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General Reviews

Myth and Mystery
An Introduction to Pagan Religions of the Biblical World
Jack Finegan




What you'll find:

An easy to read survey of pre-Christian Western religion by a mainstream scholar.  Chapters on: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Zoroastrianism, the Canaanites, Greece, Rome, the Gnostics, Mandaeanism, and Manichaeism.

The power of this book is that it isn't aimed at proving a connection between paganism and Judeo-Christianity—so you're sure the author isn't skewing things to fit that argument. Yet you'll read about flood and creation myths paralleling Noah and Adam, about pre-Christian ideas of the immortality of the soul and life after death, and about lots and lots of Gods who die and are reborn.

 

The Cults of the Roman Empire
by Robert Turcan



What you'll find:

In depth details of the political history of the main ancient religions, and intricate details about the theology and ritual

Like Finegan's book the power of this book is that it isn't aimed at proving a connection between paganism and Judeo-Christianity—so you're sure the author isn't skewing things to fit that argument. 

This book is more detailed than Finegan's—giving Highly recommended.

 

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.

 

Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity
editors Polymnia Athanassiadi, Michael Frede




What you'll find:

A technical book by academics, for academics, reviewing the trend of antique non-Christian thought to believe in One God.

Chapters include:
Towards Monotheism
Monotheism and Pagan Philosophy in Late Antiquity
Monotheism in the Gnostic Tradition
The Cult of Theos Hypsistos between Pagans, Jews and Christians
Etc.

Best Paragraph:
" Thus, if one does postulate an intelligent agent as an ultimate principle at all, one will try to postulate a unique, single agent of sufficient power, unless there are overwhelming considerations to the contrary. This will be done for the same reason as one will try to get away with postulating fire as one element, rather than a whole number of irreducibly different kinds of fire. Hence, though it is perfectly true that Aristotle did not have to concern himself with the question of monotheism versus polytheism, he, like Plato before him and philosophers like the Stoics after him, had a precise reason to assume that there was one particular, individual, active principle which governs the world."
Pg 47

From Religion to Philosophy:
A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation
by F.M. Cornford



What you'll find:

Explains how the earliest rationalist Greek philosophers borrowed the basic moral concepts of Greek religion.

First published in 1912. Still in print because it is very very good. Even if you're not a Pagan origins buff, this is a great book. Highly recommended.

 

Egypt

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
by John H. Taylor

A glossy coffee table book full of beautiful pictures of Egyptian Gods taken from surviving papyruses, etc., and, who'd a thunk it, of lots of fun scholarly information about ancient Egyptian religion.

Surviving ancient texts, including Egyptian book of The Dead and the Pyramid Texts, etc. describe an afterlife of happiness for good people and torment for bad people, mediated by the great savior Gods Ra and Osiris.

The Egyptians had not one soul, but several—the ba, the ka, the shadow, the name—all of which survived death.

A well written, pretty, wonderful book, if you like this sort of thing.

.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Raymond Faulkner, et. al., translators


This is the original text of a famous and revealing collection of ancient spells the Egyptians put in tombs along with the dead guy. The idea was for the dead guy to use the power of the magic spells as a guide and tool in the complicated Egyptian afterlife.

Yes I know that sounds sounds silly, but the book tells us a lot about Egyptian religion—including the Egyptian savior Gods Ra and Osiris.

The famous Chapter 125 describes Osiris' believers standing before Osiris after death, to be judged according to the life they lead, seeing if they would to make it into Egyptian Heaven or end up suffering in Egyptian Hell.

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Greece

Greek Religion
by Walter Burkert




What you'll find:

Here's a surprise, a book by a world renown expert that's well organized and easy to read.

Ancient Greek religion, feature by feature

This book is organized by feature- of- religion:  ritual, the Gods, Heroes, the dead, polytheism, the mysteries, and philosophy-religions.  That gives you a compare and contrast look at, for e.g. baptism or, blood sacrifice across the culture.  So the book complements the cult by cult organization of Finegan and Turcan.

The Greeks and the Irrational
by E.R. Dodds




What you'll find:

A famous scholarly look at the parts of Greek thought that were not rational—which basically means their religious ideas, particularly where they met philosophy.

First published in 1951, still in print because it is very very good. Even if you're not a Pagan origins buff, this is a great general interest book. Highly recommended.

Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion
by Jane Ellen Harrison
(1850- 1928) Lecturer in Greek and Russian at Cambridge University


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What you'll find:

673 pages of highly technical "introduction" to ancient Greek religion. First published in 1903, back when every educated person knew lots about Greece—and Harrison knew mountains more than most.

Translations of the "Dionysian Gold Lamellae"—the gold leaves (Italy, 4th century BC) found in the coffins of Dionysus' faithful, giving them instructions on finding salvation in the afterlife.

Way too advanced to be a good first book, but fine for the advanced student.

Still widely cited and still in print --because it is very good.

