Valentine’s Day Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?”

I must admit, Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. To me, it is only fitting that Christians both celebrate the beginning of Lent, the intentional time of embodied reflection leading to the last week of Jesus’ life, and the life culminating in martyrdom of our brother Saint Valentine. While there is a lot of speculation around the story of Valentinus, the core of the story is that a priest, likely in Rome, continued to marry Christians even against the edict of the Emperor to halt all weddings. When arrested for his crimes against the empire Valentinus was visited by Christians to care for him, many of them those whom he had wed, thereby encouraging him in the Christian faith that love conquerors the powers of this world until his execution. In the face of such persecution why would anyone choose to become a Christian?

Today’s celebration is a good bridge for me to review a book I recently read called Why Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? by Larry Hurtado. This book is similar to his larger one called Destroyer of the Gods that I reviewed a few weeks ago. While Destroyer focused on what made Christians distinctive from Greco-Roman and Jewish society, this monograph focuses on what people thought they were gaining by joining the Christian communities of faith. I call it a monograph because it is a small bound book with barely more than one hundred pages. In fact, it is a printed version of his Père Marquette Lecture in Theology at Marquette University in 2016.

Hurtado begins by showing Christianity as a social group that grew at exponential rates over a long period of time. He uses the research of Rodney Stark and other historians of religious social development to show how this is a nearly impossible venture for new religious movements. He even goes so far as to say, “Indeed, although historians are often loathe to use the term, we probably have to say it was unique. For there simply is no new religious group of the time that had the same growth sustained over such a long time. And, as specialists in the new religious movements have noted, it is the rare religious group that becomes trans-local, and even fewer that sustain their growth beyond the first few years or decades.”[1]

This rapid growth, which is so evident for us nearly some two millennia later, was clearly noticed as it created socio-religious waves in the Roman world. From the small riots against Paul, to the Expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 over the “Chrestos” controversy, to the effect on temple tourism in Ephesus mentioned by Pliny the Younger around A.D. 112 it is clear that Greco-Roman society saw Christians as a problem to be dealt with, and harshly. This decisive, but usually local pressure on Christians, continued on with martyrdoms of bishops and apologists for centuries. Hurtado lays out the evidence that early Christians lived in a world where judicial and political action could easily be turned against them. More than that, the constant social ostracism Christians brought on themselves by their distinctive rejection of the gods, and lack of participation in common social behaviors linked to the gods, left Christians in a constant position to be harassed socially and politically if the population of an area turned against them.

So what could possibly have been the draw to this religion which cost so much socially and could produce so much suffering at the hands of the empire? Hurtado begins by showing what were not likely reasons people would have joined a Christian community but are often touted as reasons why Christianity succeeded in the face of such pressures.[2] First, people did not join the Christian faith because it had access to a more powerful or effective wonder-working source. Hurtado points out there were plenty of options available to people of the first few centuries that offered magical results for just about anything and everything, and it would not cost them their property or life before the magistrates or risk familial or communal ostracism being leveled against them. Second, people likely didn’t join because of a sense of familial bond between members. Hurtado speaks of how familial language was used by a number of voluntary associations for deeper, more meaningful interpersonal relationships. Third, people did not join the Christian communities to forward any cause of social justice. Again, there are examples of other social groups being able to provide mutual benefits to members without the high costs demanded of Christians, and more so the types of social justice behaviors done by Christians would not have been seen as justice or in a positive light by society. Lastly, people did not join Christianity to gain power. The higher the standing of the individual in Roman society the more there was to lose in being associated with Christians, and if one wanted to climb the social latter it would be best to keep one’s name from being marred by the moniker “Christian”. Without a doubt all of these elements were a part of Christian communal life, and it is possible that Christians worked harder than other groups at providing these social benefits precisely on account of community members being ostracized from other parts of society. But alone, these are not strong enough reasons to make sense of the exponential growth of Christianity in the face of the persecutions found in the first three centuries.

Hurtado ends his book ruminating on what could have been the actual benefits in the Christian faith that would draw so many to be faithful despite the high cost politically and socially. Turning to Paul’s words in Philippians and Galatians, Hurtado points out Paul’s concession to the cost of giving up his former status for what he considers the benefits of interacting with God in Jesus. This is a heavily experiential reasoning in the present leading to a future hope of further interaction with God based on Jesus’ resurrection being extended to Christians. Hurtado then looks at Justin Martyr’s reasoning that the Christian communities’ life together and philosophical coherence led him to accept the faith, [3] and he comes to the conclusion that “what most readily distinguished early Christianity were certain beliefs or teachings.”[4] It was not simply the beliefs or the practices of Christians that seems to have drawn so many in the first few centuries to the Christian faith despite the political or social costs. Instead, it was the Christians’ blend of particular beliefs being the distinctive reasoning for pursuing certain practices in particular ways that set these communities in continuity with their Jewish roots, but at the same time gave them a distinct identity separate from both Jewish and Greco-Roman communities.

Lastly, Hurtado looks at two particular teachings of the early Christians that would have possibly been seen as alluring enough to risk the costs of joining this new, burgeoning faith. First, Hurtado posits that the idea of a loving transcendent God was something that was wholly unintelligible to Greco-Roman society. By teaching the loving and faithful character of God in continuity with the teachings of the Creational God of Israel, Christians emphasized the inclusive posture of this all-powerful God as revealed and acted out in the person of King Jesus. And second, the idea of eternal embodied life offered to anyone who would give their allegiance to King Jesus. The resurrection was a novel idea in the era and something hard for Greco-Romans to accept from an intellectual perspective. “Certainly, the Christian belief in the resurrection was in that period ‘the most spectacular religious doctrine regarding the body,’ and among Greeks and Romans ‘this was an unthinkable idea.’”[5] Hurtado explains that eternal life does not seem to be something the general population really look for and was more of a philosopher’s inquiry. But Christian teaching on the resurrection likely generated a desire to participate in the eternal life of this loving God.

On a beautifully merged day of celebrating Saint Valentinus’ faithfulness and somber enactment of Ash Wednesday’s reflection on faithfulness for Lent, Larry Hurtado’s book Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? is a stimulating and devotional read. Why would anyone then, when martyrdom was so public, the political response unstable and harsh, and the social costs so high, choose to associate with this faith? Why would anyone now give allegiance to the Christian faith when so much of contemporary culture will ostracize Christians for living the faith, and when the person must give up so many pleasures or modern rights to obey King Jesus? Hurtado answers that “early Christian allegiance was not solely acceptance of a set of beliefs intellectually considered, but involved also the affective and inter-personal impact of those beliefs.” And I would mimic such a truth for our contemporary world as well. Christianity is a set of beliefs that must be communally embodied and experienced for our allegiance to King Jesus to become complete in the Christian. And only this embodiment by the power of the Spirit will sustain us to suffer in this increasingly hostile environment toward the resurrection which is the hope of the Christian faith. May we reflect on those who have gone before us on this Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday as we ask ourselves, “Why on earth are we Christians in the 21st century?”

 


[1] Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology 2016 (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), 45.

[2] Hurtado, 110–14.

[3] Hurtado, 115–20.

[4] Hurtado, 122.

[5] Hurtado, 128.