Why On Earth Did Anyone Become A Christian in the First Three Centuries? | Notes & Critical Review

Larry Hurtado. Why On Earth Did Anyone Become A Christian in the First Three Centuries? Marquette University Press, 2016. (144 pages)

Larry Hurtado’s blog;

For one thing the question as posed by Stark and most other scholars who have addressed earliest Christianity tends to have a macro-focus. … But I want to focus here on the phenomenon of individuals becoming Christians. (10)

There were serious social costs involved in becoming a Christian in the first three centuries, costs that were unique to early Christianity. (11)

It is probably the case that the social costs of becoming a Christian were exceptional in comparison with any other kind of voluntary religious choice of the time. …for Christian converts to observe conscientiously the demands that their faith laid upon them meant an exclusivist stance, abstaining from the worship of all deities other than the one God and Jesus. (14)

Early Christian Diversity

Before we proceed farther,…I wish to avoid giving any impression that I presume some monolithic “Christianity” to which people converted. I do not. (15)

I judge that those who formed “proto-orthodox” circles comprised the majority of Christians of the time, and so reflect the kinds of Christianity that drew the majority of converts. (19)

The Spread of Early Christianity

…we should note that a good many individuals did so [became Christians]. (19)

…the point is that by all reckoning there was overall an impressive and broadly persistent growth in numbers of Christians across the first three centuries. (32)

…Pliny refers to the investigations of Christians by others (though he claims not to have taken part in them), which means that in other localities as well Christians had come to the notice of local magistrates, for whatever reason. (33)

[Pliny] claimed that those denounced to him as Christians comprised “many of all ages and every rank, and also both sexes” (multi enim omnis aetatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus etiam, Ep. 10.96.9). (34)

On this matter as well, we cannot linger, but it is a distinctive and noteworthy feature of these early Christian exhortations that believers of various ages and social positions are addressed directly, tacitly conferring on them a kind of moral agency (even if limited) and a social visibility that is unusual in that time. (37)

But over the last several decades, scholars have come to agree that across the first few centuries early Christianity was made up of people of a certain variety of social positions, reflecting somewhat the social diversity of that period. Most scholars agree, however, that there is scant indication of believers from the highest levels of society (equestrians and patricians in the Roman system), and, likewise, there is also scant indication of believers from the absolutely impoverished class (πτωχοι). (38)

In recent years, however, a few scholars have argued that there were also early Christian adherents from the upper levels of Roman-era society, although admittedly these comprised only a very small number. (39)

The earliest of these is probably the Erastus named in Romans 16:23 as “the city treasurer” (ο οικονομος της πολεως). (39)

As members of the respective high orders, they were already accorded considerable respect and honor. Indeed, for them, joining a Christian circle would not have gained them anything that they did not already have in terms of social honor. … So, we must consider other reasons why such individuals chose to align themselves with the young Christian movement. (43)

If, as most historians judge, Tacitus’s report (ann. 15:44) is to be taken as based on sound information, then already by the 60s the young Jesus-movement comprised a sufficient number of adherents to enable them to be identified and targeted. … Christianity continued to grow in numbers during this lengthy period … the general (44) direction in numbers across these centuries was upward. (45)

| In comparison with the many other religious groups of the time, this was, to say the least, unusual. Indeed, although historians are often loathe to use the term, we probably have to say it was unique. For there simply is no new religious group of the time that had the same growth sustained over such a long time. And, as specialists in new religious movements have noted, it is the rare religious group that becomes trans-local, and even fewer that sustain their growth beyond the first few years or decades. (45)

Costs and Consequences

As Bremmer observed with particular reference to initiation into the cults of Isis or Mithras, “initiation required investments of time and money,” (46) and so the mystery cults were “not something for the poor and needy.” By contrast, it appears that there was no particular financial fee or cost required in early Christian initiation, a simple baptism typically sufficing. (47)

…becoming a Christian in that setting was distinguishable from becoming and adherent of any other of those other groups. That is, there were particular dis-incentives to becoming a Christian, which makes the evident continuing appeal of early Christianity to (47) people of various geographical and social locations in the first three centuries all the more striking. (48)

For the present discussion, however, the important question is not the number of “martyrs,” Christians put to death, but that all through this early period there was the danger of being brought before Roman magistrates simply on the accusation of being a Christian (59)

…it is difficult to grasp what the attraction of Christian faith was for people in light of such prospects being touted and feared. (61)

…for most of them the more common negative consequences of their Christian allegiance was what I mean by “social” costs. I refer to how relatives, friends, associates, and others in their social connections may have reacted negatively to Christians. (61)

In short, [the author of the Epistle to Diognetus] insists that Christians are actually good citizens, good for society, and present no danger to anyone. Whatever rhetorical simplification there may be, the text clearly reflects the negative consequences of Christian adherents in their social settings, and the author seeks to mitigate these. (69)

The Death of Peregrinus, written by Lucian of Samosata.

