Christianity had a distinctive set of ethics. Contrary to their Roman surroundings, Christians were committed certain practices that made them unique: they were against infant exposure/abandonment, they insisted that husbands should be sexually faithful to their wives (Romans typically allowed for a double standard where men were free to indulge sexually outside the marriage), and they were against the sexual abuse of children.
This coming September, Larry Hurtado, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the University of Edinburgh (and my Doktorvater), releases his latest volume, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor, 2016).
Larry allowed me to see a pre-published version of the book and I can tell you that it is (not surprisingly) an excellent piece of work and a fascinating look at the way early Christians fit (and didn’t fit) into their Greco-Roman context.
Although most modern Western individuals see Christianity as typical of all religions around the world (usually with the “all religions are the same” line added in for good measure), this volume works to shatter that misconception. Historically speaking, argues Hurtado, Christianity was radically different than the surrounding religious world into which it was born. Here are a few of the features he points out:
1. Christianity allowed “religion” to be separated from the standard ethnic/national identity it was typically associated with. For most Roman citizens, your religion was not easily distinguished from your citzenship–the two were bound together. But, Christianity came along and people from all walks of life, all ethnicities and nationalities, began to identify themselves as followers of Jesus. The Roman government did not know how to handle this unusual new approach. Christianity was neither Jewish or Greek (in the typical way it was conceived). Christians were a “third race.”
2. Christianity was exclusive in its worship, devoted to a monotheistic worship of Jesus Christ as Lord. Needless to say this separated Christianity quickly from the surrounding pluralistic and polytheistic culture of Rome. Indeed, it was the monotheism of Christians, and their refusal to join in the worship of the Roman gods, that made Christianity not only seem culturally odd (if not rude), but a threat to the social and political stability of Rome. To refuse the worship of the Roman gods, at least in the minds of Roman officials, was to be position one’s self as an enemy of the state.
3. Christianity was not your standard religion because of its interest in the written word.