If Christians are called to live differently, love generously, and speak boldly, should they ever get comfortable with their surrounding culture? Nijay K. Gupta opens his new book Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling by asking this kind of question.

Gupta, a New Testament scholar and popular author, bemoans how “pop Christianity in the Western world often reflects a ‘chemically altered’ version of the Jesus movement that has been manufactured for cheap refreshment.” In response, his book turns to the earliest Christian believers to ask how they lived out a more radical faith and how their example might speak today.

Strange Religion is split into four parts. Part One takes up the theme “Becoming Christian,” exploring the dynamics of conversion and cultural participation for Christians in the ancient world. Gupta’s first chapter captures the all-encompassing religious landscape that prevailed during this era. As he ably demonstrates, “time and place were not divided into secular and sacred.” Pagan gods permeated every area of ancient life, from the household to the battlefield.

In this world of sacrifices, idols, and religious festivals, Christians stuck out with their commitment to a God who superseded the pantheon of Greco-Roman gods. As Gupta explains, “Christians were going against the grain of the common religious thought, practices and dynamics of the time.” In a culture full of religious activity, they were out of place from the start.

Parts Two and Three tackle the beliefs and worship activities of these first Christians. Again, the main theme is distinctiveness. Gupta highlights, for example, just how peculiar it was to worship Jesus as sovereign. Ancient gods were seen as stronger and more powerful than humanity but not as holding ultimate power over all things. Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) was the boss, but only because of his victory in a kind of cosmic survival of the fittest.

Because of their distinct beliefs, Christians stood out in rejecting sacrifices to idols or cult statues. At a time when temples and townscapes were littered with religious images, the first Christians taught that God dwelt in humanity itself, not in statues. As Gupta explains in one chapter, they also redefined the nature of time, exchanging a pattern of festivals and cult celebrations for a weekly ritual day of rest and worship.

Part Three considers what early Christian communities looked like. Gupta draws nicely on ancient understandings of family and households to illuminate Paul’s language of the family of faith in his epistles, suggesting that this metaphor meant more to his first readers than we might assume.

Article continues below

This leads into Part Four, “How the First Christians Lived.” These closing chapters explore just how subversive Christian behavior was within the first-century Roman world. Even the simple act of treating others with kindness ran against the grain of Roman ethics, especially when it transgressed rigid boundaries between social classes. One highlight comes toward the end of chapter 11, as Gupta considers the case of Onesimus and Philemon against this historical background.

Even as he invites readers to emulate the first Christians, Gupta makes clear that they were far from perfect. Like believers of any age, they fought, argued, and wandered into error and distraction. The point of rediscovering their historical strangeness isn’t putting them on an exalted pedestal but rather esteeming them as brothers and sisters who have gone before us in the race.

Strange Religion provides a great survey of a complex historical world, but sometimes that complexity ends up tripping up the author. The relationship between first-century Jews and Christians presents perhaps the greatest confusion. On occasion, Gupta speaks of “Jews and Christians” as a unified whole, but elsewhere he speaks of them as wholly alien to one another.

The root of this muddled presentation is found in chapter 3, where Gupta, echoing New Testament scholar John Barclay, argues that “Roman writers did not link Jews and Christians together” in the late first and second centuries. “They were seen as separate cults and more or less separate groups.”

Despite this clear demarcation, Gupta time and again lumps the two faiths together. Throughout the book, “Jews and Christians” are contrasted with unbelieving Romans. The relationship between Jews and the first Christian communities is an enormous subject, and perhaps giving it too much attention would have obscured the book’s central argument. Nonetheless, Gupta leaves readers unclear about important historical distinctions.

More significantly, Gupta’s concluding chapter fails to drive home the central ideas of the book. He succeeds in showing how the first Christians were weird and dangerous in the Roman world of their time. And he demonstrates how compelling they were, winning converts as they pushed back against dynamics of power, cruelty, and pride that dominated ancient culture.

Article continues below

At times, however, Gupta’s conclusion reads more like a product of the “pop Christianity” he challenged in his introduction than a clear rebuttal. Early Christians, as he writes, were “a people obsessed by Jesus,” embracing “a religion of the heart” and “a God-with-us religion.” None of this is untrue, of course, but such language is already comfortably at home in the 21st-century church that Gupta seeks to confront with the first-century church.

The book holds the potential for a bolder challenge. Why do our churches so often elevate the interests of the culture above the interests of gospel-centered faithfulness? Why is our modern approach to time so often me-centered, rather than radically oriented around Christ? Why do our idols so often match those of our unbelieving neighbors, when we ourselves are living temples, dwelling places of the Spirit? Gupta could have gone further in asking where our own churches miss the mark in serving Christ today.

Even so, Strange Religion is a well-researched, entertaining journey into the world of the first Christians. Time and again, Gupta skillfully connects Scripture passages to the culture in which they were received and put into practice, shedding fresh light on their revolutionary impact. Clearly, we’re far from exhausting all we can learn from our earliest forerunners in the faith.

Ed Creedy is a PhD student in classics at King’s College London. He writes at The Early Church Blog.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling
Author
Publisher
Brazos Press
Release Date
February 27, 2024
Pages
240
Price
16.98
Buy Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling from Amazon
Issue: