The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Larry Hurtado on his book Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distintiveness in the Roman World from the Stand to Reason Podcast, July 12, 2017.
GREG KOUKL: Christians, I think, pretty much feel like personas non grata in our culture nowadays, and my guest is a specialist in early Christianity. I think understanding some of the things that he has to say about early Christianity is going to help us put our own culture today in a little bit more of a perspective and teach us how to live in a secular context. He is the emeritus professor of New Testament language and literature and theology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and got his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. He’s done a lot of writing on early Christianity, and the book that we’re talking about is Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. My guest, Dr. Larry Hurtado. We’re glad to have you here. Are you in Edinburgh right now or somewhere in Scotland?
LARRY HURTADO: Yes. I live in Edinburgh. I’ve been here since 1996. I moved here to take the chair of New Testament in the university, and I retired from that post in 2011, but we like the city, and so we’ve decided to stay on.
KOUKL: I’m in the studio with Amy Hall of Stand to Reason, and we both have read your book and we’re very stimulated by it and learned some great things by it. Thank you for it. I think it’s kind of fascinating to learn things about the early church and what early Christians faced in the first few centuries. I started the show saying that many Christians feel nowadays like they’re just not welcome in culture, they’re the odd people out, but according to your work, this was the case from the beginning with Christianity. Can you tell us a little bit as we launch our discussion here on your book? In what ways are today’s times similar to the early Christians in terms of the kind of cultural conflict that we’re experiencing?
HURTADO: Well, I’m talking about the earliest centuries, the first three centuries before the appropriation of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine, which changed the game quite considerably. But in the period before that in the first three centuries, Christianity was a sect, a group that sort of operated on its own that had no public support. Indeed, there was a great deal of disincentive to be a Christian. Hard to find much in the way of economic, social, or political advantage to join the Christian movement in that period, so one of the questions that I think deserves more attention, which I don’t particularly focus on in the book, is, under those circumstances, why did people become Christians? What I really focus on in the book is more particularly how outsiders viewed Christians and what they pointed to as objectionable features.
Early Christianity was, in that setting, not simply odd or different or distinctive, to use the subtitle of the book, but even objectionably so. One of the major things we have to understand is that in the Roman setting, the Roman gods, the larger, multiple gods of the world, were part and parcel of the social fabric, the political fabric, right from the level of the home on up to the level of the empire. Every structure rested upon the authority of the gods and involved validating them. To early Christians following the exclusivist attitude of the Jewish tradition from which Christianity sprang, early Christians were expected not to offer worship to the various pagan gods, to disregard them and indeed, treat them as utterly unworthy beings, so that put them on a very strong collision course, you might say, with those who were concerned to uphold the structures of family, of city, and of society as they saw them. They saw Christians as a threat to the whole social order, to the stability of society and to the empire because in the eyes of everyone else, that structure and stability rested upon recognizing the gods.
KOUKL: I read in your book that it wasn’t just the people in general, it was the government structure, the military, and also individual homes where they had individual deities that people were expected to respect when one visited the home, and the Christians could not participate in just about every level of society then. They were going against the grain. Is that right?
HURTADO: Yes. Every home was in some sense, in their sense of the word, was a godly home. That is, they had deities, household deities that they reverenced, as did cities. Every city had its patron deity, and they were to be reverenced because the notion was that the gods are powerful beings, and they were capable either of blessing or of withholding blessings. So right at the household level, yes, members of the household certainly, both the freeborn people and the slaves would be expected to join at appropriate occasions in reverencing the household deities. They would have a shrine set up, typically, with little images in the house itself, and people would gather to demonstrate their collective commitment to these deities and hoping that they would bless them.
Christians, if they were individual members of the household—slaves, wives, husbands, sons, daughters—they were expected by their faith not to participate in the worship of these deities, and so that immediately would have raised questions for them as to how they juggle their responsibilities. How do they show that they are a loyal member of the family, that they aren’t becoming anti-family, anti-social like some of the cult groups that tried to tear people away from their families? Christians insisted you should stay in your family, stay in your cities, stay in your country, and be as loyal and as honorable a person as you can in that society, but you should not reverence the deities. The problem was that logic just made no sense in the minds of anybody else. How could you possibly be a loyal member of the family or a loyal member of the city without reverencing the gods on whom everything was thought to rest?
