A Review of
Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World
Reviewed by Joseph Johnson
If Christianity had died out like many of the other religious movements of late antiquity, would those studying the Roman past find anything distinctive about it? Or would it seem more like an unremarkable part of an already crowded religious landscape? This is the kind of question that intrigues me, and having read Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods, I think I know how he at least would answer it. In this book, Hurtado looks at the first few centuries of Christianity and sheds light on some of the major features that, he argues, “made it distinctive, noteworthy, and even peculiar in the ancient Greek and Roman setting” (5).
Of course, Christianity certainly didn’t drop out of the sky, free of cultural and religious influences. Studying the wider Greco-Roman and Jewish settings within which Christianity arose is an important task. Nevertheless, it seems to Hurtado that—out of a desire to highlight similarities between early Christianity and other groups in the Roman world—the pendulum of scholarship may have swung too far, leading to the neglect of the movement’s more distinctive characteristics. After all, he writes, “Outside observers of early Christianity certainly thought it was different, and so it is not out of line for us to explore what those differences were” (9).
The Roman writer Tacitus, for example, characterized Christians as adherents of a “deadly/dangerous superstition” (21). Suetonius also called Christianity a “superstition.” Hurtado points out that this term (Latin: superstitio) was often used to describe religious groups and activities that were “deemed excessive, repellent, or even monstrous” (22). For these ancient Roman writers (and others like Pliny the Younger), the Christian movement was something both novel and concerning.
But why did they respond this way? For Hurtado, answering this question requires delving into the nature of the wider Roman-era religious landscape. He explains, “from the lowest to the highest spheres of society, all aspects of life were presumed to have connections with divinities of various kinds” (47). In the Roman world, different lands, regions, and cities all had deities specifically linked with them. While one was supposed to worship the gods and goddesses of one’s own people, Hurtado tells readers that, “There was no worry that any one deity would be offended if you offered worship to other deities as well” (48). In fact, it was generally expected.
Keeping this background in mind makes it easier to understand why early Christianity stood out. Christians were obligated to treat all of the traditional deities as false and unworthy of worship. Of course, the Jews also refused to worship any other god besides their own, but pagans could dismiss that as an eccentric, and sometimes annoying, part of their peculiar ethnic identity. However, many early Christian communities included significant numbers of gentiles who could claim no such “traditional ethnic privilege” (53). In short, Hurtado argues that early Christianity was believed to be noticeably, and dangerously, different by many Romans because it was both radically exclusive in terms of worship practices and not tied to ethnic identity.
One can find a partial analogy to early Christianity in the “mystery cults” of the Roman-era, but the crucial point where the analogy breaks down is in the exclusive nature of early Christian worship. For Hurtado, there is simply no evidence to show that devotees of Mithra, for example, were urged to only worship Mithra, to the exclusion of the other deities connected with family, city, and nation. Early Christian converts were thus often subject to social pressures when they converted. So why did they join? Interestingly, Hurtado thinks this question has not yet been adequately studied (I think Alan Kreider’s The Patient Ferment of the Early Church offers a number of interesting thoughts on this question, though).
Hurtado also thinks early Christianity was an uncommonly “bookish” religion. In the Roman world, practices of communal ritual and sacrifice were the most important parts of much religious life, but Christians gave high importance to the reading of sacred texts (both together and in private); they also produced a surprisingly large volume of new texts and spent considerable time and resources to disseminating them (141). While Roman-era Judaism also was text-oriented, Hurtado suggests that the “textual” nature of Christian belief and practice was another feature that marked it off as different in the wider Roman world.
While many ancient pagan writers were hostile to Christianity, Hurtado notes that the ancient Roman physician Galen was relatively less unfriendly. He did have criticisms, but Galen admired the early Christians for their “courage in the face of death” as well as their self-restraint in matters of food, drink, and sexual matters (27). In some ways, these were virtues already lauded within Roman philosophical circles, but Galen was impressed that people of lower social classes were living in ways typically associated with the philosophical elite. For Hurtado, Galen’s perspective adds support to his overarching argument about the distinctiveness of the Christian movement, “Christianity represented a strong effort to promote this behavior in all adherents, of all social levels, among men as well as women… That is, early Christianity represented a distinctive kind of social effort to reshape behavior” (172).
I think it’s easy to forget just how strange and different Christianity appeared to many during the first few centuries of the Church’s existence. Ironically, the very features of early Christianity that seemed most out of place in the Roman-era now form large parts of what people assume religion is about. For example, Richard Dawkins may not believe in God, but there is only one God that he doesn’t believe in, and while many people also often assume that religions give central place to sacred texts, Hurtado shows that this wasn’t generally the case in the Roman world.
Hurtado’s desire is to help readers become more cognizant of both early Christianity’s distinctiveness in the Roman-era and its influence over the subsequent centuries. Destroyer of the Gods builds up an argument that was quietly persuasive for me, and Hurtado’s writing style is pleasantly conversational. I do think the book would have been a bit stronger if Hurtado had spent more time describing the move in scholarship that resulted in the neglect of early Christianity’s distinctive characteristics. In spite of an included appendix that does discuss history-of-religion scholarship in some detail, I think he could have fleshed out the shape of the paradigm he’s pushing against more in the introduction by entering into conversation with a few recent scholars who don’t think that early Christianity’s distinctiveness has been neglected. This could have helped some readers better understand the need for Hurtado to go back and look afresh at Christianity in the context of the Roman world. Regardless, I think that Destroyer of the Gods is a substantive book that will hopefully bring about some fresh conversation within scholarship about the real similarities and differences between Christianity and other parts of the Roman-era religious landscape.