Book: Destroyer of the Gods
Why am I not blogging enough? Ph.D. seminar writing. Like this, not a blog-style book review but a real attempt at an academic one.
Don't worry, I'll probably get booted back to the blogosphere soon enough.
Book purchased, not provided...
Destroyer of the Gods. By Larry W. Hurtado. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016. 290 pages. Hardcover. $29.95.
If one is able to start off life in Kansas City, Missouri, and then find his way to Scotland, not only for a visit but to work and retire there, then he must have either wisdom or great luck. Larry W. Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at the University of Edinburgh, demonstrates through his achievements in research and publications that he has wisdom. Professor Hurtado is the author of several commentaries on the Gospel of Mark, multiple articles and essays regarding early Christian origins, and advocate for the study of the early Christian era. His work The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins encouraged the understanding of how the early copies of New Testament material were made, including the use of nomina sacra, as a look into the development of the church as a community and religious body.
His work in Christian origins is expanded on his blog, and even in his retirement, he continues to publish in this area. The background of Christian origins supports that his next work, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, will come from one who has researched the first centuries of Christianity as well as the Jewish religion of the time and the Roman religions of the time.
First, having reported the author’s qualifications to write on Christian origins, it is important to examine the contents of his book. Following the summary of the contents, Destroyer of the Gods (henceforth, Destroyer) will be considered in view of its value to the academic reader, the ministerial reader, and the general Christian reader. One important caveat should be made before continuing: Hurtado’s frame of reference is as a Christian believer. He is not attempting, in this work, to justify the existence of Christianity. His stated intent, per the Preface, is to examine the features of Christianity that made it distinctive in the first three centuries AD (p. xi.).
As a starting point, Destroyer holds 196 pages of primary content. The nearly 100 remaining pages are the endnotes and indices. Beginning at the end, Hurtado has split the indices into two parts, one for ancient sources and one for subjects and modern authors. He includes the Bible with the ancient sources section, with subsections for ancient Jewish, early Christian, and Roman Pagan sections. The second index section includes modern authors and subjects, and some ancient authors are also acknowledged as subjects, such as Ambrose or Socrates. The endnotes are not merely bibliographic but also explanatory and provide the reader with additional sources of evidence and areas to explore.
The meat of the work in Destroyer is placed in five chapters, with an introduction and conclusion surrounding them. The introduction sets forth the basic outline of the first three centuries of Christianity, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Hurtado then tracks the expansion of Christianity, using a loose definition of Christianity as “the movement…with the figure of Jesus at its center (p. 197),” both numerically and geographically. He asserts that Christianity had become so prevalent and dominant in Roman society that Constantine’s official embrace of the religion was not the “triumph” of Christianity but rather an expedient move to adopt a belief system that was remarkably successful.
The five chapters of Destroyer look at individual aspects of what made Christianity distinctive. First, Hurtado examines how Jews and Pagans, using “Pagan” as the catch-all term for any of the Roman religions and philosophies, viewed the Christians. He cites Pliny, Tacitus, and Marcus Aurelius among his Pagans. His primary sources for Jewish comments on the Christian faith are found in the Christian New Testament, though Josephus is mentioned in passing. The next chapter delves into the definition of “religion,” and speaks to the cultural distance between the current era and the Roman world. This discussion alone is significantly valuable, delineating how Christians not only believed in something different than the majority of the Pagans of the time but that the manner of their belief system was fundamentally “other” as well.
The third chapter contrasts the way the Christians viewed their religious and ethnic identity with the typical pattern of the time. Here, Hurtado reminds the reader that the ancient world did not separate “religion” from “ethnicity” or “heritage” in the same way modern Westerners do. However, he highlights that "Christian" became a new group, one which few in those first three centuries counted themselves as born into. Instead, their association with Christianity was across ethnic boundaries, creating a group that did not align with any internal (or external) borderlines. The fourth chapter contrasts the book-centered nature of early Christianity not only with Roman-era Paganism but also many other ancient religions. Hurtado notes that the idea of a religion centered on a specific set of holy writings is drawn primarily from Christianity. The final chapter highlights the behavioral expectations on Christians. These expectations stretched from private home lives into the public arena and the idea that Christians were expected to live consistent with their religious teachings rather than with the current culture brought the distinctiveness of Christianity into the forefront.
The conclusion notes that being aware of the distinctiveness of early Christianity in Pagan Rome should be both a guide and an encouragement to Christians in the modern era. Hurtado notes how the modern reader should be wary of carrying Christian presumptions into the examination of other religions and therefore misunderstand them.
Now, in turning to the value of the book, first, its value to the academic community. Hurtado is one of the main scholars in the field of Christian origins, as evidenced by the starting point for Destroyer: it began from academic lectures and then took shape. The writing is concise and presupposes a knowledge of the ancient world. It is, therefore, a writing for advanced study and excels in that purpose. Hurtado highlights contrasts between philosophies and religions and leaves the reader with more to study and his endnotes provide jumping off points into those areas. He provides valuable insights for how Christianity stood apart from most of the Pagan world, enabling the academic to work this understanding into the framework of history and political development.
For the Christian minister, the book’s value diminishes somewhat. While the information remains useful, especially in contrast to some popular misrepresentations of early Christianity, the academic nature of the writing will challenge the minister who is too far removed from academic work. Further, Hurtado’s broad definition of “Christianity” may cause some of the more conservative readers to shy away from the remainder of this work. That would be unfortunate, as the work, properly understood, would equip the minister to refute several History Channel fallacious responses to Christianity.
Finally, for the general reader, the work of Destroyer may be a challenge. Without a baseline knowledge of Christian and Roman history, a reader may be lost as to the general development of thought. That general reader would do well to first take up an overview of Christian history before tackling this work, but after doing so would profit from the challenge of Destroyer of the Gods. Christianity is a “bookish” religion, as Hurtado advocates throughout chapter four, and this book is a worthwhile explanation of the effects of the faith.