How do we know what we know?

Getting started


No direct and first-hand information about Jesus survives.
Harvard Professor Helmut Koester



's last page of introduction is Poindexter stuff you might as well skip. But before you click on to the good stuff at Pagan Ideas, lets recap what we've covered so far.

The keys of hell and the guarantee of salvation were in the hands of the goddess, and the initiation ceremony itself a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace

Apuleius, Metamorphosis. Ch 11
Describing initiation into the Mysteries of Isis Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Christianity began in the middle of ancient Mediterranean culture. For the ancients things didn't happen in accordance with laws of nature, things happened because they were caused by invisible, intelligent personalities. That maybe sounds like a no big deal difference between them and us, but the ideas that logically flow from the ancient's magic-beings understanding of cause and effect include stuff that looks familiar to fans of our bible—miracles, prophesies, demons, virgin births, angels, magic dreams, even God and heaven.

As we go through POCM, I'll show you not just that Christianity and Paganism share ideas, I'll show you how their shared ideas—miracles, prophesies, demons, virgin births, angels, magic dreams, God, heaven—all fit the ancients' primitive god-being centered understanding of how the world worked.

Our Christianity doesn't come from Jesus and a big bang, it comes from the accumulation of legends and theologies by ancient people who believed in Jesus. The origin of those legends and theologies wasn't Jesus. The origin was the myths, legends, philosophies, prejudices, literature, superstitions, and primitive cosmology of ancient western culture. Christianity is a product of its time and place.

Christianity began long ago, in a empire that disintegrated, in a culture that was exterminated. When it comes to Christian origins, how do we know what we know? Easy, we discover the facts in ancient books and (surprisingly) in ancient religious inscriptions. Our goal is simple. Know the available facts; fit our analysis to those facts. Obvious? Maybe; but do this and you'll be twenty miles ahead of most people, including smart people who write fancy books.

The question defines the evidence. The evidence refines the question.

When you do review the available record, you'll see that so many basic facts have been lost it is not possible to know each step with which Christianity began. I mean, not possible to say exactly who did what, where, when. Not possible to say, "Jesus was boosted line for line from Mithras" (a guess), or, "The sacrament of the eucharist was founded by Jesus the sacrament at the last supper" (a legend). Exactly what happened we can't know.

Direct Evidence of Christian Origins There is none. I mean, there is no record written by people who were there at the beginning of our religion. Jesus left no written record. The people

No direct and first-hand information about Jesus survives. Information from outside Christian sources is unavailable. One must therefore rely exclusively on Christian sources. The semi biographical framework of the gospel stories, however, is the result of the editorial work of the gospel writers and can therefore not be used for the reconstruction of the ministry of Jesus.

Harvard Professor Helmut Koester. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Volume 2, Introduction to the New Testament, 2d edition. (2000), pg. 78]
POCM quotes modern scholars

who knew Jesus left no written record. The birth of Christianity is described in no contemporary Pagan record. Our surviving Christian stories about the Galilean Jesus—Mary and Joseph, the virgin birth, the miracles, the sayings, the crucifixion in Jerusalem—can not be definitely dated before the middle decades of the second century, though wishful scholars imagine them being written only decades, a generation or two, after the "events." Whichever is true, our surviving Christian record is one sectarian story from among many sectarian legends of origin.
None of the "facts" we have recorded about Jesus was written by anyone who ever met Jesus.
Christian Origins
By the time our earliest written record of Christianity, the letters of the apostle Paul, were created, Christianity had already splintered into at least several groups. Paul attacks these other groups, confirming they existed.

By the time our version of Christianity used the power of Roman swords to make itself the official version, there were dozens of varieties of Christianity. At the urging of Roman priests, Roman emperors suppressed the other Christianities' legends of origin. One legend survived. Our legend.

Yes I do know this isn't what they told you at vacation bible school. It is however the unavoidable conclusion of modern New Testament scholarship, as even arch apologists like Reverend Bruce Manning Metzger agree. A number of good books explain the analysis.

