Luke Timothy Johnson. Among the Gentiles; Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Yale University Press, 2009.
Luke Timothy Johnson’s views on the relationship between Christian and Greco-Roman religious observance emphasize the importance the latter of the religious milieu of early Christianity. Thus Christianity, Johnson contends, continues the moral philosophical traditions of classical Greece and Rome. Christians, on the other hand, disparaged that tradition, calling it pagan. Pagan (pagānus) in Latin, means “worshipers of false gods.”
Johnson views are informed by an array of material not available to the nineteenth-century German scholars who first described the influence of Greek and Roman religiosity on early Christianity. The Nag-Hammadi library of scrolls, discovered in Egypt in 1945, revealed a Christianity ‘tainted’ with Gnostic traditions. Several years later the Dead Sea Scrolls reshaped scholarly views about the Judaism from which Christianity emerged. Finally, much more is know about the structure of the ancient city, its temples, and therefore its religious life from archeological discoveries in the twentieth century.
Christians have always been diverse in their ways of being religious. Johnson chooses to reduce this diversity to four types of religious sensibility in the ancient world: Religion as participation in divine benefits. Religion as moral transformation. Religion as transcending the world. Religion as stabilizing the world. He selects representative writers to demonstrate those types of religions sensibility in the first through third centuries.
Johnson chooses the first century Roman writer, Epictetus, as exemplary of classical views on Religion as moral transformation. He likes Epictetus’s notion that the task of human freedom is to find the proper alignment of the moral purpose with the God that is indwelling in mankind. Individuals are not, perforce, inferior to the gods and in fact harbor the same souls as the gods. It is easy to recognize in Epictetus a present-day sensibility that finds the divine in every individual.
He uses the Apostle Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and to James and the Hebrews as best representing Participation in divine benefits. In these letters, Paul continued the Greco-Roman tradition moral exhortation. This is not surprising; Paul was writing to Gentile converts whose thoughts on the divine and His powers were shaped by classical notions. Paul freely offers advice on how divine benefits can flow from a moral life brought into conformity with divine power. He prescribes attention to one’s taking in of food, modes of speech, use of wealth, and one’s sexual life. Thus moral life becomes the true measure of godly piety.
Religion as stabilizing the world had to await developments in the second and third centuries. Surprisingly quickly there emerged a structure of authority to oversee – to stabilize – religious practice. At first the leadership of the local congregation, the bishop (a Greek world meaning overseer or perhaps watcher) began to take on a liturgical role as the one most suitable to preside over ritual observances. Then he acquired an exclusivity of their performance. Certain bishops in important cities of the Roman Empire acquired authority over all Christian churches in their region. They resided at synods of bishops to sort out religious beliefs and practices and condemn some as heretical. This religious authority, they claimed, descent from the apostles of the first century.
Eventually the Roman Emperor, Constantine (ruled from 306 to his death in 337), gave an imperial recognition to this sorting out process by residing over the council of bishops at Nicaea in 325, which produced the Nicaean Creed. Johnson diminishes the importance of Constantine’s “establishing” Christianity as a state religion. In fact subsequent emperors took measures to counter the growing Christian intolerance of Roman religious observances.
Johnson is arguing for the continuing importance of Christianity’s Greco-Roman religious roots in early Christianity. He contrasts that with the more hostile withdrawal of first century Judaism from participating in that Hellenistic heritage, despite the initial enthusiasm of Philo and other Jewish writers.
Luke Timothy Johnson will give a lecture this fall at Holy Trinity Church.