'Among the Gentiles'— Was Christianity a Greco-Roman Religion? Part VII

In Chapter 15 Johnson turns to evidence for Religiousness D in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity,  an approach to religion that sees it as a world stabilizing force.   The concern here is for the role of religion in society.  In some ways it is odd to address this subject when one is talking about the pre-Constantinian church.  After all, Christianity was still not a religio licita,  it did not contribute to stabilizing the Roman empire, nor even to stabilizing the religious world within the Empire, so far as we can tell, unless one is talking about Christians being honest and good citizens, and doing charitable works.  But in fact, that is mostly not what Johnson is talking about in this chapter.

In analyzing what Clement, Ignatius, and Justin have to say about episcopal structures, the emerging role of bishops, liturgy and cultic language for the ekklesia something very odd happens.  While Johnson recognizes that Clement (e.g. in 1 Clem. 40.1ff.) is drawing analogies with the priestly praxis of Israel,  not with Greco-Roman praxis,  such that the bishop begins to play the role of high priest, in regard to the Lord’s Supper praxis,  (see pp. 236-37) and he recognizes the indebtedness of a document like the Didache to Jewish sources of thinking about meals and sacrifices and leadership,  reflecting a growing suspicion of prophets and more charismatic forms of leadership, he does not make clear why exactly we should see such adaptation as evidence of an increasingly Greco-Roman character to early Christianity. He concludes for example “It is sufficient, however, to establish that long before Christianity achieved its position as the imperial religion, bishops had emerged as local leaders, some exercising dominance over entire regions, and some met in councils to decide disputed issues. It is also sufficient to show that episcopal power was symbolized in terms of the high priesthood of the Old Testament and that the celebration of the Eucharist by bishops was characterized in terms of sacrifice.”  (p. 245).    Again one must ask,  how exactly is this evidence that Christianity was, or was becoming a Greco-Roman religion?    If we look at Greco-Roman religion of the time, all cults were basically local.  There was no equivalent to the bishop presiding over a region, in Greco-Roman religion unless one counts the pontifex maximus, the Emperor himself,  but Christianity did not yet have popes in this period,  despite anachronistic attempts by some to claim otherwise.   They had monarchial bishops in places like Antioch, and Ephesus, and Rome.

Take the evidence from Irenaeus.  As Johnson says “Irenaeus’ overall strategy, then consisted in establishing the tripod of Christian self-definition: the rule of faith (creed), the collection of Scriptures (canon), and the teaching office of bishops  (council).”  (p. 247).  This is exactly right, and it distinguishes Christianity from Greco-Roman religion or even ways of being religious in various regards.  Greco-Roman religions had no holy books,  nor were their creeds that people went around reciting, and as I have already said, there is no functional equivalent to the monarchial bishop in Greco-Roman religion.   Christianity, it would seem was evolving by developing its own praxis, its own ways of being religious, its own ecclesial structures and offices.   And where did Irenaeus think he got this threefold impetus to define Christianity?  From the apostles and apostolic tradition and from Scripture, and from the newly recognized normative collections of Christian texts, in the first instance a collection of the four Gospels and of Paul’s letters.

Johnson goes on to argue: “Long before it became the imperial religion, Christianity appeared institutionally as a vast network of associations that had developed a distinctive politeia. It’s bishops were elected by the people, but drew their legitimacy from a narrative of apostolic succession that fundamentally identified the visible community with its leaders. Bishops, furthermore, spoke of the church in terms of a sanctuary in which they functioned as divinely ordained priests, offering sacrifices to God through Christ.” (p. 253).   He is entirely right about this, which means, you can’t blame Constantine for all this.  And notice his admission that Christians were developing a distinct politeia in fact based on a taking over of certain things from the OT itself, not from Greco-Roman religion.   Now it is true that by that hermeneutical move, Christianity began to look more like any sort of religion that focused on priests, sacrifices, and sanctuaries, whether Jewish or Greco-Roman.   This however doesn’t make Christianity more like Greco-Roman religion any more than it was more like Jewish religion pre-70 A.D.   And these develops all transpired before: 1) the agreement on the N T canon in the early church; 2) the Christological councils in 325 and 450;  3)  before Christianity became a religio licita, a legal and publicly practiced and endorsed religion in the Empire.   If we want to see Christianity in bed with Greco-Roman politicians and those in power,  we have to wait for the time of Constantine.   But one cannot blame the ecclesial structures of early Christianity on him.    And finally the Greco-Roman associations  are not much of a parallel to what was going on in the ekklesiae. Whether we are talking about trade guilds, or merchant associations, or even the Mysteries, these things don’t walk or talk like what we see in the churches of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

