Book Review of “The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins” by Larry W. Hurtado

You’ll find my review of Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins on the book’s Amazon page…and also below:

A Very Good Book for Specialized Interest

I gave the book three stars as a compromise: for readers who have the specialized interest in the material covered by this book it should be a five; for everyone else it should be a zero (not because there’s anything wrong with the book but because it’s too technical to enjoy if you don’t have a keen interest and at least some background in this subject).

If this book is your first exposure to Hurtado then I encourage you to start with another of his books, like How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus. Or, if you’re more ambitious, try Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Those books are where Hurtado makes his greatest contribution to all readers. This book, by contrast, can only be fully appreciated by scholars who share Hurtado’s background and education in the New Testament and Christian origins (if, for example, you don’t know Greek, you will not be able to extract full value from some of his passages) or laymen who desire immersion into the technical subject matter of early text history, criticism, and derivative studies.

I hope I do not discourage anyone from buying this book who could benefit from it. Just be sure to use the Amazon browsing feature to be sure it is what you are looking for. I’m a layman, and even though much of the book was beyond my reach, I am still glad I bought and read it because it enhances my appreciation of Hurtado’s broader work, which I value so highly.

For those familiar with Hurtado’s broader work, I point out that in this book his historical approach (he pays attention to what the early Christians did, not merely what they said) can only take him back as far as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This contrasts, of course, with his normal use of Paul’s letters and others sources to get back to the 30’s and 40’s of the 1st Century. Even so, his historian’s eye (he seldom practices theology in his writings) finds things we would otherwise overlook in this later, but still close by, time frame. Most notably, he points out that texts are the earliest artifacts of Christianity. This, of course, is evoked by his title and says something profound about what Christ inspired. Yet Hurtado lets you reflect on that privately – he doesn’t theologize about it. Instead, he gives insights and asks questions which show that these early texts have so much more to tell us than we have allowed. Hurtado is a detective – and a good one.

While this book does not offer the bold conclusions of Hurtado’s other works, it is a fine complement to them. He’s decrying the lack of scholarly attention to the earliest extant Christian texts – their provenance, transmission, and notable characteristics. And he’s appealing to his peers to rectify this slight so that greater understanding of Christian origins might result. Given the importance of Hurtado’s broader historical scholarship, we laymen can only hope he is succeeding.

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