Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods– Part Eleven


BEN: Talk to us about the quote of Tertullian from the end of the chapter. Is this really the beginnings of ‘religious identity should be a matter of personal choice’? Is it also, as Judge suggests, the beginning of the notion of the secular as distinguished from the sacred, including secular identity?

LARRY: In a sense, perhaps, yes. If you de-link “religious identity” from your ethnic identity, civic identity, etc., then the latter is on its way to becoming a “secular” entity/sphere, in the sense of being a thing that doesn’t have a concomitant set of gods and such, but is distinguishable from the religious commitment.

BEN: I like your chapter on ‘bookish’ Christianity, or I would prefer to say ‘sacred text’ Christianity, since it is not just any sort of books they were interested in. I do think that the high volume use of Scripture in so many NT texts not only suggest Jewish Christian origins for most of them (Luke may have first been a God-fearer perhaps), but more importantly, especially when citation is polyglot and dense as in Rom. 9-11 it required not merely a reader to help Gentiles with all that, it required a hermeneut. So it seems to me that the view that Paul sent his co-workers who knew his mind and the contents of the letter, and could deliver and explain things in the letter, seems most probable. It would not be enough simply to have one literate person in a congregation to read a document out. And since there was scriptio continua it would be difficult even for a literate person to do so from a cold start.

Yes, if we have mixed churches of Jews and Gentiles, then the Jews could help the Gentiles with various Scripture references and uses, but again, this would be cold interpretation of what the apostle meant, and frankly, these letters address such urgent issues so very often it seems unlikely that Paul or other early Christian leaders left it to chance that an ‘inductive’ Bible study approach of unprepared listeners would adequately convey the meaning of these documents. I would take the reference to a singular reader, who is distinguished from the hearers plural (Rev. 1.3) as the clue that the normal practice was to hand the document to the reader, who would itinerate through the churches, reading and interpreting the document, not simply handing it over and saying ‘make of it what you can’. Does this comport with how you see the situation? I agree with you that too grand an appeal to orality neglects the ‘bookish’ nature of this movement. The question is— How do sacred texts function in a new religious movement that is part of a largely oral culture and environment where the living voice is preferred (see Papias)?

LARRY; Let me speak simply to your implicit question about how texts such as Paul’s letters may have been read and engaged in early Christian circles. Yes, Paul’s letters can be demanding (as noted in 2 Pet 3:15-16)! Initially, the courier that Paul used (e.g., Timothy) would likely have been expected to unpack and comment on the letter. Thereafter? I don’t know of evidence of itinerant lectors of the kind you propose. I should also say that I stand by “bookish” and not just “sacred text.” For one thing I emphasize the impressive production of new texts of various kinds in early Christian circles. And note, for example, that the third most-frequently-attested text in 2nd-3rd century Christian manuscripts is Shepherd of Hermas, whereas we have only one extant copy of Mark! So, Christians composed, copied, circulated and read LOTS of their books, scriptures and others.