Thus far in this book,  Johnson has established that some of the ways early Christian had of being religious, one also finds in early Judaism and in the Greco-Roman world.   There were indeed Christians who focused on divine benefits or moral transformation, and other things.  But frankly one could say ‘that’s just human nature’  which is self-centered and approaches all things, including religion with a what can I get out of this attitude.   What he has not established is his key claim made on pp. 254-55:

Within the framework of the analysis used in this study, Christianity was a ‘Greco-Roman’ religion virtually from the start and grew increasingly closer to forms and expressions of religion found in the Greco-Roman environment. Rather, than a foreign and forced imposition, the Greco-Roman character of  Christianity was a natural development that required no external or political assistance. As the presence and influence of living Judaism receded, moreover, Christianity’s only real connection to its Jewish roots was through the reading of Scripture.  These sacred texts from ancient Israel were being read and interpreted however, as Greek writings  (the LXX) by people whose cultural environment, rhetorical education, and religious expectations were entirely Gentile.”

I think Johnson is right that over time we see more and more influence of Greco-Roman philosophical thought (for example at Nicea) and all along we have seen the use of the Greek language and rhetoric by early Christians.  And he is quite right that the form Christianity took leading into the 4th century was an internal development, and in part we may put some of its shape down to the  increasing influence of Gentiles in the church.   A very large lacunae in this statement however is this— the symbolic universe, the narrative thought world, and the theologizing and ethicizing of Christians owed far more to their Jewish sacred texts, both those written by Jews, and later those written by Jewish Christians or God-fearers like Luke than Johnson allows.  And indeed the influence of the Jewish content of these texts continued to be fundamental to the ‘ways of being religious’  in early Christianity, though in the cult of the martyrs and in the monastic movement, and in the Platonizing reflections on God’s nature, we can see increasing influence from the Greco-Roman thought world.

Buried in the footnotes is a begrudging reference to a seminal work that takes a very different tact and draws very different conclusions on this same subject— the classic study of Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, (Yale, 2003). If you are looking for a rebuttal of some of Johnson’s major claims in advance of Johnson making them,  you should read Wilken’s book in tandem with Johnson’s.   Rejecting the notion of the hellenization of Christianity, Wilken argues ” a more apt expression would be the Christianization of Hellenism, though that phrase does not capture the originality of Christian thought nor the debt owed to Jewish ways of thinking and to the Jewish Bible.  Neither does it acknowledge the good and right qualities of Hellenic thinking that Christians recognized as valuable for example the moral life understood in terms of the virtues. At the same time, one observes again and again that Christian thinking, while working within patterns of thought and conceptions rooted in Greco-Roman culture, transformed them so profoundly that in the end something quite new came into being”  (pp. xvi-xvii).

It is pity that Johnson doesn’t give due attention and critique to Wilken’s detailed arguments, and I must confess that having read both books,  it appears to me that Wilken definitely has the better of the argument,  not denying the influence of Hellenism on Christianity, but also not making the over-sized claim that Christianity was a Greco-Roman religion from the outset.   This, as Wilken would say is rhetorical hyperbole not demonstrable by the evidence, especially if one is talking about pre-Constantinian Christianity.   Johnson is right that rhetoricians did become church leaders especially after Constantine.  He is right that the evangelistic character of Christianity made it susceptible  to the influence of Greco-Roman praxis, thought, ways and we see evidence of it.    But early Christianity continued to be a development of early Judaism precisely because of the ongoing influence of its sacred texts on its thought world, and its symbol system so much so, that you can tell the difference between the exegesis of the Antioch school and that of Alexandrians like Clement and Origen and it becomes clear which sort of approach is more or less in line with the Jewish substance and character of these texts.   The fact that Philo provides a precedent for Origen and Clement ought to lead us to ask the question— would we want to say that the religion of Philo was straight-forwardly a form of Greco-Roman religion?    I think not, and nor should we claim this about the early Christian writers who adopted and adapted what they had learned from Greco-Roman education and philosophy and ways of interpreting texts to further their essentially Jewish monotheistic and Christocentric religion.    In the end, Johnson’s approach to this subject is, and is intended to be a provocation.  He is arguing a particular case.  He argues well,  but the case has too much neglect of evidence, too much imbalance, too much taking small or individual examples as evidence of large trends.    In our final post on this book,  I will deal with Johnson’s  Epilogue,   where we learn what some of  his real urgencies were for doing this study.


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