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The Hong Kong Lectures: What Made Early Christianity Different?

January 28, 2015

I arrived back from my Hong Kong lectures, the 2014 Josephine So Lectures given in China Graduate School of Theology, last Friday. As these lectures form some of the material that I aim to develop into a book across 2015, I’m not publishing the full texts of the lectures now.  But, given the curiosity of some readers about their contents, I provide the brief summaries distributed to those who attended:  What Made Early Christianity Different–Lecture titles & summaries.

Granted, these summaries provide just enough to provoke further curiosity, or questions, but I ask readers to wait for the book to make a full judgement about the matters mentioned.  Indicative of my concern for an adequate historical grasp of early Christianity in its Roman-era setting, I quote a statement by my friend, the respected ancient historian, Edwin Judge:

“History walks a tightrope between the unique and the typical. If we explain everything by analogy, we deny to our forebears the individuality we take as a basic feature of our own humanity.”[1]

[1] Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century: Pivotal Essays by E. A. Judge, ed. David M. Scholer (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008), 134. I take “history” in Judge’s statement to refer to the efforts of historians to attempt reconstructions of the past.

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  1. shatterproofspiritual permalink

    Why not release the transcript of *one* section to further pique interest?

    • I’ll consider this. I had to prepare the Hong Kong lectures under some time-pressure, and before releasing anything in written form I’d like the leisure to ensure that I haven’t inadvertently overlooked something important or made some stupid gaff.

  2. Jacob permalink

    Prof. Hurtado, I’m curious as to which schools of thought / paradigms you will be engaging in your work? It seems that recent treatments of Christian identity in the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds tend to land somewhere in the spectrum ranging from a non-essentialist view of identity to an essentialist construction. Those closer to a non-essentialist view would argue that there was a “shared identity between those we wish to label pagans, Jews or Christians, a shared identity that [Christian texts] seek to deny” (Judith Lieu, Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman Worlds [Oxford: OUP, 2004], 143); they would also argue that early Christian identity cannot be reduced to a set of beliefs, but is more like a range of Christianities that find their source in the historical Jesus of Nazareth (c.f. Bauer and his legacy – Koester, et al). Towards the other end of the spectrum would be scholars such as Ben Meyer, Paul Trebilco, and Mikael Tellbe – all of whom to one degree or another identify a common kerygma / set of beliefs that defined early Christian identity. Presumably the scholarly opinions are much more multi-faceted than this simplistic spectrum, but I am very interested (though I can’t yet claim to be a professional!) in how your contribution will bring the discussion forward. I am perfectly content to wait for your book if you cannot at present publish more of your thoughts on these matters. Thanks for sharing what you have!



    • Jacob: Yours is an obviously informed question! I tend toward a phenomenological and pragmatic approach. Of course there was a shared cultural identity that linked early “Christians” (Jewish and non-Jewish ones) with (other) Jews and “pagans”, especially in Diaspora locations. Today, as well, people have multiple factors making up their “identity”. So, to posit (from observation) an early Christian distinguishable/distinctive religious identity isn’t to deny ways in which early believers also shared identity factors with people outside their circles of faith.
      Moreover, as I’ve argued for a few decades now, we have to take account of more than “beliefs”; we must also take account of rituals, devotional actions, etc. E.g., if a group demands an entrance rite such as baptism, that rather blatantly reflects a view of the circle as distinguishable from those outside the circle.
      To cite another matter, discussions of the “identity” question often seem to me far too abstract and insufficiently rooted in specifics. I find, for example, scant reference to the nomina sacra, to the preference for the codex, et alia, i.e., data that reflect (in visual and physical terms) an early and emergent distinguishable Christian practice. (On these matters, see, e.g., my essay, Larry W. Hurtado, “The Earliest Evidence of an Emerging Christian Material and Visual Culture: The Codex, the Nomina Sacra and the Staurogram,” in Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson, eds. Stephen G. Wilson and Michel Desjardins, 271-88 (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2000).
      But I hope to discuss these matters more fully/adequately in the book I aim to write this year.

  3. Jean permalink

    I’m looking forward to this book. Thanks for the tease 🙂

  4. Hugh Scott permalink

    I look forward to your proposed new book on What Made Early Christianity Different, because it will give me the latest scholarship on the point which you highlight as the subject of your recent 2nd Lecture in Hong Kong: “Early Christians were expected to avoid, or in the case of gentiles to renounce, the worship of the many deities and divine heroes of the Roman period. In this, they followed the exclusivist stance of Roman-era Judaism, often referred to as ‘monotheistic’ “.

    It is already my own considered opinion, of course, that Jesus and Christianity are unique among the preceding and contemporary religions from Egypt, the Middle East, and the Greco-Roman world when these two worlds, the Christian and the pagan, are compared (better, contrasted) with each other – with the exception, of course, of Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish religion, in which Christianity is so inextricably sourced.

    But I write because a 2014 book, 700 pages long, ‘On the Historicity of Jesus’, by Richard Carrier, has been quoted against me in an ‘amazon’ debate I am having on precisely this topic. My interlocutor quotes me, from Carrier, literally forty claims made by and for Jesus and Christianity, for which he finds similarities in pagan religions. I have not read Carrier, but astonishingly, his follower declares to me that no proof is needed that these pagan similarities INFLUENCED Jesus and Christianity – the mere fact that the SIMILARITIES EXIST should mean that the Christian claims must necessarily be dismissed as inventions just like the now-vanished pagan religions! This is the perversion of scholarship. Not a single one of the 40 pagan similarities really carries any probative weight whatsoever, when compared with the evidence for the Christian claims.

    I leave it there.

    • Hugh: Yes, it is simply a fallacy to take analogy as indicative of influence and borrowing. A classic critique = Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania.” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962): 1-13.

  5. Laurie Schlaepfer permalink

    Dr. Hurtado, the link doesn’t seem to be working.

    • Hmm. On my computer clicking on the link brings up a window in which you click on “open” the file, and then it appears.

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