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Response to Larry Hurtado’s “Destroyer of the gods”

Response to Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

Introduction: Christianity without the Cross?

In Destroyer of the gods, Larry Hurtado manages to do something remarkable: he writes a book about early Christian distinctiveness in the Roman world, without ever discussing the single most distinctive element of the early Jesus movement—the cross.  The crucifixion of Jesus.  The fact that the person whom the early Jesus followers proclaimed as “Lord,” “Son of God,” “Christ,” and “Saviour,” and incorporated into their “dyadic devotional pattern” (68), was crucified.  However you want to call it, this is missing from Hurtado’s book.[1]  Yet there was nothing more scandalous, offensive, revolutionary and genuinely distinct about the early Jesus movement than this (and even if some folks may disagree that the cross is the most distinct element of the early Jesus movement, I imagine that they will all agree that is a distinctive element).

This omission of the cross cannot be because Hurtado is unfamiliar with its significance and centrality in the New Testament or because Hurtado is unaware of how foolish and genuinely unique the proclamation of the early Jesus movement is in this regard.  Hurtado is a serious scholar and discussions of this are ubiquitous in New Testament scholarship.  Martin Hengel, who wrote one of the groundbreaking books on the topic, even blurbs the back cover of Hurtado’s own magnum opus, Lord Jesus Christ.  So, I don’t know why Hurtado chose not to talk about the place of the cross as a distinct element of the early Jesus movement.  But I do know this: Hurtado’s argument holds together a lot better if we forget about the cross.  If we bring Jesus’ crucifixion back into the picture, a lot of Hurtado’s argument starts to sounds very curious and, in fact, misleading.

This may strike the reader as a rather audacious claim for me to make (it’s not one I thought I would be making when I came to the book, quite excited to read it).  In order to try and explain why I am making it, I want to look at some of the language Hurtado uses in order to speak about the early Jesus movement.  In particular, I want to look at how Hurtado repeatedly emphasizes that the early Jesus movement is a religion or a religious movement, and I want to look at how Hurtado consistently talks about the social impact of this.  I will then conclude with a few remarks about the cross and the spread of the early Jesus movement.

The Christian Religion

More than anything else, Hurtado presents the early Jesus movement (what he calls “Christianity” or “early Christianity”) as a religion.  This is significant because religion becomes the central category through which the reader is then led to understand the movement.  It challenged norms around “religion, piety, identity, and behavior” (xii; emph. added here and in the quotes immediately following), it was the only long-term success of the numerous new “religious movements” that appeared in the first-century CE , “early Christianity expressed and represented a distinctive religious identity in the Roman world” (102), and so on.  At the end of it all, Hurtado concludes by expressing a desire for the reader to have a greater “appreciation of this remarkable religious movement that, alone of the many new religious movements of that time, has survived as a living force down the centuries” (189).[2]

What this silences or diverts attention away from, is a reading of the early Jesus movement as a political or economic movement.  It shapes the direction in which the imagination of the reader might go with a reading of early Christian distinctiveness.  It enables certain resonances within the mind of the reader and problematizes or omits others. [3]

In this regard, it is interesting to observe that Hurtado never actually considers the early Jesus movement as a political or economic movement.  Or, at least, as a movement where that kind of language might be brought to bear with just as much (or more? or any?) descriptive force upon what we read about as the religious language that Hurtado prefers.

This is not to suggest that Hurtado is unaware of the difficulties that go with describing the early Jesus movement as a religion (or as “Christianity”).  Hurtado explores this in his examination of how the movement compares to tradition Roman religiosity, to voluntary religions (primarily mystery religions), and to philosophical movements.  Here, Hurtado wants to emphasize that although “early Christianity,” as a religion in its own context, is “distinctive, noteworthy, and even peculiar” (5), and although it has some overlaps with movements that are not primarily defined as “religious” (but are viewed as “philosophical”), early Christianity is still best understood as a religion.  I want to examine these three points of comparison in more detail to see how this holds up.

Roman Religion

Beginning with traditional Roman religions and religiosity (or piety), Hurtado notes that many of the key elements of Roman religion, and other religions at that time, were absent from the early Jesus movement.  Specifically, the movement has no images of its god, engages in no sacrifices, has no priesthood, no temples, no shrines, and no altars (58; cf. 38-48).  In fact, because of this and also because of their exclusive monotheism (their refusal to recognize any gods apart from their own – a key distinctive marker of early Christianity as presented by Hurtado), the early Jesus followers are frequently described by outsiders as atheists – as impious and irreligious people (56-57).  Thus, Hurtado notes Edwin Judge’s position that “it is hard to see how anyone could seriously have related the phenomenon of Christianity to the practice of religion in the first-century sense” (quoted on 43).

Hurtado grants that Judge “has a point” but quickly adds that “the key neuralgic issue between Christians and their critics and opponents in those early centuries was worship, and that sounds “religious” to me” (ibid.).  However, it is precisely this issue of worship – especially of a person who has been crucified by Rome – that is a key political category.  Hurtado, as we will see, consistently downplays this element but it is important to mention it now.  Things that sound “religious” to us (or to Hurtado) do not necessarily sound religious to the guardians of the Roman imperial order.  Alternatively, some things that sound religious to those guardians may also sound a lot like other much more troubling things – like terrorism or revolutionary threats.