Celsus: “The True Word.”

In short, brith, death, marriage, the domestic space, civil and wider political life, trades and work, the military, socializing, entertainment, arts, and music were all imbued with religious significance and association with various kinds of divine beings. (75)

But I emphasize again that acknowledging and reverencing the various pagan deities ran through the whole of Roman-era society, not only in formal and public ceremonies, but also in small, informal occasions such as meals of guilds, voluntary associations and even families. (77)

It would have been difficult, thus, for Christians to have participated in a wide variety of social occasions without having to consider whether they could do so in good conscience. | A  refusal to take part in the religious ceremonies of household, guild, or city would have aroused puzzlement, even suspicion, resentment and anger from other pagans. (78)

…among the many other religious groups of the time, early Christianity was unique in raising for adherents these sorts of questions about how to negotiate their social life and relationships in light of their key Christian beliefs, and specifically the rejection of worship of pagan gods. (85)

…in the Roman world slaves were expected to be available for the sexual pleasure of their masters/mistresses, should this be demanded. (Thomas A. J. McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome, & Richard Saller, “Slavery and the Roman Family,” Slavery and Abolition)

But in the early Christian teaching, this sort of sexual activity was one of those labelled as “porneia” (“fornication”), serious sexual sins. (91) [see Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity]

By the time of the Bar Kochba revolt, it appears that some Jewish Christians were even executed in Judea, likely because they could not endorse Bar Kochba as Messiah, and so were treated as traitors to Bar Kochba’s revolutionary government [Justin, 1 Apol. 31.6. Riachard Bauckham has argued cogently that the apocalypse of Peter reflects this situation as well: “The Apocalypse of Peter: A Jewish Christian Apocalypse of Peter: A Jewish Christian Apocalypse from the Time of Bar Kokhba,” in The Fate of the Dead: Studies on Jewish and Christian Apocalypses.] It is also plausible (104) that Jewish believers were included among those “heretics/sectarians” cursed in the Brikhat ha-manim that formed part of an emergent synagogue prayer that probably originated by sometime in the early second century CE. [Ruth Langer, Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat Hamanim]. (105)

It is not necessary to belabor the point further. There were many and serious consequences and costs attached to Christian allegiance in the first three centuries. Additionally, these were basically peculiar to Christian commitment, and were not so readily attached to joining any other voluntary (107) religious group of the time. So, in light of the consequences involved in becoming a Christian then, why did many individuals do so (108)

Why on Earth?

I make two preliminary observations. First, unfortunately, there is little direct testimony by individuals from this time as to their reasons for adopting Christian faith. So, we have to engage in some inferences (scholarly guess work) to deal with the question more broadly. Second, there may well have been varying and multiple reasons that prompted different individuals to make the commitment. So, we should probably avoid the assumption that there was one particular factor that accounted for the man who did so. (108)

As Philip Harland showed, similar familial language was used among members of other voluntary associations of the time, suggesting that in these other groups as well people could find meaningful interpersonal relationships. (111) [Philip A. Harland, “Familial Dimensions of Group Identity: ‘Brothers’ () in Associations of the Greek East,” Journal of Biblical Literature.]

Unless those who became Christians were seriously lacking in basic intelligence, we must presume that they judged that it was worth the consequences and costs. And those who remained Christians after suffering some of those consequences must have felt that it remained a valid decision, some of them even willing to undergo execution rather than abandon their commitment. (114)

So, in addressing the question that I have posed I think that we must consider what was offered in early Christianity that was distinctive to it, what was otherwise not readily available, and so may have been for some people sufficiently attractive to prompt them to make a Christian commitment (121) in particular. It seems to me that among what most readily distinguished early Christianity were certain beliefs or teachings. (122)

…after all that can be said about social trends and sociological models, a decisive ingredient in the spread and impact of early Christianity is in fact early Christian theology (dare I say, theology?). (123) – Seth Schwartz [Barclay, in Journal of Roman Studies 97 (2007): 372, 373, his emphasis.]

That is, beliefs, ideology, and rhetorical framing help to produce social and historical phenomena, and should themselves be considered historical and social phenomena. So, let us consider a couple of beliefs that may have been important factors in moving people to make a Christian commitment in the ancient Roman setting.

