BMCR 2017.05.02

Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. xiv, 290. ISBN 9781481304733. $29.95.

Destroyer of the Gods is concerned above all to emphasize what made the cult of Christ distinctive, indeed “unusual” in the context of Roman culture. Hurtado stresses that Christianity did not fit “what ‘religion’ was for people then,” and was accordingly dismissed as a superstitio (p. 2). It was the distinctive features of Christianity that account for its successes and not Constantine’s embrace. Indeed, according to Hurtado, Constantine probably adopted Christianity “because it had already become so successful,” despite attempts at suppression (p. 5).

The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire, in particular the speed of its spread—“no other cult in the empire grew at anything like the same speed.”1 As I will indicate below, Hurtado is better at outlining the distinctive features of the Christ cult than he is in accounting for its success, principally because his discussion of the latter is almost entirely untheorized. Although he cites Rodney Stark’s treatment of New Religious Movements and the many conditions under which they are known to flourish, Hurtado is satisfied to note, following Stark, that successful NRMs must display aspects of continuity and yet generate “a medium level of tension” with the host culture.2 This balance is epitomized in Diognetus’ claim that Christians were not distinguished from others by their territory, language, or customs but follow the customs of their host lands in clothing, food, and other matters of life, different only in their refusal to expose infants and in their practice of non-retaliation towards those who despise and persecute them (Diogn. 5.1-15).

Hurtado’s case for distinctiveness unfolds in five chapters. First he surveys the responses of pagan observers of the Christ cult and reactions that ranged from disdain and innuendo to acts of suppression. Contrary to Celsus’ claim that the Christ cult was restricted to the dregs of society, the energy with which Celsus and Lucian attack Christians undoubtedly means that they already included persons of consequence. Taking at face value Eusebius’ list of martyrdoms during the principate of Marcus Aurelius, Hurtado declares that the repression of the Christ cult was “empire wide [and without] parallel.” This conclusion in turn implies that “participation in the Christian faith must have offered things that attracted converts and compensated for the considerable social costs incurred in becoming an adherent” (p. 35).

The cost of adherence is the subject of the second chapter and is epitomized by the absolute refusal to participate in the cults of other deities. Jews did not participate in civic cults but could point to privileges offered by Julius Caesar, an option unavailable to Christ followers. Yet the evidence for a universal ban on pagan cults among Christians is equivocal. Certainly Pliny thought so in the early second century, but the Pauline letters suggest a much more complicated position developed at an early date. Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians 8–10 on eating food sacrificed to pagan deities amount to “if you aren’t observed by anyone it’s OK” and meat from the macellum is unproblematic unless someone points out that it had been sacrificed. Much hangs on how effective we suppose Paul to have been in discouraging participation in pagan cults, including the imperial cult, and the extent to which a writer such as that of the Apocalypse of John represented the mainstream of the Christ movement or whether those at Pergamon and Thyatira whom he attacks (2:14, 20) had a different view. In any event, Hurtado asserts not only that non- participation in the civic cults was a distinctive Christian practice but regular (weekly) gatherings for corporate worship marked them as different (p. 61), surely an overstatement, since many other cultic groups met on fixed days of the month.

Chapter 3 argues that Christianity constructed a “new identity” insofar as it was not bound to ethnicity and was exclusive in a way that other elective cults such as Mithras and Isis were not. And although philosophical schools, like Christ groups, were both translocal and transethnic, adherence to a philosophical tradition was essentially additive to “other social and religious associations” (p. 87) rather than an alternative to religious cults. (And what of Epicureanism?) And in relation to the cult of the emperor, also translocal and transethnic, Christians managed to disconnect worship from political loyalty, rejecting the former while adamant on the latter. This, in Hurtado’s view, amounts to “the earliest attempt to articulate what moderns would recognize as a corporate religious identity that is distinguishable from, and not a corollary of, one’s family, civic, or ethnic connection” (p. 104).

In this connection Hurtado engages the fraught issue of whether “religion” as an analytic (and emic) term has any salience in discussions of Mediterranean antiquity. He acknowledges that the term is anachronistic insofar as it carries with it the baggage of the Enlightenment, with its compartmentalization of religion, politics, the economy, etc. He also acknowledges Edwin Judge’s point that “it is hard to see how anyone could seriously have related the phenomenon of Christianity to the practice of religion in its first-century sense”3 since it lacked the essential apparatus of Greek and Roman cults. Yet he insists that it is reasonable to regard the conflict between pagans and the Christ movement as “what we could call a ‘religious’ issue” (p. 44). Thus he invokes (apparently) a distinction between emic and etic terminology; but as I will suggest presently, this distinction is not maintained as carefully as it might.

Chapter 4 is perhaps the most innovative contribution, where Hurtado makes the case that Christ groups, in contrast to devotees of Isis, Mithras, Cybele and others, adopted literate technologies and were “bookish,” adopting reading practices and but embedding quotations of other literature in their works, making appeals to literate media recursively present. Paul’s letters were collected and treated as a kind of scripture; Justin calls the Synoptic gospels the apomnēmoneumata of the apostles and reports that they were read publicly. Less convincing is Hurtado’s claim that the early adoption of the codex by Christians was “a deliberately countercultural move” (p. 136). 4 Were that the case, one might expect pagans to notice this and Christians themselves to advertise their preferences. They do not. Moreover, the earliest versions of the traditio legis scene feature a bookroll not a codex in Jesus’ hands and a fourth century sarcophagus in the Louvre (inv. 2296) has the disciples and Jesus alternately holding codices and bookrolls (Jesus holds a codex), which suggests that the codex was not treated as the marker of Christian identity.

