I recently received a book by my friend, colleague, and co-conspirator in the Early High Christology Club, Larry Hurtado. The book is entitled Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016). It is the published version of his Marquette Lecture in Theology in 2016. As with everything Hurtado does, the book is well researched and well written steering clear of claiming too much or too little from the evidence he cites. He is a sober and careful historian of early Christianity.
The driving question or “big idea” of the book comes down to this question: given the serious social and political consequences of choosing to identify with the Jesus movement, why did anyone make that choice in the first three centuries (AD or CE, if you prefer)? Now this question is distinct from the one posed by Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity, [Princeton University Press, 1996]): How did an insignificant, mustard-seed-sized movement from the fringes of the empire grow to eventually displace the dominant religions in the Roman and Mediterranean world? While Stark’s question is important on a macro-level, Hurtado drills deeper into the personal and individual choices a person made in order to become a Christian in those early centuries.
Hurtado begins with a brief analysis of the kinds of diversity expressed in early Christianity. Evidence for this is seen throughout the New Testament and extra-canonical Christian and pagan texts. Then he turns his attention to the growth of the Christian movement from its Judean and Galilean origins throughout the Roman empire east and west. The largest section of the book deals with the “Costs and Consequences” to individuals of what it meant to join the Christian movement. People lost a great deal (socially, economically, relationally, politically) for choosing to throw their lot in with the Jesus believers and Hurtado asks the question: Why?
In the end Hurtado does not think he answers the question sufficiently in this little book (133 pages), but he argues persuasively that it is a question worth posing. I have little doubt he will inspire others to think, research and write on the topic. It conjures up for me a variety of questions which could be the topic of papers and further study.
The book is worth buying and reading if you have interest in Christian origins. Hurtado’s academic career has been given to understanding various aspects of early Christianity: its devotion to Jesus, its book culture, its distinctive features, among other things.