When discussing the different factors of religions that distinguish themselves from another, obvious elements such as theistic plurality, geographical influence, and ideas of revelation are present in such differences. However, when one digs deeper to the core motivations of a religion, its central belief and focus, that is where the true differences lie when comparing beliefs. This is not simply tenants or characteristics of each religion, such as stories or Scripture, traditions or liturgies, but rather what lies at the ontology of the belief, what internal and external motivators the faith has to believe whatever religious notions it professes. In the case of comparing Mediterranean religious systems, three beliefs showcase drastically different ontologies in regards to their structure and doctrine. Greco-Roman paganism, Judaism, and Christianity all present different structures in how they believe their religion. Christianity draws elements from both, yet being distinct in its core belief in the person of Jesus Christ, as opposed to the ritualistic state allegiance present in Greco-Roman religion and the strict adherence of the Torah seen in first century Judaism. This creates a divide between the religions, making Christianity a personal religion as opposed to a purely ritualistic or lawful religion. The very creed of early Christianity makes this especially evident, as not only does it stress the personhood of Christ, but also through “I believe”, making each profession of faith deeply imbued to each person who confesses this faith; this is especially evident in the Gospel of John and its mystic source—Jesus himself.
While Western Christianity’s liturgy and architecture draws similarities to the Roman religion, in roots of basilicas and elements of the Mass, Greco-Roman religion was severely limited to the confines of state allegiance. Sacrificing and worshiping the Roman Pantheon was how one proved allegiance to the empire, and was a prime factor in why Christians were charged with atheism and treason when persecuted in the years before the Edict of Milan. In this secularized religious setting, where the gods seemed distant and even similar to the god of Deism, there presents a difference between Christianity and Paganism. Because Roman citizens sought a personal relationship in their belief, this resulted in distant cultures’ religious figures being adopted into the Roman pantheon for the sake of mysticism—Persian god Mithras and the Egyptian goddess Iris being prime examples of this exotic spirituality. Christianity coming along with a relationship-centric belief appealed to the Romans, explaining a factor of the spread of Christianity throughout the Mediterranean. In having the person of Jesus Christ as the centric belief of the religion, Christianity was vastly different than the common religion of the empire. This antithesis is important in understanding the difference between Roman and Christian credos, as the Roman religion acted like a screen of culture that controlled peoples’ lives.
Again, this divide still holds truth when comparing Christianity to Judaism. While Judaism still had a personal relationship in their religion, Second Temple Judaism being centric on the Law or Torah presented a division from relationship that Christianity stresses. While Judaism founds the moral basis of Christianity through the Hebrew Bible, morality takes on a new personal depth within Christian belief, as seen in the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus clarifies and completes Mosaic Law by preaching a stricter adherence to morality, saying “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but fulfil them.” This application of the law to a deeper understanding of morality adds to the deeper relationship behind Christianity. Just after this, Christ continues this deepening of moral depth by making more distinctions on the topics of anger, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, retaliation, and love for enemies for the rest of the chapter. Matthew’s Gospel is vital in knowing the Christian difference in regards to morality, as it parallels the fulfillment of Scripture itself; as Christ comes to fulfill and make understood the prophesies and promise made to Adam and Eve, He also comes as a fulfillment and deepening of Mosaic law given to the Israelites in the book of Exodus. Drawing the parallels from Exodus, Christ’s establishment of the New Covenant with a new moral code creates a new nation, a new body. Thus, this new Church distinguishes itself from the Torah found within Judaism, as it deepens it through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. That is not to say, however, that Jesus and therefore the Church, rejects the Judaic basis for morality, as one like Marcion would believe, but rather perfect it in light of the redemption of souls through the Paschal Mystery.
By the Christian creed being centric on the phrase, “I believe”, the very profession of the faith creates this personal relationship to what is being confessed. In Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism, neither religions were as personal as Christianity; both had very community and society-based systems through the Law and allegiance to the state respectively. Christianity offers an antithesis to this, catering to the longing of deep profundity that comes from religion sought after by the Romans in the time period and from the Jews who awaited the Messiah, the one to reconcile the Kingdom of Israel, one to be from God. As Ratzinger points out, “the ‘I’ is the work, and the work is the ‘I’.” which means that the office of the believer is vital to the Christian belief; without the office, there is no personal element to the creed, which makes Christianity distinct. Additionally, as Bishop Robert Barron puts it, “The person of Jesus Christ demands a response to the question of ‘Who do you say that I am?’” meaning, that Christ’s story invokes a personal response from everyone in the world, Gentile or Jew, believer or nonbeliever. If Jesus of Nazareth truly is the Son of Man that he claims to be, then we must fall on our knees and worship him. Jesus’ followers throughout the Gospel show this decision as well, as a common theme of the Gospel is the difficulty of the belief that Jesus presents to the Judeans. Most notably, this departure of followers is seen in the Bread of Life discourse, as the Catholic belief on the Real Presence finds its roots here; such a controversial teaching that one may not live without eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking His Blood.
