 6:4 (which he relates to 1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Hurtado claims that Deuteronomy 6:4—a popular Jewish prayer known as the Shema—can be translated as “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (72), and this seems to be correct, at least when translated from the Greek Septuagint. However, in the endnotes Hurtado says, “This translation more readily reflects the Greek version of Deuteronomy 6:4… But it is also one plausible way to translate the Hebrew original” (225, n. 81). Anyone who reads Hebrew will know that the phrase Hurtado wants to translate as “one Lord” uses the tetragrammaton, the proper name of God which has been reconstruct by scholars as pronounced “Yahweh.” Thus, it is not immediately clear how “one Lord” is a plausible translation of the Hebrew words “Yahweh” and “one” (יהוה אחד), since the name of Yahweh does not mean “lord.” Perhaps Hurtado is basing his suggested reading on the Jewish tradition of pronouncing the tetragrammaton as “Adonai” (אדני), which is indeed a Hebrew term with the semantics of lordship. But the claim that “one Lord” is a plausible translation of the original Hebrew, without further clarification, was a bit unsatisfying to me. I understand that Hurtado is not writing a technical monograph, but I think in cases like this there should have been more content and citations for interested readers to track down the arguments if they so desire.
Moving beyond my minor quibbles, I also have a problem with the presentation of Hurtado’s overall thesis. In the introduction to the book, Hurtado says the following: “Granted, every religious movement in history likely has had some kind or degree of distinctiveness. But, as I hope to show, in the case of Christianity in these earliest centuries, both insiders and outsiders regarded it as very different, distinctive, indeed even strange and repellent” (6). It is not entirely clear to me what Hurtado is claiming in this paragraph—the wording seems to suggest that Hurtado might be arguing that early Christianity has no parallel in world history in being regarded as incredibly distinctive by both insiders and outsiders. This would be to imply that early Christianity was not only distinctive within its historical and cultural setting, but also that it is more distinctive than any other religious movement has been within its respective context. This would make early Christianity truly sui generis, that is, an entirely different kind of distinctive religion when compared to other religious movements throughout history. However, Hurtado does not proceed to compare early Christianity with other controversial historical religious movements, which would be a necessary procedure if this is in fact what Hurtado is aiming to argue.
As someone who is still a dilettante with respect to the academic study of the New Testament, I learned a lot while reading this book, and now feel that I am in a much better position to think about the relationship between early Christianity and its broader context. Throughout the book, Hurtado highlights several specific comparative connections that could be of interest to the general reader and expert alike. One such example that stuck out to me is Hurtado’s discussion about the self-identity of the early church, in which he mentions that the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek New Testament phrase “the assembly/church of God” is found in the War Scroll from Qumran in reference to the chosen people of God in the last days (98). It isn’t necessarily clear whether we can infer an eschatological significance for the New Testament use of this phrase from comparison with the Qumran text, but the possible connection is interesting nevertheless, and I am pleased that Hurtado brought it to my attention. As far as I can tell, Hurtado has made this connection himself, and is not citing the discovery of another scholar (since there is no reference in the endnotes).
Hurtado draws our attention to an unexpected distinctive feature of early Christianity, namely the “bookish” nature of the religion, in what has been identified as Hurtado’s “most innovative contribution” in Destroyer of the gods (see John S. Kloppenborg’s review in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review ). In chapter 4, Hurtado details a wide range of literary phenomena that set early Christianity apart, including the larger average letter-counts in early Christian documents (120-121) and popularization of codices and development of codex technology (133-138). The utilization and adaptation of literary technology could no doubt have contributed to the spread of early Christianity, making this feature of early Christianity a very interesting part of Hurtado’s discussion.
Overall, I am happy I read this book and I believe I gained a lot from it. While Hurtado’s book is short and limited in scope, his sharp focus on early Christian distinctiveness is a valuable perspective and has the potential to move research on the New Testament and early Christianity in fascinating new directions.