Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?

Larry W. Hurtado

Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2016. 144 pages. Hardcover. $15.00.

Reviewed by Peter J. Scaer on 04/16/2018

Many have described the rise of Christianity and the factors that made possible its relatively rapid and widespread growth. But Hurtado’s work, based on a series of lectures offered at Marquette University, moves from the macro to the micro level, asking a more basic and fundamental question: “Why would anyone ever have wanted to become a Christian in the first place?” On a basic theological level, we might speak about the power of the gospel, and the impact of the Spirit. But Hurtado speaks to the issue on a fundamentally human level. What were the early Christian converts up against, and why did they pursue and confess Christ in the midst of such hostility?

As Hurtado notes, in the first three centuries, there were many reasons for people not to become Christian. There was, of course, persecution. St. Paul speaks of his beatings and imprisonments. We know of the martyr­doms of Stephen and James, Polycarp and Ignatius. But persecution was not confined to the religious leaders, nor was it simply a matter of the official judicial system. Hurtado makes a distinction between social costs and political-judicial costs. He explains, “By social consequences/costs, I mean the tensions that Christian adherents experienced with their families, acquaintances, co-workers and others” (48). Early Christians were fre­quently subject to ostracizing from friends and families, with consequences for their livelihood. Hurtado cites Lucian’s The Death of Peregrinus as a good example of the widespread contempt for Christians. He goes on to talk about Celsus, whose work was characterized by an elite disdain for the intellectually inferior Christians. While Christianity held a certain appeal to the marginalized, its ranks were filled also with those of higher edu­cation and higher social status. And they often paid a heavy price.

What must be remembered is that the pagan culture permeated nearly every aspect of life from sports, social clubs, and the arts, to military membership, political groups, and trade associations. Hurtado writes, “Indeed, practically any formal dinner included ritual acknowledgement of deities” (75). Rarely were Christians asked to renounce Christ. More regularly, they were expected to raise a cup and to offer a word of acknowledgement to the god or gods of the day. Failure to do so would often result in a kind of social death, political banishing, and familial discord.

What was it, then, that drove people to become and remain Christian? Hurtado begins with the simplest and most profound of facts. Christians preached a loving God. Hurtado notes, “In high pagan piety to be sure, particular gods could be praised as benign and generous, but it is hard to find references to any deities either loving humans or being loved by them in Roman-era pagan discourse (setting aside the myths of the erotic ad­ventures of various male deities with human females)” (125). Hurtado likewise speaks about eternal life, embodied in the resurrection (128). Indeed, the troubles of this present time pale in comparison to the joys in the life
to come.

Admittedly, Hurtado’s little book is just a start. To say that Christians were drawn by God’s love needs to be fleshed out. In some ways, Hur­tado’s analysis seems abstract, in that he does not play out the love found in that particular person, Jesus Christ, manifested in a particular event, the crucifixion, which meets the deepest problems of our humanity, sin and isolation. More could be said about how this love was embodied in a eucharistic community, in which true family and friendship could be found. On the other hand, Hurtado’s work is a wonderful conversation starter. For years, Christianity has been the default setting for our people. America has long been nominally Christian. Even those who promote abortion and same-sex marriage tout their Christian credentials in doing so. But the situation is changing rapidly. Secularization has won the day, and the persecutions have begun. Early Christians were tempted to offer a toast to the pagan deity. A small nod to the gods paved the way to upward mobility and higher social status. Our own challenges are not too dis­similar. In almost every profession and walk of life, Christians are being challenged for their belief in traditional marriage, and for their opposition to the LGBT agenda. While Christian business people traditionally have joined churches to help their networking, affiliation with orthodox churches now carries a certain stigma. Christians who uphold the Christian teaching are regularly labeled as haters. Already, Christians are losing their livelihoods, being fined and fired out of business. Sportscasters have been taken off the air, judges off their benches. Day by day, we are learning that Christianity comes with a cost, sometimes financial or social, sometimes judicial. What if you are a teacher, required to teach the LGBT agenda? What if your business sponsors a gay pride parade or rally? How will you respond? Will you keep your mouth shut, or will you speak the truth? Many Christians, especially those who live in Islamic and total­itarian lands, even now face bitter persecution, even death. For us, the persecution will more likely hit our pocket­books, our social status, and our reputations. What will we do, and how will we navigate such waters? Will we remain faithful, or offer that toast to the gods? Hurtado might not address the present crisis, but his book sets the table for our discussions. For, no doubt, our own children and grandchildren will be asking, “Why on earth would I want to become a Christian?”