Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? – Larry W. Hurtado

This short book is an introductory response to this question used as title: Why on earth did anyone become a Christian in the first three centuries?

Larry W. Hurtado starts with describing the expansion of Christianity. It quickly spread out in the Roman Empire including all social classes and ages. The numbers were high enough to gain attraction from the Empire.

He then explains the costs of becoming Christian. There are two categories: political and social consequences. The political costs came from the disturbances generated by Christians. For example, Paul created public trouble while preaching in the city of Ephesus or Jerusalem. Local authorities had to deal with this type of issue. Generally, there was no instituted persecutions against Christians at the empire level. It was rather due to “local authorities, and typically generated by pressure from people in a given city or area” (p.56-57). Their goal was not to “execute Christians, but to turn them from what the authorities (and large numbers of the public at large) saw as their perverse and dangerous allegiance.” (p.57). What they sought was not “death but conformity” (p.57).

The social consequences were more common than those due to authorities. The Roman way of life was filled with idolatry. Bowing before the emperors was a sign of submission to the Roman rule. Social occasions were often related to the worship of pagan deities. “In short, birth, death, marriage, the domestic space, civil and wider political life, trades and work, the military, socializing, entertainment, arts, and music were all imbued with religious significance and association with various kinds of divine beings.” (p.75). Being Christian implied being ostracized while dealing with a tormented conscience. The fact that Christians stayed apart from the rest of the society did not help Christian beliefs to be understood. For instance, Christians were accused of incest, cannibalism, and atheism!… therefore reinforcing political and social consequences.

These struggles lead to the original question: why did anyone become a Christian? The author quickly surveys the scholarly work, but refutes the arguments given as primary reasons: miracles, brotherly gathering, etc. Those characteristics existed, but were not distinctive of Christianity. He eventually gave his reasons: beliefs and affection.

Hurtado mentions two specific beliefs. First, the belief in a loving God seeking after His people was foreign to Romans who often saw the highest deity “so transcendent as to be almost entirely inaccessible, and even disinterested in the world and humanity” (p.125). Second, the hope of eternal life was unknown or even foolish. Death was often considered the end. What happens after was considered uncertain. 

Not only intellectual beliefs played an essential role in the conversion of many, but their “affective” implications (p.132). Hurtado uses the example of Phil 3 where Paul exclaims all of his achievements and social status were rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus. The Christian God seemed to be attractive to Christians – enough to endure the consequences of converting to Christianity.

This book is short and easy to read. It does not seek to answer the question exhaustively though. Its purpose is to start the research. I regret the lack of information about the conversion of Jews, the overall lack of details and examples, and the shortness of Hurtado’s answer to the question asked (answer starting p.108 out of 133 pages). However, it is valuable for its new approach and the historical and cultural explanations. Some passages are especially interesting when the author brings biblical passages such as 1 Cor 8 to life through the description of the historical context. It is a book worth reading, and the numerous references to other scholar works are useful if we desire to deepen our knowledge.

 

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