The week before classes I chose to read through a book on my shelf I’ve been waiting to have time for just to get the academic juices pumping again before the semester began. The book was Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness by Larry Hurtado. It has been a number of years since I had read Hurtado’s book How on earth did Jesus become a god? back in undergrad, but the enjoyment of that book prompted my excitement for this one. Destroyer of the gods did not disappoint me. The clear prose of the sections, the lack of literary or academic fluff, the rigorous notes for further readings, and the quality of the summaries on ancient social or religious practices were phenomenal.
The premise of the books lies in the reality that non-Christians, both Jews and “pagans”, deemed Christian belief and practice as dubious as best and societally dangerous at worst. Hurtado gives a number of examples of how Christianity was not something that was seen as a religion in the ancient context. These were beliefs that overrode ethnic ties to gods, nations or citizenships, and even common behavioral norms. The intent of Christians was to include people, any and all people, into a community of beliefs and practices that placed demands on those newly converted that would reshape what it meant for them to exist in ancient society.
Hurtado’s examples of this intentionally crafted counter-cultural behavior begins with the Christian emphasis on translocal, transethnic inclusivity as a part of what it means to be religiously affiliated with Christianity. Hurtado posits that there was no such idea as voluntary religious identity. A person’s religious identity was subsumed within their ethnic identity and more personally, the family ancestors. Beyond the expectation that a person worship their ancestral spirits or ethnic gods, there were expectations that a person would worship the gods of the locality in which they resided. Polytheism did not demand any form of exclusivity. Even Jews were caught in this perspective since it was their ethnicity that gave them the pass of being strangely against worshiping other gods than their own. Christians took their Jewish heritage and expanded it to into radical new territory, inviting any ethnicity to join but demanding they reject participation in any other form of religious practice or event. In such a way Christian created the distinctive idea of religious identity separate from ethnic or social identity.
The next major focus of Hurtado is on the bookish nature of Christianity. The early Christians were prolific compared the ancient people around them. Their works of literature and their religious letters were far larger than anything except the most celebrated ancient texts. Christians were dedicated to teaching one another through the written word as read in the communal meetings. Christians didn’t just distinguish themselves from groups in the ancient world by their content alone, they also separated themselves from the surrounding cultural and society by the form of their bookishness. They began to use the codex bookform in much higher frequency, in fact seeming to prefer this looked-down-upon bookform almost exclusively for the Scripture readings in the churches. As they focused on codex technology they also developed liturgical reading styles that were evident in the reading of the texts, such as abbreviations and emphases.
The last area of Christian distinctiveness Hurtado focuses on is the social behaviors of Christians. Christian groups put considerable effort into creating language and concepts that reshaped the behavioral life of the new convert. The particular areas of this is seen in the honor and dignity given to infants and children, a rejection of violence as entertainment, and strict sexual behavior, specifically expected of males. Pagan religion did not concern itself with the person’s ethical life but was focused on the rituals and practices expected to be adhered to because of traditions, ethnicity, and locality. Christian obsession with the lives of their participants was distinct and unusual.
My personal take away from this book is the unbelievable willingness for early Christians to purposefully craft a way of communal life that stood in direct opposition to the prevailing culture of the Greco-Roman world. They were radically inclusive in their invitation to any and all peoples, but at the same time this radical inclusivity was meant with a radically exclusivity in order to distinguish themselves from Jews who did not follow King Jesus and pagans. How might Christians in this contemporary period learn from the first few centuries how to be as clear about the boundaries of Christian identity, yet still lovingly offer to never withhold entrance into that communal identity?
I think particularly of the sexual issues plaguing American Christianity in the twenty-first century. Might Christians learn against to make unbelievably strict, and even “immoral” to the American society, demands on the sexual behavior of those who desire to participate in our communities of faith? Christians must again begin to craft purposefully insider language that will seem strange and distinct from those outside of the Christianity. The culture of America must become unpalatable for Christian identity to reside within, though we may live beside it in a way that condemns it by our own loving and holy behavior.
I easily recommend reading Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods for the education of the early churches found in it, but I highly encourage reading this for the conviction it brings about in the Christian reader. May we honor this tradition of inclusive exclusivity as essential to Christian identity. Even more than honor, may we begin to live it again.