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“Destroyer of the gods”: The Panel Discussion

November 24, 2016

The panel discussion of my new book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, was a lively and (in my view) productive event at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (in San Antonio, Texas, 18-22 Nov).  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)  In previous postings, I’ve referred to various video and audio interviews on the book.  For example, note the video interview held in our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here.

One panellist wondered if my emphasis on early Christian distinctiveness was a protest against a comparison of early Christianity and other religious movements of its time.  I should hope, however, that I make it sufficiently clear that I fully approve (and carry out) the “taxonomy” task as a first step in then identifying the distinguishing features of early Christianity.  And, contrary to his suggestion that I seem to focus on anomalies, I countered that my focus is on what I would call particularities, i.e., features that allow us to distinguish and identify this or that phenomenon from other members of its type.

Another panellist, Kyle Harper (a classicist with award-winning books of his own on early Christianity; see here) was most encouraging in his appraisal of my book.  (Indeed, the most positive appraisals thus far have been from classicists and ancient historians, in comparison with colleagues in biblical studies.  Interesting.)  He suggested an interesting line of further investigation and reflection:  What larger changes might have been taking place in the first couple of centuries that might have helped to prompt and shape developments in early Christianity?

The third panellist, however, gave what I am bound to judge a very misleading account of my book.  He described it as portraying a uniformity of Christian belief and practice with regard to the larger religious setting, accused me of making “an inane contrast” between early Christianity and “everything else,” and insinuated that the book was some kind of covert triumphalist and apologetic tactic.  In my response to the panellists, I had to note how puzzeling his presentation was, observing that the book he condemned wasn’t the book I had written!  I then had to set the record straight over against his misleading characterization of it.

As I clearly state early on in the book, it is intended as a case-study in making the larger point that the category of “religion(s)” comprises some movements that vary considerably from one another.  I know early Christianity best, so that’s what I choose to discuss.  “Distinctive” doesn’t necessarily mean “valid.”  What you make of early Christianity as to the validity of its teachings and practices is a matter of individual judgement.  The point I make rather clearly and repeatedly in the book is that, whatever your own stance with regard to early Christianity, it has helped to shape your world, especially some commonplace assumptions about “religion.”

So, a lively, frank exchange at some points, but, in the end, a discussion that I hope will have clarified some matters for all those who attended.  Christmas is drawing near, so pick up copies of the book for all your relatives 🙂

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  1. Dr Hurtado. I just finished reading your book. I am not a scholar of your field of studies but found the book very accessible and fascinating. I was particularly struck for example by your comments on ‘household codes’ and how Christian texts addressed not just male heads of households but also those in ‘subordinate’ positions – women, children, slaves and that these texts would have been read and discussed in he presence of such ‘subordinates’. I had never thought how distinctive this must have been. Curious that has never occurred to me or perhaps many others when we hear these texts now.
    You refer yourself, in the book, to the question of why anyone would become a Christian, when its distinctiveness seemed to excite such antipathy among pagans including relatives, acquiantances and authorities. That would have been a good addition to your book, though I think you have dealt with that elsewhere? That will be next on my reading list!

    • As indicated in the notes, I owe that observation about the household codes to Margaret MacDonald.

      • Michael Gould permalink

        Indeed, you mention her in the notes. Scholars bring their own perspectives to research. She made a valuable intuition?

      • I think MacDonald simply observed something that (to my knowledge) hadn’t been noticed earlier. “Intuition” likely has little to do with it, just keen observation.

  2. I’m wondering, if people recognized that Jesus was divine soon after the resurrection, as I think you are saying, then a high Christology could have started early, which means it’s quite possible that John’s Gospel is earlier than the 90-100 AD era?

    • With other major scholars from Bousset onward, I’ve argued that the treatment of Jesus as divinely exalted and rightful recipient of cultic honor erupted within the very first years/months after Jesus’ execution. An immediate corollary would have been the notion that he was in some sense “pre-existent” (the logic of ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought). “Divine” can mean various things, so I prefer to stick to the expressions that we have in early texts.
      The date of the Gospel of John is a red herring. The date of the Gospels is framed on the basis of a number of observations about their contents, for me the particularly important one is the references to the destruction of the Temple.

  3. Coleman Glenn permalink

    I was at the panel discussion, and it did indeed strike me as lively and productive. If I heard you correctly, you argued that a.) of course other religions / philosophies of the time are distinct from each other, but your focus was on Christianity, and b.) that said, in many ways Christianity was MORE distinctive than most others in that it demanded exclusivism. I heard your interlocutors agree that IF Christianity really demanded exclusivity it would be distinctive, but that outside of a few fussy people like Paul and the martyrs, most Christians would have felt no inner turmoil about being Christian and, for example, offering sacrifices to their household gods. (Where the evidence is for that view I don’t know, but that’s what I heard.) Is that accurate?

    • Coleman, On your last observation, I’d judge that to be the direction taken by one of the panel reviewers, but not (I think) by the others.

      • andrewmarkhenry permalink

        From my understanding the third panelist referenced the work of Eric Rebillard at Cornell? I think Rebillard uses the Decian edict as evidence illustrating how Christians had no inner turmoil about offering sacrifices to Greco-Roman gods considering the sheer amount of Christians who sacrificed to Decius in the 250s and then expected to rejoin the Christian community without repercussion. Their Christian identity becomes “salient” (Rebillard’s word) only in certain contexts. I wish I could have been there at the panel though, I’m only hearing that he made this point second-hand.

