News Release: Religion and Ethics, Research

Feb. 1,  2010

Early Christians, Pagans Shared Traits

Emory's Luke Johnson Explores Parallels in 'Among the Gentiles'

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson examines the influence of paganism on Christianity.

audio file Listen to Johnson talk about the genesis and purpose of the book. (mp3)


Christians are a lot more like pagans than they know, according to Emory's Luke Timothy Johnson. The New Testament scholar has written a new book, "Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity" that explores the roots of early Christianity and finds surprising similarities to its pagan neighbors.

"The relationship between Christianity and paganism is one of the things that's been talked about to death, but never discussed very productively," says Johnson. "Classically, it was a matter of Christians denying they had any connection with paganism. Nobody was really looking very seriously at what Greco-Roman religion was all about."

But Johnson did look at Greco-Roman religion of the first century, what Christians called "paganism," and found that early Christian writers such as the Apostle Paul, even while denouncing Gentile practices, were themselves immersed in Greek rhetoric, Greek language and argumentation, and Greek philosophy.

"Too many people took Paul at his word that we [Christians] don't have anything to do with Gentile religions," says Johnson. "What I'm trying to suggest is the conversation needs to look at different ways of being religious rather than specific doctrines or practices. In this way, we can see points of similarity and dissimilarity without getting into a hopeless argument about what caused what, or who was influenced by what."

To do this, Johnson had to drop his theologian role and approach the material as a student of religion, he says. "Because part of what I saw was wrong with the whole earlier conversation [about pagans and Christians] was that it was carried out by Christian theologians and their categories were all Christian, which just kept anybody from seeing anything that was really there."

What was there, says Johnson, are some distinct "ways of being religious" that both Christians and their first-century Greco-Roman neighbors shared. "These ways of being religious really represent distinct ways of thinking about power, divine power, how you get at it and how you view it," Johnson says.

One example he cites: "I've seen for a long time that certain Greco-Roman philosophers, in fact, look a lot like Protestants. Their religion was about right thinking and right doing, not about sacraments and rituals. It was about moral transformation. So these are parallels I saw right away."

Other ways of being religious that Johnson found in both Christianity through the centuries and Greco-Roman religion include:

• those who see religion as a sort of "participation in divine benefits," or a way of being connected to the divine;

• those who see religion as a way of transcending the world, of rejecting the world's systems and power; and

• those who see religion as a stabilizing force in the world. 

"In terms of Christian relations to other faiths, the supremely important thing is to let go of the long tradition of demonizing Gentile religions," says Johnson. He also hopes the book will help Christians realize "we Christians are more like them than we ever thought and they're more like us than we ever thought."

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