Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity

Overview

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...

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Overview

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’s Variety 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Defending the Christian religion against Greco-Roman paganism, the early Christian writer Tertullian once famously asked, “What indeed does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” In his thoughtful, judicious and provocative new book, New Testament scholar Johnson answers, “Plenty.” Drawing deeply upon Greco-Roman literature, Johnson isolates four ways of being religious in the Greco-Roman world: the way of participation in divine benefits, the way of moral transformation, the way of transcending the world and the way of stabilizing the world. He illustrates each type of religiosity with a sketch of a Greco-Roman writer or text. Johnson then places this template of religiosity on the Christianity of the first through fourth centuries to illustrate how deeply embedded Greco-Roman patterns of religion influenced and contributed to the growth of Christianity. Johnson's careful and compelling approach avoids both the apologetic and the antagonistic tones that such conversations about early Christianity and Hellenistic religions often take. (Nov.)
Library Journal
"Is there any kinship between paganism and Christianity?" Johnson (New Testament & Christian origins, Candler Sch. of Theology) addresses this millennia-old question from a fresh perspective. Rather than concentrate on polemical critique, Johnson eschews demonizing Greco-Roman religions. He describes them not as a unified movement but as they were historically manifest while they were the primary religious expression of the Roman Empire. In this context, Johnson treats paganism as a quartet of ways through which one can be religious: participation in divine benefits, moral transformation, transcending the world, and stabilizing the world. From this framework, nascent Christianity initially found much in common with the first two ways. As the Christian religion gained acceptance (and eventual dominance) in the Roman Empire, the last two ways were increasingly evident in the new faith as well as the old ones. VERDICT While not for general readers, this book is highly recommended for audiences engaged in the study of ancient history, Christian origins, and/or comparative religions.—Dann Wigner, Wayland Baptist Univ. Lib., Plainview, TX
Christian Century

“One of those rare books that is at once an excellent reference work and a great read . . . it promises to change the way most of us understand early Christianity.”--Timothy Beal, Christian Century

— Timothy Beal

The Catholic Biblical Quarterly

"A stunning achievement."—David L. Balch, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly

— David L. Balch

Journal of Church History

"The author''s discussion of the religious symphony that is polytheism is very helpful and clear—this is by no means usual and is to be applauded. . . . This volume is a valuable edition to the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. It is richly annotated, provoking thought and questions and providing the notes and resources needed to pursue those questions further. I believe it achieves the author''s goal of presenting Greco-Roman religious practice and sensibility without the Christian apologetics and value judgments that have so often obscured the appreciation of this rich and unique tradition."—Lynn Lidonnici, Journal of Church History

— Lynn Lidonnici

Wayne A. Meeks
“Luke Johnson, a contrarian of the most constructive kind, defying all the usual categories, looks at the age-old story of Christianity’s ‘triumph’ over ‘paganism’ and turns it topsy turvy. A provocative and deeply humane book, to be savored and argued with.”—Wayne A. Meeks, author of First Urban Christians
Gregory E. Sterling
“Seeking to overturn an attitude towards Greco-Roman religion epitomized in Tertullian's famous rejection of Athens, Johnson demonstrates four ways of being religious that were common to Greeks, Romans, Jews, and early Christians. The work is important not only for the study of ancient religion, but for inter-faith dialogue today.”—Gregory E. Sterling, University of Notre Dame
Carl R. Holladay
“A remarkable synthesis that challenges reigning assumptions about early Christianity’s relationship to the Graeco-Roman world, this book proposes new analytical categories to advance and enliven the ongoing ‘Christ and culture’ debate.”—Carl R. Holladay, Emory University
Frederick E. Brenk
“In this important, well-documented, and challenging book, Johnson shows forcefully how demonizing and deprecating other religions has not served early Christianity well in the past, obscured its development, and has left a pernicious legacy.”—Frederick E. Brenk, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome
Christian Century - Timothy Beal
“One of those rare books that is at once an excellent reference work and a great read . . . it promises to change the way most of us understand early Christianity.”—Timothy Beal, Christian Century

The Catholic Biblical Quarterly - David L. Balch
"A stunning achievement."—David L. Balch, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly
Journal of Church History - Lynn Lidonnici
"The author's discussion of the religious symphony that is polytheism is very helpful and clear—this is by no means usual and is to be applauded. . . . This volume is a valuable edition to the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library. It is richly annotated, provoking thought and questions and providing the notes and resources needed to pursue those questions further. I believe it achieves the author's goal of presenting Greco-Roman religious practice and sensibility without the Christian apologetics and value judgments that have so often obscured the appreciation of this rich and unique tradition."—Lynn Lidonnici, Journal of Church History
Interpretation - James D.G. Dunn
"Who will fail to benefit from this stimulatingly provocative contribution from Luke Timothy Johnson?"—James D.G. Dunn, Interpretation
Religious Studies Review - Martin W. Mittelstadt
“Outstanding”—Martin W. Mittelstadt, Religious Studies Review 
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Product Details

Meet the Author


Luke Timothy Johnson is the R. W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Candler School of Theology and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
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