BEN: The more I think about what is truly distinctive about earliest Christianity, which helps explain all the other things you are pointing to, including the bookishness of the group, it is that these early Christians were on a mission to redeem the world, both Jew and Gentile. They believed the world was lost, and they believed they had been commissioned to evangelize the whole known world, starting from Jerusalem. While other features of early Christianity are distinctive, but not totally unique, I know of exactly no early religion that was as aggressively evangelizing on behalf of its beliefs, praxis, and ethics than early Christianity. But also, as a result that, it was all about forming viable communities of disciples and training them up in their scriptures. This explains the mass production of documents, it explains a good deal of their distinctive ideas as well. They could not rely on the connection between ethnicity and religion in the ancient world because they were not part of a single ethnos. Nor could they rely on the mere curiosity of some ancients about voluntary forms of religion. No, they had to go out and make disciples, preaching and then teaching. Would you agree?
LARRY: There certainly was a strong sense of having a divine mission and mandate to promote their faith. Certainly, the combination of aggressive propagation, together with the demand for cultic exclusivity, together mark off early Christianity from all other “new religious movements” of the time.
BEN: I noticed as well that you, like myself, are wary of the globalizing of certain arguments that suggest we find opposition to the imperial cult specifically, rather than pagan religion in general, all over the NT. I think this over-eggs the pudding. Obviously the earliest Christians were opposed to idolatry, as defined in terms of monotheism, in whatever form it took. They were mostly Jews and so this is hardly surprising. And as you say, the Imperial cult was not a uniform new religion promulgated from Rome and centrally organized, whether the worship of dead emperors in the west, or even living ones in the east. But by the time we get to Pliny, he is able to use willingness to worship the emperor as a test of whether someone had repented of their Christianity or not. And as you say, since Christians were not to participate in various aspect of pagan religion the impetus for them to be good citizens in other ways— accepting the governance of the emperor, paying their taxes, doing good their towns and neighbors, was all the more important. So, if you had to point to places in the NT where there is a specific rebuttal or polemic against the Emperor, where besides maybe 2 Thess. 2, or in places in Revelation, or possibly John 20 ‘my Lord and my God’ especially if this was written during the reign of Domitian, would you point us? And what is the cost of over-emphasizing the N.T. Wright notion that Christians were always saying ‘Christ is the reality of which the emperor is the parody’???
LARRY: I would be hard put to posit texts in the NT additional to the ones you cite as expressions of anti-Emperor views. As to your final question, I guess the cost at least includes mis-characterizing the cultural and behavioral stance of early Christianity in the Roman world.