Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine

Course No. 647
Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
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Course No. 647
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Course Overview

After 2,000 years, Christianity is the world's largest religion and continues to prosper and grow. What accounts for its continued popularity? Simply put, Christianity is powerful and persuasive as a religion. It offers a convincing personal experience of ultimate, or "divine," power.

In Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson maintains that the most familiar aspects of Christianity—its myths, institutions, ideas and morality—are only its outer "husk." In this two-part course, he takes you on a journey to find the "kernel" of Christianity's appeal: religious experience. You travel back to Christianity's origins, its first 300 years, to identify the elements that first made it appealing and which still hold the secret to its ability to attract new followers.

Professor Johnson is a former Benedictine monk and author of 20 books, including The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. At Emory University, he has twice received the "On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching" Award.

In his presentation, Professor Johnson employs scholarly techniques that have only recently been applied to religion. By combining such disciplines as history, the social sciences, and comparative literary analysis, you look at religious experience and behavior from a fresh perspective.

What is "Religious Experience"?

But if this course is about the nature and power of religious experience, what exactly is that experience?

You consider a variety of theories developed by the philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Immanuel Kant, Emil Durkheim, the founder of sociology, and Sigmund Freud, before settling on a definition that will be used for the remainder of the course.

To better understand religious experience in Christianity, you then study it in the two religions with which early Christianity co-existed: Greco-Roman paganism and Judaism.

These lectures assume that patterns of behavior can be used to identify religious experience in antiquity. In this sense, all of life in the Roman Empire might be said to be a religious experience. Every human activity—civic, military, domestic, and personal—fell under the power and protection of gods who needed attention for life to be prosperous.

Prophecy and the healing of physical and mental disorders were regarded as revelations of divine power. Participation in mystery cults offered access to deeper realities, as well as social advancement.

In Judaism, religious experience was rooted in the symbolic world of Torah. These scriptures embodied central Jewish convictions such as belief in one God and a sense of themselves as a Chosen People. Torah also defined the ways in which these convictions were to be expressed, through such practices as circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath.

For Jews living in Palestine, religious life focused on the temple, the synagogue, and the family. Palestinian Judaism was also affected by the stress resulting from Greco-Roman oppression. Some Jews splintered into sects. This was accompanied by the appearance of new sources of religious experience:

  • Apocalyptic writings that offered hopeful visions of God's future
  • Intervention of charismatic miracle workers and healers
  • Prophets such as John the Baptist.
Sources of Religious Experience: Healing, Visions, and Speaking in Tongues

In introducing early Christian religious experience, Professor Johnson looks at questions that are new and intellectually exciting in the study of religion. Was Christ the founder of Christianity? Was Christianity's early growth due to his life and works or to his followers' powerful experience of his death and resurrection, their sense of having been transformed by the Holy Spirit?

You see how religious experience in earliest Christianity took on a variety of forms. Fellowship meals celebrated the presence of the resurrected Lord Jesus. Healing was a sign of God's presence in the world and could certify the healer as a saint. Prayer and visions provided access to, and confirmation of, divine power.

Many practices, however, created problems for early Christian leaders. For example, they rejected demands to add circumcision to baptism as an initiation rite in Christianity. This was due not so much to its use in Judaism as to the fact that it would make Christianity seem similar to pagan religion: a second rite would resemble the multiple initiation rites used by Greco-Roman mystery cults.

Similarly, many Christians saw glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as a powerful form of religious experience, dating from the experience of the crowd at Pentecost. However, a variety of concerns, including that it could be confused with pagan prophecy or used by women to undermine male authority, quickly led to its marginalization.

Professor Johnson raises important questions. Did institutional development in early Christianity—the creation of its formal structure and creeds—eliminate important sources of religious experience? Or did it minimize certain practices in order to preserve, for millennia, other meaningful avenues of religious experience?

Finding "True" Christianity

There has always been a struggle between "official" Christianity—its institutions and political roles—and "popular" Christianity, which most directly connects Christians to religious experience. In the last lecture, Professor Johnson argues that official Christianity has been accepted as true Christianity due in large part to the way in which its leaders and reformers have defined it and the manner in which academic scholars have studied it.

