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The NT “God” in Historical Perspective

November 15, 2010

One of the things I emphasize in my new book, God in New Testament Theology, is the significance of the NT discourse about, and devotion to, “God” in the first-century context.  Here are some sentences from my concluding chapter that reflect this.

(from pp. 110-11):  “I would go so far as to claim that in the NT we have what amounts to a historically significant critique of popular ideas of the time about ‘gods’ and a notable innovation in religious belief and practice.  . . . . It is all the more interesting that this represents a critique of religion and the gods from a religious standpoint.  That is , in the name of what they believed is the true deity they leveled a radical critique against almost the entire religious outlook of their day.  In fact, so radical was their stance in the eyes of many contemporaries that Christians came to be accused of ‘atheism,’ an impious rejection of the gods.”

“Granted . . . . even among some pagan philosophers there were critiques of animal sacrifice and a more transcendent view of the ultimate deity.   But . . . there is little evidence that these philosophical musings had any significant impact on popular religious practice (or that there was any such intention).  It is one thing to bandy about an idea in the dining circles of self-styled sophisticates; it is quite another to set out to change belief and behavior at large. . . . Indeed, I propose that early Christianity constituted the first popularly based critique of the gods and religion in the ancient Roman world (and remained the only one until the rise of Islam several centuries later).”

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  1. Prof. Hurtado, I thought Simon Price has written that with Augustus, the empereor-cult expanded to the western Roman empire.

    • The Roman emperor cult had a complex history of expansion and development. Price showed (with others previously) that it commenced in the East, and became accepted and promoted in the West later. In any case, my main point is that the early Christian refusal to participate in emperor-cult was simply a manifestation of their refusal to take part in the cultic rites of any of the many Roman-era deities. The didn’t single out emperor-cult for special objection, and they intended no rejection of the imperial structure as such: See, e.g., Justin’s 1 Apology.

  2. More striking still was the criticism and rejection of the imperial religion, of emperor worship and turn the “legitimation discourse” of both them against themselves.

    • Hmm. The refusal to particpate in the emperor-cult was part of the refusal to participate in cultus for any deity other than the biblical deity. There were political implications in all this. Worship of civic deities = loyalty to the welfare of the city, making refusal to participate a kind of subversive action. Moreover, emperor-cult developed across time, emerging earlier in the eastern areas (Asia Minor, etc.) and only later being taken up in the western areas.

  3. charles miller permalink

    Have you considered the example of the Cynic philosophers? Their critiques of religion were quite specific, “on the street,” and directed at the foundations of contemporary religious act and thought. Granted, we do not have much evidence to go on for their thoughts, since it was oral and individuals were persecuted and killed. Yet the notion that only Christianity practiced a radical critique of religion surely must be seen in the light of this Cynic critique. To broaden the picture even more, can’t one include the more radical Stoic philosophers as critiquing religion beyond merely a “coffee-house” rhetoric? If Martha Nussbaum is right, the Stoic philosophers took critical analysis out of the academy and emphasized practical ethics. Amid their critique, of course, is an analysis of current religious practice and belief.

    • Yes, sure. Philosophers of various stripes speculated that the gods were glorified humans (Euhemerist thinkers), and criticized blood-sacrifice, etc. But for the most part they made no effort to change popular cultic behavior. In any case, there was no aggressive and effective influence of popular cultic practice. In the case of early Christianity, desisting from worship of the gods was mandatory.

      • charles miller permalink

        Thanks, Larry. I have always been drawn to the statement of Seneca, “If it’s not just people themselves, but their father and grandfathers and pretty well all past generations that have been led astray, it’s not easy to root out their mistaken opinions today, however strong one’s argument.” In the context of your comments, it does appear that Stoics were aware of the need to somehow undermine a “form of life” that gives rise to evil behavior. If I understand your statements correctly, this is what the Christian way of life offered and executed. I suggest that the Cynics (of whom Seneca shares some affinities) were aware of the “problem” and attempted to bring this socio-cultural overturning. According to Harold Attridge, the early Christian apologists such as Tatian “appropriated Cynic criticism of traditional Greco-Roman worship.” (Encyclopedia of Early Christianity)

        As I noted previously, Cynics were not parlor philosophes, but worked the street corners conveying their philosohico-political message. This led to their banishment from Rome. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that Christianity’s approach was successful and probably more radical than even the Cynics, if only because it worked on multi-layered social and cultural levels of hero ascetics/martyrs, life-affirming social practice/ritual, and ability to appropriate and transform the leading ideologies with reason and rhetoric. If other scholars are correct, one of the leading ideologies included the marginalized Cynic message, rhetoric, and scandalous asceticism.

      • Yes, in the second and third centuries Christian “intellectuals” such as Justin and Tertullian used the tactic of citing philosophical critiques of pagan religion to defend their own stance. But in the earliest texts (NT), we don’t have such citation. The early Christian refusal to give cultus to the many gods didn’t stem from Cynics, but was an emphasis inherited from their Jewish matrix of the “second temple” period.

  4. Kathryn permalink

    I have come to similar conclusions, as a result of my recent study of inscriptional evidence, that was was no such thing as “pagan monotheism” in practice – henotheism, yes, but with variable local manifestations.

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