Ancient religions had much in common, says Grawemeyer winner

The ancient Christians had more in common with their Jewish and pagan neighbors than most people realize, says the winner of the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a biblical scholar and senior fellow at Emory University, won the $100,000 prize for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, “Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity.”

Johnson proposes a new framework in the book for analyzing early Christianity in its religious, social and historical contexts. He shows that the Christians, Jews and pagans of ancient Rome and Greece shared certain ways of being religious regardless of their differences in doctrine.

Johnson’s approach is “powerfully illuminating, not only for historical study but also for interfaith relations today,” said award director Susan Garrett.

“He shows that if we want to see how early Christians differed from other religious people of their day, we first have to see how they were similar,” Garrett said. “And he shines fresh light on the diverse religions of our contemporary world—a light that shows common ground where we thought there were only radical differences.”

Johnson, a senior fellow at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, is a former Benedictine monk. He sparked widespread discussion in 1996 with his book, “The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.”

His 1986 book, “The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation,” is now in its second edition and widely used by religious scholars worldwide.

Five Grawemeyer Awards are presented annually for outstanding works in music composition, world order, psychology, education and religion. The University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Seminary jointly award the religion prize.

About Luke Timothy

Luke Timothy Johnson is Robert Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in Candler School of Theology at Emory University and senior fellow of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion.

His research focuses on the literary, moral and religious dimensions of the New Testament, including the Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts of early Christianity, Luke-Acts, the Pastoral Letters and the Letter of James.

A prolific author, he has written 27 books and more than 300 articles, lectures and reviews. He belongs to several editorial and advisory boards, lectures at universities and seminaries worldwide and has received many fellowships and awards, especially for his teaching.

His courses on early Christianity and the New Testament are offered on DVD through The Teaching Company, a business that sells recordings of courses in literature, philosophy, history, fine arts, science, economics and religion.

Johnson is a noted critic of the Jesus Seminar, a group of religious scholars formed in 1985. He has refuted their examination of Jesus as a purely historical figure, claiming that the data on which they base their efforts is biased by early Christian theological beliefs. He further argues that the Jesus Seminar misinterprets the relationship between Jesus as reconstructed by historians and the Jesus of faith.

In other areas, he disagrees with Vatican teaching. For example, he has publicly declared his support for same-sex partnerships and the ordination of women.

A native of Park Falls, Wisconsin, Johnson was educated in public and parochial schools. He was a Benedictine monk and priest at St. Joseph Abbey, St. Benedict, La., from 1963 to 1972.

He holds a doctor of philosophy degree in New Testament from Yale University, a master of arts degree in religious studies from Indiana University, a master of divinity degree in theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology and a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame Seminary.

Before joining Emory in 1992, Johnson taught Yale Divinity School and IU.

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