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

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



What you'll find:

A look at how archaic Greek religion borrowed from Mesopotamian religion.

Dr. Burkert's standards for Pagan borrowing turn out to be a bit different from the standards he uses elsewhere to find—or avoid finding—later Christian borrowing.

Rome

The Cults of the Roman Empire
by Robert Turcan



What you'll find:

In depth details of the political history of the main ancient religions, and intricate details about the theology and ritual

Like Finegan's book the power of this book is that it isn't aimed at proving a connection between paganism and Judeo-Christianity—so you're sure the author isn't skewing things to fit that argument. 

This book is more detailed than Finegan's—giving Highly recommended.

 

Religions of Rome
Volume 1 A History
by Mary Beard

Religions of Rome
Volume 2, A Sourcebook
by Mary Beard




What you'll find:

Volume 1: a well organized, well written and very detailed look at Roman religion—mostly Roman civic religion.

Volume 2: instead of footnoting hard to find primary sources, Beard provedes an excellent sourcebook giving extended primary sources illustrating and expanding the points made in volume 1.

Highly recommended.

 

Volume 1 at Amazon.com

Volume 2 at Amazon.com

The Gods of Ancient Rome
by Robert Turcan


What you'll find:

A short (165 pages), readable book packed with facts about the Roman family and civic Gods, and a little bit about the Gods of the mysteries.  Good, fun, background reading.

 

 

Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism
by Franz Cumont

What you'll find:

The history of how middle eastern Gods (the Great Mother, Cybele, Ma-Bellona, Men, Judaism, Sabazius, Anahita, etc. ) came to worshiped in Rome.

Why they came to Rome.

SEE! how religious borrowing actually happened in the Roman empire!

Mystery Religions

Mystery Religions in the Ancient World
by Joscelyn Godwin


What you'll find:

A fine general introduction to the ancient mystery religions, each chapter focused on a particular God.

Dozens of black and white photos of related statues, mosaics, etc.

A good introduction.

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.

 

Special Topics

The Riddle of Resurrection Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East
by Tryggve Mettinger

 


What you'll find:

An up to date scholarly review of the Dying and Rising God question. There really were Dying and Rising Gods.

A look at 20th century scholarship about Dying and Rising Gods—the "scholarship" doesn't come out smelling good.

Ever since Jimmy Frazer wrote the Golden Bough more than a hundred years ago, pointing out that the ancient middle east was hopping with "dying and rising gods," people have argued if Jimmy had things straight.

Dr. Mettinger, of the Dept of Theology, Lund U. in Sweden, reviews the scholarship on the issue, through 2000.

That's less cool than you'd think for a couple reasons.
#1 The scholarship deals a lot on archaic gods like Baal, Melquart, Adonis, and there's not a lot of surviving info on them—so the issue often comes down to scholarly speculation, or scholarly spatting over cuneiform verb forms, as in (I am not making this up):

hklh. sh. lqs. ilm. tlhmn
ilm w tstn. tstnyn `d sbí
trt. `d. skr. yí.db .yrh

(The Ugarites were a very poor people, and so couldn't afford vowels.):

#2 Scholars have defined the issue pretty tightly, so, for example Tammuz isn't a dying and rising god because he's really a demi-god, not a fully vested, tenured god. So, see, there really were no dying and rising gods. QED.

Or, yeah, Osiris did die and get resurrected and go to Egyptian heaven, where he judges people and gives his followers eternal life—but his resurrection was to heaven, not to Earth, see, so it wasn't really a resurrection. So there really were no dying and rising gods. QED.

Because the scholarship is so narrowly defined, it doesn't touch on questions people like you or me would like answered. Questions like, "Well, is it possible there's a relationship between Osiris—a pre-Christian godman who died and got resurrected and now lives in heaven and judges the dead, and Jesus—a godman who died and got resurrected and now lives in heaven and judges the dead?"

Still, none of that is Dr. Metting's fault, and he's written a fine, readable book summarizing the state of the (narrow) scholarship.

Available only at Amazon .com.

 

Pagans & Christians in Late Antiquity
A Sourcebook
by A. D. Lee



What you'll find:

an anthology of original sources illustrating the transition from Paganism to Christianity

 

The Early Greek Concept of the Soul
by Jan Bremmer


What you'll find:

The historical development of Greek beliefs about the human soul

 

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.

.

 

A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 1, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries
by Mircea Eliade

translated by Willard Trask



What you'll find:
A famous 20th century celebrity's opinions about early religion. Poorly documented.

 

Available at Amazon.com

Basic Greek In 30 Minutes per Day
New Testament Greek Workbook for Laymen
by James Found


What you'll find:

Gentle, easy introduction to Greek letters, pronunciation, and rudimentary New Testament vocabulary.

Why you won't learn Greek from this book.

Beyond the basics, the material is too thin.

This is a good first Greek book if what you're after is the alphabet and sounding out and recognizing words. It doesn't take you far, but you'll travel in solid, unstressed comfort.

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