Book Review: Destroyer of the gods by Larry Hurtado (Guest)

This post was written by Derek Wojciech, a friend and brother in Christ. He now holds the distinction of being the first guest blogger on Dead Heroes Don’t Save. 

In his book Destroyer of the gods, retired Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology (University of Edinburgh in Scotland), Dr. Hurtado (blog) presents the case that the early church, specifically it’s Christian faith, was unique and newly distinct from any preceding or current faith practices. He attempts to dispose of some of the current thought in academia/religious studies that Christianity (religion in general) was simply a variation of the same basic tenets and themes of existing religious systems. In today’s postmodern environment, Christianity often simply takes its mostly anonymous place among the many world’s religions and belief systems.

Hurtado first highlights Christianity’s early dedication and zeal among its adherents (almost all Jewish) and it’s trans-local and numerical explosion. What were some of the forces behind this movement? He points out that in the Roman era, only two main faiths remain, Judaism and Christianity. Clearly if Christianity was simply an anonymous, unremarkable belief of the time then why wouldn’t it have disappeared like the others? What made it uniquely powerful?

Hurtado first starts off with the (often) derogatory comments from personalities of the 1st century era. In fact, he begins with the most famous persecutor of the church, Paul (Saul) the Pharisee. Hurtado emphasizes the worship of Jesus as probably a prime motivator for Jewish sentiment against early Christianity. Writings from Pliny, Lucian, Celsus and other contemporaries are also analyzed showing the tremendous and unexpected growth of the Christian faith, along with arising conflict (persecution, economic upheaval) with the Roman way of life and government (traditional religious practices and celebration marginalized), ridicule, and wild accusations (Christian orgies, cannibalism etc.). Yet in spite of this attack on the newly faithful, Christianity thrived and spread like no other faith before it.

A major difference with Christianity (shared with Judaism) was abandonment of the pantheon of gods and common practices of Rome; rejecting their altars, idols, household/family gods, sacrifices, and priesthood. The Christian God was transcendent, involved, and loved the world/humanity. And Jesus was this God in the flesh. While sharing much of the Jewish view of God, Christianity burst on the scene with a completely new religious viewpoint of what and who God was. And these followers were completely different in makeup; crossing ethnic, economic, gender, and age lines. And they did so by choice. This was not a faith or belief held because of their homegrown identity or role in life.

Another defining component of the early faith is the emphasis on Scriptures. Not limited to the Old Testament, much of what we now know as the New Testaments writings were presented and used in worship, read aloud, memorized, distributed and ultimately collected into a single volume. These writings early on were recognized as authoritative and (eventually) canonical. In addition there was a tremendous proliferation of writings by early church leaders, bishops, apologists and supporters. There is no “analogy for this variety, vigor and volume” in Roman-era religious groups. Copies and circulation was unparalleled and even unique formats (codex vs universally used scroll) defined the early church’s “bookish” nature.

The social behaviors that Christianity promoted proved most unusual and distinctive. It was a clear 180-degree movement away from accepted Roman practices such as infant exposure (discarding unwanted babies), the gladiator games, and pagan worship. However, Christianity also emphasized personal behavior in order ‘to live and please God.” (1 Thess). Marriage and family, treatment of women, children and slaves, sexual behavior, social and religious practices only honoring the one and true God were distinctive callings upon the newly converted Christians.

Hurtado handily provides many distinctions of the early Christian church that make it unique, an oddity even, in the Roman-era. These were 1) the refusal to acknowledge the pantheon of gods and 2) the amazing trans-ethnic and trans-local growth of the faith even amidst strong opposition and persecution (that could result in death (martyrdom)). In forging a new, unique identity apart from one’s background, sex, class or status the early Christians held to newfound revelation of their God, codified in early accepted Scriptures, with a call to holiness in behavior and worship setting a new standard in the Roman-era.

In review, the author makes key arguments in the origin, formation, foundation and practice of the early Christian faith as being unique and distinct for there time. The entirety of these presents formidable opposition against the more liberal historians and religious studies professors who argue for a genesis of Christianity from a previous belief system or borrowing from a Roman-era practice (ie savior cult, Mithraism, Jewish offshoot etc). The scholarly evidence Hurtado provides is a strong defense.

I feel he minimizes somewhat the unique doctrine and theology of the Christian faith, which culminates in the person of Jesus Christ. In addition, the powerful evangelical aspect of the faith and the early church isn’t given it’s due in formulating a personal conviction in early Christians and the resulting impact which was the tremendous growth of the faith.

What is missing from the answer to the question as to ‘Why is Christianity Unique’ in this work is not the scholarly side, but the spiritual side. Hurtado does not address this, nor is his book meant to. However, the power of God and His Holy Spirit at work in the church body paints the most significant part of the picture. Christianity was unique because God became man and men then believed ‘the power of God unto salvation’ (God’s Word revealed in Christ). The traits of the early Church distinctive in the Roman-era are not special in and of themselves but are unique fruits of a people transformed by the power of a loving God and born into a new way of living.

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