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On Responsible Reviewing of Books

April 25, 2018

Surely, the fundamental responsibility of a book-reviewer is to convey the main point of a book.  Critique?  Fair game.  But critique should be directed accurately.  A recent review of my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World  (Baylor University Press, 2016) falls at this first gate (here).

Journals don’t typically offer authors an opportunity to reply to reviews of their books.  So, I’ll do so here.  I think that an author should have the right to set the record straight.

To be sure, there are some positive comments.  The reviewer grants that Destroyer offers “well-researched” and “engaging” studies of certain features of early Christianity.  It’s a puzzle, however, that he doesn’t convey (and, perhaps didn’t even grasp) the point of the book, which is stated in the opening sentences and then repeated in every chapter:  Early Christianity (in the first three centuries) exhibited some major distinctive features in its Roman-era setting, and these features have now become for us largely unexamined assumptions about “religion.”

Instead, bizarrely, this reviewer imputes to the book some struggle over Constantine and developments in the fourth century and later.  He writes:

“Tellingly, Hurtado never ventures into the details of this later world, and readers may  wonder why.  A critical voice might even ask how it was possible for the author to make an argument about the changes that swept through fourth-century Rome (“destroyer of the gods”) without ever analyzing a shred of fourth-century evidence.”

It would be “telling” that I don’t discuss Constantine and developments in and after the fourth century, if (as the reviewer incorrectly claims) my purpose was to describe the success of Christianity over paganism in that period.   But that isn’t what the book is about.   A truly “critical voice” would have noted that the book isn’t at all about “the changes that swept through fourth-century Rome”!  Ok, a reader who doesn’t recognize the title as actually an allusion to the cry of the crowd in the Martyrdom of Polycarp  (a second-century figure), might be forgiven for making such an initial assumption.  But, surely, then reading the book should clarify what it is actually about!

And the famous letter of Pliny the Younger (early second century, a text discussed in the book) rather clearly shows that already by that point Christians abstaining from the worship of the gods was having worrisome effects for upholders of the traditional cults.  I didn’t need to go into the fourth century to show this conflict.  So I didn’t.

It’s also disappointing to find a few other mischaracterizations of what I wrote.  He accuses me of wanting “to point an accusatory finger at ‘classic liberal forms of modern Christianity'” for often aligning themselves with the dominant culture.  But the citation on p. 7 is from a larger discussion based on Rodney Stark’s empirically-based model that the growth of religious groups requires them to maintain both a certain compatibility with their host cultures and sufficient distinctiveness to mark “a difference between being an insider to the group and an outsider.”  That’s not “an accusatory finger”; it’s just an easily verified observation, that there is a danger to the continuation and growth of a group if it simply aligns itself with the values of the host culture.  On the next page (p. 8), I also cite an example of religious groups that mark themselves off too much from their culture.  There’s no particular vendetta against liberal Christianity in what I wrote.

He also alleges that  in my book “any evidence for Christian cultural compromise in the first three centuries is dismissed  . . . as a marginal phenomenon (p. 58). This is a history of the Church still blinded by Constantine.”  Well, again, more careful reading would have avoided this misleading allegation too.   My book isn’t “a history of the Church,” and Constantine doesn’t come into my subject matter at all.

The page he cites for his allegation (p. 58) is actually part of a larger discussion of how consistent early Gentile Christians (former “pagans”) may have been in practicing the abandonment of “idols” called for by their leaders (from Paul onward).  My own response in the material misleadingly cited is that both Christian and non-Christian evidence of the time (including, again, Pliny’s letter) suggests that the bulk of Christians did pretty much abstain from sacrificing to the gods.  I also acknowledge, however, that the same texts indicate that some Christians took a more flexible policy in the matter.