In one sense, the early Christians in this period are in some sense ahead of the game in distinguishing between religious affiliation and political loyalty. There’s a sense in which early Christianity is articulating a vision of religious liberty in which your political loyalty is not measured by which gods you signed up to. You could have diversity of religions and all of you still showing some kind of loyalty to the political order.
KOUKL: What you just described strikes me as a condition that is very similar to what Christians face, in the States at least, with the idea of religious pluralism, which plays itself out here as everybody’s equally right, and if you don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of every religious view, then you are considered intolerant or even bigoted because of the exclusiveness. When I say legitimacy, I don’t mean just showing respect that is due people who differ, but I mean the notion that we’ve got to advance the idea that every religion is equally as meritorious or equally as true as Christianity. That’s what we’re facing here. Do you see a parallel between the pluralism now in the West and the kind of thing you just described that the Christians faced in the first three centuries?
HURTADO: Well yes, I suppose, in the sense that early Christianity was an exclusivist religion. That is to say it insisted that there was only one deity who was worthy of worship and all of the other deities were not worthy of worship. I hasten to emphasize that in early Christianity the issue wasn’t whether other gods existed, but whether they were real gods, whether they were worthy of worship. For example, some early Christians said, Oh yes, these other gods of the pagans are definitely beings, but they are unworthy beings. They even sometimes referred to them as demons. The early Christian emphasis on monotheism didn’t consist in the denial of the existence of other gods, but in denying that other gods were worthy of worship and obedience.
That put them in a difficult situation. In the Roman world, there were multiple deities, and the general rule was that all deities are real and all deities are worthy of worship. You didn’t necessarily have to worship every single one of them, but in principle, they were all worthy of worship, and so to object to offering worship to any of the deities was seen as a profoundly irreligious and anti-social. Conscientious Christians were put in a very difficult situation and had to figure out ways of negotiating their existence, so to speak, in families and in their societies in ways that, on the one hand, they didn’t want to cause any more conflict. They didn’t want any more conflict than was necessary, and so sought to try to be obedient and cooperative as best they could, but on certain things could not compromise, and that’s where the trouble arose.
KOUKL: Boy, that just feels so much like circumstances we’re facing here, not just with the broader religious questions, but ethical questions that deal with sexuality, etc. that we’re facing now.
HURTADO: I think personally my own view is that the literature and the practices of Christians in the first two or three centuries are perhaps a more meaningful guide for Christians living in what I would call a post-Christendom situation. That is, a setting, whether in Europe or in North America, where Christianity, as it was in Europe, often, Christianity was the sort of the official state-enforced religion, and that is less and less the case now, or in North America where you didn’t have a state religion, but Christianity was sort of the socially embraced, sort of unofficially embraced quasi-official religious stance. That is no longer the case the way it once was. Christians are once again put in the situation where they’re having to think for themselves, where they have to live out their faith on a voluntaristic basis, not because it’s socially approved or socially promoted, but because they want to.
In that situation, as we move more and more into that situation where Christianity has changed images, it’s sort of the religious free market economy, and Christianity is one option among others, and you are a Christian pretty much increasingly simply because you want to be, not because there’s any particular advantage in being that. In that situation, I think the literature of the first two or three centuries of Christianity is more meaningful than it has ever been before, potentially, and indeed, probably more meaningful than some of the classic texts that have been relied upon so much more like Augustine, or Calvin, or Thomas. With great respect to these teachers, none of them lived under the conditions that I’m talking about. It was people rather like Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, and Tertullian, and Origen.
HURTADO: The authors of this period who wrote the kind of texts that I think would probably be much more instructive for Christians today. The trick being, so to speak, what they sought to do was to be as winsome a family member or citizen as they possibly could be while preserving the integrity of their religious confession. That’s a very interesting kind of difficulty that requires some real thought and some real discussion, resources, collaboration, in doing that.
KOUKL: I love the way you put it that the Christians sought to be as winsome as they could be while preserving the integrity of their own commitment to Christ.
