The early Christians were considered weird for many reasons—worship of a crucified man, the gospel’s exclusive claims, ethical demands that included one’s sexuality, and more. But here’s a distinctive that might surprise you: the early church was marked by its “bookish” religion.
According to the late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado (1943–2019), Christianity stood out—and thrived—in part because of its attention to reading and books. No matter that not everyone had the ability to read; it just took one person in a group who could read aloud. “Whether they were able to read for themselves or not,” Hurtado explains in Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, “Christians were able to obtain an acquaintance with the texts read out in their corporate worship gatherings. Romantic notions of a pervasive early Christian ‘orality’ that left little room or need for texts all rest on a body of ill-informed assumptions.”
This love of reading bled over into a commitment to the written word. From the apostolic letters in the Bible to non-inspired Christian texts meant to inform, defend, or edify believers in the Roman world, the early church stood out for its attention to books and words. Again, Hurtado explains: “[E]arly Christianity was phenomenally prolific and varied in literary output. . . . [T]here is simply no analogy for this variety, vigor, and volume in Christian literary output.” They were a bookish people.
From the early church to the Reformation to today, Christians have been a bookish people. This is no sanctified nerdiness. It stems from an abiding commitment to the Book—God’s Spirit-breathed words to his people (2 Tim. 3:16)—and to the written word.
So it shouldn’t surprise that between our academic journal Themelios and our regular book reviews section, we at The Gospel Coalition review nearly 300 books per year. And at the end of each year we take stock of the most helpful titles across various categories, using the following fourfold criteria:
- offers gospel-centered argument and application;
- includes faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;
- fosters spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and
- encourages efforts to unite and renew the church.
We have so much to thank the Lord for as look back over the past year. Make sure to pick up a book or two from the list below. And as you…