My point in this discussion wasn’t about “any evidence for Christian cultural compromise,” but, instead, specifically about how commonly Christians withdrew from sacrifice to the pagan gods.  Of course, early Christians negotiated their existence in various ways, and made all sorts of “compromises” with their culture where they could do so without violating what they held as essential.  And how they judged that matter varied, to be sure.  But the reviewer’s absolutist characterization of my discussion is an unhelpful exaggeration.

I repeat:  Reviewers of books are certainly entitled to criticize them, e.g., for errors, for overlooking important evidence or counter-arguments, for ignorance of important relevant studies, for methodological fallacies, etc.  But I also repeat that the first requirement of reviewers should be to grasp and convey the main point of a book, and to represent it accurately.

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18 Comments
  1. Griffin permalink

    Could Pliny be mistranslated? It is odd to hear a good pagan complain about a. “destroyer of the gods.” Since a good pagan would be certain that of course, the gods were immortal and eternal. And therefore, logically, could never be “destroyed.”

    It might seem more likely therefore, whatever his Greek seemed to have literally said, that Pliny really meant to condemn Christianity as say, an “attacker on” the gods. Since surely Pliny knew that no one could destroy them?

    • Griffin: Your comment displays just the sort of lazy and ill-informed speculation that is so unhelpful, and a waste of time. Pliny doesn’t use the expression “destroyer of the gods”. It comes from the Martyrdom of Polycarp (as I have clearly stated). Pliny’s famous letter instead refers to the decline in the revenues of the temples, their decline in attendance, etc., and blames it on Christians. But he professes that by his firm efforts against Christians he can restore the old religious situation. Please: Don’t waste our time by speculating about things without even reading the text in question. Oh, and in the ancient world, to refuse to sacrifice to gods was to “destroy” them. Gods “live” in the sacrificial cult.

  2. Professor Hurtado,

    In one of the talks you gave on Destroyer of the Gods (video here), you said that using the codex as the preferred book form for their Scriptures was a deliberate countercultural move by earliest Christians. The critic Celsus accused Christian evangelists of corrupting Roman households and society from the bottom up by proselytizing slaves, women and children, and Christians of being generally low-class, ill-educated and credulous.

    I’m curious 1). Is the preference for codex perhaps a reflection of the demography of earliest Christians? and 2) When Christianity later became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, is there a corresponding change in manuscript materials and other Christian artifacts dated to the period?

    • Nemo: I’ve discussed the issues surrounding early Christian use/preference for the codex in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts. A whole chapter on the matter.

  3. GUstavo permalink

    Hello, excuse my english I am from Argentine.
    My question for Dr Hurtado is about his view about Jesus.

    You said Jesus did not say about himself he was the Messiah; but the important thing is what God Said about Jesus.

    Do you personally think Jesus is the Messiah?

    Thanks From Argentina

    • Gustavo: Yours in a question of personal religious belief, not a historical question. This site is about historical questions.

  4. I was told that writing book reviews and getting them into journals was a way of boosting one’s CV, so is it possible that this review was not written by someone who had the proper credentials to review your book?

    • Actually, book reviewers are usually invited/solicited by the book review editors of journals. Usually, they’re invited because they’re thought to have some expertise related to the book. This reviewer did have a relevant expertise. He just didn’t read the book with any care . . . or something else went wrong.

  5. Professor Hurtado,

    You wrote, “Reviewers of books are certainly entitled to criticize them, e.g., for errors, for overlooking important evidence or counter-arguments, for ignorance of important relevant studies, for methodological fallacies“.

    What is a methodological fallacy? Could you give a few examples of the common or distinctive methodological fallacies in the field of NT studies? I suspect taking the Jesus-movement out of the context of second-temple Judaism is one, but I can’t pinpoint exactly why such an approach constitute a fallacy.

    • Methodological fallacies might include using a 4th century AD source as “background” for a 1st century text. Or positing an emperor cult in Jerusalem as a way of explaining the treatment of Jesus as divine. Or . . . well, I hope you get the idea.

      • Professor Hurtado,

        Thanks for the examples. I also found your essay “Fashions, Fallacies and Futures in NT studies” very helpful.