In the final chapter, “A New Way to Live,” Hurtado elaborates the ethical profile of Christians, who rejected child exposure and Roman blood sports and whose “religion” had ethical demands that were lacking in Roman religions, in particular attention to sexual ethics (pp. 154-68). This was, in Hurtado’s view, a “distinctive kind of social effort to reshape behavior” (p. 172). Here too Hurtado stresses the unusual nature of the Christ cult. He notes the rather robust ethical (including sexual) strictures evidenced in a first century B.C.E. Zeus association from Philadelphia (TAM V 1539) but argues that its repeated references to ἄνδρες καὶ γυναῖκες, ἐλεύθεροι καὶ οἰκέται (almost Pauline in character!) do not point to a “new universalism or democratization in religion,” citing Stowers’ suggestion that the cult was only a household cult.5 It is at this point that Hurtado’s use of “religion” as an emic rather than an etic or redescriptive category can be seen. The Philadelphia association does not offer a salient comparandum to the Christ cult because it was only a household cult and not a “larger translocal religious movement” (p. 174). But then how was this different from a Pauline house church? One could also cite the robust sexual ethics of Ptolemaic occupational guilds discussed by Monson,6 but these would likely also be dismissed as relevant because those groups were not “religious.” Hurtado acknowledges that such Stoics as Musonius Rufus articulated a strict sexual ethic, but dismisses this because Stoics allegedly did not try to promote their views beyond their own narrow circle of disciples. In all of this, the category of “religion” is used not redescriptively, but descriptively to derail comparisons and to produce a Christianity that is maximally “unique” by excluding comparanda that are not “religious.” Ironically, Hurtado’s comments on the bookishness of Christianity would seem to align it (in etic terms) more closely with philosophical practices than with cultic practices, and thus make comparison with Stoicism more salient.

A second methodological issue lurking in the book concerns the tendency to treat emergent Christianity as distinctive in contrast to polis religion. On this showing, Christianity was distinctive and indeed unique in its creation of a transethnic, translocal, elective “religion,” not controlled by or aligned with the interests of the propertied class. This binary, however, neglects the many instances of what might be termed elective cults that were variously related to the civic center and which in varying degrees were curious (but harmless), exotic, transgressive, or horrific. Some reverenced deities not part of the civic pantheon but, like the cult of Silvanus or Mithras, were scarcely treated as deviant.7 Others—Isis at certain periods, for example—were treated as deviant and suppressed. Participation in many such cults crossed ethnic, gender, and social class boundaries and some, Mithraism for example, imposed strict ethical requirements and produced a transformation in one’s lifestyle that was, in Roger Beck’s estimation, a “conversion.”8 To acknowledge such a shift from cults predominantly of the polis-type to the development of elective cults in the late Hellenistic and early Imperial periods complicates Hurtado’s narrative of Christianity as the major innovation in the “religious” landscape of antiquity.

Despite its title, Destroying the Gods does not offer account of how the Christ cult displaced Greek or Roman cults and eventually achieved hegemony in the Empire. Exhibiting continuities with Roman culture while at the same time possessing distinctive features was undoubtedly a factor in Christianity’s eventual “success,” but those were also characteristics of Mithraism, Isis and many other elective cults. It was the combination of the conventional and the unusual that sometimes fascinated and sometimes horrified the observers of these elective cults, including the Christ cult. Much more theoretical work needs to be done to complete the second part of Hurtado’s project, accounting for Christianity’s thriving. The combination of continuity and difference might be a necessary component of a cult that is successful in promoting itself, but it is hardly a sufficient condition.

Whether one embraces or demurs from Hurtado’s argument, there is no doubt that the book is elegantly presented and reflects impressive learning. It is perhaps a measure of a good book that it provokes serious reflection on the analytic categories and assumptions that inform contemporary scholarship on “religions” in antiquity and presses us to be clearer on how to describe and redescribe antiquity.


1. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Knopf, 1987), 271.

2. Rodney Stark, “Why Religious Movements Succeed or Fail: A Revised General Model,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 11.2 (1996): 144.

3. E. A. Judge, The Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century, ed. David M. Scholer (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2008), 130.

4. See Roger S. Bagnall, Early Christian books in Egypt (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), who argues rather that the transition from roll to codex was due to the Roman church, not as a deliberate expression of distinctiveness, but an “adaptation of the codex of tablets” (p. 87).

5. Stanley K. Stowers, “A Cult from Philadelphia: Oikos Religion or Cultic Association?” in The Early Church in Its Context: Essays in Honor of Everett Ferguson, ed. Abraham J. Malherbe, et al. Supplement to Novum Testament 90 (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 287–301.

6. Andrew Monson, “The Ethics and Economics of Ptolemaic Religious Associations,” Ancient Society 36 (2006): 221–38.

7. John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. Judith M Lieu, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 174–93; Greg Woolf, “Isis and the Evolution of Religions,” in Power, Politics, and the Cults of Isis, ed. Laurent Bricault and Miguel J. Versluys (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 62–92.

8. Roger Beck, “On Becoming a Mithraist: New Evidence for the Propagation of the Mysteries,” in Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity, ed. Leif E. Vaage, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 18 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2006), 175–94.