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.
Hi David I really appreciate your balanced and moderate comments, which is why I subscribe to your blog emails. For once I am moved to comment on one (!!) I speak as one with a PhD (1976), but it’s in occupational psychology (which is a world removed from theology), and I’ve never worked as an academic either – and now I’m retired from business as well. But I want to suggest an answer to this crucial question from the perspective of an evangelical, charismatic disciple of Jesus. My answer is this: It’s partly to do with predestination. On the free will side of the argument, I suggest that people in the first three centuries responded to the Holy Spirit’s call for experiential reasons – they realised that, whatever the cost, being able to have a relationship with God, through Christ, was worth going for. In today’s world, perhaps there are similarities with Moslems who follow Christ even though they know before they make the decision to go public about their ‘conversion’ that they will likely suffer persecution. I hope these thoughts may inform your questions for further study. Sincerely Gordon Lickfold
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