How come I never heard about this?

Getting started


Our modern culture's ideas about Christian origins come from the Christian version of the story.

ow come didn't anyone ever tell you Christianity borrowed from other ancient religions? And the fact they didn't tell you that, that's got to make you think this Pagan Origins business is nutty, right?

Part of the problem may be you haven't stumbled across the right books. The idea that Christianity borrowed from Paganism dates back to the 1400s, when anti-Catholic protestants began finding Pagan ideas in the Roman church.   By the mid to late 1800s archeology had uncovered and translated Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian texts a thousand years older than the earliest hint of Judaism. The legends in these texts proved striking parallels with Old Testament legends, leading reasonable people to realize many OT bible stories were knock offs of the older middle eastern myths. Eager but incautious professional scholars came up with a similar myth-by-myth-copy theory for the New Testament stories about Jesus.

By the 1950s the myth-by-myth theory had pretty much withered for lack of evidence. In recent decades it's been replaced by:

Academics writing books or sourcebooks focused on a single feature of ancient religion—daemons, miracles, life after death, divine births, magic God-sent dreams, etc. — and including Christianity as just another example of how ancient religious thought worked.

Non-crazy people, including real scholars not in departments of religion or theology, writing Jesus theory genera books pointing out the lack of first century AD evidence for a historical Jesus, from which they conclude first century Christianity was about a mythic Jesus based on Old Testament prophesies. The Galilean legends were added in the second century.

Ernest undisciplined amateurs repeating and elaborating the mistakes of the 19th century mythicists.

So Christianity's Pagan origins is out there. You just have to know where to look.

On the other hand, if where you've been looking is church or the popular culture, then of course you've been disappointed. The guys in church are in church because they don't believe Christianity has Pagan origins, so they're not going to tell you. And popular culture? MSNBCABCBS doesn't know or care.



Professor Smith describes these early efforts.

Dr. Schweitzer describes the mythicist school.

How about academia? Shouldn't scholars in departments of theology and religion at hot shot universities know about Christianity's Pagan origins? If it had any. A few things happen. First, some academics do tell you. See above.

Second, most scholars of religion, particularly of Christian religion, are . . . Christians. Liberal or conservative (bible-wise), their scholarship isn't about whether Christianity is true. Their scholarship is about how Christianity is true. Being scholars, they've heard about Christianity's Pagan origins, but being Christians, they don't believe it. You're not going to hear about Christianity's Pagan origins from them.


Think I'm making that up? Here's anti-borrowing scholar Reverend (you caught the "Reverend" bit, right?) Bruce Manning Metzger's list of English-speaking scholars who examined the Pagan origins theory and concluded no borrowing happened. All the scholars on the anti-borrowing list are—Christian clergymen!

Samuel Cheetham "An English divine of the Established Church, wrote a history of the Christian Church ... but is best known for his Dictionary of Christian Antiquities,"

H. A. A. Kennedy. A Christian theologian

J. Gresham Machen "One of the most articulate defenders of orthodox Christian theology against the liberalizing and rationalizing trends of the early twentieth century"

A. D. Nock, Doctor of Divinity and famous Christian apologist

Hugo Rahner, Catholic Priest and Christian theologian.

The people who care enough about Christian origins to study and write about Christian origins—to be "scholars" of the subject—generally care exactly because they start with the idea that Christianity is true—that it doesn't have Pagan origins.They aren't scholars of whether Christianity is true, they're scholars of how it is true.


Finally, modern liberal (non-bible-literalist) New Testament scholarship has given up on the idea our gospels are histories, but it hasn't given up on the basic framework of the Jesus legends, with our gospels as imperfect second or fifth hand half-ass histories of a real person Jesus. Liberal scholarship is about how brainiac literary fussing and picking can discover the true meaning of Jesus from the imperfect gospel quasi-histories. Liberal scholarship is not about whether this can be done, and it's not about whether the basic framework of the Jesus legend is true. Liberal scholars have heard about Christianity's Pagan origins, but it conflicts with the unexamined axiom justifying their life's work, and they don't believe it. You're not going to hear anything non-dismissive about Christianity's Pagan origins from them.



Where's the comparative religion stuff about Christianity and other ancient religions?
Sign up for World Religion 101 at your nearest college, and you'll hear plenty about the similarities and differences between Christianity and other modern religions. To see what I mean, just surf to the course descriptions at your favorite university's classics or religion departments, say classics at Harvard. Lots of comparisons there, right? Christianity compared to Judaism, Christianity compared to Islam, Christianity compared to Hinduism, Christianity compared to Buddhism—that we got plenty of.