A contemporary example may be helpful in considering this.  Think about Osama bin Laden and Islamophobia in America after September 11, 2001.  Osama bin Laden was a type of Muslim, and probably considered himself to be a very devout Muslim.  But what really made him troubling and terrify and a threat, were the ways in which his religiosity found expression in violent resistance to American imperialism, which was directly impacting the political economy of places that bin Laden considered not only important but also sacred – not to mention the impact it had on people he loved who suffered from the violence inflicted by imperial wars.  Here we discover something that was very true in the first century CE – a very deep connection between religion, politics, economics, war, and terror.

So, sure, the early Christians held some distinctive views on religion and worship.  And, yes, they conflicted with their neighbours and the rulers on matters related to worship.  But that doesn’t mean the core of their conflict is best described in the language of “religion” – especially when religion seems to function as an exclusive category.  Hurtado almost feels disingenuous on this point.  He notes that “neither pagans nor Christians called it [their conflict over worship] a “religious” matter, for the terminological reasons that I have stated [i.e. Hurtado’s notes differences between how religion is understood then and now], but I repeat that I think it is reasonable for us to do so” (44).  Importing a foreign definition or use of a term (“religion”) into a discussion, and then using that definition to justify the use of the term (“terminological reasons”), strikes me as an unconvincing way to make an argument.

Consequently, returning to our contemporary context (which Hurtado never leaves with us definition of “religion), just as contemporary geopolitical conflicts tend to be caricatured in discourses that present our situation as a clash of civilizations or religions (cf., most notoriously in recent years, Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World), we may risk making the same mistake if we make the clash over the “worship” of the early Jesus movement into what we take to be a religious conflict more than anything else (as Hurtado says later on, “religious identity… was not really a distinguishable conceptual category” at this time [78]).  Blaming religion for the early Jesus movement’s conflicts might be like blaming Islam for Osama.  If that’s the case, it’s an exercise in missing the point (and the point is missed in a way that masks a good many very important things, which is why some folks want to keep our contemporary discourse focused on these things).  But hold that thought for now, because Hurtado does present some stricter historical arguments as to why the early Jesus movement may be considered a religion and I want to consider those now.

Specifically, Hurtado argues that the early Jesus movement was “[a]n odd religious movement, but a “religious” movement nonetheless” because the early Christians “did have rituals that expressed their beliefs and that functioned as actions/events in which special divine transactions with their God took place” (58).  This then fits, more broadly, with Hurtado’s justification of his use of religious language.[4]  As he writes: “in what follows, I will refer to “religious” beliefs and practices, meaning by that adjective simply beliefs and practices that typically were connected to the various sorts of gods and divine beings of the Roman period” (42-43).  Okay, that’s all well and good and, fair enough, the early Jesus movement may have been other things as well but it was not less than what we would consider religious today.  But the important question is if it is more than that, or if it is more accurate or plausible to view another contemporary category (say politics) as just as dominant as the religious category.

In this regard, it is useful to look at what Hurtado takes to be some of the specifically religious rituals of the early Jesus movement.  He takes baptism to be a primary example of a “religious rite” (58-59).  However, as Hurtado notes, the baptismal practices of the early Jesus followers differ from “the many ritual washings that formed a part of other religious groups of the time” (59).  Ritual washings in other groups were done as a cleansing in order to prepare a person for a sacred cultic environment or activity but in the early Jesus movement baptism “functioned as a rite by which one became a member of the ekklēsia, the distinctive circle of people comprising the Christian group” (ibid.).  Given this distinctiveness from other religious practices, the question is if religion is the best or only category to deploy to understand this act. While not less than a religious act, it’s also possible to understand this as an act of initiation into a seditious and quietly, but no less seriously and scandalously, revolutionary group.  Hurtado doesn’t mention this, but early Jesus followers saw their baptisms as participation in the crucifixion of Jesus – a death imposed upon rebels and slaves by the Roman imperial authorities who saw this act as a brutal but just fulfilment of the Law required to maintain the pax et securitas of the Empire – and one must ask whether or not being co-crucified with Jesus, through the rite of baptism, is not better understood as a political (but not less than religious) act.

Similarly, the rite of “invoking or acclaiming Jesus” in “corporate worship gatherings” (59-60), while described by Hurtado as an exemplary religious rite, may also be a political act of allegiance to the founder of the movement (if people gathered today in memory of the life, death, and forecasted future triumph of Osama, how might we or the imperial authorities perceive of that gathering?).  Strengthening this political connection are all the ways in which the reverence of Jesus resembles the reverence of the emperors, especially Augustus.  Hurtado never names Augustus in this book, or points to the connections between reverence of Augustus and reverence of Jesus.  He only vaguely discusses what he calls “cults of the emperors” (80) for a few pages, preferring instead to talk about the cult of Roma.  This seems like a very strange move to make—unless one wants to ignore the imperial connections for some reason (but more on that momentarily).  Thus, while Hurtado asserts that the reverence of Jesus “accorded to Jesus a place in their [early Christian] beliefs and practices that was without precedent or parallel in the wider Jewish tradition of the time” (68), there are many, many parallels in the Roman political discourse.[5]

This, by the way, brings a tantalizing new possibility for understanding the use of nomina sacra writing in relation to the name of Jesus recorded in the early Christian writings (cf. 138-40).  With nomina sacra, the name of Jesus or the name of Jesus along with some other title (say “Christ”) is written in a coded, abbreviated manner.  Hurtado sees that as “likely reverential” with the name of Jesus being treated like the name of YHWH in the Judaean scriptures, but it’s possible that there is a political motivation for this.  If your founder and the person you revere is someone the authorities of the time viewed and treated like the authorities of our time viewed and treated Osama bin Laden, then it may be a good survival skill not to write his name out in full but to use a code (thinking of Scott’s work about “hidden transcripts here).  This is especially the case when writing in texts (like letters) that have to travel long distances and may fall into the wrong hands.  This may also be why the early Jesus followers preferred to write in a codex bookform, instead of the better respected and established bookroll (a move Hurtado describes as “counterintuitive” and “countercultural” but for which he offers no explanation [cf. 136]).