So the truth is, we do not have direct evidence of exactly how Christianity began. How about that.


For Christianity the sources are:


The traditional Christian story, told by the New Testament and later Catholic Church Fathers.

The books that ended up in our New Testament were finally settled on by Roman Catholic priests in the fourth century—among other reasons, because specifically because they agreed with Roman Catholic dogma. (Christian apologist and very smart man, Bruce Metzger has a nice summary of the priests' criteria for canonicity on pages 251- 5 of The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (1997))

The New Testament is made up of early church letters, the four Gospels, a second century pseudo-history" called the Book of Acts, and a thing called an "apocalypse."

Some of the letters were written in the second century, but quite a few, written by various Christians including a man styling himself the Apostle Paul, survive from the 1st century.

The New Testament Gospels were maybe written in the first century AD. Or maybe not. The gospels themselves don't give their dates and unlike the first century letters, they are not mentioned or quoted in any surviving Christian document until well into the second century.

The Fathers' writing begins in the 90s AD, and gets going in the second century with letters, apologies and theologies by guys like Ignatius, Clement, Origen and Tertullian.


The New Testament
The Ante-Nicene Fathers — 6448 scintillating pages!



The non-traditional Christian story: other gospels, letters, Acts, and apocalypses written by early non-orthodox Christians, and not included in our modern orthodox bible.

Not so much of this stuff survives. These books were banned, burned, or just not copied.

In the 1940s copies of the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and other non-orthodox Christian scriptures were found at Nag Hamadi in Egypt.




There are/ were lots of these things, including:
Gospel according to the Hebrews
Gospel of the Egyptians
Gospel of Mary
Gospel of the Nazareans
Gospel of Peter
Gospel of Philip
Gospel of the Savior
Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Truth
unnamed gospel of the Papyrus Egerton
Proto-Gospel of James
Secret Gospel of Mark Acts of John
Acts of Paul
Acts of Peter
Acts of Pilate [!]
Acts of Thecla
Acts of Thomas
The Didache
The Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Peter

Not all of these survive. You'll find an outstanding roundup of canonical and early non-canonical Christian writing in: Introduction to the New Testament, Volume 2, History and Literature of Early Christianity, by Harvard Professor Helmut Koester

You'll find many of the Gnostic texts all together in the Nag Hamadi Library 



Contemporary Jewish and Pagan accounts of Christian origins.

The big shot Jewish historian Josephus (37 - c. 101 AD) wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages about first century Judea, including John the Baptist, including other first century Jewish messiahs, but about Our Precious Jesus, nothing (not counting two little ham-handed forgeries sneaked in later). And about the early Christians, nothing. Zip. Zero. Nada.

There is no Pagan account of Christian origins. In the second century the pagan Celsus, and in the third century the pagan Porphyry did write books attacking second and third century Christianity. Of course Christians later banned and burned the books. Not a single copy survived. What does survive are "fragments"—quotations of the books by other authors in books that made it through the extermination of Pagan civilization. They do offer a few facts about early Christianity.

There are none.

Celsus On the True Doctrine Discourse Against the Christians translated by R. Joseph Hoffman (A modern reconstruction of Celsus, put together from fragments in Origen's Contra Celsum.)

Porphyry's Against the Christians The Literary Remains by R. Joseph Hoffmann, translator & editor. (Another reconstruction, from various fragments.)




For Paganism things are much tougher. Pagan religious books were banned and burned. Except for a few quoted fragments and the Pyramid Texts, no Pagan sacred texts survive. What we know about Pagan religion comes largely from stone inscriptions and incidental descriptions in other ancient literature—histories, dramas, essays.



Sacred secrets
There's another thing that makes rooting out Pagan religious ideas tough. Their religious teachings were sacred secrets given by God, not to be disclosed to outsiders.The ancients took sacred secrecy seriously. This is particularly true of the religions of salvation—the mysteries. Except for a handful of oblique hints in one chapter of one book (Apuleius' Metamorphosis) no surviving Pagan text ever tells what the sacred secrets—the ritual, the sacraments, the theology—of any mystery religions were.

