Book Reviews

Book Review: Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Larry W. Hurtado)

Just a few years before his death, Larry Hurtado gave a 50-minute lecture at the 2016 Père Marquette Lecture in Theology at Marquette University. Larry Hurtado was Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language, Literature and Theology at University of Edinburgh. He made contributions to New Testament textual criticism, the origins of devotion to Jesus in early Christianity, the Gospel of Mark, Paul, and Christian distinctiveness in the Roman world.

Whereas Christianity has been popular in the West for a long time (with Christians always at risk of being “culture Christians”), it was not so in the beginning. Hurtado does not inquire over why Christianity grew as a movement, “but why did individuals commit to Christian faith?” Instead of looking at Christianity as a movement, he gets down to the level of individuals and the results of their religious choices.

Having come from a lecture, this book has no table of contents nor is it divided into chapters. The book is split up into sections:

  • Introduction
  • Early Christian Diversity
  • The Spread of Early Christianity
  • Costs and Consequences
  • Why on Earth?
  • Conclusions

While other scholars have focused on what might have attracted people to Christianity—such as social bonding, charity toward fellow believers, etc, Hurtado notes that there were equally viable reasons not to become a Christian. He provides two, overarching consequences to becoming a Christian: “judicial/political” and “social” consequences.

“Judicial/political” consequences would have been the ways that the local and/or imperial Roman authorities “took account of and reacted to Christians” (48). “Social” consequences, which would have been more common, would have been tensions that arose between Christians and their acquaintances, coworkers, families, spouses, masters (if they were slaves), and friends.

Since most people back then weren’t insane, why on earth would individuals become Christians at the risk of receiving these consequences? The positives must have outweighed the negatives. Rather than providing the full answer, Hurtado’s goal is to have us think about why people became Christians in light of the many negative consequences. If you became a member of any other religious group, your life basically remained the same. It didn’t change your previous religious activities and loyalties. But become a Christian, obeying God the Father and giving your worship and allegiance to Jesus Christ, meant desisting from worshiping all other deities—deities everyone else worshiped.

There were shrines for honoring the guarding deities in Roman homes, civic and public offices had public displays of honor to the gods, and people believed gods and goddesses (like Roma) held up the Roman imperial order (74). Associations, guilds, and military units had patron deities, and “any formal dinner included ritual acknowledgement of deities” (75). Almost everything in life was “imbued with religious significance and association with various kinds of divine beings” (75). By becoming a Christian, you were removing yourself from participating in actions that everyone else that were normal, good, proper, and vital to the life and health of society. This made it difficult for a Christian to know how to function in society.

And yet, despite all of this, in those first three centuries before Constantine, Christianity was still the fastest growing religious group. Given that the title of this book/and his lecture is going n the form of a question, it is odd that Hurtado gives only a short, possible answer to this. But his main point in this book is to point to the difficulties Christians faced when they turned away from the other religious options and became Christians. He wants to get our gears moving to think about why people would choose to become Christians.


This is a quick and fascinating read. I don’t know very much about the early centuries of Christianity, but I know there was persecution and social tensions (see Kruger’s Christianity at the Crossroads). Hurtado is easy to read and looks at a vast array of evidence that made me appreciate where I’m at now and how I have religious freedom. Yet it also encouraged me to see historical examples of how former Christians stood against their pagan culture despite the tensions, beatings, imprisonment, and tensions. I would encourage you to pick up this book, as well as Hurtado’s Destroyer of the Gods and Honoring the Son for more.


    • Author: Larry W. Hurtado
    • Paperback: 144 pages
    • Publisher: Marquette University Press (April 5, 2016)

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Disclosure: I received this book free from Marquette University Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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