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Kloppenborg’s Review of “Destroyer”

May 3, 2017

On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a review of my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, in the prestigious online journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, here.  And the reviewer, John Kloppenborg, is certainly himself a respected scholar, his review broadly irenic in tone.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed that he seems to have misunderstood my clearly stated objectives in the book, and so a major point of his criticism is . . ., well, quite beside the point.  Contra Kloppenborg’s statement that, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” I state no such intention in the book.  I do draw upon Rodney Stark’s observation that successful religious groups maintain a balance between compatibility with their cultural setting and distinctiveness from it.  This simply serves as a premise to exploring what distinctive features characterized early Christianity, which was self-evidently “successful” across the first three centuries.

But, contra Kloppenborg’s characterization of the book’s “burden,” I make it rather clear from the outset that I have two main points in the book:  (1) Early Christianity did have certain distinctive features, as observed by contemporaries, especially non-Christians; and (2) the particular distinctive features discussed in the book have become for us unexamined assumptions about “religion.”  Neither of these objectives entails the necessity of theorizing how or why early Christianity “succeeded.”   So Kloppenborg’s complaint is, I have to say, misjudged and even inappropriate.

Also, contrary to the impression one might take from Kloppenborg’s review, I do allow for variations in the ways that early Christians negotiated their existence in the Roman world.  They weren’t by any means uniform in their stance about such things as participation in feasts in honour of the gods, for example, and I cite the texts in 1 Corinthians and in Revelation noted by Kloppenborg as indicating such differences.

As for my view on the early Christian preference for the codex, the data are rather clear.  Christians preferred the codex far, far more than anyone else in the early centuries.  Oh, and later visual depictions of Jesus and the prophets and the apostles and their books are interesting.  But it’s not quite as willy-nilly as Kloppenborg assumes.  A solid study needs to be written on this subject (perhaps a good PhD topic for someone!).  But, e.g., the Evangelists and Paul are rather consistently depicted with codexes, whereas the OT prophets have scrolls.  That suggests there was in ancient Christian iconography a recognition of the semiotic differences between these two bookforms.  I wouldn’t expect full consistency in the matter, but there does seem to me to be a dominant pattern to the visual use of codex and scroll in Christian art.  And as for Bagnall’s claims about the codex, see my posting about them here (which includes a link to my review of Bagnall’s book).

Kloppenborg likens the pagan house-cult that I cite to Paul’s congregations, suggesting that it is invalid to characterize the one as a local cult and Paul’s groups as trans-local.  But I find this a surprising gaff.  For surely Paul’s own trans-local ministry, as “apostle to the nations/gentiles,” meant that each of his “local” congregations was (and knew themselves to be) part of a movement of much larger geographical and ethnic dimensions.  Paul’s collection for Jerusalem expresses the trans-local relationships that he sought to foster, in that case not only linking his own churches together in a common effort, but also linking them with their fellow believers in Roman Judea.  I could say more on this point, but it should be obvious that the early Christian movement wasn’t simply a bunch of “local cults” with no trans-local connections or relationships.

As another response to Kloppenborg’s critique, in fact I do note that there are other examples of what I call “voluntary” religion (Kloppenborg’s term “polis cults”) in the Roman world, such as the cults of Mithras, Isis, and others.  Yes, of course.  But, so far as we know, none of these cults expected members to desist from sacrifice to their traditional gods.  None raised any problem with members continuing to express their religious allegiance to families, cities or empire through reverencing the many deities.  Among the new religious movements of the time, only early Christianity made such things issues for members.  So, it is simply a red-herring to point to other “voluntary cults” as if that somehow diminishes early Christian distinctiveness.

I find it interesting that biblical scholars seem more reluctant to grant my point than do historians of Roman-era religion.  That should be evident from the many such historians that I cite and draw upon in the book.  How to account for this is not my concern.

I conclude, however, by acknowledging gratefully Kloppenborg’s irenic tone, especially his concluding comments.  Destroyer of the gods wasn’t written primarily as a monograph for scholars, but as a scholarly book for a wide readership.  But I share Kloppenborg’s hope that the book may help to simulate further scholarly work on the fascinating movement that became Christianity.

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  1. Dear Dr Hurtado. As a historian of early Christianity would you find the stated thesis of this book plausible? I thought the idea that the Christians ruined the ancient world and put progress on hold was on the wane so the appearance of such a publication on the horizon seems a little depressing from my point of view.

    • Well, since the book hasn’t appeared quite yet (slated for September), I haven’t read it. But the publisher’s summary : a notion that appears, gets refuted, seems dead, and then is revived as if it’s new.

  2. Timothy Joseph permalink

    I, for one,when I am intrigued by a book’s title, I read the preface to see what the book is about. In this case, the subtitle accurately describes the emphasis!

  3. Ok, this whole judging his book by the title is a little silly. I’m reading the book and Dr. Hurtado does just what he says he’s going to do in the preface. Whether he does what you think he should’ve done is another matter. But come on…

  4. permalink

    Your reply to Donald seems to say that a book’s title should not be thought to convey a broad sense of the book’s aim or subject matter. I think a lot of people would disagree. Perhaps your book was poorly titled?

    • When the title says “Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World,” and I say from the Preface onward that the book focuses on some distinctive features of early Christianity, how is that a poor title? The book has a great title and the sub-title makes clear its focus.

  5. Dr. H.,
    After reading the review and your article, I agree that Dr. Kloppenborg seems to be reviewing what he thinks your book should address.


  6. permalink

    Perhaps the review considers the title of the book important: “Destroyer of the Gods,” which implies that Christianity “succeeded” in displacing other religions.

    • I’m sure that Kloppenborg knows that the title comes from the Martyrdom of Polycarp, in which the pagan crowd cries out as Polycarp is brought into the arena, “This is Polycarp, the destroyer of our gods!” Nothing in the title promises an explanation for Christianity’s “success”. The sub-title makes it plain: It’s about what made early Christianity noteworthy, distinctive.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        The title wasn’t interned to refer to success of Christianity over pagan religions at all? I think readers could be forgiven for drawing this inference.

        Had I known it was a quotation I would still have read it with this meaning, and as a doubly ironic. The crowd at the time calling Polycarp “destroyer of our gods” in an ironic sense as he himself meets his demise. But the greater irony, from our perspective, that Polycarp’s religion ultimately did destroy pagan alternatives.

        If that’s not the point of the title, then what is?

      • Donald: Most people judge a book’s focus and purpose by reading it, not simply guessing from the title. There’s an ample description of it on the Amazon sites, and the publisher’s site.

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