In the last 15 years or so, new analytical methods have begun to be applied to the study of Christianity. Among these is the approach taken in this course as well as the fresh perspectives offered by women's history and social history. With these techniques, so-called "popular" Christianity may well come to be understood as real Christianity.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Christianity as a Religion
    Among world religions, Christianity is both the best and least known. Its political and cultural importance in Western civilization is obvious. Its institutional arrangements, theological disputes, and moral teachings are familiar. Less clear is the reason that the Christian religion—despised by many and declared dead many times—continues to draw adherents from every nation. The study of Christianity precisely as a religion offers clues. x
  • 2
    What Is a Religion?
    Definitions of religion disagree even on basic points. Still, they can point us toward some true elements. A look at inadequate definitions that emphasize membership, ritual, belief, and morals serves to construct a more adequate definition based on a way of life organized around the perception of ultimate power. x
  • 3
    The Role of Religious Experience
    The topic of religious experience is problematic. Science has trouble with human experience as evidence, and the more religious studies tries to be scientific—using etic methods—the less attractive claims to religious experience—using emic discourse—seem. However, an analysis of Joachim Wach's definition of religious experience suggests how both etic and emic evidence can enrich such study. x
  • 4
    Sourcing Christianity
    Christianity drew from religious patterns in both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. Access to all ancient religious traditions is limited because of the nature of those traditions, the origin and nature of the sources, and the accidents of their preservation. A phenomenological approach that uses every available source and means of analysis enables the richest sense of Christianity as a religious experience and movement. x
  • 5
    The Imperial Context
    Christianity was born in the Mediterranean world of the 1st century C.E., whose several layers of culture—including ancient patterns resistant to fundamental change—affected the development of this new religion. Politically, the world was ruled by Rome; culturally, by Greek ideals. The ancient Hebrew national religion, Judaism, had spread across the Greco-Roman world and was the context from which Christianity emerged. x
  • 6
    Greco-Roman Polytheism
    Greco-Roman culture was polytheistic, and was permeated by religiosity of every sort. Religious behavior both reflected and reinforced the cultural system called patronage. The early empire saw a proliferation of such religious phenomena as prophecy, healing, and initiation into mystery cults. Even some forms of philosophy took on a religious character. x
  • 7
    Greco-Roman Religious Experience
    Extant evidence is slender, but indicates that people in Greco-Roman culture seemed to demonstrate the same range of attitudes toward ultimate power as people do today. Three examples give us a sense of genuine religious experience in antiquity. x
  • 8
    The Symbolic World of Torah
    Judaism in the 1st century was a vibrant and complex phenomenon. Diaspora and Palestinian Judaism show distinct characteristics, but even Palestinian Judaism was internally divided. All Jews, however, shared the same basic story, convictions, symbols, and practices, which can be called the symbolic world of Torah. The religious life of Jews in Palestine was polytheistic and revolved around three main loci: the Temple, the synagogue, and the home. x
  • 9
    Palestinian Judaism in the Greco-Roman World
    The competing sects of Judaism in Palestine expressed Jewish identity in response to Roman rule and Hellenistic culture through patterns of passive or active resistance. Sometimes these conflicts are so highlighted that the deep religious character of Palestinian Judaism is obscured. Four examples provide evidence for the consistency and variety of Jewish piety in Palestine. x
  • 10
    Judaism in the Hellenistic Diaspora
    Life in the Diaspora enabled Judaism to develop in distinctive ways. Most notably, it enabled an engagement with Greek culture that was more positive and pervasive. Alexandrian Judaism provides a glimpse of Jewish life in the Hellenistic Diaspora, with an increased importance of the synagogue, and a literature based on the Greek translation of Torah. x
  • 11
    Jesus and the Gospels
    The Christian Gospels offer at best a second-hand look at the religious experience of Jesus. We cannot recover the "historical Jesus," but we can draw some broad inferences concerning the Jesus of the Gospels from the judicious use of the deeds, sayings, and traits ascribed to him by those narratives. x
  • 12
    The Resurrection Experience
    A comparison to the founders of Buddhism and Islam sharpens the distinctiveness of Christian origins. It is not so much "Jesus' experience" that begins Christianity as his followers' claim to "experience of Jesus" after his death. The character of this experience can be approached through the claims the first Christians made about themselves, which involve the experience of a personal, transforming power. x
