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

In his seminal discussion of the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism (two volumes with that very title)  Martin Hengel showed a very long time ago that the only sort of Judaism that really existed in Jesus’ day was Hellenized Judaism,a Judaism enough indebted to the Greek language and culture that it had even translated its sacred texts into Greek.  There was of course a sliding scale between more and less Hellenized forms of Judaism, but one would be hard pressed to find a form of Judaism not affected at all by the harvest of Hellenism which swept through the region first with Alexander and then with his successors who ruled the region until the Maccabean revolt.   This of course is well known today, and most scholars talk about some sort of sliding scale from very Hellenized at least in some ways (a person like Philo, who even interprets his Bible using Hellenistic and rhetorical methods involving allegory and philosophical concepts) to those who were prepared to use Greek philosophical sects and paradigms to explain the various sects of Judaism and even argue a case that God intended the Romans to take over Israel (Josephus) to those who had a more allergic reaction to Hellenizing ways  (some of the Essenes for example).   It is equally well known that Judaism after the bar Kokhba increasingly turned its back on its dalliance with Greek ways, giving up the LXX to the church, and turning back to a full-bodied focus on Hebrew and more specifically Jewish ways of praxis.  This is why it is a rather large mistake to read Mishnaic and Rabbinic Hebrew traditions and priorities and structures and ways back into pre-70 A.D. Judaism, a mistake that many Evangelical Christians seem to make over and over again in their attempts to celebrate the Jewishness of Jesus.   Jesus was of course thoroughly Jewish, but he did not operate like, teach like, or act like post-Bar Kokhba rabbis.

Luke Johnson  knows all of this, and he is prepared to say that even before bar Kokhba  Judaism was in many ways a horse of a different color than Greco-Roman religion.  This explains the charge of ‘atheism’ laid on early Jews  (i.e. a failure to believe in the traditional Greco-Roman gods)  a charge later leveled at Christianity as well.  It also explains some of the considerable anti-Semitism of the Romans.     Jews in Jesus’ day were indeed concerned about their particularity of rituals (circumcision, sabbath keeping, food laws etc.) and indeed their commitment to monotheism, against the whole flow of the larger culture and they were ridiculed for both. And as Johnson points out, the rise of the synagogue in Jesus’ day was a distinctive institution without real parallels in Greco-Roman religion.  Johnson is right that, leaving the ministry of Jesus out of account, we find little evidence of healing ministries in early Judaism, or a focus on them,  and leaving John the Baptizer out of account, there is equally little focus on a living voice of prophecy (as opposed to studying the OT prophets).   But it is clear that a strong reaction against Hellenism was already in progress, in the Qumran community, long before the second century A.D.

In light of all this, it is difficult to shoe horn early Judaism into the four fold model listed in the last post, or to find very much evidence of the influence of Greco-Roman religion on the ways early Jews were religious.    We may find a bit of Religiosity A and B, but largely not because of some influence of Greco-Roman religion.  The religion of Moses was already this way, before Alexander came along, and as for heavenly visions and the like, this was already a trait of exilic and post exilic Judaism.   It is thus not a surprise that Johnson concludes his only chapter in this book on non-Christian Judaism as follows:

” Approaching Judaism from the perspective and using the categories of Greco-Roman religion has made two things clear: first how different Judaism truly was in that world. Monotheism and the sense of divine election set this people apart distinctively, and specifically Jewish rituals (Sabbath, circumcision, dietary laws) made that distinctiveness visible.  Adherence to a single ‘jealous’ God, moreover, ensured that there were limits to the ability of Jews to assimilate to Greco-Roman culture and still remain Jews.  Second this approach to Judaism makes clear how impressively even this most resistant of traditions was in fact affected by its long involvement (willing and unwilling) with Hellenistic culture. Jews not only wrote in Greek but also adopted forms of Greek historiography, rhetoric, poetry, and philosophy when seeking to express their distinctive identity, and by so doing, they made that identity just a little bit more Greek.  And Jews who eschewed the use of Greek sometimes gave mute and unwitting testimony to the culture they rejected: the Essenes truly do resemble the Pythagoreans more than any form of Judaism that preceded them” (p. 129).     But the question lingers about this conclusion, which I think is basically correct— at what point does some surface similarities indicate influence?   The Essenes at the end of the day were more different than similar to the Pythagoreans, and they certainly operated with a different symbolic Universe and narrative thought world.   What this chapter reveals that if you study ‘ways of being religious’  or religious sensibilities in isolation from belief systems you have made a mistake.   And Johnson cannot be accused of doing this, for he gives full recognition to the impact of monotheism on all things religious when it comes to Judaism.   Why he doesn’t take into account the same theological factors for early Christianity is a puzzle, and points to the problems we will address in our next post.


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