You can learn about a group not only by listening to them express their views, which is step number one in charitable conversation, but also by listening to their enemies. One time Joe Modica and I co-edited a volume called Who Do My Opponents Say That I Am? in which a good list of scholars examined the various accusations against Jesus. I offered an essay on what it meant to call Jesus mamzer, or “illegitimate.” We solicited essays then in an attempt to discover a “christology from the side.” (The side of those against Jesus.)
Larry Hurtado in his exceptional new study, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, examines how the (mostly) 2d Century assessed the growing Christian movement: from 7-10K in 100 AD to 200K in 200 all the way to 5-6Million by 300 AD.
As I was reading this book my mind occasionally moved into (1) what makes Christianity distinctive today — and if it does — and (2) to what opponents of Christianity today, including traditional and orthodox Christianity, call Christians. Do you see any analogies as you read what follows?
From the beginning — hence the book Modica and I edited above — Jesus and the Christians experienced opposition, which should have been a surprise to very few. But a good specific example is Saul/Paul, as seen in Galatians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 15:9, Philippians 3:6 and in the term “zeal,” which indicates violent action against those who were idolaters or threatening the core viability of Judaism. This is where Hurtado’s thesis is aimed:
Personally, I think that Paul’s zealous ire was probably provoked at least in part by what he regarded as inappropriate reverence for Jesus. Perhaps this involved both the claims made about Jesus by Jewish believers and also their devotional practices in which the risen Jesus figured prominently (18).
They called him Messiah and Son of God and Paul probably thought Jesus’ crucifixion indicated he was cursed by God. Reverence for Jesus was at the heart of Paul’s opposition.
The bulk of the chp focuses on a clear exposition of critiques of Christianity in the following writers: Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, Galen, Marcus Aurelius, Lucian and Celsus.
One finds accusations that Christians were
an extravagant superstition,
that Christian conversions led to economic downturns,
that the typical cafeteria approach to other religions was not applicable to the Christian faith,
laws were implemented against Christianity and Christians …
but the big image is that Christians denied the Greek and Roman gods and were therefore threatening political and social and religious stability.
Some, like Celsus, found disapproval in the intellectual level of Christians and in the incredible beliefs of this new religion. He was met in turn by Christian intellectuals like Origen.
Along with this is evidence that Christians were making inroads in the upper levels of society, exacerbated by the fresh intellectual responses of Christians like Justin Martyr and the continued growth of numbers.