In a very real sense, where one starts in an intellectual inquiry will determine where one ends up. If you pursue a particular line of logic and discourse, there are only so many places such a pursuit can lead. Luke Johnson in this important book, tired of the analysis of the polemics of early Christian writers bent on demonizing paganism, tries to come up with a paradigm or modus operandi that allows one to compare and contrast Christianity, Judaism and ancient Greco-Roman religion from a more ‘value free’ or neutral point of view. The focus of his study is on what he calls ways of being religious, or religious sensibilities or religiosity. He is talking about differing ways to relate to divine power or divine person or persons. He thinks the old history of ideas or relgionsgeschichteliche Schule approach just won’t cut the mustard any more so he wants to come at the issue in the manner that is sometimes done in religious studies. You analyze the ways of being religious not to ask is it good or is it bad or is it from God or the Devil or should we do it or should we not but rather you simply try to understand the phenomena and see if its comparable to other religious phenomena in other religions of the period (p. 20). Luke suggests this approach avoids either supernaturalistic or naturalistic reductionism, and is more descriptive rather than prescriptive. The assumption behind all this is that there are important ways of being religious that are not confined to one particular ancient religion. What he wants out of this study and approach is a less ‘imperialistic’ or pejorative way of reading the data, and he hopes for some appreciation of ancient non-Christian religion. This is in part why the study is called ‘among the Gentiles’ as in a light among the Gentiles’ and not the Biblical phrase a ‘light to the Gentiles’. Clearly he is a bit tired of Christians thinking they have a corner on the market of true religion, whatever that phrase might mean.
Luke sets up four categories of analysis which will be the basis of the whole structure of this book: 1) Religiousness A– participation in divine benefits and power; 2) Religiousness B–religion as a way of moral transformation and improvement; 3) Religiousness C– the way of transcending the world; and 4)Religiousness as a way of stabilizing or undergirding a world. He then proceeds to give us four examples from antiquity of pagans who epitomize each type of religious sensibility– Aelius Aristides in category A, Epicetetus in category B, the author of Poimandres in catgegory C (i.e. the Hermetic corpus) and Plutarch in category D. Far from being a broad based sociological survey of ancient Greco-Roman religion, Johnson settles for what he sees as four representative examples of these ‘types’ or religious sensibility or ways of being religious. The analysis of each of these is quite interesting and then he goes on to show that early Judaism’s dalliance with Greco-Roman culture and religion was much less profound, Greco-Roman philosophy and religion had much less of an impact on early Judaism than he thinks it had even on earliest Christianity, which he takes to be a form of Greco-Roman religion almost from the outset, or at least from Paul’s day onward.
In our next post on this important book we will examine more closely what Johnson says about early Judaism and first century Christiianity. As we will see, while Johnson is right about how Greco-Roman religion had more and more of an impact on Christianity beginning already in the later second and into the third and fourth centuries, and afterwards, for example in the continuation of the cult of the dead, or the cult of the martyrs and relics (see MacMullen’s Second Church) it is not a good historical analysis to suggest that Christianity was already a Greco-Roman religion in the first century A.D., or even much like one in terms of its belief and behavior systems.