Many religious people choose to focus on those things that make their religion unique, ahistorically separating it from the cultures and other religions in and around which it originally formed. It makes sense that several kinds of contemporary Christianity would do the same. For those looking for a scholarly, well-argued position against the singular historical uniqueness of Christianity, Luke Timothy Johnson provides an excellent one in "Among the Gentiles."
Johnson feels that illustrating lines of continuity between Greco-Roman paganism, Jewish traditions, and nascent Christianity opens up the possibility of dialogue, as well as providing a space where the comparative history of religions can take place stripped of the limiting, often judgmental assumptions of contemporary conservative Christian apologetics. Any project with this type of scope requires tools which allow for the analysis of those types of continuity at which Johnson is looking.
Methodologically, he proposes a fourfold religious typology which claims will be useful in looking at all of these traditions; even though Johnson teaches in a school of theology, he avoids any theological language in any of these. What he calls "Religiousness A" is the participation in divine benefits, including "revelation through prophecy, healing through revelation, providing security and status through Mysteries, enabling and providing for the daily successes of individuals, households, cities, and empires." This type of religious practice is optimistic in believing that the world is a stage for divine activity, and pragmatic in that "salvation involves security and success in this mortal life." Johnson says that Greek orator Aelius Aristides embodies this type. In several of Aristides' orations, he singles out for praise Serapis (who protected him on his journey to Egypt) and Asclepius (who bestowed the gift of oratory upon him).
Religiousness B is moral transformation, which exemplifies the belief that "the divine [spirit] is immanent within human activity and expressed through moral transformation." The pagan example here is the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose Enchiridion is quite literally a "handbook for the moral life," detailing how to manage desires and emotions and learn one's social duties.
Religiousness C attempts to transcend the world, since "the divine is not found in material processes of the world but only in the realm of immortal spirit and light. Salvation is rescuing the spark of light that has fallen into a bodily prison and returning it, through asceticism and death itself, to the realm from which it first came. It is triumph through escape." Johnson selects as an example of Religiousness C the Poimandres, a selection from the Corpus Hermeticum (a complex set of texts of Egyptian origin associated with the revealer-god Hermes Trismegistus).
Religiousness D tries to stabilize the world, consisting largely of "all ministers and mystagogues of cults, all prophets who translated oracles and examined entrails and Sibylline utterances, all therapists who aided the god Asclepius in his healing work, all `liturgists' who organized and facilitated the festivals, all priests who carried out sacrifices, all Vestal Virgins whose presence and dedication ensured the permanence of the city." Johnson chooses Plutarch, the biographer, priest, and philosopher as the epitome of Religiousness D. Plutarch accepts the responsibility of exercising civic magistracies, shows a commitment to maintaining Apollo's temple at Delphi (as well as serving as a priest there), and expends a lot of effort in returning the temple to its former grandeur. Plutarch is a student of the social dimension of religion, and obviously is most concerned with how religion affects the reigning social order.
Johnson says that types A and B were already at work in the Christian world in the first century; he looks at type A in the apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Montanism; type B is discussed in Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Polycarp. Religiousness C, "transcending the world," Johnson argues, does not appear until the second century, where its predominant idiom is found in the Gnostic writings discovered at Nag-Hammadi, and especially Irenaeus' refutation of Gnostic doctrine in "Adversus Haereses." Religiousness D, stabilizing the world, first became recognizable after 313's Edict of Milan, which marked the beginning of Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the official imperial religion, and grew even stronger after the appearance of political and communal power within the bishoprics around the Christian world.
If there was one criticism I have of the book, it would be that the fourfold typology is sometimes applied too strictly to situations where it doesn't apply as well as others. It is clear from the way Johnson phrases the language of the four types that he anticipates the rise of Christianity, and therefore molds them to accommodate it. Also, Johnson represents the types as if they were compartmentalized and essential, when in fact they bleed together and inform each others' practice. Surely transcendence was sometimes thought of as a gift bestowed by the gods, or that moral transformation can stabilize society, and so forth. Surely Johnson realizes this, but he has already performed quite the feat in establishing his thesis in a mere 280 pages.
Johnson is a Catholic, and his scholarship in this book truly is in the spirit of the "Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's rallying exhortation for a thoroughgoing ecumenism. The truth is that Johnson does have an agenda: one of inclusion, one whose goal is the "embrace of a catholicity of religious sensibility and expression." At the heart of Johnson's book is a call for Christians to embrace the fullness and complexity of their past, and to view this as a means of starting a conversation instead of stopping one.
I have simplified and adumbrated some of the arguments that Johnson makes in the book, because they really are too rich and fully textured to give them the treatment they deserve here. I recommend this highly for anyone with a catholic (lower-case c) attitude toward Christianity and Christian history, and anyone who wants to learn about the ways that Christianity borrowed from paganism during its first few centuries.