This personal belief makes the Credo of Christianity all the more different from the Roman and Judaic values at the time, making the experience of religion a forefront in spiritual terms, creating a new reality as the Gospel professes it to be. This reality, based on the Incarnational nature of Jesus and his Paschal mystery presents a spirituality that goes even deeper than the political allegiances of Rome or the Mosaic and Levitical law of the Jews—it places Christ in front of the believer’s face in an intimate encounter.
The Gospel of John’s high Christology shows this experiential element of the Credo, as the mystic authorship of this Gospel comes from the direct encounters with Christ, deepened through the relationship between Jesus and John. This sheer mystical experience with his Creator and his very cause for existence, to the point of physical touch, could only have given John, arguably, some of the most profound internal wisdom and knowledge that any human being, aside from Mary, could have ever had. This wisdom personifies itself through John’s Gospel and especially through the Apocalypse, as the fullness of human experience with the divine is summed up and revealed to the Church. This is significant as it provides not only hope for 1st century Christians under persecution of Rome, but also as it provides each reader with that same sense of weirdness and divine uncomfortableness that John tries to convey. Since the human being cannot fully comprehend the divine, yet another difference between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity, the person of Jesus Christ obliterates the mind and blows the senses open to what is beyond and what that depth’s ends are, the very spirit of wisdom. In the Greco-Roman paganism, the mythology shows mortals being able to understand and even manipulate the divine plans of the gods, as seen in the myth of Orpheus. Here, his meddling with the death of his wife shows a direct contradiction to what was naturally divine—taking someone out of the underworld went directly against the very patronage and purpose of Hades (or Pluto, if one was Roman). This direct opposition to what John so ardently professes in his literature goes to show this difference in the Christian Credo, as the humble approach to not being able to fully comprehend the person of Jesus Christ allows for depth in devotion and love. As Ratzinger points out the importance of the Crucifixion to the Christian faith, it is important to note what John tells the reader about the Passion of Christ. Aside from the roots of Marian devotion and motherhood, the image on infinite depth is present here as well, as John describes the tunic Jesus wore “without seam, woven from top to bottom.” This is important, as it shows that Christ’s divinity is acknowledged to the point of death—John’s constant imagery of unknowable depth intensifies the Credo’s primary inspiration—Jesus’ being truly God and truly man. Jesus’ Incarnation and the human response to it is not simply an admittance to divine qualities in a Judean carpenter; rather, it is an opening of the heart, mind, and soul to the eternity that Jesus professes that He is, a reality beyond human comprehension. This infinite expanse of wisdom and being present in Jesus throughout the Johannine parts of the New Testament creates this wonder and awe in reaction to Christ, as He becomes king and ruler of the universe, conquering death and sin once and for all, being the centerpiece and royal jewel of the Judeo-Christian understanding of Creation, being begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father. Thus, this creates a difference between Judaic and Pagan beliefs, Jesus is no demigod nor angel or prophet, but wholly divine and wholly man. In its own sense, the Christian credo is dually about each individual believer and about the infinity of God shown to the world in the person of Jesus Christ, it is human and divine in likeness to Jesus—each profession of faith thus likens the Christian to Christ, admitting to the human and divine.
It is in what we love that tells us what we are
Dane Litchfield is a sophomore attending Holy Cross College at Notre Dame, IN. He is currently majoring in Theology with minors in Philosophy, History, and Visual Arts. His academic interests include Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Early Christianity, Linguistics, and Spirituality Studies with a particular focus on architecture and the liturgy. His current career plans are to attend graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, earning either a Master of Arts in Theology or Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) with eventual hopes of doctoral work and entering the field of academia or campus ministry at a Catholic college or university. A devout Catholic, Litchfield represented the United States and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend as a papal lector for the Via Crucis of World Youth Day 2019 in Panama City, Panama. He attributes his theological and spiritual formation and interests to his patron saints, experiences, and own conversion story.
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