Author Information[1]

Dr. Johnson earned his Bachelor of Arts from Notre Dame University in 1967, his Master of Arts from Indiana University in 1970, his Master of Divinity from Saint Meinrad School of Theology in 1970, and his Doctor of Philosophy from Yale University in 1976. His research concerns the literary, moral, and religious dimensions of the New Testament, including the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of early Christianity (particularly moral discourse), Luke-Acts, the Pastoral Letters, and the Letter of James. A former Benedictine monk, Dr. Johnson is a highly sought-after lecturer, a member of several editorial and advisory boards, and a senior fellow at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.


On page ix, Johnson writes, “Except in its very last paragraphs, this book does not deal with theology. It is, rather, a study of religion. It undertakes a fresh inquiry into early Christianity and Greco-Roman religion.” He continues, saying, “The heart of this book… is a close and (I hope) careful comparison between the ways of being religious among Gentiles and in Christianity” (x). Hence, the purpose of Johnson’s work is to formulate mechanism for a comparative study of Gentile and Christian religions on their own terms without the baggage that previous writers have carried into the enterprise.


In chapter one, Johnson begins with a great comment regarding the nature of truth. He writes, “The truth is rarely pure and seldom simple” (1). This sentiment is related to his disguise with previous attempts at comparative religious studies. Much of the imbalance, as Johnson understands it, is rooted in the “theological stake” that many apologist had in the debate. “Neither polemic nor apologetics advance understanding,” Johnson writes. Essentially and understandably, Johnson feels that the conversation must be re-cast in more balanced terms.

In chapter two, Johnson begins to move the reader forward to a solution that is rooted in “new perspectives and new knowledge.” This, says Johnson, when combined, will create “the possibility of examining the question of Christianity and Greco-Roman religion with fresh eyes” (30). In light of new textual discoveries, new information, and new methods, Johnson believes there is hope to move past the stalemate caused by many theologically-couched presuppositions and misunderstandings from yesteryear.

In chapter three, Johnson attempts to “provide some sense of the range of religious experiences, convictions, and practices in the early Roman empire” (32). His focus is “on the variety of religious phenomena observable across the empire and throughout the period when Christianity emerged” (32). Johnson notes six general features of Greco-Roman religion that would make any Baptist preacher proud, demonstrating that it was pervasive, public, political, pious, pragmatic, and polytheistic. In terms of specific features in Greco-Roman religious expression, Johnson suggests that prophecy, healing, mysteries, pilgrimages, and magic are particularly pertinent in comparative studies with Ancient Judaism and Christianity. He concludes the chapter by providing his “four ways or types of religiosity” (46). They are as follows:

  • The Way of Participation in Divine Benefits, which Johnson deals with in chapter four, focuses upon “the negotiation of divine power in the present life” (46).
  • The Way of Moral Transformation, which Johnson addresses in chapter five, deals specifically in terms of “religious sensibility” and transformative living (47).
  • The Way of Transcending the World, which Johnson explains in chapter six, views the world and everything in it “more negatively, in terms of illusion and entrapment” that must be “transcended” (48).
  • The Way of Stabilizing the World, which Johnson details in chapter seven, is closely related to the first form of religiosity, but with a more outward focus on how divine participation contributed the “permanence” of the world (48).

After detailing these four ways of being religious in Greco-Roman society from a literary perspective, Johnson turns his attention to the comparative element of his book. In chapter eight, he starts by considering “ways of being Jewish in the Greco-Roman world” as a necessary starting point for the study of Christianity. After considering some of the key elements of Judaism, especially monotheism, Johnson tests the religious practices of Judaism by evaluating it in light of his four-fold grid. His conclusion is two-fold. Johnson writes, “Using the categories of Greco-Roman religion has made two things clear: first, how different Judaism truly was in that world… Second, this approach to Judaism makes clear how impressively even this most resistant of traditions was in fact affected by its long involvement with Hellenistic culture” (129). This, as stated above, provides a jumping off point for the more rigorous work of comparing Christianity in its various earliest stages to the categories of Greco-Roman religiosity.

Chapter nine serves as a transition from Johnson’s evaluation of Judaism to consideration of Christianity in its Greco-Roman context. From this point, in chapters ten and eleven, Johnson addresses New Testament Christianity’s relationship to the concepts of participation in the divine benefits and moral transformation. He suggests that New Testament Christianity was in no position to contribute to the stabilization of the world without the type of political power that is later gained under men like Constantine and Theodosius. Hence, Johnson addresses the four categories of Greco-Roman religiosity in terms of “Christianity in the second and third centuries” in separate chapters. In other words, Johnson understands there to be substantive differences between first-century Christianity and second and third-century Christianity. The book concludes with an excellent epilogue that challenges that reader on several fronts, not the least of which is related to ecumenism within the Christian tradition. The remaining pages contain the endnotes (an unfortunate blight to an otherwise well-formatted work) and various indexes that the book to serve as a reference guide after an initial reading.

On the whole, I greatly appreciated the Johnson’s honesty in admitting that the truth is often more complex than it initially appears. Having personally come out of a tradition that was heavily influenced by the rationalistic systemization of truth, I found Johnson’s humility refreshing. A mark of true scholar is to follow the evidence where is leads and ask the hard questions. In this regard, Johnson demonstrates scholarly acumen in the questions he is willing to ask of Christianity and the comparison he is willing to make in order to have better understand.

When Johnson writes, “Neither polemic nor apologetics advances understanding,” he unnecessarily overstates his case, which is kind of ironic, seeing that he wants his readers to adopt his four categories of Greco-Roman religion in order to parse through and categorize the primary source. I believe a better approach would be to simply admit that all defenders of a particular position have some stake in its acceptance; otherwise it would hardly be worth the effort. However, Johnson’s point is not without its merit if by it he primarily means that defenders need to actually make the effort to understand their opposition and fairly represent them even if they disagree.

Finally, there is some substantial food for thought presented in the final section of the Johnson’s epilogue. His two points of conclusion for the Christian community are admittedly challenging to this “dyed-in-the-wool” protestant. First, his point about an ecumenism that recognizes the “legitimacy” of all four categories of religious expression in both Judaism and Christianity is worth exploring in more depth. I am, however, left wondering if the legitimacy of the two categories that were absent from first-century Christianity should not at least to some degree give the reader pause in accepting the practices of second and third-century Christian expression. If Paul and the other apostles were not concerned with transcending or stabilizing the world (as Johnson admits based upon the lack of literary witness), then who is Johnson to suggest that they are legitimate? Second, I believe there are some profound implications for worldview study and cross-cultural evangelism in his last point. If, in fact, some of our Christian religious practices parallel the practices of other religious adherent, then maybe we should being the effort of relationship building on the basis of our commonality instead of the differences. This, of course, is not to suggest an embrace of some form of polytheism or pluralism, but rather, to recognize that many of the religious practices that parallel those of the Christian are but echoes of God’s image, which Christ is restoring in those who have believed in Him.

[1] Author information compiled from