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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.

Using these criteria as the basis for his exploration of Christianity and paganism, Johnson finds multiple points of similarity in religious sensibility. This thoughtful and passionate study should help break down the walls between Christianity and other religious traditions. A provocative and deeply humane book, to be savored and argued with. Meeks, author of First Urban Christians.

The work is important not only for the study of ancient religion, but for inter-faith dialogue today. Sterling, University of Notre Dame. Holladay, Emory University. Brenk, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome. Johnson's careful and compelling approach avoids both the apologetic and the antagonistic tones that such conversations about early Christianiry and Hellenistic religions often rake. Skip to main content. Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. They knew about Jesus; they thought that Jesus was a magician and that he practiced magic and that he was a hoax.

Well, the followers of Jesus thought this about Apollonius of Tyana. We have stories like those of Apollonius and like those of Jesus of people who were born supernaturally, who could do miracles, deliver supernatural teachings, who then ascended into heaven. These stories about divine men, like Apollonius of Tyana and others, may sound unusual to us. We know only stories about Jesus that sound like this. But in the ancient world, there were lots of people who had stories told about them of this sort.

People in the ancient world would make perfect sense about the stories of Jesus, because in fact they knew of other divine men who were widely recognized as having commerce with the divine realm. And so, let me just wrap this up. These other religions focused on cultic acts of sacrifice in the temples to the gods and on prayers, rather than on doctrines. They were religions that focused on the activities of the gods in the present, in the here and now, rather than in the afterlife.

And they thought that there were divine humans who were manifest among us. Far and away, though, the most important religion for understanding the context of Jesus and early Christianity is Judaism, a religion that stood apart from the pagan religions of its environment. The New Testament is probably the most revered and the most unknown book in our culture. This series of written lectures is designed for people who want to learn something about it.

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Indicate what our objectives will be, and provide a few of the major points of background that are necessary to the beginning phases of our study. So, why is it important to engage in this kind of study? Virtually all modern historians would agree that the New Testament has been the most significant book in the history of western civilization. It lies at the root of our form of culture, and it continues to be an object of reverence and inspiration for millions of Christians today. If you want to understand our culture, you have to know something about the New Testament. The same can be said, of course, about western visual art.

In addition, the New Testament plays an enormous role in our political and social lives. Senate when trying to debate issues of foreign and domestic policy. Obviously, despite its importance, the New Testament is a book whose meaning is not self-evident. This is perhaps most obviously seen simply on the denominational level. The difference between Greek Orthodox priests, Appalachian snake-handlers, mainline Presbyterians and serious Pentecostals are not related just to geography, culture and history. In some, the New Testament has brought a world of good into our civilization through its teachings of love and its promises of hope.

The Perspective of the Faithful Believer For all these reasons, this book is worth our serious and sustained attention, whether we happen to believe in it or not. How, though, should we go about studying it? There are, in fact, several ways that we could approach the study of the New Testament. We could, in theory, approach it from the perspective of the faithful believer, wanting to learn what it says in order to know ourselves what we should believe and how we should act.

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This kind of approach would probably be appropriate in a church or in a Sunday school, and it would probably be appropriate in a private Christian college. And so this would be a second way to approach the study of the New Testament: culturally. There can be little question that this book stands at the foundation of civilization as we know it. And the foundation of the church was and is the New Testament. So, we could see how the New Testament has been used through the ages.

For example, during the Crusades or the Inquisition or the Protestant Reformation. Or we could study how it has played such a huge role in western art or in English literature. One that will as a side benefit elucidate both the modern debates over the meaning of this book, and the nature of its historical impact on western civilization. This approach involves studying the New Testament then, from the perspective, not of the believer, not of the cultural historian, but of the ancient historian. These are the sorts of questions that will absorb me in my subsequent essays.

There are several pieces of important background information on the New Testament that we need to consider here in this first essay before plunging into our study.


