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.

Book Review of Michael Gorman’s “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant”

One of the atonement books I was assigned this quarter was the book The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant by Michael Gorman. This was a fantastic read. Gorman saw that many of the atonement theories offered, especially since the Reformation, are both too mechanistic in focus and/or myopic in scope. He seeks in this book to offer a comprehensive and fundamental layer of atonement understanding that will allow all of the theories to have space to interact and find meaning in relation to one another rather than demand a singular allegiance. Gorman calls this “new” method or theory of the atonement a “new covenant” approach.

Gorman uses the first three chapters of his book to lay out that the cross created a new covenant people of God, the primary aim of God’s promises in the Old Testament. He first shows how the New Testament’s claims the followers of King Jesus are liberated and reshaped as the covenant people, who are now rightly in relation to God and one another, by means of the cross. He then shows how these experiences of salvific liberation and unity are fulfillments of the covenant promises in the Old Testament. By showing these new covenant promises as fulfilled through the atonement of the cross Gorman proposes that the current options of atonement theories are inadequate, especially when they try to explain all aspects of salvation.

The next few chapters are dedicated to understanding the new covenant atonement as an atonement that is participated in and performed. For Gorman, since “the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross is to create a people of the covenant”, then “[t]he cross… must be understood not only not only as the source but also as the shape of salvation.”[1] Because of this the new covenant community takes on three particular ways of practicing the atonement: cruciform faithfulness, cruciform love, and cruciform peace. Each of these practices are imitations of God in and through King Jesus that allows for actual participation within the life of God through the Spirit. Cruciform faithfulness offers a way of life that manifests hope. This faithfulness allows sufferings to be redeemed in God’s salvation since his faithful presence with the new covenant people assures Christians of the promise of resurrection found in King Jesus. Cruciform love takes the faithfulness that is willing to suffer for God and extends it to those with whom God himself suffered. Since the new covenant atonement is for a whole people born out of the broken world then in order to practice the love of the atonement Christians must be willing to faithfully suffer for others too. Lastly, cruciform peace offers a way of life. This life, faithful to the imitation and participation in the sufferings of King Jesus, is for the world by inviting it into the new covenant people and is proactively seeking to redeem the relationships broken within Creation. Gorman calls this peacekeeping and peacemaking, which means seeking to manifest the realities of salvation which have been created in the cross of King Jesus. Gorman does not believe salvation should be seen as something a person is able to simply benefit from, rather it is a fully encompassing (baptizing) participatory reality which will be manifest in the life of those who become a part of God’s covenant people. In this way it connects with Bonhoeffer’s teachings against “cheap grace”.

At the end of this book it becomes clear Gorman has undertaken a massive task. He seeks to shift the very foundation of all other atonement theories by offering them all a place and structure for language. This new environment for atonement theories allows those studying these theories to place them within a larger frame of reference, allowing the theories to play off one another and develop a larger picture (the new covenant people of God) rather than solve specific theological issues. Gorman believes, and in many ways excellently persuades, that “the New Testament writers are far less interested in the mechanics of atonement than they are the results of atonement.”[2] This is the gem of Gorman’s work in this book; the atonement is not simply something that God did in order to make salvation possible but it is the work in the cross that continues in and through the covenant people of God today in the Spirit. Atonement in a new covenant model offers ways of approaching the cross from all of the Scriptural and traditional theories, but more than that offers the very story of King Jesus as the paradigm through which the cross finds its meaning and continued purpose.

This, I believe, is what Gorman offers to those who teach in the churches. The atonement is something that should be taught from the vantage point of its salvific results rather than by its particular mechanics. While a teacher or preacher who is going through the epistle to the Hebrews will need to stress the sacrificial metaphors of the forgiveness of sins, the purpose of forgiveness, the creation of a forgiven people, is what should be stressed most strongly. In other words, the atonement is teleological, or in better theological terms, eschatological. The atonement is the “when and where” event in which the people of God and God are most fully made one—in King Jesus on the cross. While it may seem like an event in the past, the cross is the future of all things. The cross is atonement because it achieved the end which all Christians, the whole new covenant people of God, are participating in for all of eternity. Such a generalized theory of atonement leaves many specific things about salvation unanswered, but Gorman’s new covenant atonement theory is as wide as the Biblical story’s view of salvation. It is this story, culminated in the cross of King Jesus’ gospel, which is the atonement we offer to all the world.


 

[1] Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not so) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 175, 213.

[2] Gorman, 210.

Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Destroyer of the gods”

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.