However, it is Hurtado’s reference to the “practice of assembling weekly for corporate worship,” as “unusual among religious groups of the time” and therefore “a distinctive pattern of religious practice” (61), that most seriously highlights his neglect of the political dimensions of the early Jesus movement.  Gathering weekly for corporate worship (or for other reasons) was “unusual” because it was against the law!  Any group that tried to do this without receiving permission from the Roman authorities (as the Judaeans received in the Diaspora from Caesar and his successors) was illegal and would immediately be open to charges of treason.  Those charged could face severe punishments, up to and including death.  The discovery of such groups would provoke the kind of response contemporary Westerners and their governments feel and enact when a new terror cell (ekklēsia) is discovered in Munich or Paris or New York.

Later in the text, Hurtado does acknowledge something of this overlap.  He recognizes that the term ekklēsia is ordinarily used at that time to refer to a political assembly – although he still falls short of using the word “political.”  Instead, in a rather round-about way, he writes that the term “designated an assembly, especially the formal gathering of the people of a city, typically the free men who were entitled to vote” (97).[6]  Hurtado then acknowledges that “some scholars” see this as Paul creating an alternative to the civic and provincial assemblies, but concludes “it would be unwise to confine the early connotations of that term to this one alone” (98).[7]  Instead, he emphasizes that the early Christians likely drew this term from the Old Testament references to the “assemblies of the Lord” (98).  Thus, he very quickly goes back to using very religious language to refer to the ekklēsia, regularly employing the word “churches” (a word foreign to the New Testament) to talk about them (112, but all over the place elsewhere as well).  Thus, Hurtado acknowledges a bit of political overlap (I suppose it’s impossible to completely ignore these things in New Testament scholarship these days, so that’s a good sign), but very rapidly downplays it, disregards it, and moves on.

For these reasons, Hurtado defends “early Christianity” as a religion.  I’m not sure the defense stands.  While the early Jesus movement certainly was religious in ways that we would call religious (or in ways that “sound religious” to us), I believe we are doing it a great disservice if that becomes the hegemonic category deployed to understand and discuss it today.  Here, even Hurtado’s choice of the words “Christianity” and “Christian” (often, but not always, modified with the word “early”) is curious.  He argues that by the second century CE, “Christian(s)” (Christianos or Christianoi) had become the most commonly used label for the members of the movement – likely originating from outsiders and then being embraced by insiders (94-96). Hurtado is cautious about exactly which outsiders coined the term and doesn’t want to acritically accept the thesis that Roman judicial authorities first named the movement in this way.  He notes how other Greek speakers were also familiar with this way of coining words.  However, given the way the word was formed, and given other examples from that context, Hurtado suggests that the term is more literally interpreted “Christ-partisans” (96).  He highlights that this language was often used for “politically aligned groups” (94) and shows “dependence on… allegiance to, or political or military support of a named figure” (95).  Furthermore, he mentions how the outsiders who named the Jesus followers in this way were likely expressing a hostility to their allegiance or partisanship to and with “Christ” (96).[8]  This is all well and good, and actually strengthens the political reading I am offering here, but Hurtado doesn’t go anywhere with this information.  It simply hangs unresolved in the text and he continues to use the language of “Christianity” in a way that certainly sounds “religious” to me.

Voluntary Religions

Turning from traditional Roman views of religion and Hurtado’s defense of why early Christianity still counts as a religion, Hurtado also wants to distinguish the early Jesus movement from voluntary religions like the mystery cults.  These religions were different than traditional modes of religion because, at that time, “religious identity was conferred at birth” and was intimately connected to “what we call “ethnicity” or “culture”” (78, 79).  The early Jesus movement transcends these boundaries and is a translocal and transethnic movement, like the voluntary religions/mystery cults (83).  However, unlike the mystery cults, the Jesus movement demanded exclusive devotion (86).  Hence, the voluntary religions are only a “partial analogy” (83).  Here, the Jesus movement also differs from Second Temple Judaisms which, although they were also exclusively, and although they took in proselytes from the nations ( ethnē), those proselytes would, essentially, become Jews in order to become full members.[9]  By contrast, the Jesus movement took in people from all nations and allowed them to maintain their distinct national and ethnic identities (92-93; also 56).

Now this is all well and good but I wonder, again, about what is left out.  For example, in his brief discussion of the voluntary religions, Hurtado is overly positive about how they were received by Rome.  Several of the mystery religions have a problematical history with Rome and were, at various times, outlawed, banned, or persecuted due to their perceived threat to the Roman Order.  Augustus, for example, banned the Isis cult from Rome, and Agrippa extended the boundaries of that ban.  Tiberius heightened the persecution and crucified priests of Isis.  However, Caligula restored to the cult to official status and favour for it grew from then onwards.  This had a lot to do with fluctuations in the political and economic relationship between Rome and Egypt.  The connection of the Mithras cult to the Roman legions, mentioned by Hurtado should also make us wonder about political overlaps or implications (cf. 83-84).

