The term “identity” is overused today and for conservative pundits “identity” is pejoratively used in “identity” politics while the progressives use it affirmatively as in “it’s about my and her and his identity.” I’m concerned with neither the conservatives or progressives in this post, but instead with the claim of Larry Hurtado, in Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, that the earliest Christians formed a new religious identity as Christians that sustained them through suffering, formed their fellowship, buoyed up their worship, and forged their behaviors.
How do Christians have a new identity? a new religious identity?
In the Roman world religious identity (nuanced by Hurtado in several directions) was inherited:
So, for example, if you were a Roman, in addition to your own particular family/household divinities (lares), there was the traditional Roman pantheon: Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Venus, and the rest. If you were Greek, there was a corresponding pantheon: Zeus, Hera, Athena, and others. If you were Egyptian, there were the gods of Egypt. And the same went for Syrians, Phrygians, rauls, and all the other various peoples of the Roman world. 78
It was as much political and cultural to participate in Roman cult worship as it was religious:
So, Roman deities could be included among the deities reverenced by people other than Romans. But this was a result of Roman political and cultural influence; the reverencing of Roman deities was simply what ancients judged to be a natural way to acknowledge and respond positively to that influence. If that seems to us not quite a “pure” religious motive, however, that is, again, because our notions of “religion” do not map directly onto the concepts and practices of the ancient world. 80
So, thereby, participation in these cults exhibited an expression of religiousness distinguishable from, or at least additional to, the more traditional forms that were conferred by birth. Consequently, in this voluntary feature, these “mystery cults” may give us something of a partial analogy for the way that early Christianity, whether in its earliest “Jesus-movement” form or later, likewise made an appeal to individuals transethnically and translocally. 83
So, to reiterate the point, in that feature it was partially analogous to the sort of voluntary religiousness involved in becoming a participant in Christian circles. But the analogy breaks down precisely in the demand placed upon all Christians that they must make their Christian commitment the exclusive basis of their religious identity. In short, early Christianity was the only new religious movement of the Roman era that demanded this exclusive loyalty to one deity, thereby defining all other cults of the time as rivals. 86
With Judaism Christianity shared an exclusive God; but Christianity clearly varies in that this God is far more a translocal and transethnic God.
To put it in more prosaic terms, early Christians took up a new kind of religious identity that, uniquely, was both exclusive and not related to their ethnicity. 93
They called themselves Christians and they met as “churches”.
… it is likely that the early Christian usage of the term typically connoted a special religious significance ascribed to the groups designated by it. In early Christian usage, their “assembly’ was not simply a casual social gathering of people, or some sort of club. Instead, by their use of this term, early Christians were claiming a high meaning to their gatherings and their fellowship. 98
Instead, what the text depicts is effectively a radical widening of the circumference of God’s people, Gentile believers now jointly inheriting with Jewish believers a status as God’s favored children. 100