This is head-smacking frustrating. Over and over ancient authors take you right up to the edge of the mysteries, then stop right before they get to the part you want to know about   >>

On this lake it is that the Egyptians represent by night his sufferings whose name I refrain from mentioning, and this representation they call their Mysteries. I know well the whole course of the proceedings in these ceremonies, but they shall not pass my lips. So too, with regard to the mysteries of Demeter, which the Greeks term the Thesmophoria, I know them, but I shall not mention them, except so far as may be done without impiety.
[Herodotus, The Persian War, 2.171 (c 440 BC),—which you can find in: Godolpin, Francis. The Greek Historians (1942), pg. 160]

Holy rites of a similar kind were in use also among the Epidaurians, and likewise another sort of holy rites, whereof it is not lawful to speak.
[Herodotus, The Persian War, 5.83 (c 440 BC)] Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves. Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

Some ancient religion was unwritten—we think. Some was written, but certainly the ancients' religious secrets were not written about outside their sacred books, and those books were banned and burned. There's a lot about Pagan religion we just don't know.


Why that matters
For Pagan religions we've got a parts list, not a blueprint. We know what the parts were, not how they fit together. We know the mysteries were religions of salvation, that they had godmen, initiations often involving water "baptism", and sacred meals. We know mystery religions brought believers closer to God and that they gave believers a happy life after death. What the mysteries did we know. How the mysteries did it we don't.

We do have a parts list and a blueprint for Christianity, but our list and blueprint were written—often generations after the "facts"—by people who weren't there at the founding. We have no first-person record of how Christianity began. And we know the orthodox legend doesn't tell the whole story. (For example in the non-othodox Gospel of Thomas , Jesus brings salvation in the form of saving wisdom; His saving death isn't part of Thomas' version of the story.)

The bottom line is too few details survive to let us make one-for-one connections between how Pagan rites and sacraments fit with Pagan theology and how Christian rites and sacraments fit with Christian theology.

Since we are clever little girls and boys this doesn't surprise us. We know this is exactly how it usually works.

For example, too few details survive for us to make one-to-one connections between they mysteries of Demeter and the mysteries of Isis and the mysteries of Attis, and the mysteries of Samothrace, etc. etc. Yet reasonable people do not believe each of those ancient religions of salvation developed independently.

The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age
by Professor Walter Burkert

Another example. The famous historian of ancient religion (and the mysteries) Professor Walter Burkett wrote a nice book about all the stuff ancient Greek religion borrowed from Mesopotamian religion—all without enough details available to make one-to-one connections between how Greek rites and sacraments fit with Greek theology and how Mesopotamian rites and sacraments fit with Mesopotamian theology.

The bottom line has a bottom line.
When we talk about Christianity's Pagan origins we're going to be talking about things less specific than, say, the theology of exactly how baptism changes believers' relationship with God. I'm cool with that. In fact it fits nicely with a reasonable notion of how borrowing happens.

By the way

Keep your eyes peeled. This not-enough-surviving-info-to-make-detailed-one-to-one-connections-at-the-level-of-ries-and-sacraments-fitting-with-theology business does figure in the Pagan origins discussion.

For example, the famous believers' defense by Doctor of Divinity Arthur Darby Nock admits Pagan baptism, but denies any connection with Christian baptism—because intricate details of exactly how Christian baptism fits with Christian theology are not reflected in the Pagan evidence.




Here's a synopsis of the surviving evidence.

Pagan Sacred Writing
The ancients had sacred texts; none survive.