Observing this directly contradicts Hurtado’s claim that “becoming an adherent [of these various voluntary religions or mystery cults] was not expressive of some political stance. So, to us, these groups may seem closer to a purely “religious” phenomenon” (83). Thus, while perhaps Hurtado wants the mystery cults to be apolitical and more “purely “religious”” so that they can be a partial analogy to the kind of early Christianity-qua-religion he is presenting, this case is not so easily made.  Politics were clearly involved in a great deal of this although, again, to speak of politics is not to suggest that these groups were less than religious.  Rather, it questions the way in which Hurtado focuses so exclusively on what he takes to be religious categories, even as he recognizes that religion did not exist as a distinguishable conceptual category at that time.

Philosophical Groups (and nothing else)

When there is this much strain present when trying to describe something as a religious movement – it’s religious, but not religious like other religions, but still religious, especially when we use a contemporary definition of that word, even though people thought it was not at all religious, it’s just distinctly religious – it wouldn’t be amiss (in my opinion) to wonder if other movements might serve as better points of reference.  A lot of potential overlaps do not get explored (not only by Hurtado but by a lot of New Testament scholarship in general).

How, for example, might the early Jesus movement compare to the slave rebellions that rattled the Roman Republic up until the time of Crassus and Pompey? The Third Servile War, also known as the Gladiator War or the War of Spartacus, took place from 73-71BCE and actually threatened Rome itself.  Is “early Christianity” akin to a slave revolt… but also very distinct in some ways (since slaves have learned over the years that violent revolts are met crushed mercilessly)?  Is this a stretch?  Possibly… but is it any more of a stretch than the one taken by Hurtado and others when they focus on the early Jesus movement as a predominantly religious movement?  Is it possible that Nero had better reasons than some might imagine when he blamed the Christians for the fire in Rome?  And when writers say Nero and not the Christians were to blame, what are the biases of those writers? Did Nero use Christians to set Rome ablaze?  What was it about Christians in Rome that gave Nero’s claim credibility?  Were they just an easy target because they were disliked and feared (victims of discrimination and prejudice) or were they disliked and feared, in part, because they reminded the Romans of slaves that had rebelled before(does a “crucified Christ” sound to Romans like a “crucified Spartacus,” in the same way that it should sound to us like State led executions of “terrorists”)?[10]  These kinds of questions, and this possible parallel, are just not mentioned at all.

Or, closer to home, how does the early Jesus movement compare to Judaean revolutionary movements?  Could the Jesus movement be described as a revolutionary movement… only one that is very distinct in some ways?  Why are differences between the Jesus movement seen as, well, differences, and not things that make it a distinct kind of revolutionary movement?  A good many scholars engaging in counter-imperial readings of Paul take an approach like this.  But the possible parallels, points of convergence, and moments of difference or distinctiveness between the Jesus movement and Judaean revolutionary groups, don’t get drawn out in Hurtado’s text.

However, one such overlap scholars have wondered about for a lot of years is the way in which the early Jesus movement resembles philosophical groups that were also active during the first-century CE.  Hurtado picks up on this in two places: when commenting on the “bookishness” of the movement, and when looking at the ethical instructions of late New Testament sources.  In terms of bookishness, Hurtado notes that the production of texts associated with the early Jesus movement far more closely resembles “the ethos of Roman-era philosophical groups than the typical practices of “religion” of the time” (110; cf. 119-121).  These were groups that read, studied, collected, distributed, and commented on texts that were key to their respective identities (110-111).  Philosophical groups were also focused a lot on ethics and how to think about god – key themes in New Testament texts (111, also 169-72, 176).  However, Hurtado is keen to stress that, unlike the early Jesus movement, the philosophical groups were doing ethics for a small insider group and were not trying to reshape society or draw in a large number of converts (169-72).  This is about the depth of Hurtado’s engagement with this parallel.  Mostly, he continues to disregard rather than engage, explore, or even disprove those who want to draw further on this connection. Hurtado simply reasserts that “early Christian gatherings were, nevertheless, “religious” groups” (111).  However, it’s worth noting that a good many of these philosophical groups were ethical systems that were deeply political and were considered to be dangerously, even treasonously, political (Nero, for example, forced Seneca to suicide for seditious political actions that, while possible not actually taken by him, are plausible, in part, because of his Stoicism).  Hurtado doesn’t mention any of this though.  Instead, it seems like he doesn’t want the early Jesus movement to be a philosophical movement, he wants it to be a religious movement.  And so it is.

So from Roman religiosity, to voluntary religions like the mystery religions, to philosophical groups, Hurtado argues that the early Jesus movement is a distinct Christian religion.  However, he consistently ignores the political elements of these things and does not explore how the early Jesus movement might fit with other more “purely political” movements (to use his language because, of course, distinctions between religion and politics fall apart very quickly when we come to these things).  There is only one place where he touches upon this – in his brief discussion of the “cults of the emperors” mentioned above, and I want to look at that in more detail now.  I will examine Hurtado’s frequent comments about Christian conflicts with “traditional gods” and then transition to examining his remarks about the social consequences of all of this for the early Jesus followers.

Conflicts with “traditional gods”: An Empire Without Augustus

Hurtado frequently mentions that the distinctiveness of the early Jesus movement could be seen as troubling by those around them.  Hurtado sees a conflict over “worship” to be at the core of much of this.  Specifically, as he states over and over again, the issue is that Christians refuse to worship the “traditional gods” (cf., for example, 31, 44, 103, 184).  This is a frustratingly vague and quite easily misleading statement.  Because the primary problem for the early Jesus movement, the main point of conflict it had with the authorities and with communities that were intent on cultivating the patronage and benefaction of those authorities, was not so much with “traditional gods” (be they Roman gods like Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, or Saturn, or non-Roman deities like Artemis of the Ephesians or Cybele in Anatolia) as it was with the fastest growing religion in the first century CE – the imperial cult.  As mentioned, Hurtado refers to this as the “cults of the emperors” since veneration took place in different ways at different times and could focus on different imperial family members.  That’s an okay point, as far as it goes, and I have no wish to argue against that point.  However, it should be emphasized that all of these various “cults” still fit within the overarching ideo-theology of Roman imperialism – there is an overall coherence and consistency to these “cults of the emperors.”

