Destroyer of the Gods
by larry hurtado
baylor, 304 pages, $19.95
Three professors at a prestigious divinity school recently gathered around a table for a panel discussion. Their topic is perennially popular, especially in springtime: What exactly happened on that first Easter? Two of the professors were New Testament scholars, the third a patristics expert. When New Testament scholars agreed on the improbability of some of the details of the synoptic accounts, the third demurred: “I’m not a New Testament scholar, so I believe lots more than they do.”
Larry Hurtado was one of the NT scholars at the table, and he gets the joke. It turns on an inverse correlation between knowledge and belief, and pokes fun at a guild mentality. And yet while Hurtado respects the norms of his guild, he is determined to guide those of us outside it to a more robust appreciation of Christianity as a historical phenomenon and a faith. This is a rare combination. Hurtado is far from the first to take on the daunting task of explaining the character and appeal of early Christianity, but he is among the most qualified to do so this century. He proves that much remains to be said of Christianity’s origins, and he reminds us of several tensions at the heart of the faith—first-century tensions we still discuss in the twenty-first.
As his book’s title suggests, the spread of Christianity involved both destruction and construction. Historically, it was the destructive tendency of Jesus’s movement that troubled Greco-Roman contemporaries. Destroyer begins by re-establishing the essential strangeness of the Jesus movement. It’s worth noting that the Christians entered the Western literary tradition in infamy. Writing about a generation after the author of Acts, the Roman historian Tacitus introduces Christianos as a shady bunch devoted to a Judean criminal executed during the reign of Tiberius. This Christus inspired a “pernicious superstition” that broke out like a…