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“Destoyer of the gods”: A Recent Review and a Plea for Accuracy

July 11, 2017

I suppose many authors experience the uncertainty and occasional frustration with reviews of their books.  A recent review of my book, Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press, 2016) left me disappointed:  David Wheeler-Reed, in Expository Times 128.9 (2017): 441-42.  A reviewer has the right (even the duty) to be critical of weak points, absolutely.  But, surely, the first duty of a reviewer is to be accurate in representing the book under review.

So, my first complaint is that Wheeler-Reed distorted my emphasis.  I argued that early Christianity exhibited distinctiveness; but Wheeler-Reed wrongly portrays me as ascribing to early Christianity a “uniqueness.”  But the two aren’t the same, and I chose my word and claim carefully, and based on the historical data.  Wheeler-Reed accuses me of ignoring J.Z. Smith’s exhortations (in Drudgery Divine) against imputing uniqueness to early Christianity.  But I made no such claim, and Wheeler-Reed’s chiding is wide of the mark.  Instead, I specifically state that there were other groups in the Roman world as well with their own distinctiveness.  My book is simply about early Christian distinctiveness.

I also observe (p. 10) that “to grant that something is distinctive or even novel, however, is not necessarily to endorse it as valid.”  My book is not some apologetic tract, but an attempt at sober historical analysis, written for a wide reading public.

Moreover, at various points I explicitly note similarities between early Christianity and certain philosophical groups of the time, and other examples of “voluntary” religion, and, of course, I frequently note the shared features with the ancient Jewish matrix from which the early Christian movement sprang.  It is unhelpful in assessing a book to exaggerate its claims.  Of course, an exaggeration is more easily ridiculed or refuted; but it is a failure in the responsibility of a reviewer.

As another inaccuracy, Wheeler-Reed says that I use Rodney Stark’s figures for early Christian growth, whereas (as my endnotes rather clearly show), I actually draw upon the figures given by Keith Hopkins in an oft-cited article.  Whereas Wheeler-Reed portrays me a emphasizing “the political consequences of being a Christian in these early centuries,” I actually refer to “the social and, increasingly, the political consequences” (p. 35, emphasis here), and in the larger context it is what I call “social” consequences and costs that really are the focus.  Contrary to Wheeler-Reed, I don’t accuse scholars of giving insufficient attention to the political/state actions against Christians, but instead I urge that we need “an adequate treatment of what made early converts think it worth those costs” to become a Christian in those early centuries.

The less-than-careful reading continues in Wheeler-Reed’s statement that I posit “influences of early Christianity upon Roman cultic practices.”  For I can find nothing in the pages he cites (pp. 102-4) as reflecting this statement. Instead, following historians such as John North, I pose the likelihood that early Christianity generated various reactions, including in some instances among pagans a greater sense of their own religious identity.

Contra Wheeler-Reed’s misleading statement, I don’t make the preposterous claim “that Christianity produced the majority of writings in the Roman Empire from the first through the third centuries.”  What I actually observe is that, for its size, early Christianity generated a remarkable number of writings (pp. 118-19), more than any other new religious movement of the time.  And further, contra Wheeler-Reed’s claim that I fail to observe that “writing was considered a product of the elite class,” I specifically note that this impressive body of Christian writings was not composed by people of leisured classes but by individuals of varied stations in life (128-29).  Moreover, it’s particularly disappointing that Wheeler-Reed doesn’t even note the abundant data that I provide in the chapter about the phenomenal investment of efforts by early Christians in writing, copying and circulating their writings.

In his discussion of my chapter on “A New Way to Live,” he continues to reflect a lack of care in reading what I wrote.  For example, I don’t “limit” the meaning/usage of the Greek word porneia; instead, I point out that in Jewish and early Christian texts the term is expanded in meaning, from its original sense, “prostitution” (i.e., the action of a prostitute), to various illicit forms of sex done by men as well.  It’s also disappointing that in his review of this chapter he fails even to mention the data that I provide about how early Christianity apparently developed a distinctive vocabulary for sex with children. Instead of “paiderastia (“child/boy love”), Christians labelled it “child corruption” (paidophthoreo).  He likewise doesn’t mention my emphasis on the likely significance of the household-based setting of early Christian ethical exhortation.   As yet another inaccuracy, I don’t actually say that Paul advocated “sex for pleasure” in contrast with philosophers such as Musonius Rufus.  Instead, I note that in 1 Corinthians 7:1ff Paul urges that married couples should not refrain from sex, and doesn’t confine sex to reproduction but treats marital sex as helping to avoid temptations to porneia.

Toward the end of his review, Wheeler-Reed notes the appendix to my book, where I briefly cite some key figures in the development of a historical approach to early Christianity, and he claims that “the reader discovers that Bousset and the history of religion-of-religion school has been Hurtado’s main interlocutor all along,” and that my main aim was to oppose the idea of “oriental” influences.  But I find his claim baffling, and seriously misleading.