Now, by drawing our focus to the imperial cult, I do not mean to say that the early Jesus movement did not conflict with any of these other religions.  For example, although it is not always a reliable source, The Acts of the Apostle presents a very plausible story about silversmiths in Ephesus getting upset when the spread of the early Jesus movement begins to impact their businesses.  While not less than religious, we see how this conflict is also economic and, if not immediately, very quickly political (“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” but also “Don’t cut into my profits!” and “Don’t cause our city to lose rank in this province or in the Empire [i.e. “the world”]!”).

However, conflicts with the local cults are not likely the most dangerous or, I suspect, prominent conflicts.  For, as Hurtado often states, not everyone is required to worship the gods of this or that location.  Not everyone was required to worship the traditional Roman gods.  Rome was famous for her embrace of religious pluralism.  The only caveat was that those of vanquished nations had to make space for the imperial gods within their cities, temples, marketplaces, festivities, and holy days.  Do that and you can worship almost any other god you want.[11]  So, the problem with the early Jesus movement wasn’t so much that its exclusive monotheism prevented the Jesus followers from worshiping Jupiter or Artemis.  The problem was that the early Jesus followers were prevented from worshiping the Caesar or any other member of the imperial familial pantheon.  This is why Pliny has the early Jesus followers executed, even though he states that he discovered no criminal activities in their gatherings.  They are executed because they would not, as Hurtado points out, recite a prayer to the gods (i.e. the imperial gods), make “supplication to the image of the emperor,” or curse   Christ (23).  This, too, is why Celsus sees Christians as a “threat to the social and political order” who are “promoting sedition” (31).  Again, for the most part, the Romans could care less if you worship Jupiter or Zeus, Artemis or Cybele, YWHH or Tanit, so long as you also acknowledge the imperial cult.[12]  If you refuse do that, you are doomed to go the way of the druids, because you will be deemed as too great a threat to the peace and security that Rome achieved when Augustus (whose very name points to his piety) saved the world.

All of this is seriously downplayed and neglected in Hurtado’s brief mention of the “cults of the emperors” which he mentions for a few pages in his discussion of “voluntary religion” (80-82).[13]  Hurtado makes it seem like the imperial cult was little different than the Mithras or Isis cults, albeit one that he thinks has more explicitly political overtones (but overtones that do not make it less than a religion).  Even when he does mention the “cults of the emperors,” he focuses most of all on the cult of Roma, a veneration of Rome itself as a deity (80-82; cf. 49 and 54 where he calls Roma “a deity that embodied the Roman order” while neglecting the much more prominent members of the imperial pantheon).  Unnamed in all of this is Augustus – the proper founder of the cult and, despite the veneration of subsequent emperors or other members of his family, the true core of the cult.  This would be akin to talking about the Greek pantheon and only naming, oh, Hermes, and never once mentioning Zeus or Apollo or Athena.  It’s incredibly odd.  In this study of early Christian distinctiveness that lacks any reference to the cross, we now find reference to the imperial cult (well, kind of) without any reference to Augustus.  I don’t want to hypothesize too much about why this gap is present in Hurtado’s work.  However, I will make one observation.  In the work of scholars defending what has come to be called a “early high Christology,” references to the imperial cult are regularly but no less incredibly absent.  The number one most ubiquitous possible parallel (in the context of the early Jesus movement), and likely the strongest parallel (i.e. the parallel that demonstrates the most commonalities) for how the early Jesus movement spoke of Jesus was how the Caesar (especially but not exclusively Augustus) was venerated in the imperial cult that was exploding all across the empire and which, already by the time of Paul, had infiltrated into all areas of public and private life.  It’s hard to know why these scholars tend to neglect this area of study but I will hesitantly suggest one possibility: noting that these scholars tend to be rooted in contemporary expressions of devotion to Jesus, the parallels to Augustus and the imperial cult may be very unsettling – if the early followers of Jesus were poaching terms and concepts from the imperial cult, this might problematize contemporary assertions of Jesus’ divinity.

However, moving back to the topic at hand (the rejection of the imperial cult by the early followers of Jesus), Hurtado speaks of “new Roman judicial developments in response specifically and distinctively to early Christianity” (26; cf. 35).  These are the processes described by Pliny.  However, what these actually are, and what Hurtado neglects to call them, are political processes that were designed to separate those who would be considered traitors and rebels from those who were still willing to recognize Roman rule and took their proper place in the Roman world.  This is a good way to determine who is willing to play along and whose seditious refusal merits, well, crucifixion.  But Hurtado never gets to crucifixion.  Instead, he talks a lot about something else.  He talks about social consequences and it’s to that word cluster I now want to turn.