A Loving God

…drawing on emphases in its Jewish matrix, early Christian teachings (of the more familiar sorts) tended to posit one deity equally august, even categorically distinct from all else (including other heavenly beings), who was also characterized notably as loving the world and humans. [See, e.g., my further discussion in God in New Testament Theology]. Furthermore, this deity sought (and even demanded) a loving relationship with people, in which a corresponding love for this deity was the central responsibility. But, still more, this love for “God’ also demanded expression in love for other people (e.g., Mark 12:28-34; 1 John 4:7-12), even love for one’s enemies (e.g., Matt 5:43-48; Rom. 12:14). (125)

…loving gods or love for gods simply did not figure in pagan piety. (126)

| So is it too much to suggest that the early Christian portrayal of “God” was an attractive and affecting factor for converts? From the frequency of references to the Christian deity as both all-powerful and powerfully loving, it seems to me entirely plausible. 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 about the gods in the wider religious environment of the time. It was incredible to some, and, I suggest, powerfully winsome for others. (126)

Eternal Life

…it appears that for many (or most people) of the time death was the end, as in a saying found on more than one burial monument: “I was not I was, I am not, I care not.” [Latin: “non fui, fui, non sum, non curo,” and sometimes “non eram, eram, non sum, non curo.”] (127)

But to be sure, early Christianity did hold out the hope of eternal life, even an embodied eternal life via resurrection. In a time in which the threat of death, especially from illness, was very much a pressing reality, the promise of eternal life may well have struck a positive chord, and so many help account for the readiness of some people to make a Christian commitment. (128)

Certainly, the Christian belief in resurrection was in that period “the most spectacular religious doctrine regarding the body,” and among Greeks and Romans “this was an unthinkable idea.” [Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife]. (128)

| So it appears that, instead of succeeding through providing a product to meet a previously felt need or demand for eternal life, early Christianity may have generated among its con-(128)verts the new longing for, and confidence in, their own eternal life. (129)

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.


For it is clear to me that early Christian allegiance was not solely acceptance of a set of beliefs intellectually considered, but involved also the affective and inter-personal impact of those beliefs. (132)

…I reiterate the hope that the foregoing discussion justifies posing the question that prompted it, and that our further investigation of early Christianity will take adequate account of how remarkable it was for people to make the step of becoming a Christian in those earliest centuries. (133)

— critical review —

In short, while Hurtado does a good job surveying the landscape of the inquiry with appropriate focus, and concludes with a well articulated answer which compels the reader to carefully consider his conclusions, I’m hesitant to put a lot of weight to his findings, even though they persuade my religious sensibilities. Three main reasons:

First, love and eternal life were originally Jewish ideas. What distinction is there, then, between the Jewish conception and the Christian conception (or practice)? A couple main candidates to consider would be Jesus resurrection and Christianity’s decisive outreach to pagans.

Second, Hurtado doesn’t really take into consideration the themes of Empire and oppression. Did not people also need a new way of being human in the midst of oppressive realities? How did that shape the spread of the Christian movement? Also, a command to “love your enemies” is a radically unique teaching of Jesus, one that is not found in Jewish writings. What of this as a factor?

Third, while Hurtado focuses in on the “individual” decision to become Christian, I’m not sure this is an appropriate focus. Did the ancients understand individual conversion in a way that is meaningful to historical inquiry? I’m not so sure. Was it not much more communal?

These other factors are critical for understanding, because it can temper the weight that some would put to Hurtado’s findings.

One example is Timothy Keller’s review in which he states,

I hope that by now you can see the relevance of these studies. The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities; today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because it will not honor all identities. Yet the early church thrived in that situation. Why?

Keller’s moral equivalency here is really quite lacking. The plurality of a pantheon of deities is quite different from a plurality of identities in which a diversity of humanity is represented. Suggesting that this particular study is somehow a pragmatic model for Christianity today misses a lot of nuance and other historical realities. Keller goes on to focus on “differentiation” as a Christian value:

One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion is not different from the surrounding culture, if it does not critique and offer an alternative to it, it dies because it is seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by social chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peace making — would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were “out of step” with the culture on sex to begin with, and it was not the church but the culture that eventually changed.

There’s much to commend here, mainly that Christianity does make a difference in those critical areas of life. But there’s also much to be cautious of at the same time, especially since the focus narrows in on “sex,” a seemingly sacrosanct subject of Christian ethics/morality. Also, Keller’s assessment of Christianity’s relationship with “the culture of sex” is dubious, for three main reasons. First, Paul’s letters include several exhortations to early Christians to quit their sexual immorality (in 1 Corinthians 5, they’re even participating in sexual immorality that is “of a kind that not even pagans tolerate.” Second, passages like these indicate that sexual purity was not one of the mainstays of the conversion catechism. Third, an honest historical inquiry would lead one to the conclusion that both the Church and the culture have had radical evolutions regarding sexual norms and mores.

Keller concludes by saying,

The early church surely looked like it was on the “wrong side of history,” but instead it changed history with a dogged adherence to the biblical gospel. That should be our aspiration as well.

All of this is inspirational, except, “the biblical gospel,” means something very different for Keller (as leader in The Gospel Coalition) than perhaps it meant to the early Christians.

Okay, even with all of that, I still like Hurtado’s conclusions (loving God and eternal life) and would consider them compelling, even if I find them inadequate to the question.

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  1. Pingback: Why You’re Christian | Reflections | vialogue

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