Posted by: Dan | November 3, 2016

Hurtado Responds

I recently wrote a response to Dr. Larry Hurtado’s latest book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  It’s a fairly sustained critical reflection and you can read it here.  That response received a fair bit of positive feedback from some NT scholars so, given how odd I felt Hurtado’s book was, I thought I would give him an opportunity to respond.  It seemed only fair to the reader (and perhaps to the text as well), to invite the author to reply.  I emailed my response to him and we corresponded a little about it.  I post that correspondence now, with his permission.

This is what I first wrote:
Hello Dr. Hurtado,
I recently wrote a fairly sustained response to your book, “Destroyer of the gods.”  I’ve posted it online here:
For the reasons I mention in the post, I find the book to be quite… curious.  Perhaps you will also find my response curious.  If, however, you would like to pen a reply to some of my questions and conjectures, I would be happy to hear your thoughts.  I completely understand if you lack the time and/or interest to engage in this, but I am genuinely puzzled by some things about the book so IF you do have the time and interest, I’m keen to hear more of your thoughts.
Sincerely yours,
Hurtado then responded as follows:
My goodness, Mr. [my last name spelled incorrectly]!  You really didn’t like my book, did you?  Wow!  What a fusillade of criticism!
I’m recovering from a bout of flu just now, and have some pressing deadlines, so I can’t take the time to try to engage your lengthy diatribe.  I’ll simply state a few things briefly:
–First, you impugn me unjustly, making it “personal” in a way that’s not really part of scholarly discourse.  If you want to accuse someone of having this or that slated loyalty, then you must examine yourself and declare them first.  Otherwise, it’s just unfair ad hominem.  Let’s go for better.
–Second, you ignore my treatment of matters that you accuse me of omitting.  E.g., I specifically discuss the likely economic impact of early Christian rejection of the gods upon pagan temple activities.  No mention of that in your “review”.  I could cite other matters.
–But the major problem, is that the extant sources just don’t fit your one-eyed focus on “political/economic” matters.  I’d happily write what you wanted me to write (honestly), but the sources seem to go in the direction I’ve written:  e.g., rejection of the gods is what is complained about, not specifically rejection of the emperor; and what prosopographical data that we have indicates a movement much more socially and economically mixed/diverse than your notion of a body of slaves and social outcasts, or empoverished people.
All in all, in short, you likely got a lot off your own chest, but you unjustly used me as a whipping boy, an opportunity to trot out your own preferences and (somewhat romantic?) notions.  I’d hope for better from readers without such an axe to grind.
L. W. Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology)
School of Divinity (New College)
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, EH1 2LX
Office Phone:  (0044) (0)131 650 8920
To which I replied:
Hello Dr. Hurtado,
Thanks for your reply.  I’m sorry to hear you’ve had the flu — that’s never fun.  I should clarify that my feelings about your book were mostly puzzlement not dislike.  I don’t feel that I disliked your book.  I found it curious but enjoyed the thought it provoked in me so I am grateful for that.  I’m sorry you experience what I wrote as a “fusillade of criticism.”  I felt I was engaging in a dialogue and explaining why the book puzzled me.  That is why I also invited you to further dialogue, 
As for loyalties, mine are well known to readers of my blog and I feel like they are pretty apparent in my response (which is a “response” not a “review”… but I’ve learned that this distinction is lost on pretty much everyone, so that’s on me and I’ll have to find a better way to flag that next time around).
Regarding sociopolitical and economic matters, I tend to fit into the trajectory of scholars like Meggitt, Friesen, Oakes, and Longenecker (Bruce not Richard) whom, I think, do a good job of studying the prosopographical (and other) data as it relates to the early Jesus movement.  I’ve found objections to and refutations of that overall trajectory to be unconvincing.  I grant that more diversity comes in after, say, Paul and his immediate co-workers exit the scene, but the impact of that (higher status people coming in) upon the movement should be considered carefully. I think that this starts to compromise and corrupt the movement.  Higher status folks see gatherings of people as opportunities for personal advancement via patronage — something we see already in Paul’s conflict at Corinth, although I think that conflict reflects the status diversity that we see in, say, a slum more than it does reflect the broader status diversity of a civic community as a whole — but then they also import the values of the status quo into the movement (Christianity without the cross, if you will, or with the cross more and more understood in a technical theological manner).  I believe this is already beginning to be reflected in the pastorals and the Haustafeln you prioritize in your reading.  However, I reckon you’re more in the trajectory established especially by Gerd Theissen when it comes to these things.  You also seem to think that voices from later in the movement are representative of practices and opinions earlier in the movement.  I know that scholars on both sides of this economic and political divide have had trouble coming to any consensus on these matters, so I reckon we won’t agree at the end of the day either.  But perhaps that helps you understand more about where I’m coming from.
I do have two lingering questions about your text.  Why don’t you talk about the distinctiveness of the cross in the early Jesus movement?  I’m at a complete and utter loss as to why that doesn’t merit any attention in your text.  Secondly, why talk as much as you do about the cult of Roma but never mention Augustus?  This also, along with your general treatment of the imperial cult (which you don’t refer to as the imperial cult in the body of your text) also puzzles me a lot.  If you did have the time to send a line or two about those matters, I would be grateful.
I remain, sincerely yours,
Dan (folks who know me call me Dan — you can feel free to do the same)
And he then said:
Dear Dan,
I can see that you’re more into evaluating what you see as good or bad developments in the early history of Christianity, whereas my book is just about noting them and assessing them in comparison with the larger Roman-era religious environment.  So, it’s a bit unfair and misleading to criticize me for not taking your theological line, preferring some sort of “proletariat” version of the Jesus-movement and disparaging anyone from other social classes.
As I wrote earlier, I describe the social diversity of early Christianity across the first three centuries as I do because that’s what the data indicate . . . like it or not.
Likewise, I emphasize the rejection of the gods as the fundamental problem because that’s how the early pagan critics portray it.  Now, of course, the gods in turn served as foundation for the social and political structures.  So, rejection of the gods was taken as endangering those structures.  But, again, the sources make early Christian “atheism” their key crime.
Why didn’t I write more about Jesus’ crucifixion?  Well, again, because the sources don’t foreground that as the key point of contention, the key distinctive feature.  Of course, the gospel of the crucified Jesus was odd in its time, and a distinctive message.  But neither critics nor Christians make it the key neuralgic point of difference.  You may like for theological reasons to prefer otherwise, but a historical approach must go with the data.
I have a similar answer to your second question.  We don’t find references to emperor cults in NT texts until perhaps Revelation and its “beast”.  Paul, for example, simply rejects “idols/idolatry/offerings” (1 Cor 8–10).  I know that “hidden transcripts” of anti-empire stance are detected now by various scholars, but I’m afraid that they seem to be in the eyes of the beholders.  They’re so secret that only the cognoscenti can see them!  And I’m not initiated into that charmed circle I guess.
As I understand the historical data, it’s really more with the Flavians that we see an escalation of emperor-reverence demands, and so an answering Christian resistance.  But even into the 2nd & 3rd centuries, Christians continue to profess readiness to obey, pay taxes, pray for, the emperor and empire . . . asking only that they not be required to compromise their exclusive worship of the one god  and Jesus.
Anyway, I can’t hope in an email to alter your strong attachment to other preferences, but I do hope that you’ll understand that my own emphases don’t stem from some modern-day political stance (I’m not a Republican or a Tory!), and (I hope) not from some other kind of perversity.  In the words of the famous baseball quip, “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.”
L. W. Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology)
School of Divinity (New College)
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, EH1 2LX
Office Phone:  (0044) (0)131 650 8920
Which prompted me to write:
Dear Dr. Hurtado,
Thanks for finding some time in the midst of your other commitments to write a more of a somewhat more substantial response to me.  It does help me to understand more about where you’re coming from.  I think the crux of our difference is this:
You prioritize second and third century material over first century material (with an implicit assumption that the second and third century material you prioritize is consistent with the first century material you don’t discuss?), whereas I’m keen to prioritize the first century material and, by focusing on that material, am driven to wonder just how consistent the second and third century sources are with the roots of the movement.