Social Consequences

Hurtado really likes to use the word “social.”  He likes to use it a lot more than words like “political” or “economic.”  Another substitute word he likes to use is “cultural.”  Thus, he doesn’t talk about the political or economic elite.  When the elite are mentioned they are the “cultural elite” who are described as “pagans” who criticized Christianity (20; emph. added).  This takes the focus away from the domain(s) of politics and economics.  What, after all, are “cultural” elite?  If they are (also) “political” and “economic” elite, why not say so?  Because Hurtado does not.  Instead, he consistently uses social language.  “Christianity was perceived by many as… a threat to social order” (xii; emph. added here and in the following sentences).  Because early Christians were distinct, they faced a lot of “social pressure” (57) and “social hostilities” (66).  Indeed, given the way the traditional gods were integrated in “so many social activities” in the cities where the Christians lived, they encountered problems in their “social life” (87).  Yet, in and of itself, early Christianity was a “noteworthy social project” that placed an unusual amount of emphasis on “social and behavioral practices” (143).  It was a “distinctive kind of social effort” (172; emph. in original).  But, again, these efforts to reshape “social behavior” resulted in “social tensions” (150) and “social costs” (185).  However, although critics often viewed the movement as “antisocial” (184), early Christianity still fit within the “social structures” of its day and did not advocate any radical “social revolution” (178).  That’s a lot of social.  It’s almost as if politics and economics do not exist in Hurtado’s world of the early Jesus movement.

Yet so many of these tensions and consequences are very deeply political and economic.  To refuse to acknowledge public days of worship of the Caesars could bring shame on an entire city (“Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”) and this could result in the loss of certain political and economic privileges (like exemption from taxation).  And it is constantly the Roman political authorities (from Pilate to Pliny) who are the ones punishing or executing the early Jesus followers.  The early followers of Jesus are viewed as a political threat.

Further, to separate one’s self from local cultic devotion and from public celebrations of the imperial cult (include venerating Caesar in the marketplace) would cause “harassment and ostracism” (185), yes, but this ostracism would have devastating economic consequences.  Given that most folks were living at or near the subsistence level, being ostracized from one’s one family or the collegia composed of members of one’s profession, could cause a family to fall irrecoverably below the subsistence level.[14]  Such economic drops could be fatal.  People could starve.  Or have to decide if they are going to sell children into slavery to survive.  Or maybe they engage in other activities like sex work or migrant labour in order to survive.  All of this is deeply economic and political (although, again, not less than religious).

Hurtado never addresses any of this.  His talk about social tensions, social conflicts, social consequences, social pressures, and so on, is decidedly (deliberately?) vague.  Because Hurtado pushes for a socially (i.e. politically and economically) conservative reading of the early Jesus movement.  One of the most effective tools used by conservatives of this sort is pretending that political and economic issues aren’t really political and economic issues.[15]  Here, Hurtado’s reliance on the material written after Paul (and outside of the Gospels) is rather telling.  Paul’s comments about the cross and about the rulers of this age are not mentioned—but Tertullian’s statement that “A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, who he knows to be appointed by God, and so cannot but love and honor; and whose well-being moreover the Christian must desire, with that of the empire over which he reigns” is quoted in full (103).[16]  Thus, he concludes that “pre-Constantinian Christianity took a stance in which political loyalty was disconnected from religious identity and practice” (ibid.).  It’s the kind of conclusion one can only come to by ignoring a whole lot of things – not least, the great bulk of content in the uncontested letters of Paul and the life and death of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.  But ignore Hurtado does.  Instead, he appeals to what are commonly viewed as the most (socially?) conservative texts in the New Testament – the Household Codes in the deutero-Pauline epistles (Col 3.18-4.1; Eph 5.21-6.9; 1 Ti 2.8-15; 3.4-5; 6.1-2; Tit 2.1-10; 1 Pe 2.17-3.7).  These are texts that many believe conflict with other parts of the New Testament, especially the uncontested Pauline letters.  Yet, these Household Codes, explored acritically, allow Hurtado to assert that early Christianity was all about affirming the general structures of the status quo, albeit in a kinder more sensitive way (like Samuel Brittan’s Capitalism with a Human Face).  Perhaps this seems a bit unfortunate or troubling to us 21st century people, who, for example, think slavery is really bad and should have been abolished and are shocked to see Paul not questioning slavery.[17] To comfort us, Hurtado points out that no one “in the ancient world seriously contemplated” anything like the abolition of slavery.  This not only ignores the slave rebellions already mentioned, along with other rebellious movements, but also neglects the early Christian practice of purchasing the emancipation of slaves who were members of the ekklēsiai.[18]  This emancipation money was later redirected to fund the formalization of institutional authorities within those assemblies as they became “churches.” The deutero-Pauline letters added that transition and helped those Christian factions to win out over others.  But this should cause us to pause and consider the importance of these household codes for understanding the earliest Christianity – or the Jesus movement that existed before Christianity became the universal norm and a supposedly singular and orthodox thing.

Given Hurtado’s approach, however, it’s not surprising that the ethical issues that really get brought to the fore in this work, relate to what sounds like (to me) matters related to abortion (144-48 – although, again, the issue of resistance to infant exposure could have a lot to do with resistance to slavery – as slaves and former slaves refuse to surrender their own children to slavery – but Hurtado misses this opportunity) as well as sex and marriage (154-68).  The core ethics of all this aren’t particularly unique or countercultural (let alone treasonous to the political economy of empire).  Instead, Hurtado argues that “these early Christian texts reflect a concern that Christian household life should match or even exceed the ideals affirmed in the larger Greco-Roman world” (177).  This makes a lot of sense when one ignores everything Hurtado ignores.  It makes a lot less sense if we see something like cruciformity at the core of the ethics of the early Jesus followers.


So, we arrive back where we started—at the foot of an absent cross.  But before I close off, I want to make two final comments.

