Books On Christian Origins

Quick Overviews

The following book overviews are based on my recollection of reading these books. The following descriptions are by no means complete.

Misquoting Jesus -- Bart Ehrman
(Note: This book is very readable by a wide audience.)

This book is ostensibly about the significant variations that he found in the earliest copies of the New Testament gospels when he, as one of the best known scholars on the subject, compared them word by word using the original texts.

It is also about his life as a Christian:

  • Growing up in a moderately religious family
  • As a teenager he became infatuated with a bible spouting and bible thumping young minister who converted Ehrman to fundamentalist Christianity
  • His years in Moody Bible College where everyone, faculty and students alike, take an oath of loyalty to the literal truth of the bible -- while accepting that variations exist in the earliest copies
  • His studies of the actual texts of the earliest copies
  • His attempts to explain the differences between them as mere glosses on the underlying truth of the basic principle that the bible was the literal word of God
  • His realization that the differences were way too significant and many congregations went hundreds of years before their supposedly errant bibles got corrected with the received versions
  • His realization that this was inconsistent with the description of the bible of his Moody College days
  • His loss of faith and subsequent dejection
The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture -- Bart Ehrman
(Note: This book is targetted at a scholarly audience but still contains significant portions at the beginning of each chapter that are very readble and informative to all.)

Bart Ehrman describes in detail the major categories of corruption (ie variation) in the earliest copies of the new testament gospels.

He describes these variations as resulting from changes made by orthodox scribes (or those who thought themselves to be) who were attempting to prevent the use of the New Testament documents by non-orthox preachers.

Basically, gnostics and Marcionites were using the same scriptures as the orthodox churches and interpreting the language in ways that the orthodox churches disagreed with. The orthodox retaliated by re-writing the scriptures to soften language that thought was causing the misinterpretations or simply to rewrite older copies to eliminate variant readings.

Ehrman later realized that this variant forms survived for centuries in some churches before the main Catholic texts replaced them -- see Misquoting Jesus above.

The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man -- Robert Price
(Note: This book is very readable by a wide audience.)

Robert Price, politely and respectfully, puts the nail in coffin of the gospel stories about Jesus. He relies on the work of a very large number of other authors -- including:

  • Bart Ehrman
  • G.A. Wells
  • Earl Doherty
  • Dennis MacDonald
  • and many others

Most importantly, Price makes arguments against the believability of the gospel stories by comparing one gospel against one another and showing how one could be derived from the other but not the other way around and by showing why one author would want to change another's work.

If, after having read and thought seriously about this book, you are not convinced that the New Testament gospels were created long after Jesus time by theologians rather than by apostles, then you are simply not convincable -- not that that is necessarily a bad thing.

The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark -- Dennis R. MacDonald
(Note: This book is very readable by a wide audience.)

Dennis MacDonald makes an argument that, while not totally convincing, proves to be very intriguing -- that the author of the Gospel of Mark was using story lines taken from the Homeric epics. Essentially that Mark's author used a tride and true literary technique from his era to create GMark: immitacio. We would call it "plagiarism" but according to MacDonald, immitacio was the standard pedagogical technique when it came to writing.

MacDonald compares snippets of the Markan text with snippets from the Illiad and the Odyssesy -- he also shows how many ancient literary works did the same thing.

Celsus on the True Doctrine -- R. Joseph Hoffman
(Note: This book is very readable by a wide audience.)

This books explores one of the few remanants of pagan religious beliefs from that period before Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire.

Since everyone was writing on papyrus at the time, and since papyrus rots, and since the Christians would have little reason to copy pagan religious works, we have lost most of what was once common knowledge about ancient Roman religious life.

Hoffman explains the writings of Celsus -- an anti-Christian writer from about 150AD -- give or take 50 years. Celsus' writings survived only in the works of Origen who wrote a book arguing against Celsus. It was called Contra Celsum.

Interestingly, Origen was one of the great pillars of Chrisitan literature until he was later declared to be a heretic. However, his work was still so popular for hundreds of years that he was still read widely in Christian circles. Origen's main view was that the Bible should be treated as a set of useful stories rather than as literal truth. When the orthodox church began pushing the idea of the bible as literal truth, Origen's positions had to be declared heresy -- despite his great stature and contribution to the orthodox movement's foundations.

In any event, Celsus was a higher ranking Roman who had travelled to the middle east and said that you could find a self-styled prophet preaching and begging on every street corner there.

He railed against Christianity as being a religion fit only for women, slaves, and common laborers. He claimed that he saw Christian preachers arguing with other in the streets and that they would change the text of their so called scriptures after every verbal battle to better attack others in the next round.

Gnosis: The Mysteries and Christianity -- Andrew Welburn
Andrew Welburn compares orthodox Christian beliefs with those of similar religions that were popular in the Roman empire in the first century. Many key tenets of Christianity are very similar to these other religions.

He also addresses some of the key differences between Gnostic Christianity and orthodox Christianity. He basically describes Christian Gnosticism as being a part of larger religious movement of Gnosticism in general -- regardless of the specific creeds involved.

One group he focuses on are the "Mandaeans". This group still survies as the "Marsh Arabs" that were so heavily oppressed by Sadam Hussein. The Mandaeans were believed to be followers of John the Babtist by the Portuguese explorers who first described them. The Mandaeans themselves adopted this gloss because it proved to be useful when dealing with Christians but the reality is that they are merely the last surviving Gnostic sect.

The fundamentals of belief in a divine savior figure are common across Gnostic sects.

Christianizing the Roman Empire -- Ramsey MacMullen
(Note: This book is reasonably easy to read but comes across like a list of interesting facts.)

Ramsey MacMullen surveys all surving literature discussing the reasons for conversion to Christianity.

