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Pagan Origins Hablo Greek-o
Good books: the Top Four, and more

You can get a good picture of the Pagan Origins question by reading just four books, in order:

Top Four

Documents For The Study Of The Gospels
David Cartlidge, editor

What you'll find:

A sourcebook. Original documents with little commentary. Read the facts yourself. Decide for yourself.

Extended quotations from ancient pagan authors chosen to цена экскурсии в Петергоф illustrate Pagan-Christian parallels.

SEE!   the healing miracles of Asclepius.
SEE!   Dionysus turns water into wine.
SEE!   1st century AD Pagan miracle worker in Syria heal the sick by casting out daemons.
SEE!   the divine births of Plato, Alexander, Augustus.
SEE!   Pagan Martyrdoms, Pagan ascensions, Pagan sacraments.

Extended quotations from non-proto-orthodox early Christian authors illustrating the diversity of earliest Christianity

Extended quotations from early proto-orthodox Christian authors confirming Pagan-Christian parallels.

Think of this as POCM's blue boxes in a book, without Greg's annoying commentary.
(This is not where POCM got it's blue box stuff, but it could have been, if I'd found this book 10 years earlier. Shit.)

Highly recommended.

Top Four

Gospel Fictions
by Randel Helms

What you'll find:

Helm's thesis is that early Christians got their "facts" about Jesus not from history, but from the Old Testament. The book compares specific NT stories with their paired OT stories, and finds that not only are the facts similar, but so are the structures of the accounts and even the particular Greek words used.

As an added bonus, in the course of describing this borrowing Helms succinctly outlines the maturation of Christological theories about Jesus from Mark through the later gospels.

This is a very good book, short and easy to read.


Top Four

The River Of God
A New History Of Christian Origins
by Greg Riley, PhD

What you'll find:

A Harvard trained professor of religion traces the history of earliest Christianity and the origin of Christian ideas—in Greek philosophy and pagan religion.


If this book had been around in 1998, POCM would have been unnecessary.

Top Four, #5

Backgrounds of Early Christianity
by Everett Ferguson

An outstanding book to start with.

What you'll find:

A powerful introduction to the background of Christian-Pagan borrowing, the ancient Pagan (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc), Jewish, and early Christian political and religious culture and history.

A treasure: an unusually readable, well writtenfun!—book.

If you need a special-purpose book to understand Christianity's Pagan origins, then probably Christianity didn't have Pagan origins.  It does; you don't.  What you really need is a good book describing ancient Pagan culture and religion.  This outstanding, easy to read book is the best I've read.

From Greco-Roman religions (Mithras, Isis, Dionysus, Eleusis, the mystery religions, etc.) and philosophies (monotheism, the soul, life after death, etc.), on through an excellent section on Second Temple Judaism and another on early Christianity, you'll discover the facts and issues behind modern scholarship on Christian origins.

I bought this book on a whim, figuring it would have a relevant section or two;  I ended up reading the thing cover to cover, 600 delightfully clear and well written pages.  But you don't have to read it cover to cover—just pick the section you're interested in.


Top Four

Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background
by Doctor of Divinity Arthur Darby Nock

You'll find:

the leading non-borrowing scholar- apologist admits deep similarities between the Pagan mystery religions and Christianity.

The canonical believers' reasons why each and every one of those similarities doesn't count.

First published in 1928 and reissued and updated in 1964, this is the canonical refutation of the late 19th and early 20th century scholarly claims that Christianity borrowed from Paganism.  This essay is widely cited as an authority, "Dr. Nock has refuted the German School. . .", and the arguments Nock developed here are the same ones believers use today.

Nock was a Harvard professor who read and understood the scholarship.  He did not—could not, in that generation when scholars knew better—deny the deep similarities between Christianity and the Pagan mysteries. 

For example >>

The Eucharist ... is in line with contemporary mysteries, which purported to represent the sufferings and triumph of a god, in which his worshipers sympathized and shared....The Eucharist is a mystery, as mysteries were then understood, and Christianity, the heir of Judaism, has also an essential spiritual continuity with Hellenistic religion.
[pg 72]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Nock was also a committed Christian, a Doctor of Divinity who wasn't about to admit Christianity borrowed from Paganism, so for every similarity he comes up with a reason the similarity doesn't count.

The 1964 Harper Torchbook edition is expanded with Nock's later thoughts and arguments. 

It is out of print, but often available used through Amazon

End Top Four

More than four       Haven't had enough?  Here are a few more great reads:


The Bible Geek
Theology with a twist
but without the spin

Dr Robert Price

The internet bypasses conventional thinking's choke hold on the ideas you get to know about.

What you'll find:

Answers to listener questions about bible scholarship. Not, "How can I be sure I'm going to heaven," but "What is the history of the Greco-Roman Jewish-Christian idea of heaven, and what is the internal logic of its exposition in the bible."

Terrible accents, worse jokes, worse worse singing. And movie quotes.

An utter absence of pretention helps clear thinking.

As I piece it together, decades back Dr. Price discovered his fundamentalist beliefs couldn't be sustained by the evidence. He moved on to high tone scholarship, where he found more of the same. Now he's moved on again, following the facts where they lead.


Latest BG podcast
  BG archive

Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity
by Dag Oistein Endsjo

What you'll find:

Our myth isn't new and original after all.
A fancy scholar looks at the ancient evidence

In spite of coming from the keyboard of a poindexter this book is clearly written and coherent.

Too expensive, or it would be one of POCM's top picks. Try inter-libary loan.

Endsjo is a professional academic who for years heard and believed the regulation academic myth: The Christian theology of BODILY resurrection was new and unique. It could not have borrowed from Pagan ideas, because to Greco-Roman Paganism the body was corrupt.