HURTADO: The point is they couldn’t bring to bear political pressure or economic pressure. They couldn’t bring to bear any kind of coercion in that setting. Subsequently, of course, Christians could. Once Constantine approved Christianity and adopted it, Christians were able, and in my judgment regrettably, did take up the opportunity to punish unbelief, to use state coercion, political coercion, even violence in some cases against non-Christians, Jews, pagans, and others, in a misguided attempt to try to reinforce Christian faith by force. In the early centuries, Christians had no such force that they could use, even if they wanted to. They were forced simply to defend their faith by reason, by argumentation, and by the demonstrable moral quality of their lives and their readiness to live by what they said.
That again, it seems to me, is instructive for Christians living in the modern Western society today not to resort to laws, or coercion, or threats, or whatever, but instead to articulate and express Christian faith verbally in ways that are clear, that are meaningful, and hopefully superior to alternative views, and very importantly, then to live out the values that they profess. I’m thinking of the Roman physician, Galen, who was an important figure of the time the second century, and Galen was a pagan, a philosopher, and a physician. And in one of his writings he remarks that these Christians, he said who haven’t studied philosophy, they haven’t gone through the course of philosophical training that he thought was necessary to be a good Stoic, but he said, “But these Christians exhibit the kind of virtues in their behavior that we associate with philosophical training.” He said, “I don’t buy their beliefs at all, but it’s amazing that they can live out these virtues that we ordinarily associate with philosophical training.”
It was in some cases the persuasiveness of the Christian teaching, and message, and reasoning, but in many other cases it appears it was the moral quality of Christian life, that they were ready to live by what they said. For example, they practiced the kind of sexual discipline expected of their men that everybody expected of women. Everybody in the Roman world expected a married woman to be chaste and virtuous, but there was a different standard for men. Early Christians insisted that men had to live by the same standards as women. Early Christianity really effectively erases the double standard, and in a variety of other ways, as well, they exhibited a kind of behavior that struck people, even if they couldn’t buy their beliefs, that struck them as very impressive.
AMY HALL: Dr. Hurtado, you make the case in your book that most of what we think of when we think of religion today is actually a result of the innovations of Christianity, so what are some of the ways that Christianity changed the way that we view religion? In your book, you have four categories. Can you give us an overview of those four categories that you cover in this book?
HURTADO: Well, one of them is the notion that there is a single God. As I say in the book, if you were to go into the street with a microphone and ask people, Do you believe in God?, and phrase it that way, you would probably get unobjectionably one of three answers: Yes, no, or I’m still thinking about it. Nobody would think to ask you what is actually the prior question, which is, What do you mean? Which of the gods are we talking about? In the West, even atheists presume that there’s only one god to disbelieve. That is a result of the influence of Christianity. In the Roman world and in most of the world down through history, people have always imagined that there were multiple gods. There are multiple forces of nature, there are multiple emotions, for example. It typically seemed reasonable to imagine that behind them all were a multiplicity of divine beings, but it’s the influence of early Christianity and subsequent Western culture that has created this notion of a single deity.
One of the other things that is often the case that people, whether they like religion or not, will say religion involves dos and don’ts. Some people object to that, saying, I don’t like religion because it’s all about dos and don’ts. And other people say, Yeah, my religion does tell me how to live. That again is a weird notion. In the Roman world, you did not think of the gods as telling you how to live your life. The gods were there for protection or for the opposite of protection, so you placated them, you appeased them, you tried to keep them on your side, but you didn’t think of what we would call religion as a source of behavioral instruction.
The exceptions to that were Judaism with its emphasis on the Torah and the teaching of the laws of God, which cover various ways of behaving. And early Christianity absorbs that in a modified form, of course, but they absorb basically the idea that the one true God, who is the God of the Old Testament for them as well, the God of Israel, is a God who has behavioral standards that He expects people to live by. That notion was a new one.
We think of religion also as involving sacred texts, typically, but again, in the Roman world, it doesn’t. Religion doesn’t involve reading texts, or writing texts, or disseminating texts, with the exception, again, of Judaism and of early Christianity. Early Christians accepted the practice of regularly reading Scriptures in their settings, but also writing texts such as the writings we have in the New Testament and many others. By my count, in the first 200 years or so of Christianity, we probably have 150 to 200 books written that we know about by Christians, composed for the purpose of disseminating their faith.
