When Christianity emerged in the first century, it was completely unlike the other religions practiced at the time, New Testament scholar Larry W. Hurtado says. Yet in recent years Hurtado noticed what he thought was an inadequate emphasis on the distinctiveness of early Christianity, especially among academic specialists in its origins. That prompted him to set the record straight by writing Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor Univ., out now).
Hurtado says that his purpose was “to correct what I perceived as a scholarly imbalance and some popular misconceptions” about how unusual the Jesus movement that became Christianity was at its beginning. Not only did these unusual elements of the Jesus movement become normalized, they also shaped definitions of what “religion” is in a more general sense, says the emeritus professor of New Testament language, literature, and theology in the school of divinity at the University of Edinburgh.
In its first three centuries, Christianity—with its emphasis on one true, living God and sacred books, among other beliefs and practices—was so different that many regarded it as bizarre, disturbing, and a threat to society and the religious and political order of the time. Now its once-strange features have become commonplace assumptions, Hurtado says.
“For instance, our assumption that your religious affiliation is distinguishable from your ethnicity likely derives from the early Christian teaching that converts were to retain their ethnic and family relationships, but were to forsake their ancestral gods and take up a new and exclusive religious orientation toward the biblical deity and Christ,” Hurtado says. “That was bizarre in that Roman setting, but it introduced the distinction between ethnicity and religious affiliation that we presume today.”
Destroyer of the Gods also explores how early Christianity’s novel beliefs and practices reshaped society as a whole. Hurtado says that whether a reader is “for, against, or don’t give a rip one way or the other, your world has been shaped by it, and your own outlook, values, and assumptions, especially about what religion is, have been shaped by it too.” For example, he explains, “Roman-era religion didn’t tell you how to live, just how to approach the gods,” a stark difference from Christianity.
Hurtado hopes “that a wide swath of readers would find it interesting to see how this early rambunctious Christian movement initiated ideas and developments that we now take for granted.” Without that knowledge, he says, “we’re a ‘cut flower’ culture, without any understanding of our roots.”