Now, look for courses about Christianity compared to Osiris-ism, or Christianity compared to Mithras-ism, or Eleusis-ism, or Platonism, or any ancient Pagan religion or philosophy. Find anything? Nope. There's nothing there. Nothing! That is astounding.

After all, Christianity began in the middle of Pagan culture. Before they converted, many of the early Christians were Pagans. Yet of any similarity between ancient Pagan ideas and ancient Christian ideas, our modern culture knows nothing. Nothing! It's as if three thousand years of western religious history never happened.


Because no one thinks to ask. Preacher, lay Christian, conservative or liberal Christian scholar, or disinterested non-Christian, we all see Christianity as a watershed—there were primitive polytheistic pre-Christian religions, then there was Christianity. We see it that way because our modern culture's ideas about Christian origins come from the Christian version of the story of Christian origins, the version written by early Christians, for Christians, retelling the story so the facts fit Roman Christian theology.

And Roman Christian theology imagined Big Bang Christianity: miraculous, unique, discontinuous. There were primitive polytheistic pre-Christian religions, then Jesus brought radical new (Jewish-ish, but new) ideas about God and Man. That's the Christian history. That's how we see it.

How did the Christian version come to be the only one we know about? Here's how:

For starters, the only version of Christian origins that survived antiquity was the version written by the victorious Roman Christians.

Eusebius' Ecclesiastical HistoryThe regulation history of Christian origins was written by a Roman Catholic bishop. After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity (in 312 AD) he had his chum Eusebius write a history of early "post-Gospel" Christianity. Eusebius wasn't just the Emperor's chum, he was also the Bishop of Cesarea. A Christian. Our oldest history of Christian origins, Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, was written by Christians, for Christians. It gives the Roman Christian side of the story.

How about other Christian versions of Christian origins? They were suppressed. One reason our received version of the origins story sounds plausible is, there isn't any other version to compare it too.

There was no Pagan side of the Christian origins story. Even well into the second and third centuries AD Christianity didn't make much of an impression on the Romans and Greeks, and certainly back at the very beginning, in the first century, no Pagan—no Greek or Roman or Jew or Thracian or Egyptian, etc—knew or cared enough about the tiny new sect to write a history of it. There is no contemporary Pagan side of the Christian origins story.

There were later Pagan accounts. Celsus wrote one in the 2d century. Porphyry of Tyre wrote fifteen books about—against—Christianity in the third. But neither of these books were histories, they were commentaries based on Christian writing and legend. Unfavorable commentaries. And anyway, they were banned and burned, and survive only in fragments.

You don't hear about Christianity's Pagan origins because the story that survived antiquity was Eusebius' Roman Catholic version, written by a Roman Christians, for Roman Christians.


What's the bottom line? Christian or not, you have a Christian perspective on Christianity's uniqueness—that's the only perspective you've ever heard. No matter what we believe about the truth of what's said in a Christian church Sunday morning, we see Christianity as a watershed—there were primitive polytheistic pre-Christian religions, then there was Christianity.

It ain't so.

Why it ain't so is what POCM is about.



Alexandria, Egypt. 415 AD
Enraged over a point of doctrine about the true nature of Christ, Cyril, Christian patriarch of Alexandria, incites a pogrom against people who deny his own theory. Cyril's co-religionists assert their faith by burning the homes of doctrinal opponents and driving entire communities from the city. On a fateful day Hypatia—the non-Christian scholar, philosopher, and teacher renown throughout the Mediterranean world for her devotion to learning and enlightenment—steps onto her chariot to ride through town to the great Library of Alexandria. A mob gathers, chanting slogans against her.


The rioters close in, jamming Hypatia's chariot to a stop, grabbing her, jerking her down and out into the street where eager hands strip the woman naked. Jeering they drag her to a church where Christian officials promptly butcher her.

Gibbon describes >

"[H]er flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames."
[Decline and Fall Ch. 47]

POCM quotes modern scholars

So why mention the murder of Hypatia? Because her story helps answer the question you're already thinking: "OK, if Christianity had Pagan origins, how come I never heard about it?"

History is written by the winners. You've never heard about the Pagan origins of Christianity because as Christians institutionalized the Church starting in the 300s AD, their reaction to Pagan competition was to deny and suppress Pagan teaching. To burn Pagan writings. To drive dissident communities into the desert. To murder Pagan scholars.

It worked well. So well that the word Pagan is a pejorative. So well that much of our modern understanding of these faiths is available only because scholars have reconstructed Pagan theology by reading between the lines of anti-Pagan Christian propaganda—the original Pagan literature having been lost in the bonfires of suppression.

You know the Christian version of the history of religion because the Paganism was suppressed.


Let's be sure you understand which meaning of "Pagan" POCM has in mind.

"Pagan" has several meanings.

