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Destroyer of the gods: Peppard’s Review

August 8, 2017

I’m a bit tardy in acknowledging the review of my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, by Michael Peppard (Fordham University) in America 31 July here.  It’s a thoughtful review informed by Peppard’s own expertise in the Roman world of early Christianity.

He rightly raises questions about how solidly Christians of the first three centuries actually maintained the religious exclusivity demanded and professed in early Christian texts, and he points to what he admits are only partial analogies of some features of early Christianity in other religious movements of the time.  I’m grateful that he also notes that I acknowledge these issues in the book.  For I don’t claim that all Christians always abstained from reverencing the many gods of the time.  It is evident from the evidence that Christians then negotiated their existence in various ways, and that there were sometimes bitter disagreements among them over how to do so.  But it does appear that a sufficient critical mass of Christians were sufficiently exclusive in their worship-practices to draw the criticism of them in the writings of pagan critic-observers.  Moreover, whatever decision that early Christians made about the gods, my larger point is that Christians had to make such decisions–something not required of people generally in the Roman world, certainly not required of adherents of other new religious movements of the day.

Peppard kindly praises my chapters on the religious stance of early Christianity, and on their considerable dedication to the composition, copying and distribution of texts.  He also engages helpfully my chapter in which I argue that early Christianity may have invented what we would call a “religious identity” distinguishable from one’s ethnicity.  As he notes, “identity” became a major buzzword and academic focus a couple of decades ago and the topic draws in various disciplines, and so opens out into a possible exploration that could go very wide indeed.

My point in that chapter is rather more simple by comparison:  That early Christians were to abandon the gods of their family, city, and nation, and yet were to remain members of their family, city, and nation, while confining their worship to the one deity of the Christian gospel.  The Jewish proselyte by comparison is described precisely as one who abandoned his family and nation, and becomes a member of the Jewish ethnos.  So, early Christianity introduced a practical distinction between one’s ethnicity and one’s religious commitment that seems to have been novel.  And we now take it for granted that ethnicity and religious affiliation are two distinguishable matters.

I’m grateful for Peppard’s probing discussion of these and other matters.  But I’m not sure that I can agree with his final statements: “Here then was ‘early Christian distinctiveness’: to be known as that weird group of Jews and sympathizers who decided that a convicted and crucified peasant was worthy of worship as God. Every other point of a compare-and-contrast essay pales by comparison.”

Peppard points to the famous Palatine graffito where someone (likely a pagan) scrawled a donkey’s headed figure on a cross, and ridiculed an Alexamenos (likely a Christian) for worshiping this figure, derisively referred to as “his god”  (see the Wikepedia entry here).  Surely, pagans found the gospel of a crucified savior bizarre.  But, simply to judge from the larger body of evidence of pagan observers of early Christianity, I think we have to say that the most objectionable feature was the abandonment of the traditional gods, the exclusivity of early Christian worship.  Celsus, for example, expressed a readiness to overlook everything else if Christians would only return to the gods.

But I conclude by expressing again my gratitude to Peppard for his irenic and stimulating review.

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