Among the Gentiles

Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Among the Gentiles
    Book Description:

    The question of Christianity's relation to the other religions of the world is more pertinent and difficult today than ever before. While Christianity's historical failure to appreciate or actively engage Judaism is notorious, Christianity's even more shoddy record with respect to "pagan" religions is less understood. Christians have inherited a virtually unanimous theological tradition that thinks of paganism in terms of demonic possession, and of Christian missions as a rescue operation that saves pagans from inherently evil practices.

    In undertaking this fresh inquiry into early Christianity and Greco-Roman paganism, Luke Timothy Johnson begins with a broad definition of religion as a way of life organized around convictions and experiences concerning ultimate power. In the tradition of William James'sVariety of Religious Experience, he identifies four distinct ways of being religious: religion as participation in benefits, as moral transformation, as transcending the world, and as stabilizing the world. Using these criteria as the basis for his exploration of Christianity and paganism, Johnson finds multiple points of similarity in religious sensibility.

    Christianity's failure to adequately come to grips with its first pagan neighbors, Johnson asserts, inhibits any effort to engage positively with adherents of various world religions. This thoughtful and passionate study should help break down the walls between Christianity and other religious traditions.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15649-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Beyond Attack and Apology: A New Look at an Old Debate
    (pp. 1-14)

    Is there any kinship between paganism and Christianity? This is an old question. It is also a good question, and one that has never been answered satisfactorily. The second-century apologist Tertullian famously asked, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”¹ He meant to separate Christianity from Greek philosophy. Not all Christian thinkers agreed, and in a variety of ways Christianity eventually embraced and was enriched by a long engagement with Greek philosophers.

    But if by “Athens” the questioner meant Greek and Roman religion, then all Christians agreed—and still tend to agree with Tertullian—that there is no connection...

  5. 2 Beginning a New Conversation
    (pp. 15-31)

    The long conversation that I have described concerning Greco-Roman religion and Christianity—if such a rancorous debate can be dignified by that term—was distorted, as we have seen, by passion and prejudice. Christians simply reduced paganism to “the other,” either as a way of asserting Christianity’s own privileged status or as an explanation for the corruption of original and authentic faith. The way to a new conversation has been opened, in turn, by a combination of new perspectives and new knowledge, which together make it possible to observe the ways in which Christians and pagans resemble each other as...

  6. 3 A Preliminary Profile of Greco-Roman Religion
    (pp. 32-49)

    The more we learn about the ancient Mediterranean world, the more complex and sprawling the topic of Greco-Roman religion appears.¹ This preliminary profile attempts to provide some sense of the range of religious experiences, convictions, and practices in the early Roman Empire.² I make no effort to distinguish, for example, what is originally Greek and what is natively Roman in this religious world, or to develop stages of religion that unfold in evolutionary sequence or in response to spiritual crises.³ Rather, I focus on the variety of religious phenomena observable across the empire and throughout the period when Christianity emerged.⁴...

  7. 4 Religion as Participation in Divine Benefits: Aelius Aristides
    (pp. 50-63)

    My preliminary profile of Greco-Roman religion provides a framework for the closer analysis of the four types of religiosity our sources suggest. I have suggested that these ways of being religious are distinguished on the basis of their perceptions concerning the divinedynamis(power): how access to it is attained and what its effects on humans are. The panoply of religious phenomena displayed in the previous chapter are all expressions of Religiousness A, participation in divine benefits: sacrifices and prayers, prophecy and healings, Mysteries and pilgrimages are not in competition but are complementary: the point of them all is making...

  8. 5 Religion as Moral Transformation: Epictetus
    (pp. 64-78)

    The majority of those considering themselves religious in the Greco-Roman world no doubt exhibited the sort of religious sensibility demonstrated so well by Aelius Aristides, though probably with less fervor and certainly with less rhetorical polish. They thought of the divinedynamisas distributed throughout the empirical world and available through multiple practices, from prayer and sacrifice to divination and healing. The gods were the source of benefits in which their worshipers participated: the salvation they offered was mainly success and security in everyday life.

    In this chapter, I consider the way of being religious that I have designated as...

  9. 6 Religion as Transcending the World: Poimandres
    (pp. 79-92)

    The forms of religiosity represented respectively by Aelius Aristides and Epictetus are robustly positive toward the visible world as the arena for divinedynamis(power). The orator Aristides celebrated his participation in divine benefits through prophecy (oracles, dreams), sacrifices, and healing. While not disdaining such external manifestations of the divine, the philosopher Epictetus focused on the immanence of the divinedynamis, whose work was the moral transformation of humans. For both, the body—even when beset with illness as it was for both authors—was also evaluated positively: for Aristides, the power of Asclepius was most manifest in the god’s...

  10. 7 Religion as Stabilizing the World: Plutarch
    (pp. 93-110)

    The fourth way of being religious in the Greco-Roman world is in some ways the most difficult to assess, partly because of the deep-seated bias that many Christian scholars bring to it, partly because of the paucity of sources for a “sensibility”—people who follow this path do not necessarily express their religious impulses in literature—and partly because in many respects it is complementary to Religiousness A (“Participation in Divine Benefits”). I approach my characterization of this sensibility by considering the three difficulties in reverse order.