The most often cited reason for conversion is a healing miracle performed in a public setting in front of a large crowd. It is interesting how no healer ever re-attached a severed limb. The most common healing miracle was the casting out of a demon. That is: some crazy person would run screaming through the crowed -- possibly attacking people. The Christian preacher would sieze the man in a very public display and call upon Christ to cast the demon out. Often the demon would get into a conversation with the preacher before being cast out. The demon would beg and plead but eventually would be forced out -- after a lot of cursing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. The healed victim would thank the preacher and both he and many of those around him would convert to Christianity on the spot.

MacMullen points out that many burials included iconography from both Christianity and other Gods. Clearly, the people weren't completely converted.

After Constantine converted, many of the upper class Romans wanting to emulate the emperor -- and get in on his good side -- converted (officially at least).

There is little evidence in the surviving literature that people regularly attended services or engaged in deep conversions like we think of today. In many cases, churches were just glad to get people's names ont he rosters to prove how popular the religion was.

The Bible Unearthed -- Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silburman
(Note: very readable for a wide audience)

This book discusses recent archaelogical studies in Israel and focuses on how these discoveries do not in fact substantiate the biblical record. The authors point out how most archaelogy has been done by theologians bent on proving the biblical stories but who were almost universally mistaken about the cities and objects that they thought they had found.

Silburman and Finklestein present a theory about the creation of the earliest books of the old testament: that the cult of JHWH was only one of many religions widely practiced in ancient Israel. They propose that this cult gained favor during the time of King Josiah and created the much of the story in support of Joshiah's goal of taking over all of Israel. Basically, that the Pentateuch began as war propaganda.

In support of their theory, they point to biblical anachronisms -- such as stories of camel herds owned by prophets during times when archaeology says that there were no camel herds in the regions. And further, that the oldest camel bones in the region consist entirely of adult animal skeletons -- indicating that the first camels in the area didn't live there naturally but rather were brought there in camel trains from other regions.

They also point out that there very specific professies concerning King Josiah: that he would in fact take over all of Israel and restore the true doctrine, JHWH's cult, as the dominant religion.

The book also proposes that the story of the Exodus was actually constructed in Babylon sometime between 587 and 500 BC during the Jewish exile there. Specifically, the story of the Exodus mimics the experience of the Jews in exhile in Babylon at the time was written. The story was written to give the people hope that they might eventually be freed by the hand of God.

When Jesus became God -- Richard Rubenstein
(Note: very readable for a wide audience)

Richard Rubenstein, a Jew, accidentally had access to a very old library of books on Christian origins. From these books, he gleaned a history of Arian controversy and writes on the subject. The Emperor Constantine -- St. Constantine -- resolved the controversy by threat of force of the Roman Empire -- and settled the dispute between the Roman Christians, the Greek Christians, and the Ebionite Christians as to the true nature of Jesus.

It was Constantine's settlement that led to the Nicene Creed: that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit were all aspects of the single "God" -- no matter how little support there was for this belief in the Gospels, and no matter how nonsensical this seemed to everyone else. Many Muslims today still don't count Christians as believers in a single God. Constantine actually changed sides several times during the dispute before finally deciding that it would be better for the empire if Jesus were God.

The Roman Christians had always thought of Jesus as God. The Greek Christians had thought of him as the "Son of God", and the Jerusalem Christians thought of him as a very wise teacher -- a rabbai. The Roman Emperor, Constantine, sided with the Roman Christians and threatened to exhile anyone on the other side of the debate unless they went along -- and he promised to build churches in their home lands if they went along.

Almost no religious material from before the Nicene decison survives -- the papyrus it was written on simply rotted away and was lost. Copying such material would have been risky as it contradicted the Emperor's wishes. So we know little of what any of these religions was truly like before this late step in the evolution of Orthodox Christianity.

Beyond Belief -- Elaine Pagels
(Note: very readable for a wide audience)

Elaine Pagels has written extensively on the subject of Christian origins and the lost Gospels which were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in ~1945.

In this book, she concentrates on the comparing the Gospel of Thomas with the Gospel of John. She suggests that John was created specifically to counter Thomas. It is in John that we learn of "doubting Thomas" and it is clear from the Thomas that he (or the followers of the tradition associated with Thomas) did not believe that Jesus was anything more than a very wise preacher. A guru type character similar to the Buddha.

The DaVinci Fraud -- Robert Price
(Note: very readable for a wide audience)

This book starts off somewhat slow and clunky but, starting about chapter three, it gets to be both good reading and very informative.

Clearly, this book is a fraud in itself. Rather than "debunking" the DaVinci Code book, Robert Price has merely used the noteriety of Dan Brown's book as a hook to get lots of people to purchase his own work. In fact, he hints to this in the Fraud itself. The parts of "The DaVinci Fraud" that debunk Dan Brown's book are clearly layered on top of material that Price has hinted at in other works that I've read, but had not seen put together in one place like this. So, Fraud is just a continuation of the series of books that Price was already writing.

This book is, however, worthy of reading (at least starting with chapter 3) because he uses the best of modern NT scholarship to address both Dan Brown's unsubstantiable assertions and also those of many writer claiming that Christianity was derived from the Mystery religions of the early centuries of the modern era. Some theories are clearly debunked but other ideas are supported by modern scholarship -- like the surprising suggestion that Mary the mother of Jesus was derived from Isis, an other Mother Goddesses of the Levant and Mesopotamia.

The only real complaint that I have with this book is that Price doesn't give enough credit to his predecessors in this field -- like Dennis MacDonald and his theory that the Gospel of Mark was constructed by a cut-n-paste of parts of the Illiad and the Odyssey. There are lots of really interesting predecessors to the ideas he presents.

I have to admit, though, that Price's treatment of relationship between the Mysteries and Christianity was preferable to Freke and Gandy's.