First, I should mention that Hurtado is far from being alone in making omissions and conclusions like these.  A good many other very smart scholars have come to similar conclusions and I reckon their collective reading of the early Jesus movement is one plausible reading.  I just don’t think it is the most plausible reading.  In fact, I think it is much less plausible than other readings (like the one I have been pointing to the whole way through this response).

Part of the problem here is a methodological one.  Hurtado keeps writing about “early Christianity” or “Christianity” as if it is a single monolithic thing.  Early on, he talks about how there were many Christianities in existence during the time he examines, but he chooses to focus on those considered to be “proto-orthodox” because it was both the most successful stream and also because it was the stream that seemed to meet the most resistance from “pagans” (cf. 1-13).  Then, after these first pages, Christianity is ever only referred to in the singular.  Furthermore, I think the whole canon of the New Testament is taken to be “proto-orthodox,” and, according to Christian orthodoxy, “Scripture” must always be in agreement with “Scripture.”  I do not hold to this position and think that there are very different and contradictory perspectives presented within the New Testament itself.  So, when it comes to this position, I think we should be asking if much of what we call “orthodoxy” is faithful to the early Jesus movement or is a perversion thereof.  I think Hurtado’s perspective is more plausible if we think there is no disagreement between New Testament voices but is much less plausible if we think there are disagreements in New Testament voices.

However, an even stronger point suggesting that Hurtado’s reading is not so plausible is his inability to explain the incredibly broad and rapid spread of the early Jesus movement.  Given the “social tensions and pressures and threats involved with adherence to the movement, Hurtado repeatedly wonders why people might be drawn to join it (cf. 35, 185-86).  He does not (and seemingly cannot) answer this question.  Indeed, short of some kind of deus ex machina explanation (“the Spirit was miraculously opening people up to the movement” or some such thing) this is a major problem for conservative understandings of the early Jesus movement in general.

Hurtado does look at this question in more detail in a book published earlier this year called, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?  I have not read this book but the reviews I have read seem to be consistent on a few points that I want to highlight.[19]  First of all, Hurtado is not convinced that he knows the answer to this question but is hoping to prompt others to take it up and study it.  Secondly, Hurtado suggests that perhaps the promise of eternal embodied life as well as a personal relationship with a loving god would make the movement stand out from other movements and attract people to it, instead of other possible alternatives.  But Hurtado (as far as I can tell) is not convinced that this really explains why people were willing to suffer and lose so much (everything at times) in order to be a part of the movement.  However, thirdly, Hurtado appears to be more confident in rejecting other proposals as to why people became Christians – specifically, Christian charity, a new fictive kinship, miracles like healing, or status anxiety.  Note, then, that Hurtado prioritizes ideas that, perhaps, are related to a different internal experience of one’s own self and future, and minimizes suggestions that are related to praxis and what takes place, concretely, between people.

But the political and economic (and not less than religious) reading I have been offering, does offer a very plausible explanation for this.  Here, the language of “charity” really misses the point.  If the early Jesus movement – whose namesake was justly condemned according to the law and executed by the State as a terrorist – was a solidarity movement amongst oppressed, colonized, enslaved, and vanquished people who were gathering (illegally) in order to find ways to share life together in ways that liberated them from a multitude of oppressive imperial, economic, and cultural power structures – and if this movement was actually succeeding in making a marked difference in the lives of these people who were often without hope or help – then it makes sense that it would spread rapidly.  This is not charity.  Empires do charity very well.  Augustus found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.  The robber barons of early American capitalism gave away all kinds of money to various projects for the greater good, much like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg or Warren Buffett give to charity today.  Charity, in fact, is fundamental to the smooth operating of empire (as studies of patronage and benefaction in Paul’s day and philanthrocapitalism in our day show).  But the mutually liberating solidarity that finds concrete expression in new relationships amongst people who are colonized, oppressed, and enslaved is a very different and (to the rulers of this age) much more terrifying thing.  Because it holds the potential to actually shatter the hold of the oppressors over the world of the oppressed.  Charity maintains the status quo.  Solidarity liberates people from it.  To take just one example, returning to the Collection (and also the Lord’s meal), if people at subsistence level share so that those slightly above subsistence share with those slightly below subsistence – thereby preventing people from starving, turning to sex work out of desperation, selling children as slaves, or migrating – this makes a monumental difference.  The resulting spread, and persecution, then make a lot of sense.

This also helps to show why people clung to the early Jesus movement, even if it carried a potentially fatal cost.  We see this same tenacity in oppressed and colonized people today.  Why won’t Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island simply assimilate to the social mores of Canada and the United States of America?  Why won’t they embrace progress and civilization and property and material advancement?  Don’t they realize how much they have to gain if they just started acting properly and playing along?  But, as strange and inconceivable as it is to settlers, a good many Indigenous people will no more celebrate Columbus Day, than the early followers of Jesus would pinch incense to Caesar.  But Hurtado can’t see this because of the broader paradigm he brings to the text.  This is why he is going to always be asking a question for which he cannot find an adequate answer.

Finally, in closing, I want to add that I’m a bit worried that what I have written above may be read as me imputing less than positive or scholarly motives to Hurtado or his book.  I do not mean to do this.  I believe that Hurtado is a serious scholar who would not deliberately alter evidence or deliberately pick and choose things in order to affirm his own foregone conclusions. I do not think he deliberately or maliciously tries to mislead the reader.  However, there remain some remarkable gaps in his work and I have simply tried my best to explore the implications of those gaps.  I reckon he might be able to offer a different explanation for all of this.  Perhaps he will do so.  I’d happily hear his thoughts.

