Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003. 516 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8006-3593-0. $30.00.
The release of Klauck's books in paperback by Fortress Press is a distinct boon. Originally published in hard copy (T. & T. Clarknow out-of-print) in 2000 with a hefty price tag of more than $60, this affordable edition is welcome.
The subtitle says it all. Klauck has provided a near definitive vade mecum of Greek and Roman religions in the era of early Christianity. What indeed were our fathers and mothers in the faith up against in their own religious environment? The answer is a plethora of religions as numerous as the plethora of (pagan) gods and goddesses. There is a religion for every Graeco-Roman taste: the Eleusian Mysteries; the Dionysius cult including Orphism (Orpheus in the underworld); the Attis cult (beloved of Cybele); Isis (Egyptian goddesswife of Osiris); Mithraism (Klauck is very helpful here with a most mysterious, but powerful devotion); claimants of miracles (Epidauros and Apollonius of Tyana); magic; astrology; emperor worship (Greek and Roman); and the philosophies which mimicked religion (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism). Finally, there is Gnosticism which continues to fascinate and mislead scholars of our own generation.
With respect to the latter, our readers will be pleased to note the reference to the work of Dr. Edwin Yamauchi (p. 455) and Klauck's conclusion"we have no literary testimonies to a developed gnosis that can be dated indubitably to the first century CE or even earlier" (p. 458). He further scorns the notion of a pre-Christian gnosisa theory beloved by the history of religions school (Rudolf Bultmann, one of its mature members) as a basis for New Testament Christianity. Says Klauck, "There did not exist the kind of pre-Christian gnosis that the older history of religions posited, chronologically antecedent to the New Testament and providing one of its intellectual presuppositions" (459).
Such fairness, accurate reading of the primary documents and refusal to stray where the data do not go make this an insightful if not revisionist volume. We appreciate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ontological Son of God, all the more for reading about those religions that early Christians formerly embracedcults from which the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord had set them free. How greatly we treasure the witness of the early saintsthey had been translated out of death into life by the supernatural power of heaven. Surely nothing less broke the bondage of the gods!
James T. Dennison, Jr.