One of the other things that is characteristic of early Christianity, which has influenced our way of thinking of things, is the notion that your religious identity is distinctive; it is different in principle from your ethnic identity. So on a census, for example, you might be asked what is your nationality, and you might say Greek or Filipino. It might say what is your racial background, and you might say white European or black African-American. And then there’d be another question asking what is your religious orientation, and you can put down any of the options available. That seems perfectly normal to us, but in the ancient world, your religious affiliation was given to you with your birth certificate. You were born into a particular people. Those were your gods, and it really wouldn’t occur to you to forsake them and exchange them for somebody else’s gods.
HALL: To follow up on what you were saying about the texts, one thing I thought was really interesting that you said was how remarkable and unique it is that we have the writings we have, because there are a lot of atheists who will say, If Jesus had really existed we would have had—Everyone would have been writing about Him, and since nobody was writing about Him except for these few people, then therefore He didn’t exist. You made a case that it’s amazing that we do have the writings that we have. Can you tell us about that?
HURTADO: I’ve sometimes referred to early Christians as textual maniacs. They were crazy about reading texts as part of their worship, which wasn’t a regular thing in the ancient world. They wrote texts. They invested huge amounts of resources in writing, composing, copying, and disseminating texts when you stop to think that every copy of every text had to be made one pen stroke at a time. We run them off on a Xerox machine or printing press today effortlessly, but in the ancient world, every copy of every text had to be done by hand one pen stroke at a time, and we know that Christians were fantastically involved in copying and disseminating their texts. It’s part of the reason why we have such a disproportionate number of copies of Christian texts that survive from the ancient world, very disproportionate to the percentage of Christians.
HALL: Didn’t you say something about how the fact that we have the four Gospels written by different people was unusual?
HURTADO: Yes. I can’t think of really the same sort of concentration. If we think of the Gospels as being biographical-type writings, that is, sort of linear narratives of the career of Jesus, I can’t really think of any other figure from antiquity who attracts the same number of biographical accounts written within such a short period of time. Augustus, Julius Caesar, great figures who dominate the world stage at the time don’t have the same kind of explosion of biographical literature devoted to them. You have little short accounts by Suetonius, or Tacitus of the Caesars, but very short things by comparison, not full books devoted to them like we have in the Gospels.
It’s good that we have multiple Gospels because we’re able to compare them with one another and see where they’re making different emphases, choosing different material to relate, and so on. If we only had one Gospel, we’d be in great difficulty, but the fact that we have four allows us to compare them, allows us to engage in the kind of critical historical work that historians like to practice. And the enormous textual resources that early Christianity provides allows us to study and say more about early Christianity than about perhaps any other religious movement in the Roman world.
KOUKL: I wanted to ask you, Doctor, a little bit about your comments about the ethics of the early church, and you strike a number of different points where their ethics were completely counter to the ethics of the culture, which made them stand out in one sense in a negative way. You later talk about that turning into something attractive for people, but you’ve already talked about their sexual mores a little bit, of the culture and how Christians were different, showing that men had to be just as chaste as women. And I guess that also applied to the variety of kinds of sexual experiences that men were able to have. You also talk about the practice of Romans exposing their children to the elements to die, the female infants in particular, and Christians’ generosity in taking in those children, and their multi-ethnic approach. Can you say more about that that set the Christians apart ethically from the culture?
HURTADO: You have to say, it isn’t always necessarily a case of nobody else in the Roman world ever said anything like what early Christians said. I wouldn’t want to say that at all. We do have a lot of examples, of course. There are many, many things in which early Christianity says things that they simply derive from the Jewish matrix from which they sprang and echoed emphases in things like sexual behavior and so on that they derive from their Jewish parentage, so to speak. Likewise, there are some similarities to some of the philosophical traditions of the day, particularly among some of the Stoic teachers such as Epictetus or Musonius Rufus. However, two things that need to be pointed out: One is in the case of Stoic philosophers, for example, as indicated by Galen’s comment that I cited earlier. They really didn’t expect most people to live strenuously by the kind of strict sexual behavior that they may have advocated, except those who committed themselves to the life of philosophy.