You refer to my approach as a “theological” reading (or perhaps a “romantic” reading that you use Marxist language to describe, although I think Marxist terms aren’t overly helpful in understanding the socioeconomic realities of the first-century and so should only be deployed with caution), but I’m not operating with a theological agenda in the traditional sense.  For example, one could look at how Stalin is very different than representatives of the Russian anarchist, socialist and populists movement(s) of 19th century Russia (many of whom, by the way, were coming from the seminaries!) and conclude that what Stalin believed, wrote, and did is entirely faithful to his predecessors in Russian revolutionary history–but that would do a grave disservice to many who came before him.  That conclusion is not a theological conclusion.  It is an historical one (cf. Franco Venturi’s utterly fascinating book, “Roots of Revolution” for more on that).
So, these are historical questions and topics — and that includes the topic of the historical distinctiveness of place of the crucifixion of Jesus in the early Jesus movement.  Consequently, when looking at conflicts that develop within the movement, or pointing out differences between, say, Paul and Tertullian, one need not deploy moral categories like “good” or bad.”  To say a development is more or less faithful to the origins of a movement, isn’t necessarily a theological or moral comment.  I reckon it depends on what you think of the origins (and I’m under no illusion that the early Jesus movement was originally perfect — so, personally, I think some developments were “good” and others were “bad” although I probably would favour terms like “life-giving” and “death-dealing”).  Of course, you might interject and argue that no history is objective, all history is ideology, truth is a function of power (and so on), and so in that sense terms like “history” and “theology” tend to overlap and blur together.  I don’t want to argue with that line of thinking but I doubt it’s what you mean. Your choice of words sounded (to me) like it might be a bit disparaging and so I thought I’d write this response.
A few more comments:
As for “atheism,” sure it’s a very common accusation.  But I find it odd to see atheism, as it was understood them, as a strictly or even exclusively religious category.  I’m not even convinced it’s a predominantly religious category because I think our conception of “religion” is a bit too misleading to encapsulate what the accusation means.  Although, again, I should highlight that I don’t think it’s less than religious.
Regarding “hidden transcripts,” I grant that some of the early writings on that subject (in relation to the NT) were less than convincing provisional sketches.  However, a lot of work has taken place since Horsley got people thinking about James C. Scott’s work (and by more informed scholars than N. T. Wright, whom, I believe, has been criticized in exactly the same words you use in terms of the cognoscenti and so on).  Really, studying the NT in the context of Roman imperialism is about doing what New Testament scholars have been claiming to do for years — it’s about reading in context (as Gordon Fee used to say when he described the top three things needed to understand the NT: “Context, context, and context!”).  The language for Jesus in the NT has all kinds of overlaps and similarities to the language used in the empire for Caesar.  So much so that Bruce Winter (certainly no radical) concludes in his recent book (“Divine Honours for the Caesars”) that conflicts between the Jesus movement and various local manifestations of the imperial cult would have taken place from the very beginning (given the ubiquity of that cult by the time of Paul — so dating the start of that conflict to the Flavians is a rather outdated view at this stage… I don’t really know of anybody making that argument in the last, oh, 15 or 20 years but you could always point me to some sources who argue otherwise in light of recent scholarship).
So, we both calls em as we sees em.  I’ve just been confused as to why you look where you do and sees what youse sees.  Less so now than I was before though.  Thanks again for your thoughts.  If you have anything else to say, I’m happy to hear it.  Otherwise, if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll post our exchange as a comment on my original response to your book so that people can hear from the author regarding what I wrote.  That seems fair to the reader and, perhaps, fair to the text as well.
And him to conclude:

I think our exchange has probably reached its culmination.  Feel free to post it if you wish.


L. W. Hurtado (Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology)

School of Divinity (New College)

University of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, EH1 2LX

Office Phone:  (0044) (0)131 650 8920


  1. […] via Hurtado Responds — On Journeying with those in Exile […]

  2. […] Hurtado for not discussing the cross as a feature of Christianity offensive to pagans. Hurtado responded to this criticism of his work, noting that “the sources don’t foreground that as the […]

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