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Daniel J. HarringtonNovember 23, 2009
Among the Gentilesby By Luke Timothy JohnsonYale Univ. Press. 480p $32.50

While many of us have come to recognize that some New Testament books and early Christian writings treat Jews and Judaism harshly, few of us advert to their denunciations of pagan religions as idolatrous and even demonic. Yet it is also clear that the first Christians borrowed many of their key theological terms and concepts not only from the Jewish tradition but also from the Greco-Roman culture surrounding them. This volume, which is part of the Anchor Yale (formerly Doubleday) Bible Reference Library, contends that new perspectives and new knowledge (archaeological and textual) combined enable us to examine the question of early Christianity and Greco-Roman religions with fresh eyes.

Luke Timothy Johnson, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, is well respected for his excellent commentaries on various New Testament books and his many essays on biblical theology. He is also the author of the highly regarded book Religious Experience in Early Christianity (1998). In this volume his focus is on ways of being religious in the world in which early Christianity took shape.

The methodology Johnson adopts here is that of religious studies (the stance of the objective observer) rather than theology (the perspective of the engaged participant). His concern is analysis rather than advocacy or apologetics. He wants to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In this way he hopes to clarify how early Christians expressed their religious impulses in comparison with their Gentile and Jewish neighbors. He wants to show the continuities and similarities rather than the dichotomies and differences. The title, Among the Gentiles, plays off the biblical motif of Christianity (and Judaism) as a “light to the Gentiles.”

Johnson defines religion broadly as “a constructive human activity in which experiences and convictions concerning ultimate power both depend on and reshape people’s social structures and symbolic worlds, enabling a way of life based on and seeking to express through a variety of practices those experiences and convictions.” Basic to his analysis throughout the book is a fourfold typology of ways of being religious in antiquity: participation in divine benefits, moral transformation, transcending the world and stabilizing the world.

After general observations about religion in the Greco-Roman world, Johnson develops his typology with concrete examples: religion as access to the divine through pious practices, and salvation as success and security in this life (Aelius Aristides, an orator in the second century A.D.); religion as moral transformation in line with the moral purpose of the god within (Epictetus, a Stoic teacher); religion as the pursuit of the immortal soul’s release from imprisonment in the body (Poimandres, a Hermetic tractate); and worship in the service of the city/empire, and the city/empire as the locus for divine beneficence (Plutarch, a priest-philosopher). Johnson presents these figures as representing distinctive ways of being religious, not rigidly separated from one another.

After suggesting that this typology applies also to Judaism between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200, Johnson explores how the Gospels describe Jesus as the ultimate bringer of divine benefits and how Paul interpreted Jesus’ death and resurrection as the most powerful way in which believers can participate in those benefits. Then he considers how Paul, James and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews were also very much concerned with the moral transformation of those whom they addressed. He also notes that the first-century Christians were not capable of (and so not much interested in) either stabilizing or transcending the world.

Christianity in the second and third centuries provides Johnson with full scope for developing and applying his fourfold typology: participating in divine benefits (the apocryphal acts and gospels, Montanism, martyr piety); moral transformation (Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen); transcending the world (various Gnostics); and stabilizing the world (bishops, church orders, Irenaeus, Cyprian). When Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion, the first and fourth expressions of religion came to dominate, while the second approach turned into monasticism and the third approach expressed itself in Manichaeism and other Gnostic movements.

With this work Johnson stands in the great tradition of William James’s classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In other writings, James, the pragmatist philosopher, insisted on the “cash value” of ideas. The cash value of this book includes a fresh and imaginative look at Christian origins, an excellent example of effective pedagogy and a helpful challenge to the Christian church’s approach to other religious expressions today.

Johnson brings alive the religious world in which Christianity originated and developed. By focusing on specific representatives of Greco-Roman religious life, he provides well-defined models of what he is talking about. His typology then allows us to understand better not only Greco-Roman religions but also Judaism and early Christianity in new ways. And because these four types are to some extent still alive and well among us today, we as readers can easily connect with the ancient approaches to religion.

Clearly an experienced and effective teacher, Johnson offers regular statements about his religious-studies methodology and what can and cannot be expected from it, as well as frequent summaries by way of introduction and conclusion to a topic. His book is well organized, and its argument is easy to follow. His writing is straightforward, lively and engaging. His observations are backed up by the many references to ancient sources and modern scholarship that are contained in the almost 120 pages of endnotes.

Though not a work of theology, Johnson’s study does have an underlying theological agenda. His ultimate hope is that Christians today might learn from the complex interactions among the religious expressions out of which Christianity emerged and so be more willing to “embrace a catholicity of religious sensibility and expression” as they interact with fellow Christians and representatives of other religions, rather than meeting them with defensiveness and even derision. This hope for mutual understanding and respect between religions is, of course, in line with the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Catholic Church’s relationship with other religions (Nostra Aetate), which despite its brevity has turned out to be one of the most important of the council’s documents.

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