'Among the Gentiles'– Is Christianity a Greco-Roman Religion? Part Two

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.

I think there is some merit in compare ways of being religious between ancient religions, though Johnson has to admit that his categories cannot be rigid ones since various people manifest a variety of types of religious behavior and sensibilities.  It is obvious that most all ancient religion involved temples, priests, and sacrifices and prayers and prophecy, but Johnson is focusing more on religious attitudes or approaches to the divine than pure praxis.  But what Johnson ignores is that earliest Christianity stood out from both early Judaism and Greco-Roman religion in having no literal priests, no literal sacrifices, no literal temples at all.  Christianity in Paul’s day would have looked far more like a philosophy of life than a ‘religio’  and it is a great pity that Johnson doesn’t interact at all with the critique of Edwin Judge of the attempt to categorize early Christianity as a ’religio’ like Greco-Roman religions.   His study would have had to be more nuanced when talking about first century Christianity if he had actually taken Jewish Christianity and its documents more into account than he does (though he does deal with James and Hebrews in a cursory way) and taken the detailed work of scholars like Richard Bauckham into account.    When he analyzes for example the Synoptic Gospels, they are said to fall into Category A sensibility— God is approached on the basis of divine power, healing, benefits, rescue one can get out of God.   The problem with this sort of analysis is that it presumes that the Gospels are reasonably cledar transcripts of the spiritual life of the Christian communities to which they are written, rather than being taken seriously as examples of ancient biography or ancient historography.  I find it more than passing strange that Luke simply takes for granted the old tired Bultmanian form criticism when it comes to the Gospel traditions and how long a gestation period they went through and how, in his view, they say more about the author and audience of the documents than about the sources reputed to be the subject matter of these documents, namely Jesus and his first disciples  It is as if orality studies and tradition criticism studies and the work of Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses  or my What Have They Done with Jesus, can simply be ignored.   But in fact it can’t.   The earliest Christians were not just caught up in their experiences of Jesus as the risen Lord such that they felt they need not be concerned with the actual history and impact of Jesus’ life and teachings.  They did not suddenly develop amnesia about Jesus and the historical importance of his words and deeds after Easter, nor did they find it of little importance.   The Gospels cannot simply be read as transcripts of Christian religious sensibilities in the latter third of the first century, though indirectly they tell us something about such matters. 

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.


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