  • 13
    Movement Meets World—Five Key Transitions
    Christianity's rapid spread across the Mediterranean world in the first generation of its existence is even more remarkable given that it had to accomplish five transitions immediately: geographical, linguistic, cultural, sociological, and demographic. The Acts of the Apostles provides a narrative framework for Christianity's emergence, and shows the role played by such religious phenomena as baptism, fellowship meals, healings, speaking in tongues, visions, and prayer. x
  • 14
    Ritual Imprinting and Politics of Perfection
    Baptism, early Christianity's ritual of initiation, can usefully be compared to such rituals in ancient Greco-Roman and other cultural systems. Such comparison provides perspective on the conflict reported in two of Paul's letters—Galatians and Colossians—between the apostle and members of communities who sought circumcision in addition to baptism. x
  • 15
    Glossolalia and the Embarrassments of Experience
    Forms of ecstatic speech were part of Hebrew and Greco-Roman tradition. It is not shocking, then, to find glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as a manifestation of spiritual possession in earliest Christianity. More difficult to answer is why such a powerful expression of the Holy Spirit's presence should be so quickly marginalized in Christianity. x
  • 16
    Meals Are Where the Magic Is
    Evidence from Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures testifies to the peculiar power experienced by participants in meals. The cultural contexts, however, offer a number of possible antecedents to Christian practice. What, then, was the precise meaning of the Christian meal? What is the appropriate way to interpret archaeological and literary evidence? x
  • 17
    Healing and Salvation
    Physical healing and exorcism are major components of Jesus' ministry in the Gospels and play a large role in the Acts of the Apostles—both canonical and apocryphal. In early Christianity, healing is associated with five distinct motifs. They are a sign of divine presence, of the healer's compassion, of stages of spiritual transformation, of restoration to community, and of faith. x
  • 18
    Access to Power—Visions and Prayer
    In all ancient religions, visions and prayer represent the two-way traffic between humans and the divine. The prayer of Jesus and his followers offers clues to their perception of that larger reality. The reported visions of Jesus, Stephen, Peter, Paul, and John provide glimpses of what they experienced. x
  • 19
    The Holy Community
    From the beginning, Christianity took the form of an organized community called the church (ekklesia). A major challenge to the new religion was establishing its boundaries. It needed to signal its distinctive character in contrast both to Greco-Roman clubs and Jewish synagogues. Metaphors for the church—God's Temple, Body of Christ—indicate some dimensions of early Christian self-understanding. x
  • 20
    The Community’s Worship
    One of the most important ways in which religion organizes existence is through ritual. In the New Testament, we catch glimpses of baptism, Eucharist, kinship language, foot washing, and the holy kiss. In the 4th century, Christian worship begins to create the elaborate sanctification of time known as the liturgical year and the sacramental system. x
  • 21
    The Transforming Word of Scripture
    Christianity's relationship to Scripture has always involved a tension-filled dialectic. Its first "Scripture" was the Torah shared with Judaism, which Christians reinterpreted in light of the paradoxical experience of the crucified and raised Messiah, Jesus. The decisive moment in forming the Christian canon came in the mid-2nd century, when Gnostics promulgated an alternative version of Christianity. x
  • 22
    Teachers and Creeds
    As religious communities expand, they tend to develop structured patterns of belief. Earliest Christianity was characteristically simple with respect to structure and creed. The Gnostic crisis of the 2nd century—together with the prophetic movement called Montanism—forced the issue of belief and structure. Orthodox Christianity located authority in the teaching office of the bishop, and developed the "rule of faith," which eventually became the creed. x
  • 23
    The Power of the Saints
    Christianity has retained its original power and a radical—and sometimes subversive—edge in the saints, who remind Christians of the priority of religious experience. The term "saint"—meaning "holy one"—was applied in the New Testament to all members of the community. Over time, the term began to denote Christians of extraordinary charisma, virtue, wonderworking, or transformed life, who revealed the power of the Resurrection and the humanity of Christ. x
  • 24
    Christianities Popular and Real
    There is an enduring tension in Christianity between official religion—which is all about controlled power—and popular religion—in which power eludes official channels. Official religion claims to be real religion, tending to despise the popular. Academic study of religion tends to follow the same path. Only recently has scholarship paid due attention to popular forms of Christianity. x

