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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Larry Hurtado’s (non-apocalyptic) Destroyer of the gods

If we are going to read the New Testament as historical narrative, we have to have some sense of historical context. The church, on the whole, is not interested in historical context. The Bible is mostly treated as a self-contained, self-sufficient sacred text. In a recent comment Travis Finley wrote: “My hermeneutic ultimately depends upon a primacy of the uniformity of scripture; that is, the reader ought to be able to interpret the meaning of the text from the primary text itself, rather than extra-biblical.”

That perhaps suggests a high view of scripture, but it is also going to be, more often than not, a protectionist strategy. We are afraid that if we make scripture transparent to its literary-historical environment, our cherished interpretations of it—whether traditional or idiosyncratic—will be put at risk.

It seems to me that the so-called Theological Interpretation of Scripture is an attempt to safeguard the assumed theological content of the Bible against the historicalisation (for want of a better word) entailed, for example, in historical Jesus studies or the new perspectives on Paul. The fear is that if we break down the hermeneutical wall of division that separates scripture from contemporary texts—and from history in general—the central evangelical content will just get trampled under foot.

If we do not tear down the dividing wall and allow the New Testament to stand as bare historical witness in its context and according to its context, it will sooner or later lose its evangelical power in our own world.

I think that fear is unfounded. In fact, I would argue that we are getting to the point where the opposite is the case: if we do not tear down the dividing wall and allow the New Testament to stand as bare historical witness in its context and according to its context, it will sooner or later lose its evangelical power in our own world.

So a book like Larry Hurtado’s recently published Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World is an excellent resource. The so-called narrative-historical approach to the New Testament requires us not only to take account of the Jewish story leading up to Jesus and the emergence of the church. We also have to consider how the story progressed from there.

A lecture given by Hurtado at the Lanier Theological Library entitled “A New and Mischievous Superstition: Early Christianity in the Roman World” presents the central thesis of the book. It can be viewed here.

My only complaint is that the book doesn’t entirely live up to its bold, attention-grabbing title. Frankly, I was expecting something a bit more… well, apocalyptic from the phrase “destroyer of the gods”. The subtitle is a more accurate indicator of what the book is mostly about.

Chapter 1 is a summary of Jewish and pagan reactions to Christianity in the first two centuries, and here we get some sense of an epoch-changing political-religious narrative unfolding. Take this summary of Celsus’ censure of the growing movement, for example:

If masses of people followed the Christians in their madness…, this would provoke the wrath of the gods and the social and political order would fall into anarchy and chaos. (31-32)

The next four chapters examine the main areas of religious distinctiveness: a new kind of faith, characterised by its vehement opposition to idolatry and “programmatic inclusion of Jesus as central” to belief and practice; a different religious identity; a remarkable “bookishness”, demonstrated not only by reverence for the scriptures but also by the “extraordinary composition of an abundance of new texts”; and a new way to live: “early Christianity represented a distinctive kind of social effort to reshape behaviour” (172).

“Destroyer of the gods” presumably refers to Christianity as a new religious movement rather than to the God of the biblical tradition or Jesus. But I would have expected the historical trajectory—the defeat of paganism—to have left its mark on the theological content of this new kind of faith and in particular on the account of the significance of Jesus as risen Lord.

Hurtado’s argument about Jesus will be familiar to many. He makes the claim, first, that the Jesus-movement began as a “mutation” in ancient Jewish tradition, having to do especially with how “Jesus featured in the beliefs and practices that comprised the devotional pattern that characterized early Christian circles” (68). Hurtado has labelled this a “dyadic” devotional pattern.

The earliest claim was that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that he was the “unique agent of God’s redemptive purposes” and a “unique intercessor before God” (69). Hurtado makes the point from Romans 10:9-13 that it was incumbent not only upon Gentiles but also upon Jews to confess that Jesus was now Lord. To refuse to do so, in Paul’s view, was a matter of “blind disobedience to God” (70).

‘Jewish believers in Jesus such as Paul,’ Hurtado writes, ‘clearly seem to have felt that the gospel announced a decisive new act of God in which Jesus was now made the one whom all, Jews and non-Jews, were to “call upon” and recognize as Lord’ (71).

The peculiarly “dyadic” nature of earliest Christian belief is also evident in Paul’s expansion of the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Paul has combined here the “exclusivity of Paul’s Jewish tradition with the duality that distinguished earliest Christian faith” (71). Hurtado summarises:

In short, we have here a splendid and concise example of how the ancient Jewish confession of the uniqueness of the one God appears to have been adapted and widened, so to speak, to accommodate Jesus as a second distinguishable figure who, nevertheless, is uniquely linked with the one God and with a corresponding universal role. (72)

That’s all fine, but what puzzles me is that in a book that has in view the transformation of the Roman world, the destruction of the old pagan system, so little is said about the future orientation of Jesus’ lordship, the apocalyptic dimension.