Pyramid Texts. When Egyptians buried rich guys in pyramids, they wrote prayers and spells on the walls and in the coffin. These survive. They're called "Pyramid Texts" and "Coffin Texts." Records about they Egyptian Savior God Osiris go way back—into the 3,000s BC >>

Through all that time, the Osiris myth stayed pretty much the same >>


Osiris has a thick textual dossier stretching over millennia. Although the full, connected myth is only to be found in Greek, in Plutarch's Isis and Osiris from the early second century CE, the Osirian myth can be reconstructed from the Pyramid Texts of the fifth and sixth dynasties . While the names of the actors and details of the incidents vary, this record is remarkably consistent over twenty-five hundred years.
[Jonathan Z. Smith, "Dying and Rising Gods," in Encyclopedia of Religion, 1987, Volume 4, page 524]

A few fragments of Pagan ritual do survive, mostly quotations of oracles, and religious stone inscriptions on graves, temples, etc.


Descriptions of Pagan Religion do survive.

Incidental fragments. Historians like Herodotus and Diodorus often described temples, miracles, and the outlines of various beliefs. Ancient novels, dramas and essays very often mention religion in passing.

Drama and essays about religion. A few works about religion survive—Euripides'"The Bacchae" (5th century BC), essays by Cicero, Lucian, and others.

Philosophy Plato et al often wrote about God and the Gods, though not too often about details of ritual and sacrament. None of this was used in religious practice.


Christian apologists often attacked Pagan religion, many of those descriptions survive.


Our surviving Jewish Hebrew Scripture, called the "Masoretic Text", is based on one eleventh century AD manuscript, called the St. Petersburg Codex. The Jewish scriptures also survive in the Septuagint, a Greek translation dating from the second century BC.

The Dead Sea Scrolls include a number of non-orthodox Jewish writing probably dating from the third - first centuries BC.

Josephus, a first century Jewish quisling, wrote an important Jewish history that survives.

Lots of other ancient Jewish writing, orthodox and non-orthodox, survives. We're getting a bit far from POCM's main topic here, so for details let me point you to the good books section below.


Good Books for this section

Introduction to the New Testament
Volume 2
History and Literature of Early Christianity

by Harvard Professor Helmut Koester

This book is a treasure—an excellent place for new students to start and a valuable reference if you already know plenty. A clearly written, readable roundup of modern New Testament scholarship by a giant in the field.

Includes the history of who wrote what, when—and who copied from whom. Not just the canonical books, but also Q, the Gospels of Thomas, Hebrews, etc. etc. Wow.

Also details the history of which sects developed in each region, when. Not what you learned in Sunday school.

Highly recommended for any serious student.




Introduction to the New Testament
Volume 1
History, Culture and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, 2d edition

by Harvard Professor Helmut Koester

What you'll find:

A quick history of ancient world

Details of Greek and Roman culture and history

A good roundup of Pagan religion

The history, culture and literature of Hellenistic Judaism.

Quite readable, but harder than Ferguson's Backgrounds of Christianity.

An excellent introduction. Highly recommended for any serious student.




The Golden Ass
or The Metamorphosis
by Apuleius

The ancients had novels (who knew?!), and this is one of them.  And, believe it or not, it's a fun read, lighthearted, funny, and well written. The story moves.  For the boys: it even has explicit sex. Amazing.  Who knew?!

The story is about Lucius' adventures after he gets turned into a donkey.  The first ten chapters are just fun, not related to the Pagan origins.

Chapter eleven is about Lucius in Egypt, and his study and initiation into the mysteries of Isis and Osiris (he's a man again by this point).  For the ancients these mysteries were sacred secrets—believers would and did die rather than reveal them.  Apuleius' novel is the only surviving text that comes close to describing the mystery initiation ceremony.  Apuleius also says initiation brought salvation:

"The keys of hell and the guarantee of salvation were in the hands of the goddess, and the initiation ceremony itself a kind of voluntary death and salvation through divine grace."

And the good thing is, you don't have to believe me, you can read it for yourself.


The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English
edited by Geza Vermes

What you'll find:

an English translation of all the dead sea scrolls



The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Their Significance for Understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus and Christianity
by James VenderKam and Peter Flint

What you'll find:

a carefully organized and very readable telling of the archeology, history and religious significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls