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Tom Holland and Hurtado on Early Christianity

October 10, 2016

My discussion with historian Tom Holland about early Christianity aired on a London-based radio station, and can be accessed as a pod-cast here.  Holland discusses his recent article in the New Statesman in which he describes his own realization that his moral views owe a great deal of Christianity, that article here.  I discuss my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

I found Holland’s interest in my book encouraging, as he comes at it from his own established books on the ancient world.  And I wrote the book for a wide and diverse readership of whatever personal stance on Christianity.  Whoever we are, we experience the culture-shaping effects of that rambunctious and radically distinctive movement that became Christianity.

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  1. Hugh Scott permalink

    (LWH: I have edited this comment down to preserve the basic point made.)
    Professor Hurtado,
    I have followed with keen interest and great profit your recent posts and the comments they elicit, on ‘Chronology and Ontology’, and your overlapping posts on ‘the Basics of Jesus Devotion’, and so on.

    However, may I venture to comment that I feel that there is an important emphasis which you do not make, but which in my opinion needs to be made, in your exposition. I have had the same feeling when I read your ‘One God, One Lord’, and such of your other writings as I have come across.

    It is this: When you examine the reasons for conversion to Christianity, by Jews first and then by gentiles (leaving aside the interesting but secondary ‘secular’ social/political/economic reasons) you seem to focus on the change in WORSHIP required of the convert, rather than on the need for a first conversion in BELIEF, and indeed for a belief in the RESURRECTION. Surely what destroyed the pagan gods, and what transformed belief in the Old Testament God, was a belief in the Risen Messiah, which then called for a new worship. The destroyer of the gods was not Christian worship, but Christian belief. Without this belief, no other motive was sufficient to explain the universal and very early Christian worship of Jesus as God.


    • Hugh: I’ve edited down your massively long comment to preserve your key question/point. But the first thing to say is that you seem to have misunderstood things. I don’t recall saying that worship was the reason people became Christians, and I can’t figure how you presume that I did.
      And early Christian teachings about God, Christ, etc., were likely a factor, along with other things, different combinations likely for various people. See my recent book, Why on earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, where I emphasize the social and political costs involved. So, whatever the motives they had to be sufficient to outweigh these costs.
      Beliefs can’t be effective unless they’re first embraced. And belief in Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation was part of early Christian proclamation, but wasn’t what pagans referred to when they accused Christians of destroying their gods. Read my book, Destroyer of the gods.

      • Hugh Scott permalink

        Is “Why on earth did anyone become a Christian in the first three centuries?” available to buy from amazon or some other publisher in the UK? I see it listed only on the USA

        I still haven’t seen the plain statement anywhere in the relevant recent discussions of early Christianity in the Greco-Roman empire, that people became Christians because they believed Christianity to be true. All your own emphasis is that such conversion would generally entail a burden of negative social/political/family/religious spin-offs. But I never see the (to me) self-evident reflection, that these adverse consequences were accepted because of the positive gain of the true belief in the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ, God of all the world and giver of eternal life. Was every Christian convert a hypocrite when he professed and worshipped according to the Christian faith?

      • Hugh: I’ll ignore your rather silly final comments. As to my book, it shows up on but at a ridiculous price. So, go to and buy it ($14.00), and even with a delivery charge it’s cheaper.

  2. Griffin permalink

    To me, following religious leaders even to the point of death, was far from unique.

    Then too, early adoption of Jesus as a person of rather high status, even an agent of God, does not seem unique. Since it is consistent as you noted, with earlier notions of agents of God.

    More specifically, it seems to me that the massive infusion of Roman influence in Israel, from 64 BC, would have encouraged the idea, in at least some Jews or residents of Israel, Judah, that many human authorities, lords, had divine or semi divine status.

    Rome in the time when Christianity appeared, had just made a transition from a marginally democratic Republican government, with a Caesar as first citizen in effect, to a more imperial Roman Empire. In which our leader was now again claiming at times, to be not just a man, but once again an emperor. Or a god, or a son of a god. Like the old oriental despots, Egyptian pharaohs.

    Famously of course, many Jews opposed this new Roman deity of the day, rigorously. However? There would have been some residents of Palestine, especially servants of lords, who were already used to obeying lords and masters, as if they were gods. Some of these might easily have immediately accorded rather high status, to an impressive teacher or rabbi or leader or lord.

    Particularly with their new Roman masters, lords, recently and forcefully reiterating the ancient belief that some men and lords were gods, or sons of gods.

    • Griffin: Your speculations are . . . speculations. What we historians must do is test any speculation or proposal with the extant evidence. And (1) the historical evidence I cite shows Jesus, not simply treated in early circles as a person of “high status,” but as rightful recipient of cultic devotion, and that’s quite a big difference; (2) no other figure in 2nd temple Jewish world so treated in any known Jewish text/circle; (3) no hint in early Christian texts that pagan notions of apotheosis or such were referred to or operative in the earliest move to treat Jesus as exalted to heavenly glory. Finally, we have rather clear expressions of what Jews thought of such pagan notions (including refs in a “hellenized” Jew such as Philo), and it’s not encouraging to your speculations.
      No, the best reading of the evidence is that the eruption of cultic devotion to Jesus was novel and early.

      • Griffin permalink

        Well, as you’ve noted elsewhere, we all wish there was more evidence all around. In particular, we wish for more … since my own study in History and sociology told me that often pious groups are eager to destroy the documents, burn the books, the monuments, of their opponents. Thus creating a cultural bias in precisely, the surviving documents.

        Since this is a regularly observable cultural phenomenon, particularly in religious groups, particularly Christians, this would caution against taking even early Christian documents as being absolutely definitive.

        Given that, and other evidence of a massive Roman takeover in Israel in 64 BC, there is enough evidence to consider possibly denied Roman influences. In effect, particularly, there were emperor cults, and worship. Indeed, Josephus mentions such things in Israel, in the time of Jesus, and slightly before.

        If we study documents enough, and their cultural contexts, we next learn their limitations. And how to get past them. In this case, going beyond the Bible, and pointedly loyal Jewish literature, to documents by Greco Roman collaborators like Josephus, is useful.

      • Well, Griffin, yes, if you can disregard the extant evidence and simply postulate the kind you want, then you can construct whatever you want. But that’s hardly critical historiography. And on the question of apotheosis, etc., Josephus rather clearly exhibits the horror among Jews that I mention. (I think we’re done on this, and am calling the thread to a close.)

  3. Griffin permalink

    Was Christianity that unique? Jews had often come into violent conflict with foreign overseers before. And persecution was part of that. The Jews in Egypt and Babylonia had been taken from Israel, into captivity. And under foreign domination, Judaism incurs a death sentence in 2 Mac. 6-7. Yet, as Christians did later, Jews persisted in their religion.

  4. Idicheria Ninan Punnamadathil permalink

    Dear Professor Hurtado,

    Are you giving free copies of your latest book? If so please consider me too. I teach at SAIACS; have met you once, when you visited Wycliffe Hall Oxford, in the early nineties. I have also been grateful for your relentless persuasion of the early devotion to Jesus.


    Idicheria Ninan PhD Dept of New Testament SAIACS, Bangalore, 560084


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