Religious Experience and Religious
Innovation in the New Testament
It is clear that earliest Christianity was characterized by a rich and varied assortment of religious experiences, ranging all along a continuum from the quiet and inward to the dramatic and outward categories. The rhetoric of the New Testament attributes all these Christian religious experiences to the Spirit of God, the “Holy Spirit.” The success of earliest Christianity and its appeal and credibility in the eyes of converts seem to have been very heavily connected to its ability to provide religious experiences that corresponded to its rhetoric of being “gifted,” “filled,” “anointed,” and “empowered” by the Spirit of God.1 To cite but one example indicating the importance of the experience of the Spirit for early Christians, in Galatians 3:1–5 Paul cites the Spirit-experiences of the Galatians as evidence of the validity of their conversion apart from observance of the requirements of Jewish Torah.2 In this discussion, in addition to emphasizing the general importance of religious experiences in early Christianity, I particularly
1. See, e.g., Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Phil-
adelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 85–114. “The key to Christianity's success lies not in its teach-
ing but in its experience of power” (87).
2. On the importance of Spirit-experiences in this epistle, see C. H. Cosgrove, The Cross
and the Spirit: A Study in the Argument and Theology of Galatians (Macon, Ga.: Mercer Uni-
versity Press, 1988).
This chapter is a revised text of my 1998 T. W. Manson Memorial Lecture that I delivered Oc-
tober 29, 1998, at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom. It was subsequently pub-
lished in the Journal of Religion 80 (2000): 183–205. I thank the journal editor and publisher
(University of Chicago Press) for permission to republish my essay, here slightly re-edited
for this book.