'Among the Gentiles'– Was Christianity a Greco-Roman Religion? Part IV

Let us say from the outset of this post that Luke Johnson is right about a wide variety of things.  For instance, there can be no doubt at all that many Gentiles who became Christians under the aegis of Paul or others brought with them into their Christian communities certain Greco-Roman ways of being religious.  You can see this for example in the reference to proxy baptism for the dead in 1 Cor. 15.  Their approach to Christian initiation rites was no doubt affected by their previous beliefs about such things, whether they had participated in the Mystery religions or not.   They were partially socialized Christians who had not yet fully imbibed a Christian way of viewing things like the ‘sacraments’  to use an anachronistic term.   What is important to notice about this however is that Paul and others corrected such behaviors at various points.  It was not going to be satisfactory for Corinthian Christians to continue to go to dinner parties at pagan temples, and the reasons why they shouldn’t were at once theological, ethical and practical (its a bad witness).  Nor can we dispute that writers like Paul or the author of Hebrews used Greco-Roman philosophy and rhetoric in order to relate to their audiences.  These things, in themselves would not make Christianity a Greco-Roman religion, any more than Philo’s use of Greek philosophy meant he was no longer a Jewish thinker.   And doubtless Johnson is also right that many converts to Christianity went into their new religion with a religious sensibility that predisposed them to see what divine benefits or moral improvement they could get out of the new religion.   All of this is beyond reasonable cavil or doubt.  The issue really becomes whether ‘ways of being religious’ can be studied or should be studied in isolation from the symbolic universe, the narrative thought world and the theologizing and ethicizing we find going on in NT documents?   That is whether such ways or sensibilities can be isolated from questions of the thought world or ideation.    While I think distinctions can be made, I don’t at the end of the day think one can bracket out ‘theology’ for instance and still adequately discuss ‘ways of being religious’.    This whole approach rather reminds me of the story of Jacob and Esau when Jacob sought to steal Esau’s blessing.   The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands and arms are those of Esau.  That is, Greco-Roman dress or form doesn’t really determine who it is that is wearing the clothing.  The fact that there were priests, temples, and sacrifices prayers and tithes and offerings in almost all ancient religions while not an unimp0rtant similarity does not at the end of the day allow us to neglect the salient differences between say Judaism and Greco-Roman religion, even in regard to praxis.

With this as prolegomena we need to consider Chapters 10-11 on NT Christianity and Religiousness  A and B.  Naturally enough,  Johnson first turns to the ecstatic Corinthians as an example of Religiousness A— those who approach their religion looking for divine benefits including signs, wonders, ecstatic speech, charismatic experiences and the like.    There is something to this, but it is  a mistake to ignore the fact that 1 Corinthians is a letter that is a problem solving and correcting letter, and while Paul doesn’t want to stifle the Spirit in Corinth, he does want to deprogram them from for example mistaking glossolalia for prophecy (a natural mistake in view of what went on at the oracle at Delphi— see my Conflict and Community in Corinth), and he wants them to understand the concept of grace and truth.  There are all sorts of religious experiences, and doubtless many sorts of ‘real’ religious experiences, but not all of them are beneficial, not all of them are of the Lord, not all of them build up the body of Christ.  The ‘realness’ of an experience one can have at the temple of Asklepius in Corinth does tell one anything about the goodness of the experience or the godliness of the experience.   If Paul had heard a  Corinthian say ‘but I cannot deny my experience I had at the Asklepion’  Paul’s response would have been ‘no, but you can deny it was a good or godly experience’  and so he would tell them ‘you cannot dine at the table of the Lord and also at the table of  daimons’.   And when it came to the Christian meal,  Paul busily deconstructs the notion that it should be approached or treated as just another stratified Greco-Roman meal with a symposium to follow.  He talks about taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner— an ethical way of processing things.    Johnson at several points in his book wants to say things like the religious experiences of pagans and the experiences of Gnostics and the experiences of Christians seem to be just as genuine and authentic across the board.    But the question is not whether they had ‘genuine’ experiences.  The question is whether it was the one God whom they were experiencing.   You can have a genuine experience and you can be absolutely sincere in your devotion— and you can be experiencing the wrong spiritual reality and in the end it will be bad for you.  You can be sincerely devoted to the wrong thing however real your experiences.    To say this is not mere polemics,  its at the heart of Jewish and Christian thought because they are monotheistic religions.  They do not take a smorgasbordian approach to ‘true’ religious experience or valid and valuable religious sensibilities.  And neither should we.   Thus while it is right to note that Irenaeus and others may well have over-egged the pudding when it comes to polemics against Gnostics and the like,  gone beyond the appropriate bounds of speaking the truth in love, at the end of the day the substance of their critique was correct— there is only one God, and all others are something less or something else.

