Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity
By Luke Timothy Johnson
Yale, 461 pages, $32.50
It is generally recognized that early Christian thinkers drew on the philosophical traditions of the world in which they lived. A good example is the appropriation of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Although mentioned in the biblical book of Wisdom (8:7), a late work written in Greek, they do not appear as a group in the New Testament.
Christian writers, however, found the cardinal virtues a useful way to present the moral life. When Ambrose wished to write a book on ethics, he not only took the title from Cicero’s work, De officiis (“on moral responsibilities”), he also organized it as Cicero organized his, around the cardinal virtues. To be sure, in Christian hands the cardinal virtues were modified; in Augustine they become forms of love. Nevertheless, the debt to the Greek philosophical tradition is unmistakable.
Whether Christian appropriation of aspects of Greek philosophy—what is sometimes called the Hellenization of Christianity—was a good thing has, of course, been debated. But there is no question that in the early centuries, ancient philosophy, especially Stoicism and Platonism, played a role in forming the Christian intellectual tradition.
If, however, one asks about the relation between early Christianity and Greco-Roman religion, the verdict is quite different. There the break between Christianity and Greco-Roman religious practices, sentiments, and institutions is thought to be much cleaner, with few elements carried over or adopted by the new religion.
Among the Gentiles, a revisionist interpretation of early Christian religion, argues that Christianity carried over much more from the religious world of its origins than has been thought. Locating the early Christian movement more fully in the complex religious world that flourished in the cities of the Roman empire, Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, centers his discussion on “four ways of being religious”: first, participation in divine benefits, including healing, deliverance, and wisdom as divine revelation; second, moral transformation; third, transcending the world—that is, breaking free of the encumbrances of the body and matter; and, fourth, stabilizing the world—seeing religion as the cement that holds together the life of society.
Johnson’s strategy is to illustrate these ways of being religious in the ancient world by an analysis of representative figures. So, for example, in the section on participation in divine benefits, he discusses Aristides, the author of Sacred Discourses, whose illness led him to seek healing at the shrine of the god Asclepius in Pergamon. He then shows that the gospels present Jesus as a figure in whom the “divine dynamis” is active in the world through signs and wonders—healing, exorcism, raising people from the dead—and that what is found in the canonical gospels is multiplied a hundredfold in the apocryphal acts.
In the section on moral transformation, he draws on Plutarch, the late-first-century moral philosopher, and explains how Paul addresses his readers as “moral agents” as well as recipients of divine benefits: “Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of the mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Johnson offers the Epistle of James as another representative of the way of moral transformation that is less interested in benefits received from divine power than in the use to which they are put, both in the lives of individuals and in the community. Johnson also points to the writings of early Christian philosophers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.
The Christian sources do not yield as readily to Johnson’s two latter categories, transcending the world and stabilizing the world. In the case of transcending the world, the New Testament and orthodox Christian writers have positive views of the body and of matter, so Johnson takes his prime illustrations from marginal Gnostic writings.
In the case of stabilizing the world, with a few exceptions Christians did not begin to use language reminiscent of Roman civil religion until the fourth century and the conversion of Constantine. As evidence of stabilizing the world in the early period in Christianity, Johnson draws a parallel between Christian bishops on the one hand and priests and hierophants of Greco-Roman religion on the other. Here the book stumbles, and the limitations of Johnson’s approach become apparent.
The office of the bishop is a capital example of how different Christianity was from Greco-Roman religion. The complicated rituals of Roman religion required competent supervision provided by trained priests. Priesthood had to do with ritual. Neither oversight nor teaching was in the charge of Roman priests, and moral formation was the business of philosophers. The Christian bishop did have responsibility for celebrating the Church’s principal rituals, Baptism and the Eucharist, but he also oversaw the life of the community, including discipline, and expounded the Scriptures as the community’s teacher and moral guide. He was head of a religious association distinct from the civic community, whereas Roman priests were functionaries of the state and performed religious acts only on special occasions. Combining in one person the three functions of oversight, teaching, and presiding at the Church’s worship, the Christian office of bishop was unique among the religious institutions of the Roman world.