In their mind, in order for a man, for example, to confine his attentions to his own wife and not have sex with slave girls, or prostitutes, or slave boys, that was really asking a lot, and so they believed that probably a person really had to commit themselves to the life of philosophical discipline in order to do that. They didn’t try to change the sexual behavior of the society at large. Here’s where the difference comes in. Early Christianity, in the words of the Doobie Brothers, took it to the streets. They expected this kind of sexual behavior that they taught of all of those who were baptized. Whether people always lived up to it or not, that was the teaching. That was the expectation. And you knew if you were a Christian, [and] you weren’t living by these standards, you knew that you were being a disobedient Christian. In terms of being a social movement, early Christianity is distinctive. It takes some ideas that are shared with some other people of the time, but it puts a power and a force to them that doesn’t really have an analogy in the ancient world.
One of the things for example, infant exposure. We know also that there were some people—again, some of the Stoic philosophers such as Musonius—who also thought that infant exposure was a bad thing and that it was wrong to kill your own offspring. But there’s no indication that he tried to change the behavior of other people. He simply wrote for his own small circles of disciples and nothing else. Early Christianity condemned child exposure and condemned also pederasty, having sex with children, which was quite common at the time. Slave children were considered fair game, and we actually have references of children as young as five or six years of age being used for sexual purposes at the time by people who were also married, and this is just sort of an additional type of variety of sexual experience for them.
Early Christians condemned it entirely and did so quite volubly, and were known, in some cases when it came to child exposure, were known for basically saying, Instead of throwing your child on the trash heap or drowning it, we will take your child in. Christians were known as people to whom you could take an unwanted child, and they would bring it up.
KOUKL: I had heard somewhere, Doctor, that because of the practice of exposure, especially of female babies and Christians adopting them, that this kind of shifted the dynamic later on when men needed women to get married to, and the ones that—many of those that are now available—were ones that had been rescued by Christians and raised as Christians, and this had a kind of salutatory effect on the society because now these men had to marry Christian women, and the women then often led them to Christ and were effective in seeing their families Christianized. Did I understand that correctly? I’m not sure where I heard that, but it was a while back. Something to that effect.
HURTADO: We don’t have the sociological information that we’d like. We’d like to be able to take surveys of all these people and them to fill out a survey that tells us why they did what they did. It’s an inference that is often made by scholars. We do know that early Christianity attracted a large number of women. It may be that not only a sizable proportion, but perhaps the majority at certain times, of Christians were women. Then we say, Well, why was that? Why were women particularly attracted to Christianity? One of the reasons is, if you’re a woman and you’re expected to confine your sexual activity to your husband, it would probably be attractive to join a religious movement that expected the same kind of chaste behavior of your husband.
KOUKL: That makes sense.
HURTADO: Likewise, yes, we have presumed that even though child exposure was widely practiced, it must have taken its toll on at least many conscientious people to feel that they had to throw the unwanted child who was often a girl on a trash heap, which is literally what they often did, or drown the child. That must have caused people a lot of problems emotionally.
Perhaps the attraction of a religious movement that affirmed the validity of all children, male or female, was an attractive feature. There are a variety of ways in which something of, not only the teachings, but the moral commitment of Christians to live up to their teachings was attractive.
KOUKL: We’re talking with Dr. Larry Hurtado about his book Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, and you can follow Larry Hurtado at his blog. It’s LarryHurtado.wordpress.com. Dr. Hurtado, what kind of things do you cover on your blog?
HURTADO: The blog is basically related to my professional work, my scholarly work as a New Testament scholar. I sometimes refer to it as sort of leaks from my workshop. I blog about things that I’ve written, and published, and work on. I’ll blog about interesting other publications that I come across or about issues that come up in the field, so it’s pretty well confined to things to do with the New Testament and with the origins of Christianity.
HALL: I was really interested in what you had to say about the ways in which their focus on Jesus was unique. There were all sorts of different ways that played out, including how the Gospels were written compared to other biographical works. Can you tell us how the focus on Jesus by the early Christians was unique?
