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 4 out of 5 by from Well presented, and enjoyable This was the second course I bought from The Teaching Company and I was again glad I spend the money. Though one of my degrees is in history, I did not have a good understanding about the early days of Christianity until I listened to this course. From a historical perspective, the entire story of how Christianity even survived in the earliest of its days is amazing. Professor Johnson tells the story in a way that keeps you listening and looking to learn more. This was well worth the money I spent, and I would gladly buy it again.
Date published: 2010-03-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not Sure!!! This course was not quite what I expected. Professor Johnson takes a few lectures to review the historical and cultural world of early Christianity, but I am never quite sure if he is basing his later conclusions on these 'historical" views or allowing his spiritual views to influence these conclusions. I found the discussion interesting but slightly uneven.
Date published: 2009-12-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Subversive in Sheep's clothing As a big fan of Luke Timothy Johnson’s excellent lecture series on Greco-Roman moralists, I’ve made a point of buying all the courses by this wonderful teacher and personality. This particular course is doubly important, of course, because of the hot debate between the so-called historical Jesus school – represented in the Teaching Company by Professor Bart Ehrman – and those, like Johnson, that believe the recovery of the figure of the historical Jesus is misguided. If you are a Christian believer who imagines that lectures from the former Benedictine monk Johnson will provide you with a comforting retreat from the cold Machiavellian blast of the agnostic Bart Erhman, you need to think again. Conversely, some non-Christian prospective buyers of Johnson’s lectures may get the impression from some Christian reviewers of Erhman’s course that Johnson’s rejection of the “historical Jesus approach” must mean that Johnson will be religiously doctrinaire and even unscientific. The latest reviewer of Erhman’s course, ‘Ebergurud’, for example, in excoriating Professor Erhman argues that the 'historical Jesus' method is flawed precisely because it “will not allow one to argue that Jesus was the son of God.” However, contrary to what Eberugud contends, Johnson thesis does not argue that Jesus was the son of God. What Johnson does say – using the radical hermeneutics of phenomenology – is that the historical record of the life of Jesus only had meaning to the early Christians because they believed he had been resurrected. Of course, this is far from saying he actually was (or is) divine. Instead, what Johnson does with this phenomenological evidence is provide us with a very clear and succinct exposition of the emergence of Christianity from its Jewish and Greco-Roman context, and its development into a formidible hierarchical institution. In other words, he uses an approach which is every bit as historical as Erhman. Erhman has 'got up the noses' of quite a few christian reviewers because the historical Jesus that emerges from his careful analysis is essentially a minor apocalyptic preacher. Now there is nothing so crass in Johnson’s references to Jesus likely to upset the religious as Erhman’s depiction obviously has. But I think with a bit of reflection it should be apparent that, in his own way, Johnson is every bit as radical and probably even more subversive than Erhman. Using a definition of religion that is Nietzschean in its focus on ultimate power as the source of religious inspiration, humanistic in its lack of distinction between creeds, and essentially behaviourist in its analysis, Johnson’s primary conclusion is that REAL Christian religion – i.e. the religion of the people and not the intellectuals – turns out to be a ritualistic response to psychological needs that with just a few differences here and there is pretty much the same everywhere in the West whether you re talking about Christianity , Judaism or Islam (and he’d probably throw in Buddhism from the East as well). I think I am coming to an understanding of why Johnson is a FORMER monk! Personally, I see the debate between the two schools as not so much a debate about method as one about focus. I would expect that people with open minds will see value in both approaches. Fundamentalists who want to avoid such challenges should consider Phillip Cary’s ‘Philosophy and Religion in the West’ in which - near the end of the course - Carey actually seeks to justify his own belief in the possibility of miracles. This will no doubt be very comforting for some.
Date published: 2009-08-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting but Basic I believe that far too much time was spent defining terms and providing background which meant less emphasis was placed on the abundant documentary evidence available. If you have little or no prior knowledge of early Christianity, this course is ideal. If you are looking for more contemporary research or an indepth review of the Fathers of the Church, try a different course. Nevertheless, the lecturer has a soothing style of delivery and just enough material to keep the course interesting for even the initiated.
Date published: 2009-07-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Glossed over the Gnostics and their persecution This course really ignores many of the recent facts or only lightly covers them. You can tell Timothy used to be a catholic monk since the course tends to favor those gospels that made it into the Catholic Bible and emphasizes Paul who was not even one of Jesus's disciples and had great disputes with Peter who was! Jesus is in your heart and soul not in some approved writings which sometimes miss the real idea of love one another as your self and focus on the idea of Jesus dying not the words he said while alive!
Date published: 2009-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Background to Christianity This course provides an excellent imagining of the Christian faith as practiced by the early church. Professor Johnson does a great job of bringing us into the mindset of the faithful.
Date published: 2009-01-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good I enjoyed this course, but it serves best as something of an introduction to the New Testament. I thought it didn't deal enough with the actual topic (experience). The highly controversial subject of "speaking in tongues" was given only one lecture.
Date published: 2008-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Johnson is peerless. His lectures are an inexaustible source of learning yet he is never podamitc and posess a wonderful sense of humor.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Early Christiantiy lectures: lesson 4 - Hellenistic, lesson 6 manipulation- please get a grip on spelling of key words used in lectures! by the way thank you for getting your professors to dress nicely.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb organization of materials and excellent delivery- pleasant voice.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I find the material and the presenter most interesting & informative. I have enjoyed the tapes & learned a lot.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from I continue to find these courses stimulating and provocative.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative with new insights into understanding the Greco/Roman influence of early christiany, and christianitiesinfluence on the Greco/Roman civilization.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from LT Johnson sets the bar for enthusiasm in the subject, holding the students interest, & being knowledgeable.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Johnson has allowed me to understand and "experience" the scriptures as they are, with joy and without apology.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Johnson conducts a spellbinding tour of the grass-roots charismatic powers that have propelled Christianity from early times into the flourishing world religion it is today.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, PhD presents information which is profoundly enlightening with concern to the minute particulars of "Christian" origins.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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