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What Made Early Christianity Different?

January 16, 2015

On Monday (19th) I head off to Hong Kong to give the Josephine So Lectures in China Graduate School of Theology.  My topic for these (four) lectures is “What Made Early Christianity Different in the Roman World?”  For a few years now, I’ve been wanting to get time to write a book-length discussion of this question, and the invitation to give these lectures has allowed me the opportunity to get it going.

The first lecture will address relevant issues in the current scholarly context and indicate how I aim to deal with the question, giving illustrations of why it’s valid.  In each of the remaining three lectures I’ll focus on some aspect of early Christianity that I contend made it unusual in the Roman world.  In lecture two, I propose that early Christianity advocated a distinctive pattern of religious belief and practice.  Lecture three focuses on the distinctive religious identity advocated in early Christianity.  In lecture three, I focus on early Christianity as a “bookish” religion, among other things emphasizing the remarkable place of texts in the young religious movement.

It’s my aim across 2015 to add discussion of some additional features of early Christianity, with a view to completing the book by the end of the year.  I’ll be interested to see what the folks in Hong Kong make of these lectures.

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  1. Celal permalink

    A “bookish religion” ? Might you be getting that impression simply because of the fact that what has come down to us about their faith and practice is contained in their writings ?

    • My discussion draws in part on early Christian writings, yes, but on much more as well. Pagan critics recognized the place of books in early Christianity, and that’s reflected in efforts to destroy Christian books in some of the persecutions. Anyway, when the book is written and published, then you can assess my case.

  2. Chi Hong Wong permalink

    A very thought-provoking lectures, especially the comparison of christianity between the ancient Roman world and the modern world. Thanks Prof. Hurtado for coming so far to give these lectures. Also looking forward for the new book.

  3. Calvin S. Taylor permalink

    Hi Larry,
    I am in the second year of my M.Div. studies at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA, USA, and I thoroughly enjoy your blog.
    The article I just read ( made me curious about the burial practices of Christians in Egypt during the Roman Empire and their “bookishness.” Was it a common/distinctive practice for Christians in Egypt during this time period to be buried with writings they considered sacred? Thanks again.
    Calvin S. Taylor

    • We have a few known instances of books being buried with Christian dead, perhaps most famously the text commonly regarded as “the Gospel of Peter” in the manuscript buried with a man in a cemetery near a monastery in Egypt. E.g., see the Wikipedia entry here.

  4. Bobby Garringer permalink

    A change of subject…

    Kurt Eichenwald, in a special issue of Newsweek that came out before last Christmas, asserts that existing Gr NT manuscripts are “hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.” But do the earliest manuscripts require “hundreds” of intervening generations of copies? For that matter — assuming that a given copy of a document is going to last for at least a decade or more, before it would need to be copied in order to be preserved — even ninth century copies would not require even a hundred generations, let alone hundreds. Am I right in thinking this way?

    You may answer privately, responding to

    • Kurt Eichenwald is a journalist, not a scholar of early Christianity (or anything else to my knowledge). So, assess your sources!
      In any case, “existing Greek NT manuscripts” covers a wide chronological swathe. If we confine attention to the earliest, i.e., manuscripts commonly dated to the early 3rd century AD or some a bit earlier, then there are not likely “hundreds of intervening generations of copies.” One factor to take account of is that we know that ancient papyrus manuscripts could be in use for a century or more.

  5. I would love to read the book when it comes out!

  6. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I would be interested to see whether/how you interact with Rodney Stark’s books on early Christianity. I am skeptical about his claims of Christian novelty: from mystical experiences at Christianity’s inception, to the key part he claims distinctive Christian ethics played in its subsequent growth. I know you have cited him with some approval in the past, but he’s not without his critics, either from a historical or sociological perspective.

    • I don’t particularly engage or draw upon Stark’s studies in the lectures I gave in Hong Kong.

  7. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

    This topic looks like it open eyes as to what was going on in the Roman Empire.

    What I have notice in some of my studies is that there “appears” to be differences in view regarding prophecy, The Romans and Greeks looked to the Oracle of Delphi and the Sybilline Oracle (of course there were others, but these two were the biggest) and estatic speaking for prophetic guidance versus the Jewish-Christian view of prophecy which was more along the line of statements in the form of signs, symbols, sermons, staged theatre, etc., in the revealing of God’s will.

    I would also think that Early Christianity had difference regarding equality between sexes, peoples, abortion, exposure, slavery, etc. Would these topics be included in your lectures?

    • I won’t address either topic in y Hong Kong lectures. In the book, I do think that I’ll engage the question of whether and how early Christianity related to the larger Roman world in what we call “ethics”. But that topic lies ahead for me this year.

  8. Love your work and really interested in this book coming out.

  9. Would the lectures be made available online for viewing? Looking forward to seeing the book soon. By “early Christianity,” what specific time period would that be?

  10. Good luck in Hong Kong. Looking forward to the book!

  11. Steve Walach permalink

    Larry —

    Is it possible to film the lectures and link them to a wider audience via youtube?

    Your blog has already had some multi-media offerings.

    And I am sure the lectures will have many appreciative viewers world-wide.

    Thanks for considering.

    • My inclination at this point is to finish the book, and not pre-empt it with online lectures.

  12. I wish you an enjoyable trip, a successful series of lectures and stimulating discussion with those who attend. I am sure that many of us will look forward to seeing the book — and no doubt some regular contributors will have further pertinent suggestions for aspects of this theme.

  13. Jim permalink

    I’m not familiar with how extensive the published work is in this area, but I hope you will consider writing a book on the topic of what made early Christianity different. I also think that the topic might be interesting as a trade book for the general audience. But then again, I’m also strange too.

    • I do plan to make these lectures the initial step toward a book on the topic of early Christian distinctives in the Roman world. Hopefully, published in 2016. And I do aim to make it accessible for any reader interested in the topic.

  14. BRIAN MCDONOUGH permalink

    Congratulations on this significant invitation. Many of your readers look forward to the book that you hope will emerge from this series of lectures, on a topic that continues to fascinate academics and people of faith.

  15. Jack Irwin permalink

    I always enjoy reading your Windows into schokarship. Your latest, too, is intriguing. I will look forward to your interesting approach, since most of the distinctions that seem to be made are between early Christianity and the Jewish faith, which of course was represented in the struggles between Jewish Christians and gentle Christians.

    One question that comes to mind with respect to your topic is that of “kingdom.” On the one hand there were earthly kingdoms such as the Roman Empire and as represented in the Jewish yearnings to reestablish their earthly kingdom whereas Jesus and early Christianity did not set out to establish an earthly kingdom.

    Jack Irwin in California

    • Well, no, early Christianity didn’t involve their own efforts to set up an earthly kingdom, but at least some hoped that God would do so, as did at least some Jews of the time. In, e.g., Paul and Revelation, and the Gospels, you don’t fly away to heaven in the end, God makes things right on earth.

  16. Jean permalink

    It would be great to be able to read the transcripts or manuscripts.

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