This realization comes to me every year when I teach my large undergraduate course at Chapel Hill. This is a class with about students in it, and every year I begin by giving a pop quiz in which I ask students some basic information about the New Testament. Questions like, how many books are in the New Testament? What language were these books written in? When were these books written? I also throw in some curve balls; I ask them who wrote the book of 1 Peter?

Who wrote the book of 1 Timothy? And who wrote the book of 1 Andrew? All of these books were originally written in Greek. These books, in the judgment of almost everybody who works on them, were originally written in Greek. Every time I ask them this question, fully half of my students think that the New Testament was written in Hebrew, which has always struck me as odd. The books of the New Testament were all written from during the first century A. Most scholars would date the books of the New Testament from between the year 50 of the Common Era 50 A.

To put that in perspective, virtually everybody thinks Jesus was born sometime around 4 B. And so the books of the New Testament began to be written about 20 or 25 years after that, and then continued to be written until about the year A. These are the earliest surviving books that we have from the Christians.

There were other books written by Christians at the same time that have no longer survived, and there are some books written by Christians that were written near the end of the writing of the New Testament books that still do survive but that did not make it into the New Testament. I should say, again by way of background, that Jesus himself did not write any of the books of the New Testament and, so far as we know, did not write anything. Instead, the books of the New Testament are written by followers of Jesus. Some of the books of the New Testament are attributed to some of the disciples.

For example, among our gospels we have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John are allegedly disciples of Jesus. In fact, this attribution first came about in the second century. These are two of the disciples. Other books of the New Testament explicitly do claim to be written by people who were apostles. And so there could have been and there were early Christians who understood themselves to have been sent by Jesus on a mission to spread his good news throughout the world. This would include, for example, the Apostle Paul.

The New Testament and Greco-Roman Mystery Religions

Paul was not one of the original followers of Jesus he was not a disciple but he did understand himself to have been an apostle. And so Paul, of course, is a very significant figure for the history of Christianity but also especially for our understanding of the New Testament itself. Thirteen books claimed to be written by him, but scholars have reasons for doubting whether all thirteen actually were written by Paul or not.

The Beginnings of Christianity And so in the New Testament, we have 27 books written in Greek, from the first century, the books attributed to disciples or claiming to be written by apostles. These 27 books of the New Testament can be organized into four major groupings. The four Gospels are the only books that we have in the New Testament that actually describe the life, activities, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The story of his life is found in these four books. It narrates his ascension into heaven, and then it shows how the apostles were empowered to spread his gospel throughout the world. The others are attributed to others of the apostles, including James and Peter and John. These letters are written to address problems that had emerged in various Christian communities, problems having to do with what Christians ought to believe, how Christians ought to behave. The Culmination of Christianity The fourth part of the New Testament again consists of a single book, the book that probably is the source of most fascination by Christians still today, the Book of Revelation.

The Book of Revelation is an apocalypse. Probably the closest thing to it that we read would be science-fiction novels, because it deals with sort of a supra-mundane reality which can explain the reality here on earth and in which the prophet actually ascends to another world and has encounters with supernatural beings and learns about the fate of earth.

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These then are the four major categories of books within the New Testament. They were simply the books that later Christians decided to include in their sacred canon of Scripture. And so you can have a canon of any kind of literature. A canon of Shakespeare, for example, or a canon of the Hebrew Bible. The canon of the New Testament are the 27 books that Christians at later times decided were sacred books.

One of the hardest things for my students at the undergraduate level to understand and to conceptualize is the fact that the 27 books of the New Testament were not always considered to be books of Scripture. In fact, there were long and hard debates about which books should be included within the canon of Scripture.

Throughout the second and third and even fourth centuries, Christians debated about the canonical status of books that had been written in the first century. Some of the sayings in this gospel sound very strange to our ears today. For example, The Gospel of Peter. In the New Testament, we have accounts of Jesus having been raised from the dead.

