Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian In the First Three Centuries?

Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian In the First Three Centuries? January 25, 2020

Larry W. Hurtado
Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian In the First Three Centuries?
The Pere Marquette Lecture in Theology 2016
Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016.
Available at Amazon.com

This short book by Larry Hurtado, who sadly passed away last November, is based on his 2016 lecture giving at the University of Marquette. It is a short book, only 133 pp., but is densely packed with insights about the spread of the early church, the number of Christians prior to 300, theological diversity of the church, social stratification of Christians, Roman persecution, social cost and judicial consequences of being found a Christian, why some lapsed from the faith, and why anyone found Christianity attractive when there were so many adverse consequences to becoming a Christian. There is a great exegesis of Pliny’s letter to Trajan.

My favourite quote from the book:

“It seems clear that the aim of Roman authorities was not particularly to execute Christians, but to turn them from what the authorities (and large numbers of the public at large) saw as their perverse and dangerous allegiance. That is, the object was not death but conformity to the demands of the imperial authority” (p. 57).

As to why people became Christians, it was not just theological. If you want some kind of surrogate family, there were other and less onerous options available. If you wanted some compensation for low social status, Christianity made it worse not better. So why join the Christian movement? Hurtado gives two main suggestions: A loving God and the hope of eternal life.

“In a world of many deities, early Christianity proclaimed one almighty deity in absolute sovereignty over all, beneath whom all other beings were mere creatures, unworthy of cultic reverence, And this all-powerful sovereign deity was moved by a powerful love, so Christian teaching claimed, and so sought and offered a direct relationship with people. I suspect that this was heady stuff, and certainly very different from notions of about the gods in the wider religious environment of the time. It was incredible to some, and I suggest, powerfully winsome for others” (p. 126).

“Certainly, early Christianity appears to have succeeded in promoting the claim that eternal life was available more broadly to all believers, not simply to great individuals or supremely virtuous ones, or to those who could afford initiation-rites of certain mysteries of the time” (p. 129).

I’d go a bit beyond that, I think there was a narrative-cultic fascination (person of Jesus), intellectual attraction (monotheism), experience dimension (Holy Spirit, charisma, visions, healings, etc.), an affective element (a God of love, who loves and can be loved), an ethical dimension (startling in a world of brutality), ritual and mystery (eucharist, baptism, etc), and hope (eternal life, kingdom of God, resurrection). In fact, many of the reasons why people found Judaism attractive could also be transferred to Christianity, with the difference that conversion to Christianity was (for men especially) less intrusive and didn’t require the abandonment of one’s ethnos.

Anyway, the book is only $15.00. It is a must-have. You won’t regret it!

This book is to be enjoyed on an afternoon or evening with a nice beer or a glass of wine, and some snacks.


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