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?

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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.

Reading History: John Chrysostom on Ignatius of Antioch

John Chrysostom (347-407) was an influential Christian leader during the fourth century. He was known as an eloquent speaker and writer. His “last name” means “golden mouthed” and in 392 was included in Jerome’s collection On Illustrious Men (link #129). That would essentially make him a “legend in his own time”. He served as a leader in Antioch (~386-397), under bishop Flavian, until he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople to become its arch-bishop (link).

In Antioch a day was set aside to to commemorate their hero Ignatius. On one of these occasions, John Chrysostom gave a noteworthy homily that we still have today (link). As John gave this speech, he and those who heard him enjoyed “deep peace on all sides”. This was in contrast to Ignatius and the early Christians who faced “precipices and pitfalls, and wars, and fightings, and dangers” during the first two centuries of its existence. This was also a time when the Arian controversy, which has consumed nearly a century of debate and the attention of two ecumenical councils, has finally started to fizzle out.

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Antioch, envisioned as the whole world

This speech, as much as it is about remembering Ignatius, is also reminding people about the place that Antioch holds. In commending Ignatius, John lauds the size and history of the city in which he is speaking. Continue reading

Reading History: Ignatius of Antioch

Some of the earliest extant writings of the church, after the apostles, were written by Ignatius of Antioch. Unfortunately very little is known about him. At least not with much certainty.
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We can, with reasonable confidence, know that he lived in the first and second centuries during the reign of Trajan (98-117). This is based on the following set of evidence:

  • Polycarp, a contemporary of Ignatius, is a recipient of one of the extant letters written by Ignatius. Writing his own Letter to the Philippians, Polycarp mentions Ignatius as a role model (chap 9). With this letter, Polycarp also attaches some of Ignatius’ letters, esteeming them because they explore “faith and patience, and all things that tend to edification in our Lord” (chap 13).
  • Irenaeus, writing in the late second century, anonymously quotes a portion of Ignatius’ Letter to the Romans (chap 4) in Ad Haer (V.28.4).
  • Origen, writing in the third century, quotes Letter to the Romans (chap 7) and Letter to the Ephesians (chap 19) in two of his commentaries. [1]

Martyrdom for the Faith

Ignatius is remembered for his courage as he faced martyrdom for his faith in Christ, sometime between 105 and 115 AD. He was arrested, taken into military custody, and taken from Syria across Asia Minor to Rome. In Rome he would be executed, being torn apart by wild beasts. It is on this journey that he wrote the letters that we have in our possession today. Continue reading