The Gospel of Peter, though, does give a narration of this event Gospel of Peter vv. Two with their heads reaching up to heaven, and one whose head reached up above the heavens. And behind the three, there emerges a cross from the tomb. But eventually it was excluded. We have a number of books gospels, acts, epistles, apocalypses which claimed to be written by apostles and disciples that did not get included. It was not until the fourth century A. This course is designed for those who want to know more about the New Testament using an academic approach. This second lecture will cover the Greco-Roman cultural and religious context in which early Christianity developed.

The Jewish cultural context will be discussed in the third lecture. The importance for understanding the historical context of early Christianity is in order to understand what the text of the New Testament meant to the early Christians themselves. If you misunderstand the context , you may end up inadvertently misunderstanding or changing the meaning of the text. Depending on whether it is said in a classroom, a golf course, or a restaurant, the phrase will mean different things. And if it said in a sarcastic tone, it actually means the opposite of what the literal meaning says.

Even a gesture can have different meanings depending on the context: if you see someone with their arm stretched out over their head with their index finger pointed upwards, what could that mean? In a similar way, you need to ask what the context of a historical document is in order to understand it. What was the context within which Jesus lived and the books of the New Testament were written? Ehrman says that a true understanding of the historical context of the New Testament would take 24 lectures in and of itself, but he will in this lecture at least sketch out some remarks about the religious environment of the Greco-Roman world.

There are three key terms which Prof. They are referring to the lands around the Mediterranean from roughly the time of Alexander the Great who lived around BC to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine who lived around AD. As a youth, Alexander had studied under the Greek philosopher Aristotle, from whom he acquired an appreciation for Greek culture. As we conquered the lands around the Mediterranean, Alexander promoted the adoption of Greek culture in these various lands.

He encouraged the creation of Greek institutions, the adoption of the Greek language, and tried to propagate Greek culturally. He did this in order to unify the various areas he had conquered under one common Greek culture. This becomes important for the study of the New Testament because it was written in Greek. The Romans eventually conquered these lands a few centuries after the conquest of Alexander. Rome was originally a kingdom, but by the time of Jesus, it had been ruled as a Republic for over years, and had just become an Empire ruled by the Emperor rather than the Senate.

These areas were forced to pay tribute to Rome in exchange for protection by the Roman army from invasion from outside these areas. The Romans did not have their army situated throughout the Empire, however. Rather they were situated on the frontiers to guard against invasion. Whereas most of the Empire enjoyed a long period years of peace and prosperity called the Pax Romana, there were often wars on the periphery of the Empire, including one in Palestine itself which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Seen Greek had already been established throughout much of the Empire, the Romans encouraged the use of Greek as the lingua franca among the provinces rather than insisting on the promotion of Latin. There was also a common coinage throughout the Empire which encouraged trade and commerce, and roads which made travel relatively easy. These benefits were then transferred later to Christianity, because Christians could take advantage of the situation to propagate their faith. Despite having been formed within the Roman empire, however, Christianity did not have an effect on the empire at large until several centuries later.

Prior to that, everyone in the Roman world except for Jews and Christians adhered to local state religions or cults. It refers to an adherent of a polytheistic religions found throughout the empire, many of which were cults. Cults is another word which is used by historians that does not necessarily have a derogatory connotation that the word has today to mean that a group is dangerous.

The cults of the Roman world can be contrasted with what we call religion today. But there were local deities that protected cities and towns, or even specific roads or rivers. The family had their own gods that protected the hearth and the health of its various members. There was no reason to think any one god was superior to others, and therefore Roman religion was more tolerant of other religions than modern ones.

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The only exception to this principle of tolerance was when it came to the state gods, which Romans insisted that the local populace venerate as well as their own, often at major state festivals. Refusal to worship them was seen as a political offense. Christians refused to participate in the state cults, and were the exceptions among subjects of the Roman empire.

Ancient religions were also periodic in their worship of the gods. It was not a matter of continual or daily devotion, but rather of periodic performance of sacrifices at set times.