HURTADO: One of the things we see about the early Christian articulation of Jesus’ significance is that there’s an exclusivity to it. Let’s say something like Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in chapter eight; he says there are many gods and many lords in the outer, larger world, but for us, there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. The emphasis on the one God is, of course, the Jew, Paul, echoing the exclusivity of his Jewish tradition, but then without a hiccup, he also adds on a second figure, Jesus, but the same kind of exclusivity. Although there are many demigods, and heroes, and deified emperors, and deified holy men in the ancient world, the concept of a divine human in some sense is widespread and varied. The early Christians are unique in their insistence that there was only one figure. Jesus occupies a unique status—in their language, often at the right hand of God uniquely, and acting as God’s plenipotentiary, in whom, to cite another text from the New Testament, “All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s that uniqueness that is attached to Jesus that is one of the things that sets Him apart from all the other claimants of the ancient world.
KOUKL: As I read those sections of your book describing this, it seems like there was a tension in the way that you were dealing with the material. I don’t know that you used the word Trinity in there at all, but it was as if, as I read it, that there was one God clearly coming from Judaism and then adopted by Christianity. Yet at the same time, there was this Jesus guy who is right up in there, kind of getting the same attention as the one God and blended in. One Lord, for example. Jesus is Lord, this ancient confession, which was loaded with theological significance. How do you cash that out? Do you see that as classical Christianity? Maybe not in a highly developed Trinitarian form early on, but this sense of the distinctness between the Father and the Son, yet at the same time, a unity of nature. Do you think that was being expressed in subtle ways in these early writings?
HURTADO: If I understand what you’re talking about, I’ve referred to the dyadic devotional pattern in early Christianity in which you have worship, and praise, and devotion offered both to God, the Father, in their language, and to the Lord Jesus Christ, in their language. The New Testament writers tend to restrict the word God to God the Father, and use the word Lord for Jesus. This seems to be a terminological distinction that they use in order to make it clear that there are two, but they are intimately related, uniquely related to each other. As I’ve emphasized over the last 30 years or so, one of the most remarkable things is that early Christians not only talk about Jesus in exalted terms, but they offer to a risen, exalted Jesus the same kind of devotional actions as the Father. The same in that they pray to Him, they claim Him, they sing hymns about Him, and so on. They incorporate Him into their worship pattern in a unique way, producing this two-ishness, you might say, this dyadic devotional pattern.
KOUKL: One other thing that stood out for me was as you were describing the early Christians, those first three centuries, you said that there were no images that they used in their worship. There were no altars. There were no sacrifices. There was no priesthood. There were no temples. There were no shrines. I sadly chuckled to myself when I read that because it wasn’t long before all of that began to change in Christendom. How is it that things changed so radically in the organized expression of Christianity so that now we’re back to the images, to the altars, to the sacrifices, to the priesthoods, to temples, to shrines, all of that?
HURTADO: The absence of all those things is quite striking, and actually, I have a good friend, Edwin Judge, who is a very respected ancient historian in Sydney, Australia. He insists quite firmly that you really can’t call early Christianity a religion in the Roman setting because he said it had none of the features that comprise a religion. In the ancient world, religion is basically a set of rituals directed towards the gods, and the essential components of those rituals are an altar, sacrifice, an image by which to direct your attention to the gods, shrines or temples, and often, a priesthood. He said early Christianity had none of those things, so it isn’t a religion. It’s really more like a philosophy because they get together, they read texts, discuss texts. Okay, they pray and they sing hymns, but so did philosophical groups.
When I sent him some early chapters of the Destroyer book, he wrote back and said, “You must not call early Christianity a religion!” I wrote back and said, “I take your point, Edwin, but I’m going to call it a different kind of religion because if I say early Christianity wasn’t a religion, modern readers wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about.”
KOUKL: What, it seems to me, is being expressed there with the absence of all of these particulars that normally are associated with religion, the emphasis was more on relationship or that intimacy with God that one could have apart from all those trappings. Do I have that right in my understanding of early Christianity?
HURTADO: Well, two things: One, a relationship, yes, very definitely. A relationship with God, not simply bargaining with the deity, or appeasing the deity, or trying to bribe the deity, which is very often the way the sacrificial cultic rituals of the time seemed. You would go into the temple and you would say to a deity, “My wife is pregnant. If she brings forth a healthy child, I promise that I will give you this.” It’s a kind of quid pro quo arrangement with the deity. Early Christianity doesn’t really do that. First of all, they don’t have a sacrificial altar or sacrificial system by which you could do that kind of quid pro quo arrangement with the deity if you wanted to. Instead, yes, there are very strongly relational things that characterize it. It’s a new definition of piety. Piety in the ancient world is basically paying your respect to the gods and fulfilling your obligations to them, but for early Christianity, piety involves, clearly, from the descriptions that we have in the New Testament, a very strong emotive and relational quality that comes out.
