The story is told about a British conference on comparative religions attended by the famed apologist C. S. Lewis. During one session in which a number of scholars vigorously debated the uniqueness of the Christian faith, Lewis wandered into the room and asked, “What’s the rumpus about?” Those present told him they were debating whether Christianity offered any unique contributions in the world of religion. Without missing a beat, Lewis replied, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
While Lewis was correct, he only touched the hem of the garment. When Christianity first appeared in the context of the Roman Empire, it proved to be a faith unlike anything else the world had ever seen. Contrary to the beliefs of some critics, Christianity does not owe anything to pagan beliefs that preceded it. Here we will survey just a few of the things that made the Christian faith distinct from other religions available at the time.
The Judeo-Christian tradition stood apart from all other religions because it advocated the worship of one God. Christianity and Judaism existed as the only monotheistic faiths in the ancient world. In contrast, Roman religion was thoroughly polytheistic. The number of gods, divinities, and spirits recognized by Romans numbered into the thousands.
Human beings attached gods to peoples (1 Kings 11:7), forces of nature (1 Kings 18:24), and geographical areas (1 Kings 20:28). Throughout the Greco-Roman world, cities had patron gods, a practice that existed as far back as the earliest times in ancient Mesopotamia. The Romans went even further by revering divinities responsible for such minuscule things as the lock of a door or the first cry of a newborn child. Roman deities could very well be an example of micromanagement at its finest.
Unfortunately, the exclusive worship of God in the early church caused Romans to perceive it as dangerous and subversive. Romans feared that the Christians would offend the gods of Rome by failing to give proper respect. This would, in turn, cause the gods to withdraw their blessings from the empire. The authorities considered Christianity so potentially harmful that they punished believers with the death penalty, a fact illustrated by the correspondence between Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger in the early second century.
Christianity as a “Book Religion”
Today, religions can be identified by texts that most represent their teachings. This was not possible before the emergence of the early church. Pagan religions did not have sacred texts that served in an equivalent manner as the Bible. While important sacred texts did exist (such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead), these were not intended for public reading, nor were they used to reveal the will of the gods or shape the behavior of faithful believers.
Jews considered Scripture reading essential. In the Old Testament, God commanded the reading of the Law (Deut. 31:11). During the time of Ezra, the law was read publicly for hours on end while Jewish believers reverently stood at attention (Neh. 8:3). The importance of reading Scripture continued in the New Testament period with readings in synagogues (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:14-15; 15:21). This practice continued in Christianity with an emphasis on the written word (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:15; 2 Tim. 3:16). Although Jews valued the reading of Scripture, Judaism had always been concerned more with orthopraxy (proper behavior or religious observance) than orthodoxy (proper belief), the latter of which was distinctive to the early church.
The existence of such a vast number of manuscripts also implies the importance of doctrine. Pagans had little concern for proper beliefs concerning their gods, as numerous stories offer contradictory accounts of events during the experiences of the deities worshiped in the Roman Empire. Christianity has always been concerned with sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2 John 9), which has no true parallel in any other religion, ancient or modern. Romans looked to philosophy, not religion, for teaching on proper living.
Exclusivity and Openness in Christianity
The contrast between Christianity and other religions regarding membership could hardly be more vivid. Formal cults offering the traditional worship of the gods were very open. Membership was not exclusive, unlike Christianity which recognized only those as members who had gone through specific steps including expressing faith, repenting of sinful behavior, adopting a holy lifestyle, and being immersed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 2:14-41).
The mystery religions—so-called because of their secrecy—opened their doors to almost anyone who had sufficient resources to cover the cost of initiation. Membership in one did not preclude membership in another (although the expense of initiation could be cost-prohibitive). The price of admission finds no parallel in Christianity.
Mystery religions valued secrecy so much that a mob nearly murdered the Greek playwright Aeschylus (c.523–c.456 BC) because an audience perceived one of his play as revealing secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Christianity, on the other hand, has always been open to all regardless of gender or socioeconomic status and offers membership to any who would follow Christ. While the mystery cults were open to a select few, the gospel is for all (Rom. 1:16; Gal. 3:26-29).
Efforts made by critics to show that Christianity evolved from other religious traditions in the ancient world cannot withstand scrutiny. This is familiar territory in critical scholarship, as various writers have attempted to connect both ancient Judaism and early Christianity with other religious movements and ideas. If Christianity emerged independently from upon other religions, then its distinctiveness must be explained. It bears the marks not of invention or evolution, but of divine revelation.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.