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Theological Notebook: Luke Timothy Johnson on Christianity and Greco-Roman Religion

My senior independent study student, Chris, agreed with me to suspend our regularly-scheduled session tonight for his "20th Century Systematic Theology" course (we were reading "History and Hermeneutics" for tonight, on Pannenberg, Ricour, Gaudemer, and such) in order to attend Luke Timothy Johnson's lecture next door at Tulane University. That ended up being a pretty good choice, as Johnson (the frequent research partner of William S. Kurz, S.J., the principle New Testament scholar I studied with during my doctoral work, and who I met last year when he spoke at Loyola) gave a presentation on the content of his latest book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. It was held in a lovely little interfaith chapel space on the Tulane campus and a goodly number of my students were in attendance, taking advantage of one of my rare offerings of extra credit (which I normally don't believe in – I like to offer "credit" instead, for the work they're supposed to do – but I'm willing to bribe in order to get them to good events). I'm just going to dump my iPhone notes from the lecture here as such, maybe to be cleaned up later, maybe not.
Luke Timothy Johnson
Thursday 27 October 2011
Early Christians and Gentile Religion: A New Approach

Book research driven by two passions. Professional: get past centuries of polemics. Personal: why he'd rather have lunch with Spong than Swaggart. Why with the less orthodox one? Parts of the same question.

Scholarly passion: to get fresh grasp had to reverse earlier tendencies. 1. Demonization of pagan religions. 2. Way previous gens of researchers read into past later monolithic categories of "pagan" and "Christian". Watching for domination of a particular Christian analytic frame: using a religious studies university pluralistic framework. Defined religion as way of life organized around certain experiences and perspectives of the ultimate source of power. Focused not on doctrine, ritual or myth, but " ways of being religious.". In other words, what ways did people organize their lives?

What did he find? Some people utterly not religious. (Satyricon). Others so religious that they were called superstitious. Charlatans around, too. Those who rejected all religion as superstitious. Within these extremes, four ways of being religious. First and most common, those who saw divine power dunamis in all: and religion was about them, for their benefit and profit. Far fewer were second type: the way of moral transformation. More seen among philosophers. (Epictitus). His interest less in exterior divine power than to inner power and transformation. Third even fewer: way of transcending or escaping world. (Platonic, eremitic literature. Gnosticism). Fourth way found among elite who had wealth and public-spiritedness who patronized and sponsored the festivals and temples, these "maintained the world" for type one. (Plutarch). Religion as statecraft.

He was eager then to see if these four types appeared in Judaism as well. Judaism distinct but also three hundred years of Hellenization. Did find the four forms, distinctly but clearly. Those living lives. Schools of moral transformation. Glimmers of Jewish Gnosticism. And writers like Josephus as the fourth.

And in Christianity? Expected to find same in Jewish roots and gentile population. Religion as participation in divine power and benefits in gospels and Acts. Paul tries to elevate his readers toward transformation. No trace of abandoning the world. And movement was too marginal for religion as politics. In the later ancient centuries the other two emerge. Types seen in different literature. 1. Apocryphal tales and miracles and martyrdom accounts. 2. Christian philosophers like Justin. 3. Gnostic literature. Later, Christian monasticism. 4. Institution settles in Cyprian and Irenaeus. Imperial religion emerges. Eusebius. Christianity in fourth and fifth centuries a Greco-Roman religion. West after Roman collapse changes. Byzantine religion remains Greco-Roman.

Wonders if success of Catholicism is due to allowing these four systems to coexist. Same analysis accounts for constant fragmentizing of Protestantism. Only focused on Pauline transformation. But these other modes keep popping up. But these leads to splitting into new communities according to the "either/or" principle in Protestantism.

So why Spong than Swaggart? Christians gathering into like groups, feeling their particular way to be natural. Thus agrees with Swaggart on doctrine but is like Spong in being type 2 in being oriented toward moral transformation. But maybe he needs the other, despite inclination. Christian humanism enriched by cultivating all and diversity.

Rejection of demonized perception and language. Recognition of Spirit in world, even in other sensibilities.
Tags: biblical studies, books, class-20th century theology, loyola, students, theological notebook
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