In his concluding judgement about whether I’ve made my case that early Christianity exhibited some distinctive features, Wheeler-Reed simply says “Yes and no,” without elaborating.  He then warns readers that my interpretation of the evidence is “only one of several possible ways of interpreting the data,” again, without elaboration or example.  Sure, reviewers must work within word limits, and so brevity is required.  But, surely, some examples of points successfully made, and at least one or two examples of demonstrable errors is not too much to ask in defence of his judgement.

So, here are the observations and claims that I make in the book that require either consent or refutation.

  • As evidenced by contemporary critics, early Christianity was apparently a distinctive option in the religious environment of the time. It was not perceived as just one movement like others, but as an objectionable and even dangerous movement that didn’t fit into the dominant religious culture.  The social costs of early Christian faith appear to have been such that is remains an insufficiently considered question why people became Christians in that time.
  • The early Christian rejection of the gods as “idols,” and the consequent teaching that Christians should avoid offering sacrifices to them, distinguished early Christianity from other new religious movements of the time. Likewise, the lack of shrines, altars, priests, images and sacrifices all set early Christianity apart from the typical expressions of Roman-era religion.
  • The aggressively trans-ethnic and trans-local scope of early Christianity had the effect of de-coupling what we would call “religious identity” from ethnicity. Moreover, in contrast to other examples of “voluntary” religious affiliation (e.g., Mithras or Isis cults), early Christianity urged a cultic exclusivity.  This, too, gave to early Christianity a distinctive religious identity.
  • Early Christianity was a particularly “bookish” religious movement, with considerable investment of efforts in composing, copying, circulating and reading texts. For its size, the number of texts produced was remarkable.  Moreover, the undeniable preference for the codex (especially for texts treated as scriptures) was another distinctive feature of its bookishness.
  • In the notion that converts were held to strong behavioural demands, early Christianity differed from at least most other religious movements of the time (although it reflects the Jewish matrix from which the Christian movement arose). These demands were more akin to those advocated by some philosophical voices of the time.  But, as Galen observed, early Christianity represented a different kind of social project in which these behavioural demands did not rest on a long period of philosophical training.  And, especially in sexual ethics, early Christianity exhibited some distinctive features in comparison with the dominant culture, e.g., requiring a marital chastity of husbands as well as wives, and in condemnation of child-sex.

I repeat that criticism and refutation is fair comment.  But the first task of a reviewer should be accurate representation of the book under review.  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)

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  1. Hi Larry,

    Have you asked ET whether they would allow you to submit a response to the subject review? It seems inappropriate that such a careless presentation should be permitted to stand without a corrective response!


    • Journals don’t and can’t really give space for authors to respond to reviews. It’s just the hazard of writing a book!

  2. kevin permalink

    Can you explain the difference between “distinct” and “unique”? They are commonly used as synonyms.

    • “Distinct” and “distinctive” = having attributes that identify and distinguish something. “Unique” = something has no resemblance to another. As I point out several times in my book, early Christianity’s distinctiveness was not absolute: e.g., the demand for cultic exclusivity made it distinctive among new religious movements of the time, but not unique, as Roman-era Judaism typically practiced a similar cultic exclusivity.

      • kevin permalink

        So, I guess your linking “Roman-era Judaism” with “new religious movements of the time”? If not, then it would seem to me that “unique” works with respect to “new religious movements of the time.”

      • I’m not clear what you’re trying to say, Kevin. “Roman-era Judaism” wasn’t a new religious movement of the time. By the latter, I mean the various new cults that appeared across the early Roman imperial period, e.g., Mithraism, Isis-cult, etc. The latter were other examples of what I term “voluntary” religious movements (i.e., you joined them), along with early Christianity. But one of the distinctive (identifying) features of early Christianity was its cultic exclusivity.

  3. David Booth permalink

    I am currently reading “Destroyer of the Gods.” It is a delightful and insightful book. You are quite careful about the distinctions you make in this work. I’m surprised that any competent reader, let alone a scholar, would have difficulty understanding the claims which you make or the arguments that you put forward in support of these claims.

  4. Excellent refutation of what appears to be very sloppy work. I have read your book and can not imagine making the comments/claims the reviewer did.

    • GPG permalink

      Well, one of the dictionary synonyms for “distinct,” is “SEPARATE”; which in turn can stress lack of connection.”

      • You could just read my book and see what specifically I mean in describing the distinctiveness of early Christianity, instead of picking over dictionaries.

  5. GPG permalink

    Thank you for these invaluable clarifications. I long had difficulty making out just exactly what your precise stand was on some of these important issues.

    Thanks again for the clarification.

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