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Destroyer of the gods

Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

"Silly," "stupid," "irrational," "simple." "Wicked," "hateful," "obstinate," "anti-social." "Extravagant," "perverse." The Roman world rendered harsh judgments upon early Christianity—including branding Christianity "new." Novelty was no Roman religious virtue.

Nevertheless, as Larry W. Hurtado shows in Destroyer of the gods, Christianity thrived despite its new and distinctive features and opposition to them. Unlike nearly all other religious groups, Christianity utterly rejected the traditional gods of the Roman world. Christianity also offered a new and different kind of religious identity, one not based on ethnicity. Christianity was distinctively a "bookish" religion, with the production, copying, distribution, and reading of texts as central to its faith, even preferring a distinctive book-form, the codex. Christianity insisted that its adherents behave differently: unlike the simple ritual observances characteristic of the pagan religious environment, embracing Christian faith meant a behavioral transformation, with particular and novel ethical demands for men. Unquestionably, to the Roman world, Christianity was both new and different, and, to a good many, it threatened social and religious conventions of the day.

In the rejection of the gods and in the centrality of texts, early Christianity obviously reflected commitments inherited from its Jewish origins. But these particular features were no longer identified with Jewish ethnicity and early Christianity quickly became aggressively trans-ethnic—a novel kind of religious movement. Its ethical teaching, too, bore some resemblance to the philosophers of the day, yet in contrast with these great teachers and their small circles of dedicated students, early Christianity laid its hard demands upon all adherents from the moment of conversion, producing a novel social project.

Christianity's novelty was no badge of honor. Called atheists and suspected of political subversion, Christians earned Roman disdain and suspicion in equal amounts. Yet, as Destroyer of the gods demonstrates, in an irony of history the very features of early Christianity that rendered it distinctive and objectionable in Roman eyes have now become so commonplace in Western culture as to go unnoticed. Christianity helped destroy one world and create another.

About the Author

Larry W. Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Born in Kansas City (Missouri), he now lives in Edinburgh.


"This is a fascinating survey of the features that made Christianity distinctive in antiquity and so—ultimately—successful. Hurtado discusses the Christian concept of an exclusive veneration of God, the trans-ethnic and trans-local religious identity, the central role of books and learning and distinctive and challenging forms of behavior within their ancient context. The glimpses into the first three centuries may even inspire contemporary Christians to find their identity and negotiate between social assimilation and difference."—Jörg Frey, Chair of New Testament Studies, University of Zrich

"Hurtado sets out to awaken us from our 'cultural amnesia,' to remind us that the origin of Christianity and its remarkable success has more to do with its ability to distinguish itself from other religions in antiquity than to be one with them. Hurtado challenges readers to reconsider what have become common assumptions of religion today—that there is a single God and that religious affiliation is a voluntary choice. Without the distinctive rise of Christianity, none of these would be so."—April D. DeConick, Chair of the Department of Religion, Rice University

"Comprehensive and quietly authoritative, Larry Hurtado's Destroyer of the gods offers its readers a three-centuries' tour of the Christianizing Mediterranean. The sweep of his panorama never sacrifices the liveliness of telling detail. For those who ask, 'What was distinctive about this new religious movement?' Hurtado offers thoughtful answers. Make room for this book, whether on bedside table or in classroom syllabus—or both."—Paula Fredriksen, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University

"In this very accessible and readable book, Larry Hurtado shows how really distinct early Christianity was in comparison to its surrounding cultures of Greco-Roman paganism and Judaism. This was not only true for aspects of early Christian life that are somewhat familiar to many of us, such as its stricter sexual code, but even here Hurtado shows that the early Christians took their code 'to the streets' and opposed the double standard of their day. Destroyer of the gods is an exciting read across a wide range of interests in early Christianity coupled with many comparisons to religious life today."—Jan N. Bremmer, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, University of Groningen

"In this lucid and wide-ranging book, Larry Hurtado convincingly shows how novel and distinctive early Christianity was in the religious world of the first century. He argues that early Christianity was in many respects a different kind of religion, and was revolutionary in the way that 'religion' has been understood ever since. Along the way, Hurtado sheds much light on the New Testament and on second century Christianity. He hopes to enhance 'our appreciation of the remarkable religious movement' that was early Christianity, and he admirably achieves exactly that."—Paul Trebilco, Professor of New Testament, University of Otago

"Clear and enlightening, Hurtado's coverage of the first centuries of Christianity explains why it was different, more philosophy than religion, and how its emergence as the supreme religion in the Roman world is less paradoxical than usually argued. This account is the nearest one can get to meeting an early Christian and quizzing them."—Robin Cormack, Emeritus Professor, Courtauld Institute of Art

"Hurtado, emeritus professor of New Testament language, literature, and theology in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, discusses the history and evolution of ecumenical Christian practices in this elegantly straightforward book...Hurtado does an excellent job of walking readers very odd early Christianity was for its place and time and how it came to overturn and replace ancient systems and beliefs. Hurtado writes with a measured tone and learned authority. Those wishing to know more about early Christianity will find much here."—Publishers Weekly<P>"Hurtado's book, written to appeal to a wide audience, explains just how odd and objectionable Jesus' followers, their counter-establishment church, and even their writings looked during the first three centuries of the Christian movement."—The Christian Century<P>"An important scholarly look at the birth of Christianity within the Roman embrace."—Library Journal<P>"Whether one applauds or disdains the values of contemporary Western culture, what we assume to be good, true, and normal has been shaped to a surprising degree by early Christianity. Demolishing taken-for-granted assumptions about what religion was, is, and can be, Hurtado's provocative exploration deserves a broad audience."—Matthew W. Bates, Quincy University, OnScript<P>"Destroyer of the gods is a quick and fascinating read. Professor Hurtado's book allows Christians to explore how a distinctive identity has always been deemed a threat, so that they may better identify how they will practice their faith at a time when this practice is becoming increasingly distinct. The book may be read, however, by non-Christians as well, to explore the dynamics of the collisions between any culture rooted in earthly power and those (of any faith) who profess to set limits on such power in the service of a higher Power."—Karl C. Schaffenburg, University Bookman<P>"Larry Hurtadoreminds us that early Christianity emerged as a profoundly countercultural movement, one that could never be mistaken as mirroring the values of its environment."—Ronald P. Byars, Presbyterian Outlook<P>"Destroyer of the gods is a very clear and readable book and is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand issues dealt with in early Christian writers, particularly Paul's letters. I thoroughly recommend it to students of the New Testament and more widely as a reminder that there is a cost to a church which stands out in its social and cultural setting."—Tim Gill, ANVIL: Journal of Theology and Mission<P>"One does not need a modern point of departure to appreciate Hurtado's work as a historian of antiquity."—Michael Peppard, America Magazine

9781481304740 : destroyer-of-the-gods-hurtado
Paperback / softback
304 Pages
$19.95 USD

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