Eventually Endsjo decided to look at, you know, the ancient evidence. Oops. Turns out bodily resurrection was a widespread belief in pre-Christian Pagan and Jewish culture.

Highly recommended.

The Ancient Mysteries : A Source book
Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean World
Marvin W. Meyer (Editor)

What you'll find:

A sourcebook of extended quotations from ancients, all dealing directly with the Pagan mystery religions.

Who you gonna trust?  The ancients. Believing scholars shade the facts in favor of the myth.  Non-believers exaggerate and make up facts and connections as a way to attack the church. 

So who are you going to trust?  That's up to you.  I trust the ancients—people alive back when Christianity began, and before. That's what this book is about.

This is a sourcebook, a collection of primary documents—excerpts from ancient authors who wrote about Pagan religion and early Christianity.  It's a great collection, with the original text of most of the standard ancient references to the pagan mystery religions.

This is a powerful book. You'll discover firsthand, right from the pens of the ancients themselves,  that Dionysus came to earth "incognito, disguised as a man"; that Pagan Gods died and were reborn with the meaning that "the God is saved, and we shall have salvation."; that pagans had initiation ceremonies seen as "a voluntary death", sacred meals shared with the God, ceremonial washing, Pagan miracles, a Godman who changed water into wine, and a Pagan version of the great flood.  And much more.  

An important book that no serious student will be without. Highly recommended.


Celsus On the True Doctrine
A Discourse Against the Christians
translated by R. Joseph Hoffman

What you'll find:

A second century Pagan's opinion of Christianity


Celsus was a Pagan. In the second century AD he wrote a book pointing out flaws in Christianity. Of course Celsus points up the same contradictions and illogicalities in the Christian myth that people point up today. Ignore those. They aren't the point.

The point is the things Celsus doesn't complain about—the things he takes for granted because they're part of his Pagan culture and his Pagan religion. Celsus doesn't attack Christians for believing in God, or in a godman, for the idea of a human soul, for Heaven or Hell or prayer or salvation or eternal life, etc., etc.

Pay attention, while you read, to all the Pagan things in Christianity that Celsus doesn't attack—your ideas about Christianity will change forever. Wow. Highly recommended.

The original version of On the True Doctrine was written in the second century AD by a Pagan guy named Celsus. The Christains burned it; no copies sruvive. So where does this book come from? In the third century one of the Church Fathers, a fellow named Origen, wrote a long rebuttal (he called it Against Celsus) that quoted Celsus idea by idea and often word for word. Against Celsus does survive. This book uses it's long quotes to reconstruct Celsus' book. Is it perfect? No. Is it pretty good? Yes.

The Origins of Biblical Monotheism
Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts

by Mark S. Smith,
Skirball Professor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies, New York University

What you'll find:

A well written and readable book—a real page turner

A highly technical book aimed at Old Testament scholars, tracing the origins of Israelite myth and theology to earlier Canaanite and West Semitic cultures.

Focuses on the texts unearthed at Ugarit.

For example: "[T]he priestly theological treatment of Israel's early religious history in Exodus 6:2-3 identifies the old god El Shadday with Yahweh:

And God said to Moses, "I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them."

This passage shows that Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs. Rather, they are depicted as worshipers of El. In Israel El's characteristics and epithets became part of the repertoire of descriptions of Yahweh. Like El in the Ugaritic texts, Yahweh is described as an aged, patriarchal god ..., enthroned amidst the assembly of divine beings" [pg 141]

It helps to know a bit about Ugarit before you start. Exhaustive, exhausting. Expensive—but worth every penny. HIghly re commented.

Deconstructing Jesus
by Robert Price
Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, member of the Jesus Seminar, and editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism

What you'll find:

A non-apologist New Testament scholar's analysis of the Christ-myth

Basically another Jesus theories book.

Is this the final word on who Jesus was or wasn't? No, it's not. It is a useful look at the methods and conclusions of modern New Testament scholarship—by an academic who isn't impressed by either.

Price is an academic who understands the orthodox scholarly theories, though he doesn't buy them. His theme is that nothing we know about Jesus is historical, everything is mythical.

The book follows the regulation scholarship, starting with the "Jesus People," (an academic term for Jesus' first followers; the Jesus People weren't really Christians, since they didn't believe Jesus was God or that he had risen from the dead), on to the first groups who worshiped Jesus as God, the Christ-cults (another academic term), through Jewish Messianic expectations, non-orthodox early Christianities and even ancient novels, which reveal a cultural theme of escape from crucifixion.

The point is not one-for-one parallels between Jesus and, say, Mithras or Osiris.  The point is that  the first Christians took the basic ideas of their culture and adapted them to their new faith.



What other people think about POCM


I've been meaning to write to you for a several months to tell you how much I enjoy your web site. However my fear of seeing my email listed on your feedback page with all my spelling errors highlighted in red and an image of a dunce cap next to it has kept me at bay. Today though I'm confident my email spill chucker won't let me down.

Last year around this time I began researching old European Christmas customs on the internet and stumbled onto a page which compared Mithras and Jesus. I found the parallels intriguing and have been researching Christianity's pagan origins ever since. Your web page has made my study so much easier. I appreciate the methodical, well structured argument you laid out on your web page, but it's your Good Books section that has been the most helpful. In the last few months I've read Shorto's Gospel Truth, most of Price's Deconstructing Jesus, and sections of Koester's Introduction to the New Testament Volume 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity. Amazon just emailed me that Bauer's Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity is on its way. It looks like I'll have lots of good reading material this winter.