If a Christian today had the ability to travel back in time and experience the rituals, sounds, and smells of a first-century Christian worship service, what might that experience reveal? What practices might they find familiar to their own contemporary worship context, and what rituals might seem strangely foreign? What ancient doctrinal motivations might resonate with the traveler? In At the Origins of Christian Worship, Larry Hurtado provides a relatively clear portrait of early Christian worship practices that not only informs readers about the past, but also attempts to build a sense of connection between the modern Church and the ancient one.
To begin his exploration of the early Church, Hurtado attempts to identify some broad characteristics of religious worship in general within the Greco-Roman first century. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of ancient religion was how ubiquitous and publicly noticeable it was. If our traveler managed to visit the streets of ancient Rome or Ephesus, they might be alarmed at just how common and visible reverence for pagan deities actually was. This widespread and very public presence of religion demanded a diverse array of religious practices that catered to the whims of just about every individual in society, especially among more urban areas. In short, religion in the first century was an integrated part of the whole of human existence. It permeated nearly every level of Greco-Roman culture, with a diverse range of beliefs and rituals to offer the individual, the family home and marketplace, and even the highest levels of civic political authority.
Against this reconstruction of ancient pagan religion Hurtado compares and contrasts common practices of ancient Jewish worship, and from here begins to build the case for the novelty and innovativeness of early Christian worship. Whereas the ancient world was replete with quotidian gods who served every conceivable human purpose, Judaic worship involved reverence for a singular deity who was first and foremost—in contrast to the physical idols worshiped among pagan traditions—an invisible, faceless God. In contrast to the colorful and fulfilling diversity of religious experience offered by Greek and Roman culture, the emergence of Christianity as a popular and growing religious tradition is quite puzzling. After all, the author argues, with such a rich buffet of religions to choose from, why would any worshiper of Jupiter or Artemis or Dionysus or Mars or even adherents to the ancient mystery cults make a willing and enthusiastic conversion to practice the exclusive worship of “one God, one Lord” offered by an obscure messianic Jewish sect? What made ancient Christianity appealing to non-Christians? The inexplicable genesis of the early Church revolves around this question, and it serves as the accelerant for Hurtado’s study.
In light of his discussion of the general religious context of the first century as well as his characterization of Second-Temple Judaism, Hurtado next attempts to outline the most prominent identifying marks of early Christian worship. According to Hurtado, the “common denominator” across all of ancient Christianity involved (1) the exclusive monotheistic worship of the Jewish god as well as (2) the exaltation and worship of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God. This tension, the author claims, was not a contradiction, but a radical innovation among staunch monotheists. Within these theological parameters, Hurtado explores a few common practices of the early Church that may have been appealing to non-Jewish and non-Christian first-century audiences. In particular, ancient Christian worship offered an intimate setting for fellowship and learning, with individuals frequently gathering for a common meal in the joyful recognition of their community’s eschatological importance—the belief that through their gatherings, the Reign of God was being effectively inaugurated in this world. These gatherings were also radically inclusive, so that women and children often found space to engage in public worship, as well. Furthermore, early adherents must have found something efficacious in the prayer, prophecy, and claims of miracle-working in the early Church. Otherwise, Hurtado argues, these claims would have been dismissed or gone ignored by the very people who were giving up their pantheons of gods to worship only God and Christ.