One of the things I’ve noticed, for example is it’s very hard—I’ve not been able, actually—to find any statements in Roman era pagan religious texts about the gods loving the world or loving people. I can’t find any references to that. Often the gods are described as kind, or generous, or bountiful, or merciful, or whatever, but specifically to say that the gods love people and love the world, I can’t find an example of that. Whereas such statements about God loving the world or loving people, they’re just ubiquitous in Christian texts. It’s hard to find a page or a book of the New Testament that doesn’t say that at least somewhere. That’s indicative of the very strong emotive and relationship emphasis of early Christianity.
Also, early Christianity is not simply, by any means, a private affair. You are called as a believer. You are baptized and called into a church, that is, a body of believers. And it’s interesting that there are many more exhortations in the New Testament about loving fellow Christians than there are about loving God, such that one could say that the way you show your love for God is by loving other believers. There’s both a horizontal, so to speak, a tight, horizontal dimension to early Christian faith, as well as that vertical dimension.
KOUKL: I want to go back to something you said at the beginning of our conversation. You said that early Christianity is a more meaningful guide to engagement with the culture than post-Constantine Christianity. Can you tell us a little bit more about what we learn from the early Christians about how they engaged that will help us in engaging our own culture now?
HURTADO: Well, I fear I’ll repeat myself a bit, but one thing is that these earliest Christians were unable to presume upon anything. They had no social backing or political backing they could bring to bear upon the situation, no coercion really at all. All that they had was their reasoning ability. They had to persuade people by appealing to them voluntarily. I think that’s, again, the situation that we’re moving into—in my mind, commendably. I’m not really afraid, personally, by the way, I have to say. I’m guilty of being a Christian, but I’m not really afraid of our situation. I don’t really worry about losing all the official trappings in European culture of Christendom, or losing some of the privileged status that Christianity once may have had in the American setting. I don’t worry about that all. I actually think it’s quite a good thing in many respects.
I think Christianity was good for Western culture, but I don’t think that Western culture was good for Christianity. And in areas of the world today, including some of the United States, if I may say so, it seems to me that Christianity has been captured by certain cultural forces, including some that are conservative as well as liberal. I think that to be once again in a situation where Christians have to think for their lives, as a wonderful reference in Eric Osborne, another ancient historian, who referred to this period as a time in which, he said, “Fortunately for our historical inquiries, these early Christians of this period had to think for their lives.” The writings that they produced, the apologia, the defenses of Christianity that they produced, and the appeals that they made to the government and to the society are just very impressive as this small, vulnerable group of people, standing up above the parapet and openly declaring their faith and engaging their society, engaging the philosophical culture of the time, engaging the popular culture of the time.
I think that these texts give early Christians a reason for not being disheartened or discouraged about no longer being in a privileged position. Early Christianity succeeded in spite of its disadvantageous situation, and it’s in these texts that I think Christians today can discover again something of the inspirational examples that they may need in order to be effective Christians in our setting.
KOUKL: Well, that is just a fascinating way to conclude our discussion. Dr. Hurtado, your book Destroyer of the gods is an absolute treasure trove of insight on early Christianity. We are very grateful that you decided to spend some time with us.
KOUKL: Bye-bye. What a fascinating conversation.
HALL: I just loved what he ended with, the idea that we can look at the early church and have no fear about our situation because of all that they did and all that they accomplished, knowing God, and it wasn’t a horrible thing. They suffered, but it was a great thing that they did, and they survived as Christians. That’s just so encouraging to me.
KOUKL: Well, I love the line, and I guess I can’t quote it as his because he was citing somebody else, but here it is: “Christians had to think for their lives.” Oh my goodness. Here we are right around our 24th anniversary for Stand to Reason, and there were so many things that were said that encouraged me, as far as our work at STR.