    1. In my preliminary profile of Greco-Roman religion (see Chapter 3), I surveyed...

  11. 8 Ways of Being Jewish in the Greco-Roman World
    (pp. 111-129)

    My interest in this study is the comparison between the ways of being religious in the Greco-Roman world and the ways of being Christian between the first and fourth centuries. It is nevertheless both natural and necessary to devote some attention to Judaism in the same period of time, for at least three reasons. First, Christianity arose as a Jewish sect in the mid-first century and from the beginning interpreted itself with explicit reference to the symbolic world of Torah that it shared with Judaism; the things that made Judaism distinct within the Greco-Roman world are also the things that,...

  12. 9 The Appearance of Christianity in the Greco-Roman World
    (pp. 130-141)

    In the middle of the first century CE, a new religious movement made its appearance in the Greco-Roman world. Those first designated by others—and then designating themselves— as “Christians” sought and increasingly found a place in the Mediterranean world.¹ Christianity began as one among other Jewish sects. After the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70, in fact, the Messianists could be regarded as one of the two surviving claimants, with the Pharisees, to the heritage of Israel.² By the late second century CE, however, Christianity was predominantly if not exclusively a Gentile religion, and its path of interaction...

  13. 10 New Testament Christianity as Participation in Divine Benefits
    (pp. 142-157)

    Within a very short period of time, Gentiles joined the movement that had gathered around the crucified and raised Jewish Messiah Jesus, and within decades such Gentile converts formed a majority of its members.¹ Given this influx of Gentile members, and given the elements of instability described in the previous chapter, we would expect the Christian movement to be marked in some fashion by the Greco-Roman religious background of such converts. And since the greatest portion of religious Gentiles belonged to what I have described as Religiousness A, we should not be surprised to find traces of this form of...

  14. 11 New Testament Christianity as Moral Transformation
    (pp. 158-171)

    My analysis of Epictetus in Chapter 5 made the point that Religiousness B (“the way of moral transformation”) had much in common with Religiousness A (“participation in divine benefits), for both sensibilities perceive the divinedynamisas active in the empirical world and accessible to humans. The essential mark of difference is that Religiousness B is more interested in the way that samedynamiscan transform humans as moral agents. Thus, Epictetus did not scorn or reject the round of popular piety within the empire, did not in any passage deny the reality of the gods or the efficacy of...

  15. 12 Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries: Participation in Divine Benefits
    (pp. 172-193)

    The period of time between earliest Christianity—reflected in the writings of the New Testament—and the establishment of the once-despised cult as the religion of the empire is obviously important, for it prepared the way for a most unlikely ascendancy. It is also maddeningly elusive: much of what we would like to know is unavailable for analysis. Some things can be stated with confidence, and it is helpful to state them at once in order to provide a framework for the analysis of the ways of being Christian in this period.

    Over the course of these 200 years, the...

  16. 13 Moral Transformation in Second- and Third-Century Christianity
    (pp. 194-213)

    The second and third centuries, as we have seen, provide abundant testimony for the form of religious sensibility I have designated Religiousness A: in apocryphal gospels and acts, in the “new prophecy” of Montanism, and in manifestations of martyr piety. This strain of religiosity could claim to be firmly grounded in the writings of the New Testament, above all in the canonical Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, but also in those writers who, like Paul and James and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, recognized the presence of “signs and wonders” at work in the world through...

  17. 14 Transcending the World in Second- and Third-Century Christianity
    (pp. 214-233)

    In Greco-Roman religion, the first two ways of being religious celebrate the presence of the divinedynamisin the empirical world and differ only in emphasis—Religiousness A (as in Aelius Aristides) focuses on participation in divine benefits and Religiousness B (as in Epictetus) focuses on moral transformation. The third mode of religious sensibility seeks to transcend the empirical world, which it regards negatively as devoid of the divinedynamis. In Greco-Roman religion, it found mature expression in the Hermetic literature.

    Religiousness C views salvation not in terms of safety and success in the present world nor in terms of...

  18. 15 Stabilizing the World in Second- and Third-Century Christianity
    (pp. 234-254)

    In Greco-Roman religion, the fourth type of religiousness found expression especially among those who served as priests and ministers. On one hand, it can be seen as the supply side to Religiousness A, with which it is in closest agreement; rather than focusing on participation in the benefits given by the divinedynamisas made available in the round of religious practices, it focuses on making such practices available—via the keepers of the temples, the hierophants at the Mysteries, the patrons of religious associations, the sponsors of civic liturgies. They make possible and perform the sacrifices that form such...

  19. 16 After Constantine: Christianity as Imperial Religion
    (pp. 255-274)

    Even before Constantine changed Christianity’s historical situation, the religion that began as a Jewish sect based on the death and resurrection of a Jewish Messiah showed itself to have remarkable capacity for survival in the face of persecution, as well as the ability to develop religious sensibilities corresponding to those in the dominant Greco-Roman culture. As I showed in Chapter 8, Judaism itself, up to the middle of the second century when its dalliance with Hellenism effectively ended, revealed the same adaptive tendencies.

    In the second and third centuries, some Christians had the same optimism about experiencing the divine power...

  20. Epilogue
    (pp. 275-284)

    The argument of this book is straightforward. 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. I find the possibility for a new and better conversation on the topic in the distinctive perspective of religious studies rather than theology. And within religious studies, I adopt a modified phenomenological approach that allows historical sources to speak as much as possible in their own terms.

    A subtler appreciation for what constitutes “religious” enables in turn a more...

  21. Notes
    (pp. 285-404)
    (pp. 405-417)
    (pp. 418-443)
    (pp. 444-452)
    (pp. 453-461)