Ancient Rome.
The ancient Pagans didn't call themselves "Pagans." For Romans before the fourth century AD "pagus" was a Latin word meaning "village" or "countryside."   A paganus was a countryman or villager, the nuance suggesting hick.

The meaning of "pagan" as "non-Christian" was invented by Christians. It happened like this: Christianity's watershed political success was in the city of Rome, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in 312 AD. Constantine and later Christian emperors had unlimited power to tax, outlaw, regulate and otherwise suppress competing religions—and they used it. These powers were strongest in the cities. In the countryside, away from the bloody swords of Roman suppression, the old religions hung on. In the villages. Among the Pagani.

By the late forth century, Christian church officials used the term "Pagan" to deride the old pre-Christian faiths, calling them Hick religions.

At  this "non-Christian ancient religion" meaning of "Pagan" —without the "hick" nuance—is the one I have in mind. When you and I talk about Christianity's "Pagan" origins, we'll be talking about ancient religion amd civilization in general.

Nowadays "Pagan" usually describes Mother-Earth venerating religions aimed at setting life in harmony with the rhythms of the seasons. There are too many witches and incense candles associated with this for my taste. At any rate, this is not the meaning of "Pagan" POCM has in mind.

Modern everyday usage inherits "pagan's" fourth century pejorative nuance. Pagan means uncivilized, un-Christian, or heathen, and it suggests sexual and moral dissolution, like the lady in the picture. This is not the meaning of "Pagan" POCM has in mind.



Good Books for this section


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.


The Homeric Epic and the Gospel of Mark
by Dennis MacDonald

What you'll find:

Turns out the ancients had this literary convention called "mimeses," in which they deliberately mimicked the structure and ideas of other ancient writers, in particular Homer. That, says professor MacDonald, is what the New Testament writer author Mark did with his gospel.

Which means, some "facts" about Jesus were borrowed direcly from Homer's Iliad. Who'd a thunk it?

Sound nutty? Yes it does. Which is why the professor supports his thesis with oodles of ancient evidence, and a meticulous, rigorous reasoning. There's so much evidence, it's can be tough to keep going. You may well groan, "Enough already, you've convinced me!"


The Historical Evidence for Jesus
by G.A. Wells

What you'll find:

Wells is an emeritus professor of German and amateur scholar of Christian origins. His theory is either that
» there never was a real Jesus, the New Testament Jesus is a myth, or
» there was a real Jesus, the New Testament Jesus is a myth.

Intricate deconstructions of the orthodox legend of Christian origins.

Wells thinks Paul's Jesus was a made up mythical Hellenistic godman, in evidence of which he dwells on the lack of evidence, in Paul and all the other first century epistles, of any history of Jesus' life on earth. The Jesus of the NT gospels was invented later.

It's hard to remember what's in each of Well's books, there's repetition and overlap. I'd suggest starting with The Historical Evidence for Jesus.

Can We Trust the New Testament
Thoughts on the Reliability of Early Christian Testimony
by G.A. Wells

The Jesus Legend
by G.A. Wells

The Jesus Myth
by G.A. Wells


The Jesus Puzzle
Did Christiantiy Begin With a Mythical Christ

by Earl Doherty

What you'll find:

Amateur scholar Doherty lays out his detailed version of the theory that there never was a person Jesus, and Christianity began entirely from a myth.

a good look at the state of the evidence about a "historical" Jesus

Doherty, like professor G.A. Wells, notices that Paul and the other first century New Testament authors never give details about the Jesus of later Galillean legend. From which Doherty concludes there never was a Galillean Jesus; Christianity started wiht a mythic godman, later generations invented the earthly "history."

Good use of primary sources, but this theory can only be correct if a number of odd coincidences explain away evidence that does seem most naturally to point to a real person Jesus.


Drudgery Divine
On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (1994)

By Jonathan Smith

You'll find:

A scholar's detailed review of the Pagan-Origins scholarship from the 15th century through the early 1990s.

Details of why the "scholarly" conclusions on each side are agenda driven. For example, there's a nice refutation of AD Nock's linguistic argument.

This book is widely quoted in the academic literature. It's got lots of good information and tons of references to the literature.

But, because Professor Smith thinks obscure is clever, the writing is terrible. This book will not make sense until you've read A.D. Nock's Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background.

Here's a sample >>

Jesus, admits Professor Smith quoting the Christian-borrowing scholar Loisy, was a savior-God like Osiris, Attis and Mithras. He was a god who came to earth, died, and saves, etc. etc.

from which, opines Professor Smith,
"little of value can be learned." [!!]



Professor Smith is famous for his anti-borrowing agenda—which is why he's quoted a lot.