One of the most helpful points in his analysis of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is when he seeks to get inside of the mindset of some of the recently minted Galatian converts and says “They reasoned by analogy: if the cult of the Messiah was an association (ekklesia) rather than a domestic cult or local cult shrine or civic liturgy, then it can be thought of as a Mystery…And if it was a Mystery then initiations in it would naturally be multiple.   Further initiation (as into the cult of Moses) would require an ordeal (such as circumcision or physical asceticism) to be sure but it would also provide lore not available to others (such as Torah) and an elevated status within the association.” (p. 146).    This seems likely to be right.  Those who came from a polytheistic background would not see a contradiction between being baptized into Jesus and being thereafter initiated into Moses.  Religious exclusivity claims were not part of their religious background or sensibilities, and so Paul had to correct them.

Johnson’s arguments about Paul’s letters have more strength to them, and I think he is right that Gentiles did approach becoming followers of Christ in various ways with the same sort of religious sensibility as they approached pagan religions.   This I think is demonstrable, but it needs to be added that Paul was busily correcting them on various scores whether they approached Christianity from a Religiousness A or B perspective.    More dubious is his analysis of the Synoptic Gospels.    How so?

In the first place the Synoptic Gospels are about Jesus’ relationship with Jews, almost exclusively so.  Did Jews approach Jesus for healing and help and instruction in the same way that Gentiles approached Paul’s communities?   The answer to this question must be yes and no.   Yes, they approached Jesus because they saw he had divine power, and wanted help or healing.  There’s no doubt about that.  But they did not approach Jesus from a polytheistic religious gestalt or world-view that suggested the more initiations, the better.  They took Jesus’ call to discipleship to rule out other calls to discipleship, even other Jewish ones.  It is precisely the monotheistic exclusivity of the religious environment in which Jesus operated which is mirrored in these Synoptic Gospels, not pagan environments.   This explains the intensity of debate between Pharisees and Jesus, indeed of all sorts of people and Jesus, for they understood that if Jesus was right, and indeed was some sort of messianic figure, then they were wrong, and he eclipsed other such figures.   The debate was done in the context where exclusivity of religious claims, not pluralism in the broad sense, was the rule.     The Synoptic Gospels, though of relevance to later discussions in more pluralistic settings, are not transcripts or mirrors of such later Christian settings.  It is certainly right to say however, that we don’t find traces of what Johnson calls type C and D religiosity.   There is no denigration of God’s creation or of the goodness of the body in these Gospels, not even in John, unlike in the later Gnostic Gospels.  They still mirror the strong creation theology of the OT and of early Judaism, caught up as they are in meaningful discussions about resurrection, marriage and family life, children, sexual behavior, and the like.   While it may be true that Gentiles who read these Gospels would not have cavilled at worshipping Jesus as Lord along with the Father, as a result of their non-monotheistic background, it should be added that many Jews who converted felt the same way, and did not see the Christian belief system as a violation of Jewish monotheism.

More successful is the analysis of Johnson of traces of Religiousness B in the letters of Paul and in James and Hebrews.  This is not a surprise since early Jewish teaching was largely ethical and praxis oriented to begin with and the authors of all three of these books are likely Jews who are now followers of Jesus.  Here Johnson is write to stress that the ethics of the NT has been given short shrift,  especially in the analysis of Paul, whereas there is a strong emphasis on virtues and moral exemplars (have this mind in yourself that was in Christ) in this literature, and at this level it is not surprising that Paul’s ethical teaching has been compared to that of Epictetus, and with profit.  The question is,  did the audiences of these documents approach the Christian community hoping for moral instruction and transformation alone? I doubt this. I suspect that the audiences especially of Paul’s letters looked also for divine benefits.   A case can be made that the audience of James and Hebrews was expecting moral information and transformation, and here Johnson’s argument is clearly stronger.    But is it really the case that we find little or no Religiousness C and D in first century Christian documents?   Wouldn’t Romans 12 count as world-stabilizing religious rhetoric, or the similar remarks in 1 Peter?  Were there really no Corinthians who denigrated the flesh and had an other-worldly spirituality?  1 Cor. 7 would suggest there were, though Paul does not approve.

And this brings us to a final major point for this post— to what degree can we take the religious sensibilities of the authors of the NT documents as representative of the communities as wholes especially if most of these documents are busily correcting the audiences on this or that praxis or behavior or belief?  And we must also ask, to what degree can we take what is said about the audiences of these documents as adequate revelations of their actual religious sensibilities?  Take for example a document like Colossians or Romans, written to an audience Paul has never personally met or visited?   Or an encyclical document like Ephesians?   It is very difficult to say how much light can be shed on such subjects by reading between the Pauline or Petrine etc. lines.   And I would say that there is certainly not enough data to warrant calling earliest Christianity already in the first century ‘a Greco-Roman religion’.    It’s more of a Jewish sectarian religion with an evangelistic zeal, prepared to use the philosophy and rhetoric of the culture to further its rather clearly monotheistic, exclusivitic aims in regard to theology, ethics, and praxis, never mind religiosity.

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