        Now let’s see if I get the idea: A methodological fallacy is a fallacious hypothesis/theory that is 1) not supported by evidence and 2) likely shaped by the proponent’s cultural, religious or political predispositions. If this is correct, is the notion about the “wild” transmission of NT writings in the first two centuries also a methodological fallacy?

      • Nemo: Methodological fallacies can be of various types, beyond the examples I gave. The claim of a “wild” early text of the Gospels largely rests on (1) the citations of NT texts in early writers such as Justin, and (2) a general sense that makes the idea plausible. I would identify as a methodological fallacy the use of evidence in (1). That is, it is a methodological fallacy to confuse citation-practice with copying-practice. The two are manifestly different, and citations can be used as witnesses to a given text only with great care and reservation.

      • Professor Hurtado,

        Things seem so absurdly simple after you’ve explained them. 🙂 It makes me wonder why so many folks fall for this type of fallacy.

        I have a silly question. My apology if you’ve addressed it before, but I haven’t come across it: How do we know whether a fragment containing a few words or lines is the work of a copyist, or a quoter, or a student taking class notes (e.g. of Aristotle)?

      • We make a judgement about a fragment based on the data: If text on both sides, it’s likely part of a page of a codex, not a roll. If a “book hand,” it’s likely from a copy intended for serious usage; if a scrawl, and on re-used papyrus, likely a cheap personal copy. Etc. Papyrology is the discipline.

  6. Your book is added to my bucket list.

  7. “I repeat: Reviewers of books are certainly entitled to criticize them, e.g., for errors, for overlooking important evidence or counter-arguments, for ignorance of important relevant studies, for methodological fallacies, etc. But I also repeat that the first requirement of reviewers should be to grasp and convey the main point of a book, and to represent it accurately.” –
    Yes. I self-published a Christian non-fiction book and I accepted most critique just fine. It was fair. However ONE reviewer so very much irked me!! For similar reasons you give – they expected my book to be something I never intended for it. They somehow missed my main point. It was like they reviewed the book they thought I SHOULD HAVE written, rather than the book I actually wrote! This person was a good acquaintance, and I tried to dialogue with them without success. They could not seem to “get it”. They accused me of having thin skin, among other things. This review still really bothers me. I need to get over it!! haha.

  8. Hugh Scott permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    As a frequent reader of your books, may I venture a comment on the last paragraph of your posting here. (I bought your 2010 book “God in New Testament Theology” three weeks ago, and I have read it right through three times, with the greatest profit.)

    The point I wish to make is that reviewers (those on ‘amazon’ certainly) are invited (in fact requirwed by ‘amazon’) to assign a value judgment on the ‘worth-to-the reader’ of the book beng reviewed. I therefore feel it i must amplify, or clarify, the point you make in the last sentence of your posting,,by my adding to it that “the first requirement of reviewers should be to grasp and convey the main points of a book and to represent it accurately”,IN ORDER TO JUSTIFY THEIR VALUE JUDGMENT. .[Forgive my capitals: My computer is clumsy at italicising.]

    So the main purpose of a reviewer may be to give a one-star warning that the book’s point is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, and not merely or mainlyt to tell the reader that the subject-matter of the book is true and worth his time and money (5-star).

  9. I *hate* this kind of thing: It makes my world wobble, and I don’t like a wobbly world.

    Bad enough when students misunderstand lectures and readings–as is evident this time of year especially that they do. (“HOW could you not GET that? It’s so clear!” etc.) But when properly credentialed colleagues demonstrate that they cannot, or will not, apply hermeneutical discipline to their presuppositions and projects, and insist instead on co-opting whatever they read to fit their worldview and advance their agenda, one wonders how one can ever communicate with anyone who doesn’t already agree…which drastically limits the good one can hope to do in one’s small efforts in scholarship.

    I’m glad you published this rejoinder, Larry. But I also hate it.

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