Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods– Part Five

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BEN: One of the interesting points you make about Pliny’s famous reference to Christians is that he apparently knows about persecution, prosecution etc. of Christians elsewhere in the Empire, but he is not sure how to proceed in his own province– hence the letter. You also make the important point that the remedy that Pliny uses (namely worshipping the Emperor, cursing Christ etc.) indicates that there was something especially problematic with early Christian worship and its focus on Christ. In other words, early Christians were not just anti-social, they were seen as a threat to the official polytheism in the contours of what they believed about the divine. Who do you think was reporting Christians to the authorities, or taking them to court?

LARRY: I don’t get the impression that early Christians were particularly secretive! How could you hide for long your reluctance to participate in the rites devoted to the pagan gods, when practically any social activity involved this? So the question is why people denounced Christians. One reason may be hinted at in Pliny’s letter, where he claims that his vigorous efforts against Christians will restore the economic activities associated with the pagan shrines/temples. Temples in the ancient Roman setting were the centers of a web of economic activities and livelihoods. So, denouncing what they stood for, or even withdrawing from pagan rituals, could be seen as a threat to the livelihoods of various individuals, who might well demand that local government officials take appropriate action. There may also have been denunciations from motives of religious “rivalry,” perhaps Jewish individuals or leaders who regarded the Christians as some kind of renegades who cast a bad light on Judaism.

BEN: I think you are right that we can tell a lot about the strong reaction of some Jews to earliest Christianity from closely examining what Paul says about himself and his past, and surely he was not the only Jew who reacted that way, and persecuted Christians. Indeed, he seems to have gotten a dose of his own medicine once he was the apostle who kept going to synagogues, and receiving the 39 lashes. In my view, there has been too much attempt to avoid the idea that some Jews persecuted some Christians in the first century (including being partially responsible for Jesus ending up in the hands of an anti-Semitic Roman governor named Pilate). I suspect that some of this is an over-reaction to the anti-Semitism of a good deal of Christian scholarship and indeed general Christian belief and praxis for many centuries in previous eras. Would you agree?

LARRY: Given the heinous consequences of anti-Semitism, I don’t know that there can be an over-reaction to it. I will refrain from ascribing any motive to scholars in the question of how much Jews “persecuted” adherents of the Jesus-movement. I published an article on the subject some years ago: “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion” (republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus 152-78). I emphasize that, at least in the early stages and mainly, any such opposition was directed against fellow Jews who were adherents of the Jesus-movement. When we say “Jews persecuted Christians,” that can too easily be mistaken to mean that Jews persecution gentile Christians. But, as your examples of Paul persecuting and then himself being flogged show, these actions were by Jews against other Jews whom they must have regarded as somehow endangering the religious integrity of the Jewish people.

You can find Larry’s book at Baylor UP website: http://baylorpr.es/sHurtado