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Your professor

Luke Timothy Johnson

About Your Professor

Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in...
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Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Too 'christian' for my taste In this course Luke Johnson is trying to prove that christian religion is different from other religions that seem similar, but his arguments are not convincing. The many overlappings with judaism and the Greco-Roman religions prove to me the opposite. The first half of the course is better then the second, because the latter I would call a 'sermon', not a scientific analysis of early christianity. I'm sympathetic towards any atttempt to make spiritual experience to be taken seriously, but not if this is exclusive. There is no reason after this course to believe that the christian experiences are of a higher reality, are unique or better then those of any other schools of thought or spiritual conviction. There is a lot of interesting information here, but I feel myself resisting the catholic atmosphere... In terms of believe-system: Everything in christianity revolves around how seriously we take Paul en his statements about his experiences with the Christ (he never knew Jezus alive). If Paul was making things up, the whole religion falls to pieces. Unlike Johnson who believes that the religion followed the christian experiences, I'm convinced that the experiences followed the fabricated beliefsystem presented by Paul en his allies.
Date published: 2018-05-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear, learned, thorough The consistent role of power was really helpful. I also found his clear and learned integration of the main contexts convincing and helpful.
Date published: 2018-05-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from taught by Catholic professor It was overall an interesting course, especially his discussion of the Greco-Roman and Jewish world before, during, and after the life of Jesus. Parts were not so interesting, such as an entire lecture on the definition of religion. He begins lecture 23 by saying he is going to explain why the Catholic belief that saints have supernatural powers, answer prayers, and intervene in human affairs is not really a polytheistic belief system, like the Greco-Roman pagan religions. But he never does, and instead spends the time telling stories about Christian martyrs who were made saints by the Catholic Church. It's interesting how the reviewer below thought he was not religious enough and I thought he was too religious. Maybe that means he gave a balanced presentation of the topic.
Date published: 2018-04-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not An Accurate Course Title The first half of the course ignores Christianity and focuses on pagan religions and culture. The second half of the course attempts to show there was really no supernatural experience of the divine in Christianity. A more accurate course title would be: "What I Think Is Wrong With Christianity." Personal opinions in Great Courses are fine... up to a point. I think most people taking these classes want a comprehensive and balanced presentation of a subject. Of the 20 Great Courses I have taken, this one has the most pervasive bias. The professor sees Jesus as a "failed messiah" and consistently ridicules Christianity, while offering many personal opinions. That's his right. However, the people taking Great Courses are intellectually sophisticated and I think want fair and objective treatment of a subject, not an extended one-sided editorial. Negative reviews should not be written for trivial reasons. (A teacher's hand gestures do not matter all that much.) But if there are fundamental problems with a class, that should be noted in a review.
Date published: 2018-02-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well presented! Having studied the history and theology of Christianity for this period, I bought this course to get insights into the lives of the early believers in Jesus of Nazareth. I have not been disappointed. The professor is easy to listen to and presents his material with exceptional logic.
Date published: 2018-02-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing Ordered the CD version, but could not get it to work properly. Tried three different video players, all the same result. Attempts to access the video files returned the introductory lesson, in full, on every video file. There was no index to allow choice of lessons so #1 became the entry to all. The content in the accompanying guide looked like just what I was seeking, but I could never actually get to it. Streaming of this course was not available, but streaming other courses works well, so will stick to streaming courses in the future.
Date published: 2017-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding presentations Professor Johnson is absolutely the best instructor in the Great Courses curriculum. His knowledge of Greek and Jewish traditions that contributed to Christianity is beyond compare. One cannot help but notice his love for learning and his passion for teaching. A delightful experience.
Date published: 2017-07-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Seems to be comprehensive Have only watched the first six lectures and it seems to be comprehensive roughly covering the period 300BC to 300AD. One thing that bothers me is that the professor falls into the political correct term Before Common Era (BCE) rather than Before Christ (BC). His course derives its name from Christ but he's afraid to use the name.
Date published: 2017-06-04
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