Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World
by Larry W. Hurtado.
Baylor University Press, 2016.
Hardback, 304 pages, $30.

In his well-received and influential works, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans, 2005) and Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), Larry W. Hurtado, the New Testament scholar and Emeritus Professor (Edinburgh), explored the processes (which included both oral and written testimonies) by which Christian believers came to accept and then proclaim the divinity of Jesus Christ. The focus in each prior work was more internal to the evolving canon of scripture and community of Christian belief, but in his new work, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Professor Hurtado switches the frame-of-reference more to the external, focusing more on what Romans thought of Christians than on what Christians thought of themselves.

In an era in which most of the developed West can be defined variously as post-Christian or Neopagan, Hurtado’s book is especially apposite, because the cultural assumptions inherited by many Westerners (particularly Americans) include a loose association in identity between faith, national identity, and national culture. Whether these assumptions are explicit (regardless of accuracy) in statements such as those who profess a belief that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” or implied in the broader nods given to a “Judeo-Christian heritage” by those historians of culture focused on ethics and the relationship between morals and power, these assumptions remain part of the fabric of our cultural awareness. Professor Hurtado’s book offers the instructive insight that a Christian identity has been from the beginning one which is distinct from culture. To the extent that Christianity has lost this distinctive identity in any time or place, this has been because of (not always willing) accommodations made by the culture to the practice of the Christian faith, and compromises made by Christians between the practice of their faith and the prevailing culture.

The earliest condemnations of Christians in the Roman world involved accusations of atheism—that Christians did not venerate any gods in any of the temples of the empire. Christians were seen to be different. Professor Hurtado examines the Roman reaction to this distinctiveness and identifies four principle themes in observation, themes that would result in a revolution in Roman culture in less than three centuries:

  • Christians separated their identity from the ethnic or national identities of the peoples of the empire.
  • Christianity was exclusive in worship. As strict monotheists worshiping Jesus Christ, Christians were distinct in their avoidance of the syncretism common between other cults.
  • Christian teaching and worship was focused on language more than praxis. Christians were “bookish,” relying more on authoritative texts for the definition of faith than on the liturgical norms enforced in other cults.
  • Christian ethics were distinctive. The practice of Christian ethics made Christians unique.

Each of these themes is explored and developed to tease out the nuances of the reality that Christianity in the first three centuries after Jesus’ resurrection was distinct not only in the eyes of Christians but in the eyes of their neighbors. The religious life of the Roman Empire offered a cafeteria of options for citizens, a range of choices tolerated under the umbrella of the cult of imperial divinity. Christian distinctiveness was quickly identified, therefore, as a threat to civic life. Sophisticated Romans viewed Christianity not simply as unbelievable but as utterly incompatible with their own beliefs. In our own post-Obergefell era in America, we are now witnessing a similar phenomenon, one in which the prevailing culture is becoming more aggressive in asserting that Christians—even if they may believe whatever they choose to believe—may not practice this belief if this practice conflicts with the culture’s enforced legal norms of conduct.

Destroyer of the Gods is a quick and fascinating read. Professor Hurtado’s book allows Christians to explore how a distinctive identity has always been deemed a threat, so that they may better identify how they will practice their faith at a time when this practice is becoming increasingly distinct. The book may be read, however, by non-Christians as well, to explore the dynamics of the collisions between any culture rooted in earthly power and those (of any faith) who profess to set limits on such power in the service of a higher Power.  

The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg is an Episcopal priest serving in Wisconsin, having previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S., U.K., and Germany.