[1] Check “cross” in the “Index of Subjects and Modern Authors” and all you will find is reference to F. L. Cross, who co-authored an article on the Shakers, cited on 202n22.  “Crucifixion” is also absent from the Index, although Hurtado does actually use the word when talking about the pre-call/conversion Paul who “probably saw Jesus as a false teacher whose crucifixion was the just punishment for his actions and who, indeed, stood under a divine curse as well (18, emph. added; this theological reading is then drawn out on 18-19).  Without making the connection explicit between the act of crucifixion and the charges that the Hurtado imagines the “Jewish temple authorities” bringing to the Roman governor, Hurtado does say that “it is reasonable to judge that they [the Jewish temple authorities” accused Jesus to the Roman governor as a seditious treat, likely as a messiah-claimant, and as such a king, which would have amounted to a challenge to Rome’s rule” (19).  Thus, this charge leads to Jesus being crucified and “suffering a state execution” (19).  This is a promising enough start, but apparently none of this merits any further discussion of early Christian distinctiveness – which is odd for a lot of reasons, one being that this passage, itself, suggests that people like Paul, the Jewish temple authorities, and Romans (and possibly others?) would find the suggestion that a crucified person – a person executed by the state and considered a seditious and perhaps cursed heretical threat by local leaders – would end up being “Lord” or “Son of God” or “Saviour” to be completely anomalous.  Some might even consider this to be a stumbling block or utter foolishness.

[2] I should mention that, when using dates, Hurtado uses “AD” instead of “CE.”  This gains some significance, in my opinion, when paired with the observation that word “gods” in the title, makes very prominent use of a lowercase “g,” yet the Christian god is always referred to with an uppercase “G” in the text.  Such things do not call into question Hurtado’s scholarship but do, I think, function as subtle badges of membership demonstrating certain allegiances and oppositions that may or may not be actually related to the focus of Hurtado’s text.

[3] Some may be skeptical of my claim at this point, given how Hurtado pairs his discussion of religion with comments about social consequences but, as I will argue below, Hurtado consistently subs in “social” language for matters that are, perhaps, better understood as “political” and “economic.”

[4] Although it’s interesting to note that, despite Hurtado’s obvious preference for religious language, he still regularly puts the words “religion” and “religious” in scare quotes.

[5] I’ll leave it to the Christology scholars to hack out just how much precedent or parallel there is for this in so-called “Jewish” traditions of that time.

[6] In response to this, the inquiring reader might ask, “Oh, like a political assembly?” To which the proper response is, “yes, exactly like that.”

[7] I’m unsure what to think about Hurtado’s reference to “some scholars” in this context.  Within the general context of this text, it seems a bit dismissive (given that the areas of interests of these scholars tend to be ignored or dismissed), but maybe I’m being oversensitive.

[8] Is this why Hurtado is hesitant to accept the thesis that it was the Roman judicial authorities who coined the term?

[9] Again, I’ll leave it to the Christology folks to discuss how much exclusive monotheism is or is not an element of all Second Temple Judaisms.

[10] The historical accounts don’t suggest that Spartacus was crucified – he likely died in the final battle with Crassus, but some accounts say his body was never found leading some to conjecture that he either asked or was crucified anonymously with 6000 others after the battle.

[11] I say almost because some gods were just too threatening and unaccommodating to be accepted in this pluralistic context.  Hence the persecution of druidism (another possible parallel that is left unexplored), or the Isis cult.

[12] The Judaeans were able to broker an acceptable compromise by offering daily sacrifices on behalf of the emperor – rather than to the emperor – in the Jerusalem Temple.  Hence, once knows things are about to get very messy and violent when the sacrifices stop in 66 CE.

[13] Another missed opportunity is Hurtado’s discussion of gladiatorial games and spectacles where significant imperial elements are highlighted, but then never developed and are simply left hanging in the text (cf. 148-50).

[14] We gain a new perspective on the Collection of Paul and his co-workers for the economically poor members of the Jesus movement in light of this.  This kind of economic mutuality was essential for the movement to survive and had to be practiced locally (in the “Lord’s meal”) as well as transnationally.

[15] If you are located in such a way as to be able to dominate a discourse – as conservatives were located for many, many years in Christian New Testament studies in the English-speaking world – then it makes sense to just ignore as much of the pushback as possible.  It’s less risky to your position to simply refuse to acknowledge the validity or even the existence of other arguments.  When in the dominant position, you lose 0% of the fights you never have.  By pointing this out, I’m not suggesting Hurtado is personally acting with this in mind.  I’m simply pointing out that it is a position commonly taken by folks who argue for a “socially” conservative reading of the early Jesus movement and who usually make that argument from some kind of contemporary confessional position.

[16] This quote is then backed up by the litany of prooftexts that always circulate amongst Christian defenders of Empire – Ro 13.1-7 (the only Pauline text mentioned), 1 Tim 2.1-3; and 1 Pe 2.13-17.

[17] Even as we continue to purchase things like flatscreen televisions and iphones, the production of which depends upon the ongoing existence of slavery in our world…

[18] Granted, none of this examples are perfect.  Much like any liberation movement, the ones mentioned above contained some exciting liberating elements but also some elements that still carried on (perhaps accidentally and unconsciously) some oppressive dynamics.  Liberation, even when it is desired wholeheartedly, is not always so easily attained and most freedom fighters tend to be products of their own times, possessing their own blindspots and areas of compromise.

[19] Nijay Gupta, whom I consider a fairly conservative scholar, has a review here:  David Capes, with whom I am not familiar, has a review here:  And, of course, I’m pretty sure we can trust everything we see in the reviews on Amazon!

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