'Among the Gentiles'— Was Christianity a Greco-Roman Religion? Final Thoughts

There are lots of good reasons to read good books, including good ones that don’t already agree with your own predelictions and viewpoints.  As should be clear from these posts, I have some significant disagreements with Luke Johnson on the subjects he is addressing in this book, but also some agreements as well.  It is a good and provocative book and it provides a service in that it forces one to look at early Christianity through the lens of ‘ways of being religious’ or  religious sensibilities.  This is helpful.   It is also a gold mine of good analysis of primary source texts and detailed scholarly notes.    I would not want to convey the impression that I don’t think this book is worth reading, because indeed I do. I think it’s quite valuable, despite my disagreements.    

We turn now to Luke’s conclusions, and here we learn what some of the underlying agendas are.  Right from the start of the epilogue he urges “I propose that the long history of  Christian attack and apology with respect to paganism must be abandoned if any progress is to be made in understanding the relationship between Greco-Roman religion and Christianity.”  (p. 275).   If what Johnson means by this is that pure polemics and emotive rhetoric should stop as it doesn’t help one to understand this inter-relationship, then I agree.  If he means that a reasoned ‘apologia’ for Christianity involving a critique of paganism should be also abandoned, then,  I am not with him on that point. 

We have already pointed out ways that the thesis, Christianity was a Greco-Roman religion almost from the outset, particularly in its religious sensibilities,  is not an entirely fair reading of the evidence, indeed it ignores a good deal of the evidence of the continued influence of  Jewish praxis and the Jewish thought world.   

On the other hand, Johnson’s method has this advantage as he urges, it does not fall prey to the fallacies of the history of religions kind of argument or the etymological fallacy.   In Johnson’s analysis “Neither paganism nor Christianity are considered as monolithic entities, and the question is not put in terms of causality or dependence. The alternatives of the arguments that ‘Christianity is entirely free of pagan influence’  or ‘Christianity derives from the Mystery Cults’ are shown to be false simply because they do not respect the complexity of the data.”   He then adds that his methodology allows for both similarities and differences among the ancient religions. (p. 277). The problem is, that in fact he is one-sidely stressing the similarities at the expense of the differences between paganism and early Christianity.

But now we get to what seems to really underlie this study.  “This approach can appreciate the religious impulses, convictions, experiences, and practices of pagans, not as weak approximations of a truth held exclusively by Jews and Christians, but instead as a powerful and authentic expressions of religious truth. I do not mean doctrinal truth but rather true religious responses to what is perceived as ultimate.” (p. 278).  Thia he says warrants the change of title from ‘Light to the Gentiles’  to ‘Light among the Gentiles’.   

While I would certainly not be a person who would suggest there was no light among the Gentiles before Jews or Christians enlightened them, I would have to say with Paul and others that indeed they can usually be characterized as weak approximations of a truth found more clearly elsewhere, namely in the Bible and those who correctly expounded and interpreted it.   Johnson chafes at the bit of exclusivity.   Were the responses of pagans to the divine sometimes powerful and certainly quite real at the experiential level?    I do not doubt this as a historical phenomena.  But as I have said before, the reality of a spiritual experience tells us nothing about the ‘authenticity’  or ‘goodness’  or ‘truthfulness’ of such an experience.  It can be perfectly genuine and perfectly deceiving and harmful.  While all truth is God’s truth,  not all earnest or sincere approaches to God are equally valid, not least because many of them are not directed toward the one and only God there is, but to some other reality, some other daimon, some other entity.  Even a genuine religious experience is not a guarantee of a saving or helpful or authentic one.

As a final salvo,  Johnson proceeds to briefly analyze modern Christianity in terms of his four categories with some interesting results.  For example,  “Christianity as transcending the world is found especially today in the ‘New Gnosticism’ that appears within and outside of virtually every visible church institution, among those who think in terms of spirituality rather than religion, who prefer retreats and workshops with fellow seekers to weekly worship, who regard theologies and polities as inhibitions to true Christianity, which is of the spirit rather than of the body, who consider ancient heresiologists as wicked and ancient Gnostics as good.”  (p. 280).   One wonders if he is thinking of Elaine Pagels and Karen King in this description, and to what degree it describes the author himself.   In any case, I think Johnson is right that we can find these four religious sensibilities in all sorts of different kinds of Christianity today, cutting across denomination lines.   Shared ways of being religious bring together strange bedfellows.    Johnson goes on to suggest that the deepest divisions in Christianity are not doctrinal but in the differ ways of being religious.     He urges at the end “The challenge to Christians today is to embrace a catholicity of religious sensibility and expression rather than to divide on the basis of mutual suspicion of ways of being Christian that seems strange.”  (p. 282).  At this juncture Johnson would have done well to read and reflect on John Wesley’s rightly famous sermon ‘On Catholic Spirit’.

Are religious people everywhere apt to experience and express their religion in similar ways of prayer and the like, and with similar religious sensibilities to some degree?  The answer to this is yes.  It’s a subject that G.K. Chesterton once famously discussed in his book Orthodoxy  turning on its head the usual ‘all religions are one’  argument.   His response was  they are similar in their praxis and ways of being religious, but profoundly different in their thought worlds and theologizing.  He is right about that,  and it does not help to bracket out the discussion of the symbolic universe and the narrative thought world and the theologizing,  in order to get at the similarities.   A more holistic approach is required.     

But as to the thesis that Christianity was a Greco-Roman religion almost from the outset,   about this we must say not merely  ‘non liquit’ not proved, we must say,  ‘not true’ in various profound and telling ways.

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