Paul’s Maranatha appeal in 1 Corinthians 16:22 is mentioned in passing as evidence that in ‘Aramaic-speaking (Jewish) circles… the corporate worship gathering included the act of invoking Jesus as “Lord”’ (72). But nothing is made of the “coming”—the parousia-moment when Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations and the churches would be publicly vindicated for having put their faith in this new future.

Certainly, Jesus was the agent of redemption and intercessor for the persecuted communities of his followers, but the lordship motif reaches back, as I argued in the previous post, to prominent Old Testament narratives (notably Pss. 2, 110; Is. 45; Dan. 7) about the eventual rule of Israel’s God over the idolatrous nations.

It became an explicit and leading part of New Testament expectation that as “Lord” Jesus was also the one appointed to judge and rule over both the people of God and the nations, the Jew and the Greek, at some point in a historically relevant and foreseeable future.

I don’t understand why this crucial, pervasive, obtrusive strand of New Testament thought is missing from Hurtado’s account of the new kind of faith of a movement that would prove so destructive of the gods.

Image of Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

On Amazon (US):

Larry W. Hurtado
Baylor University Press (2016), Hardcover, 304 pages, $29.95

Comments

Andrew,

Haven’t read your post yet -outside their paragraph, and this statement jumped out immediately.

The church, on the whole, doesn’t teach historical context. The Bible is mostly treated as a self-contained, self-sufficient sacred text

This is so accurate it actually made me verbally agree out loud. :)

ok, now to give it a read.

Thanks for the attention to my recent book. As to your critique, my impression is that you wanted more of an exposition of early Christian theology, whereas I wrote a book about the historical phenomena that distinguished early Christianity in its early Roman context. The “apocalyptic” dimension, the notion that Christ would come to reign over all, is certainly a feature of early Christian preaching/teaching. But the phenomena that I discuss just happen to be the factors commented on by observers of that time, and/or are features of early Christianity that set it apart in the context of the religious plurality of the Roman world.

Well, that was a nice surprise, Larry. Thank you for taking the trouble to respond.

Actually, what I had been looking for was less an “exposition of early Christian theology” than a sense of how—or whether—apocalyptic expectations generated in the New Testament period were used in the second century to account for the “triumph” of Christianity over the pagan gods. As I said in the piece, I thought that was where the excellent “destruction of the gods” phrase was heading, but perhaps I got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

I appreciate the fact that the book largely explains the destruction of the gods as a consequence of a set of historical phenomena that distinguished the Jesus movement in the Roman period. I found that a very helpful emphasis.

But if the story of the book is the story of how Christianity conquered the Roman world, eventually getting “imperial approval” from Constantine (5), I don’t see why you didn’t make more of the fact that just such an ambition was inherent in the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship. The conversion of the empire was an event very much like that envisaged in Isaiah’s appeal to the “ends of the earth” to abandon their “wooden idols” because “there is no other god besides me”, etc. (Is. 45:20-21). Isn’t that the sort of scenario that lay behind the affirmation of Jesus’s lordship in Philippians 2:9-11?

So would it not count as a distinctive feature of Christian faith that they believed that their God had fixed a day on which he would judge the idolatrous Greek-Roman world by a man whom he had appointed—in effect, as “Lord”—of which he had “given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31)?

Wasn’t the “destruction of the gods” not merely a consequence of the phenomena that you describe but part of the program from the start and a key component of the confession that Jesus had been made Lord?

Surely that sort of apocalyptic conviction set early Christianity apart from—and very much at odds with—“the religious plurality of the Roman world”?

Andrew: I fear that you may have approached my book with expectations bound to be disappointed. The book isn’t an account of how or why Christianity “won” or succeeded, but simply how, in that early setting, it was odd, different, distinctive, bizarre.
And BTW, “destroyer of the gods” is taken from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. When he is brought into the arena, the crowd shouts “this is the father of the Christians, the destroyer of our gods.” Their cry reflects the early Christian refusal to honor the traditional deities.

It says on the back cover, though, that the book will tell us “How Christianity destroyed one world—and created another”. I hadn’t noticed that before, but it sounds very “apocalyptic” to me, and surely goes some way towards excusing my misplaced expectation that the book would be about how Christianity “won” or “succeeded”. But I take your point. And thank you for pointing out of the source of the phrase.

Andrew you wrote, “It became an explicit and leading part of New Testament expectation that as “Lord” Jesus was also the one appointed to judge and rule over both the people of God and the nations, the Jew and the Greek, at some point in a historically relevant and foreseeable future.”

Are you saying that prior to Jesus, although Yahweh would judge both his people and foreign nations, he was satisfied to rule over the Jewish people. But the scope changed when Jesus was given authority over ALL people?

That statement reflects the historical process that we see in Acts—the development between Peter’s address to the “men of Israel” in his Pentecost speech and Paul’s address to the “men of Athens” in his Areopagus speech.

But the expectation that God would not only judge the hostile and unjust nations but also rule over them in the age to come is widely attested in the Old Testament and second temple writings. I especially like Psalm 82:8: “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” YHWH will judge the earth and inherit the nations from the worthless gods.