(Larry Hurtado): Jan Bremmer retired from his chair in Religious Studies, University of Groningen (Netherlands) in January 2010. One of the commendable practices of that university is that retiring holders of professorial chairs give a “valedictory lecture” (just as it is common in European universities to give an “inaugural lecture” when installed in a chair). Bremmer’s valedictory lecture has been published: The Rise of Christianity through the Eyes of Gibbon, Harnack and Rodney Stark (Groningen: Barkhuis, 2010). It is an interesting discussion of three major figures who have focused on the factors in the growth of Christianity in the first centuries. Because of Bremmer’s uncommon breadth and depth of acquaintance with primary sources and with scholarship on them, I was particularly struck by a couple of his observations.
” . . . everything we know seems to point to Christianity being a movement connected and maintained by the written word, in other words, being a textual community. This was an important diffference from Graeco-Roman religion and cults like those of Isis, Mithras or Cybele. Nowhere do we see that their followers felt connected with ‘fellow believers’ in other places in the Roman Empire. Even though we can look at early Christianity as a collection of local communities, one of its strengths must have been the feeling of an empire-wide community sustained by epistolary and other contacts.” (p. 41)
” . . . as inscriptions and votive reliefs show, in Greco-Roman religion, especially in the East, the distance between deity and worshipper was steadily increasing. For the early Christians, in contrast, the love of God must have been especially important. . . . . There is nothing comparable in Greco-Roman religion to this close tie between believer and divinity.” (pp. 71-72).
I will underscore this by noting that I’ve been unable to find in “pagan” evidence references to the gods loving humans (and I omit the amorous adventures of Zeus with human women!). By contrast, references to the biblical deity acting out of love for humans are ubiquitous in the NT.