Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)
If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.
Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).
However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.
As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).
Title: Destroyer of the gods:
Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World
Author: Larry W. Hurtado
Genre: Church History
Rating: 4 of 5
Larry Hurtado explores ways in which Christians and Christianity diverged radically from the religious landscape of the Roman Empire in the first three centuries AD/CE. The characteristics he describes are largely inherited from Judaism but were regarded as bizarre, offensive, and/or antisocial in Christians who were not ethnically Jewish and thus were abandoning their duties to the gods. The points he discusses included:
- Belief in only one God and absolute refusal to participate in the worship of any other deities (and a confusing identification of Jesus with God…a major divergence from Judaism)
- A reliance on written Scripture
- Behavioral requirements and community values significantly more restrictive than Roman culture at large – especially in the value of human life (opposing abortion, the exposure of infants, and gladiatorial games) and sexuality (limiting it to marriage in a culture where men were pretty free to sleep with anyone who wasn’t married or a freeborn virgin).
The author presents the beliefs and practices of the early Christians fairly neutrally, mostly refraining from evaluating their truth or even elaborating on specific beliefs about Jesus (e.g. he’s pretty coy about the exact relationship between Jesus and God the Father). He generally accepts the books of the New Testament as accurately representative of the dominant early form of Christianity though he does seem to consider many of them to be pseudonymous.
The main text of the book is complemented by copious end notes (over 40% of the page count) in which the author interacts with other scholarly works relating to early Christianity and the culture/religion of the Roman Empire. In these notes he generally argues against positions that seek to radically reinterpret or call into question the reliability of early witnesses.
Even though I have some disagreements with the author (e.g. he doesn’t seem to hold as “high” a view as Scripture as I do), I found this to be a profitable and fascinating look at the tension between early Christians and the predominant culture of their day. It has interesting implications for how it has affected the way people in general now think about religion (one of his main points throughout) and for how Christians should be distinctive today (something he doesn’t really explore).