The Distinctiveness of Early Christianity

Larry W. Hurtado

In the plentiful cafeteria of religious options available in the first three centuries, early Christianity stands out. This was truly a time of religious diversity and development that included the traditional Roman and Greek pantheons, of course, as well as the deities of the various other peoples and localities encompassed in the Roman Empire. Among the latter were city gods (such as Artemis of Ephesus), and deities of areas such as Phrygia, Syria, and Egypt. There were also lesser divinities of families and households, and even spiritual beings thought to be linked to such specific sites as bridges and kitchens. Additionally, there were new (and refashioned) religious movements aplenty. The title of a book on Roman-era religion captured well the overall religious situation: it was “A World Full of Gods” (Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999]).

So, on the one hand, early Christianity appeared as only one option among many, and only one new religious movement among others. To use another metaphor, early Christianity entered “the ‘traffic’ as a new movement on a very crowded and well-traveled highway of religious activity.” (I lift the phrasing here from my somewhat fuller discussion of “The Religious Environment” of early Christianity in my book, At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion [Eerdmans, 1999], 7 [7-38].) On the other hand, early Christianity was quite distinctive in that setting, even in the diverse and pluralized religious options of the time. Indeed, for many observers then, it was objectionably different, and seen as even a serious threat to Roman-era piety, to family solidarity, and to society. In my recent book, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), I focus on several features of early Christianity that made it unusual, even odd, in the first three centuries. I also note that these same features have become cultural commonplaces for us, through the influence of Christianity in Western culture. In this essay, I can only touch on a few of the matters discussed more fully in this book.

Early Christian Impiety

The first thing to emphasize is that early Christianity was often criticized as impiety, even atheism. Here’s why. In the Roman world, in principle all gods are valid and so deserve worship (sacrifice). Traditionalist Romans might object to the importation of foreign gods into Rome, and might consider the religious practices of some other nations strange or even odious. But they did not call into question that the gods of the various peoples were real and valid recipients of worship, at least by the nations to which they were attached. The gods guarded families, cities, and the Empire, and so reverencing them was a key way of demonstrating social solidarity and of contributing to the health and stability of one’s various social circles. To refuse to worship a god was a serious matter. It was deemed an anti-social action, and could even generate the charge of atheism.

Early Christians, however, were expected to turn away from worshiping the various “pagan” gods, all of them, and to confine their worship to “the true and living God and … his Son … Jesus” (1 Thess 1:9-10). Christians were to regard all the other deities as “idols,” a derisive term inherited from Jewish tradition and signifying their unworthiness to be treated as gods. The early Christian stance did not so much involve denying the existence of the pagan gods. Instead, it was the validity of worshiping them that was the issue. Paul, for example, referred to the various pagan deities as “demons,” unworthy beings, and declared that worshiping these beings was incompatible with devotion to the one true God (1 Cor 10:14-22).

This early Christian “cultic exclusivity” was, of course, inherited from the Jewish matrix in which the Jesus-movement emerged. But, generally it seems, pagans regarded the Jewish abstaining from worshiping the pagan gods simply as a particularly singular and annoying feature of Jewish ethnicity. So far as most pagans were concerned, every nation had its own peculiarities, and Jews more so! But Jewish “cultic exclusivity” was, in the main, tolerated. Jews did not typically denounce the gods, and did not try to encourage their cultic exclusivity among pagans.

The early Christian movement, however, quickly became trans-ethnic, increasingly recruiting adherents from the larger pagan population. So, upon their conversion to Christian faith, individuals who had formerly taken part readily in the worship of the deities of their families, cities, and nation suddenly refused to continue to do so. But in the eyes of their society, these former pagans had no right to act in this manner. Their shift in religious practice represented what many took to be a worrying break with their previous social ties. And if the welfare of families and cities depended on keeping the gods happy (especially with sacrifices), the secession of Christian converts from their former religious practices could even be perceived as endangering their wider social circles.

We also have to recognize the ubiquitous place of the gods in the Roman era. In addition to daily reverence of one’s household deities, there were gods acknowledged in practically any significant social setting. City council meetings opened with acknowledging the tutelary deity/deities. Guilds and associations typically had patron deities. Dinners were held in honor of this or that deity, functioning also as social occasions.

So, conscientious Christians in that setting had to consider how to negotiate a wide range of social activities and settings. We see this in Paul’s extended, and somewhat intricate directions to his pagan converts in Corinth (1 Cor 8—10). But a consistent abstention from joining in worshiping the pagan gods could not avoid readily the criticism that it amounted to impiety, and even atheism (as reflected in Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.2).

I emphasize that, among the various new religious movements of the time, such as the so-called mystery cults, early Christianity was unique in this “cultic exclusivity.” One could be a devotee of Isis or Mithras without it having any effect on one’s obligations to the various other gods of your family, city, or nation. But to be a conscientious Christian required a radical break with one’s previous religious activities. In our modern “secular” cultures, it will require an effort to grasp adequately the extent of the consequences for early Christians of the demand that they abstain from “idolatry.” And we may take it for granted, today, that there is only one “God” to believe in or to doubt, but that only reflects how much our assumptions have been shaped by the influence of Christianity.

