Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World

Article excerpt

Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. By Larry W. Hurtado. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. 2016. Pp. xiv, 290. $29.95. ISBN: 978-1-4813-0473-3.)

After Constantine, the changes that befell Rome guaranteed a lasting place for the emperor in histories of the Church. For Eusebius, he upended a way of life: ransacking sanctuaries, granting Christians tax privileges, banning sacrifice. For some modern historians, from Rodney Stark to Peter Brown, Romans flocked to Christianity in the decades following. Constantine looms over Larry Hurtado's new book, as well. In his retelling, "Constantine adopted Christianity likely because it had already become so successful despite earlier efforts to destroy the movement" (p. 5).

What "success" has meant for groups throughout history, of course, has always been in the eye of the beholder: from numerical increase to a welcome acceptance. Hurtado inclines towards the former. In his view, a "combination of the power of persuasion, whether in preaching, intellectual argument, 'miracles' exhibiting the power of Jesus' name, and simply the moral suasion of Christian behavior, including martyrdom" ensured "the growth of Christianity in the first three centuries" (p. 5). Those "first three centuries" are a crucial frame for his project, too. Traditionally seen as the period when Christian Scripture was slowly being compiled, the period before the Edict of Milan is a unit of time that still carries heavy theological baggage: imagined by many Christian denominations today as an age of purity before Constantine's political compromises.

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.

What Hurtado's book offers, instead, is a series of well-researched looks into behaviors that would have made early Christians seem "distinct" to those around them. …

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