In its central ritual and in architecture, Christianity was visibly different from Greco-Roman religion. The Christian Eucharist, although called a sacrifice, did not include the roasting and eating of an animal, the most characteristic feature of ancient religion. As the liturgies of the early Church attest, it was an “unbloody sacrifice.”
The principal religious building in the ancient world was the temple—the house of a god or goddess whose image the temple contained. It was not an edifice for communal worship. The statue was placed facing the door so that the god could see the sacrifice, which was roasted at an altar in front of the temple. Christian worship, however, required a spacious room for the congregation. In the early years Christians met in homes, but when they began to build churches, they eschewed the temple and modeled their religious buildings on the basilica, a structure designed for civic gatherings, legal activities, and buying and selling.
Johnson is correct that Christianity shared much with the religious practices and sensibilities of the world in which it was born, and Among the Gentiles is a useful survey of the ways of being religious in antiquity that found a home within Christianity. But in his zeal to show undeniable similarities between Christianity and Greco-Roman religion, Johnson ignores major ways in which the new religion broke with longstanding religious conventions.
Further, most of what he presents as newly discovered points of similarity are well known to students of early Christianity and have been known for generations. For example, he says that scholars now have begun to pay more serious attention to the moral philosophers of the early Roman Empire.
But forty years ago, as a student in Germany, I was told by a distinguished Church historian that if I wanted to understand Clement of Alexandria, I must read first- and second-century Greco-Roman moral philosophers such as Plutarch, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Epictetus. I was directed to a book (which I still have in my personal library) entitled Seelenfuehrung (“spiritual direction”) that laid out the case with extensive documentation.
Johnson’s book also suffers from the imposition of a contemporary agenda on the interpretation of the ancient sources. Johnson believes that Christians today are ill equipped to deal with religious pluralism, and he traces their failure to come to grips with other religious beliefs and practices to the New Testament and the early centuries of Christian history.
He says, as if this were a fault, that Christian writers “emphasized the distance between themselves and practitioners of pagan religion.” Paul criticizes the Gentiles because they refuse to “acknowledge the true God” (Rom. 1:10–20) and says that “an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor. 8:4). Other writers say that the “gods” were simply humans elevated to divine status after death.
I am completely baffled by Johnson’s recitation of the presumed offenses of Christian writers against Greco-Roman religion. At points I almost expected Johnson to come to the defense of idolatry.
In his response to the Greek critic Celsus, Origen of Alexandria says that Christians and Jews are “intolerant” of altars and images “because they degrade or debase the worship of God.” Christians and Jews do not frequent temples nor participate in sacrifices because of the commands “You shall fear the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Deut. 6:13) and “You shall have no other gods besides me” (Exod. 20:3–5). Origen acknowledges that Plato seems to recognize the one God but argues that if he and other Greeks had found God, “they would not have reverenced anything else and called it God and worshipped it, either abandoning the true God or combining with the majesty of God things which ought not to be associated with Him.”
The history of early Christianity was a mighty struggle to explain and defend belief in one God in a cultural world in which the divine was manifold and hierarchical, not singular. Some Christian writers were tempted to adopt ideas of higher and lower grades of divinity with the supreme God at the summit. One early apologist even boasted that Christians have God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit, united but diverse in rank, and, at a lower level, a host of angels and other ministering spirits.
After centuries of debate and controversy, this kind of cultural accommodation was soundly rejected. The intellectual defense of the oneness of God was a great religious and cultural achievement that laid the foundation for our civilization. Are we now to reproach Paul and other early Christian writers for being intolerant of idolatry and using censorious language to set Christian practice off from the worship of idols?
In his final pages Johnson says that he has “studiously avoided theological discourse” in his study. He is convinced that the “more neutral” form of discourse of “religious studies” is more useful. How anyone who inhabits the modern academy can characterize “religious studies” as neutral is beyond my grasp.
I do know that a far better book could have been written from the perspective of Christian theology. A reader could be equipped with the conceptual tools to locate Christianity against the backdrop of Greco-Roman culture and still savor the ways in which the new religion was shaped by ancient religious sentiments and practices, and appreciate how it challenged, transformed, and, in some cases, replaced them.
Robert Louis Wilken, a member of the editorial and advisory board of First Things , is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.