"[Jesus] was a savior-god, after the manner of Osiris, and Attis, a Mithra. Like them, he belonged by his origin to the celestial world; like them, he had made his appearance on the earth; like them, he had accomplished a work of universal redemption, efficacious and typical; like Adonis, Osiris, and Attis he ha died a violent death, and like them he had returned to life; like them, he ad prefigured in his lot that of the human beings who should take part in his worship, and commemorate his mystic enterprise; like them, he had predetermined, prepared, and assured the salvation of those who became partners in his passion." [Quoting A. Loisy, The Christian Mystery, in: The Hibbert Journal, 10(1911 - 12), 51]
Of which Smith says:
From such a parataxis of 'likeness', little of value can be learned.
[pages 42 - 43]

POCM quotes modern scholars


Miracles in Greco-Roman Antiquity
A Sourcebook for the study of New Testament Miracle Stories

by Wendy Cotter

Lousy with miracles Like chocolate chips in mama's cookies, miracles were a basic ingredient in ancient people's understanding of how the world works. Every bite—another miracle. The ancient world was lousy with miracles.

Don't believe me, believe the ancients. This excellent sourcebook gives hundreds of examples—250 pages—of ancient miracles recorded by the pens of ancients themselves.

You'll read short excerpts from ancient texts describing Pagan Gods who healed the sick (blindness, paralysis, lameness), raised the dead, exorcised demons, controlled nature, turned water into wine, walked on water, calmed storms, and more.

Well organized, easy to read. Highly recommended.




Life After Death
A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion

by Alan Segal

What you'll find:

A 700 page, evidence based history of ancient ideas about eternal life, and how they moved from paganism into Judaism and Christianity.





Born Divine
The Births of Jesus & Other Sons of God
by Robert MIller

What you'll find:

Professor Miller compares Jesus divine birth with the divine births of other ancient godmen, Herakles, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, Plato, Augustus Caesar, Alexander the Great, Theagenes the Olympic Champion.




Hellenistic Mystery Religions
Their basic ideas and significance
by Richard Reitzenstein (1861 - 1931)
translated by John Steely

What you'll find:

as far as I can tell this is the only English translation of this highly famous, highly influential, poorly organized, scholarly analysis of the Mystery religions.

The good news: Reitzenstein supports his arguments with extended quotations from primary ancient sources.
The bad news is, get this: the quotations are not translated into English, so unless your Greek and Latin are shiny, a very frustrating book.

This English version was published in 1978 and is now out of print. You can sometimes find it used at


The Mysteries
Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks
edited by Joseph Campbell

What you'll find:

Twelve essays from the 1930s and 40s dealing with the ancient Mystery religions. Lots of Poindexter stuff.

Not a good introduction. Worth reading if you're an advanced student.



The Homeric Epic and the Gospel of Mark
by Dennis MacDonald

What you'll find:

Turns out the ancients had this literary convention called "mimeses," in which they deliberately mimicked the structure and ideas of other ancient writers, in particular Homer. That, says professor MacDonald, is what the New Testament writer author Mark did with his gospel.

Which means, some "facts" about Jesus were borrowed direcly from Homer's Iliad. Who'd a thunk it?

Sound nutty? Yes it does. Which is why the professor supports his thesis with oodles of ancient evidence, and a meticulous, rigorous reasoning. There's so much evidence, it's can be tough to keep going. You may well groan, "Enough already, you've convinced me!"


Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History
Complete and Unabridged

translated by C. F. Cruse

What you'll find:

the first official history of the Christian Church, written in the fourth century AD



The Gospel and the Greeks
by Ronald Nash

What you'll find:

A Christian philosophy professor's easy, readable, affordable roundup of the current state of the apologists' "refutation" of Christianity's Pagan origins.. The more you know, the less persuasive Professor Dr. Nash is.

Eighty percent explanation of the mid-20th century scholarly dispute; twenty percent gentle kettle logical refutation. Good chapters explaining the monotheism of the Platonists and Stoics, the Mystery religions and the Gnostics.

Because he was a Christian writing for other Christians, Nash (who seems like a smart, likable fellow) was able to write an apologist genre book—one whose tendentious reasoning betrays no expectation of unfriendly critical analysis. His analysis was basically:

1. To ignore similar fundamental ideas (soul, heaven, salvation, godman), and to attack outdated mid-20th century Jesus as a myth-by-myth analogue theories,

2. To bring up differences between Pagan myths and Christian myths, and then apply the apologists' difference-proves-no-borrowing rule.

Available used at Amazon .com


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


The Quest of the Historical Jesus
by Albert Schweitzer

What you'll find:

In 1906 Schweitzer published this detailed account of 19th century's critical scholarship about the New Testament and Jesus.

You can't understand 20th century scholarship NT scholarship unless you read this famous and influential book.