      • Yes, Frankfurter referred to Rebillard’s book as indicating that Christians in the Decian situation behaved variously. That’s hardly news! It’s more difficult, however, to claim that they experienced “no inner turmoil about offering sacrifices to Greco-Roman gods” (to use your phrasing). We don’t have access to their inner emotions! All we can know is that many of those who capitulated to sacrifice thereafter sought forgiveness and re-admission to churches. That they sought absolution suggests that they saw themselves as having failed.

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Should there be no connection drawn between a scholar’s view in various academic debates and their personal faith? I think of Bart Ehrman, who has argued that the text of the New Testament was corrupted at an early stage, and has described his own loss of faith, and made a direct connection between the two. Equally I think of scholars like Daniel Wallace who are argue that the text is reliable, and therefore a good basis for a solid conservative faith, such as their own. Some scholars, secular, liberal and secular, seem to have no problem accepting that their scholarship informs their faith. In some ways it’s hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. What they would probably seek to avoid is the converse, allowing their faith position to inform their scholarship. That’s where scrutiny is appropriate to determine if this is the case. But to argue that the potential shouldn’t even be considered, or is simply insulting, or disrespectful, doesn’t seem very credible, or ultimately sustainable way to approach the issue.

    • Donald: You’re (again!) confusing two things. (1) Can a scholar’s scholarly work affect, inform, shape his/her faith-stance? Yes, of course. (2) My point, however, was whether one can/should pigeon-hole scholars on the basis of the type of institution in which they work, apart from the scholarly work that they produce, imputing presuppositions simply on the basis of their institutional post.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        On the narrow point of institutions, employment and conservative/liberal scholarly stances, you yourself have blogged about the trend for divinity schools to purge those who are theologically suspect. That being the case, and an issue you yourself have concerns about, why should it be surprising that a correlation is assumed between employment at a divinity school and taking conservative positions in discussions? Isn’t such imbalance simply the natural result of the kind of ideological purge you have observed and decried?

      • No. I’ve not alleged any “trend”, but have complained about a few specific instances where faculty members have been treated unfairly by Christian institutions. I fail to see, however, that this justified pre-judging or alleging bias to someone simply because they are on staff in a Divinity School (of whatever orientation).

      • Griffin permalink

        Is it possible that beyond 1) specific preferences in individual theology or divinity schools for specific theologies, there might be 2) an even more widespread preference for those who share at least say, some sort of general, liking for Christianity?

      • Griffin: I don’t understand your question. If you’re asking whether “Divinity Schools” preparing people for Christian ministry will prefer academic staff with some sympathy for the task and for Christianity, then the rather obvious answer is “yes.” But that hardly is predictive of an inability to deal with the complexities of historical analysis of early Christianity, or critical questions about its expressions today. Scholars are supposed to examine the data, analysis and arguments of whatever work they engage.

  5. Ricky permalink

    Dear Dr. Hurtado
    Congratulations for your book and I wonder when are we going to read it in spanish?
    By the way from which part of Spain come your ancestors?

    • Destroyer of the gods is being translated into Spanish by Ediciones Sigueme (Salamanca), and should be published sometime in 2017. I have no idea from where in Span my Spanish ancestors came. I can trace my Spanish ancestors (and I have others as well) only back a few generations, who moved from Cuba to the USA in the late 19th century.

  6. Do you think the third panelist was indicative of certain methodologies/beliefs common in religious academia today? Perhaps a hyper-awareness of and skepticism towards privileging one ‘flavor’ of faith above others? I only ask since I personally enjoy analyzing, both theologically and philosophically, the working assumptions that affect and constitute our understanding, particularly how this panelist understood your book. I have your book on my Amazon wish list and look forward to reading it, hopefully over Christmas break!

    • I can’t speculate as to what moved that panel presenter to misjudge my book so seriously. I’ll leave that for him to contemplate. I simply set the record straight.

  7. Interesting about the panellist who accused you of being an apologist. Does this mean only scholarship that debunks Christianity is legitimate?
    Also, what role does an anti-Christian mentality play in the field biblical scholarship?
    I’ve had a conversation or two with anti-Christian scholars who make up the most far-fetched conclusion on some issues in order to show the weakness of Christianity. I think it has more to do with their personal hated of a Christian they know or see on tv.
    Not that I’m saying all scholarship must agree with Christianity, but is hostility necessary? What say you?

    • I’d like us all simply to take account of the evidence and analysis of any work and judge it accordingly.

  8. Matthew Hass permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    I purchased your book at SBL and have thoroughly enjoyed reading it over the Thanksgiving holiday. I think that, for better or worse, there is a tendency among certain students of Early Judaism (my field) and Early Christianity to equate “scholarly study” with pointing out how Jewish and Christian communities were embedded in the broader cultural context. Your book seeks to do something different, and I think the charge of “apologetics” is a knee-jerk reaction to this different approach.

    That being said, in my opinion you make the scholarly nature of your work quite clear in the introduction. I am not quite sure how anyone is able to read the book and get the opposite impression. You have done us all a real service with this book and I appreciate the time and energy that went into it!

    • Thanks, Matthew, for your affirming comments. I don’t intend to counter observations about similarities; I only seek to balance these with noting distinctive features. And I don’t claim that early Christianity alone was distinctive, but only the particular ways in which it was, and this as a case-study in religious particularity.

      • Griffin permalink

        Christianity would seem to be VERY distinctive, if its monotheism puts it in a class by itself, or with only Judaism.

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