A New “Religious Identity”

I propose also that this early Christian stance amounted to a novel kind of “religious identity.” Typically, in the Roman world one’s gods were conferred at birth and were part and parcel of one’s ties to family, city, and nation. In our terms, one’s “religious identity” was connected to one’s social and ethnic identity. As a particular reflection of the link between gods and ethnicity, pagans who became Jewish proselytes were expected to depart from their families and join themselves to the Jewish people, taking on a new ethnicity along with their adopted religious stance and exclusive commitment to the Jewish deity.

But pagan converts to early Christianity were not required to sever their ties to families and their people. They remained Greeks, or Egyptians, or Phrygians, or Galatians, for example. But they were to desist from their traditional gods, confining their religious commitment to the one God proclaimed in the Christian gospel, and they were to identify themselves as devotees of this deity exclusively. This, I contend, amounted to a novel distinction between ethnicity and religious identity.

In modern societies, there are periodic censuses of the population, in which we may be asked to indicate in one question our ethnic identity, and in another question our religious affiliation. This reflects the notion that one’s religious identity is distinguishable from one’s ethnicity. We take this now for granted, but in the ancient Roman world it was a rather novel notion. And it appears that in early Christianity we see the first appearance of this notion.

Social and Political Consequences

The distinctiveness of early Christianity in that ancient Roman setting meant that there could be serious social and political consequences of being a Christian then. (I discussed these matters initially in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus [Eerdmans, 2005], 56-82: “To Live and Die for Jesus: Social and Political Consequences of Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.”) These could include tension, harassment and even ostracism from family and friends, and similar difficulties in wider social and vocational ties. Moreover, in some cases, Christians were denounced to local authorities, and this could result in serious judicial consequences.

In an oft-cited letter to the Emperor Trajan written ca. 110 CE, the newly appointed governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny “the Younger,” relates his handling of Christians denounced to him (English translation with brief notes in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed. J. Stevenson [SPCK, 1974], 13-15; and Trajan’s reply, 16). If they denied being Christians and were willing to comply with his demands that they reverence the traditional gods and, particularly noteworthy, if they were willing to curse Christ, Pliny let them go. As to those who refused, if they were Roman citizens, he sent them off to Rome for disposition. Those of lower social levels, he executed.

The key question, of course, is why Pliny took such firm measures. Part of the answer may be given in his references to the decline in attendance and offerings in the pagan temples, and his assurance to Trajan that his handling of the Christians will rectify this. That is, in at least this case, Christian disengagement with the pagan gods (and perhaps also their denunciation of “idols”) appears to have generated serious anger that led to Christians being denounced to the governor. In short, these early Christians were perceived to be a social and an economic threat.

A fascinating early Christian text that particularly reflects a concern to avoid social tensions while, nevertheless, maintaining Christian distinctiveness, is The Epistle to Diognetus (Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. [Baker Academic, 2007], 686-719). The author insists that Christians eat the same food, wear the same clothing, and in many respects live as others, and so, in so far as possible, seek to avoid social tension with pagan neighbors. But, equally firmly, the author declares the particularities of Christian faith in the one God and in Christ, and some of the behavioral requirements of Christians as well, that set them off against their prior pagan history. From a slightly earlier time, 1 Peter likewise counsels early Christian readers how to behave in circumstances where they may be harassed or even brought before authorities on account of their Christian faith.

Given that Christian faith uniquely generated such social and political consequences, we might well ask why people became adherents. They could become followers of Isis or any of the other voluntary religious movements of the time without suffering such consequences. Only early Christian faith required converts to absent themselves from worshiping the gods. In another recent book, I have posed directly the question of why people chose to become Christians in that setting (Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? [Marquette University Press, 2016]). Scholars have often noted the spread and growth of early Christianity, but it is only when we take adequate account of the negative consequences of becoming a Christian then that we can perceive more clearly how remarkable that growth was.

We must presume that there were factors in early Christianity that made it sufficiently attractive and meaningful that individuals judged it worth the negative consequences attending to becoming an adherent. I am not sure myself that we scholars have done justice to this topic. It is clear that there were similarities of early Christianity to other voluntary associations of the Roman world, but the social and political consequences of being a Christian were not shared by adherents of other religious movements. So, there must have been positive, distinctive features of early Christianity that drew converts and that compensated for the social and political costs of being a Christian.

These distinctive features likely included emphases in early Christian beliefs and behavioral teachings. For example, the emphasis on the Christian deity as motivated by love for humans seems to have been novel, and was likely meaningful for many (and ridiculous in the eyes of some others). In sum, despite the considerable body of scholarly work on early Christianity, I think that there is more to be done to appreciate adequately what becoming a Christian in the first three centuries involved, and how Christian faith then was a very different and distinctive phenomenon.

Posted Oct 05, 2016