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Early Christianity: background and sourcebooks

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.



Gospel Truth
The New Image of Jesus Emerging from Science and History and Why It Matters
by Russell Shorto

Instead of pushing his own theories and opinions, Shorto describes the spectrum of modern scholarly opinion, from Jesus-is-a-myth to the-gospels-are-history. You get the names leading scholars in each camp, with a synopsis of their opinions—a great aid to your further reading.

Absolutely the best introduction to modern New Testament scholarship, because it's written not by a scholar with an opinion to sell, but by an interested but dispassionate professional magazine writer who researched all sides of the issue and who knows how to write clearly.

The result is a clear and easy to read overview of modern New Testament scholarship, from Old Testament prophecy through resurrection and on to how modern pastors include, or ignore, NT scholarship in their daily ministry.

Out of print, but occasionally available at Amazon


Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins
Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation
by George Nickelsburg

What you'll find:

A hot shot scholar of intertestamental Jewish writings lays out the ideas popular in Judaism around the time Christianity began. Salvation. Son of Man. Messiah-ism (three versions). End times apocalypses. Etc.

Christianity, says Nickelsburg, got its key theologies from intertestamental Judaism. This evidenced-based analysis should make apologists less happy than you'd think, since

1) It explains Christian ideas as flowing not from Jesus' revelation, but from the local culture.

2.) Pagan Origins wise, it's a distinction without a difference. Christianity got 'em from Judaism. Judaism got 'em from Paganism.


1 Enoch
by George Nickelsburg, and James Vanderkam

What you'll find:

Primary evidence: A hot shot in the field translates and comments on the ancient Jewish text called First Enoch

Enoch is a Jewish godman based on mythic elaboration of old Jewish legends.

SEE! the Jewish godman Enoch called the Son of Man, the Chosen One

SEE! the godman Enoch fly up to heaven and back.

Enoch is a Jewish hero who gets just a line or two in our Old Testament. In intertestamental Judaism his legend was puffed up with new myths that sound right familiar to folks who've read the Bible.

Adds plausibility to the theory that the Jesus stories are mythic elaborations of old Jewish legends (Isaiah).


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.




The Canon of the New Testament
Its Origin, Development, and Significance
by Reverend Bruce M. Metzger

What you'll find:
An arch apologist scholar's detailed account of the early orthodox Christian writings: how they were written and how they got into the New Testament.
The myth of apostolic succession never doubted.

A clear and concise introduction to conservative scholarship's version of how the New Testament got to include the books it does. Full of useful information.

Not nearly as thorough or complete as Koester's volume II -- which may be a good thing, if you're just after the basics.


The Life of Jesus Critically Examined
first published 1835
by David Friedrich Strauss
translated by George Eliot

What you'll find:

An 800 page cause-and-effect analysis of the gospel stories, that basically destroyed the possibility of any rational defense of gospel literalism.

A world-changing classical book that's also fun and easy to read.



Ancient Christian Gospels Their History and Development
by Harvard Professor Helmut Koester

Do you know the oldest surviving manuscript for John? How about Mark, Matthew, Luke? When were each of the gospels first mentioned by another Christian writer? What is the evidence about who wrote them?

How about the Gospel of Thomas, the Egerton Gospel, the Synoptic Sayings Source, and other early non-canonical gospels? They're here too.

You'll even find detailed analysis of the late first and early second century Apostolic Fathers' (Clement, Polycarp, Ignatius) gospel quotations. [Hint—there aren't any; but the Apostolic Fathers did quote gospel-like saying of Jesus from other sources.]

Why does this matter? Because it shows that the gospels themselves are not reflected in any Christian records until the second half of the second century!

A well written, readable, but extremely technical scholarly analysis of the early Christian writings. Too detailed for beginners, but a fascinating read for advanced students and an excellent reference.




Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity
by Walter Bauer

For hundreds of years everyone assumed that the earliest Christians were orthodox New Testament Roman Christians, and"heretical" Christianities—like Gnosticism and Marcionism—developed later, branches off the original orthodox trunk.

Then in the 1930s this German guy named Walter Bauer decided to actually look at the evidence. Imagine! What he discovered was that pretty much everywhere he looked—Syria, Palestine, Egypt, etc.—the "heresies" weren't branches off any trunk, they were the original local Christianities. And they weren't small marginal sects, they were the main local Christianities.

The evidence shows that all around the Mediterranean, outside Rome, the orthodox New Testament Roman Christianity was a secondary sect, a sect that became dominant only after the conversion of Constantine gave it the advantage of Roman swords. Wow.

No wonder the big boys call this as a paradigm shattering book. Scholarly and technical, especially in the tedious first section of chapter one. Stick with it, because it gets fun and exciting.

Out of Print, not available at Amazon. Try a used book seller.


The Gnostic Paul
Gnositc Exegesis of the Pauline Letters
by Elaine Pagles

What you'll find:
Princeton hot shot and gnostic expert Elaine Pagles goes through the New Testament writings of Paul, more or less verse by verse, explaining how the early gnostic Christians understood Paul himself as an early gnostic.

For advanced students.



Porphyry's Against the Christians
The Literary Remains

by R. Joseph Hoffmann, translator & editor

What you'll find:

the most famous—and effective—early Pagan criticism of Christianity

Porphyry if Tyre was a third century (c 232 - 305 AD) Pagan scholar. His Kata Christianon (Against the Christians), an ass-kicking look at the illogic of early Christianity, was widely read and eventually (448 BC) burned by the church. Unlike Celsus' critique, most of which survives in Origins refutation, Porphyry's work was so feared that even its refutations were burned. It survives only in "fragments," and of course people argue about which fragments are real and which aren't.


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.


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.



Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400)
Ramsay MacMullen

A solid scholarly look at the reasons Pagans converted to Christianity in the period before Christianity took over the central government of the Roman Empire. 

You'd think the main tool of conversion was preaching, or maybe people telling how their conversion had changed their lives. It wasn't. The main tool of conversion was magic!

The ancient evidence shows the first Christian evangelism was based on miracle working and miracle healing—basically saying 'Hey Presto! My God is stronger than your Gods.' 

By the end of this period about ten percent of the Empire was Christian. 

By a famous Yale historian. Highly recommended for serious students.




Christianity & Paganism in the Forth to Eighth Centuries
Ramsay MacMullen

Continues the story of Christianizing the Roman Empire with a solid scholarly look at the reasons Pagans converted to Christianity in the period after Christianity took over the central government of the Roman Empire. 

Christian Roman Emperors outlawed Pagan ceremonies, taxed Pagan temples, and gave Christian Romans preferences in official advancement. By the end of this period everyone was Christian and the Empire was gone. 

By a famous Yale historian. Highly recommended for serious students.



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



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 Text of the New Testament
Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration
by Reverend Bruce Manning Metzger

What you'll find:
A look at the various early NT manuscripts
Histories of the pre-critical and modern critical scholarship used to sort out what the "original" NT texts said.
What that all means, accuracy of the NT text wise.

The New Testament you read is translated from Greek. What Greek? From a complation of Greek manuscripts, the earliest dating from the third century AD. The manuscripts do not agree, word for word, with each other. Metzger explains how your modern text is arrived at.

NB. This book is not about whether the stories in the NT are true, or even where the stories came from. It is only about the texts -- the written manuscripts.


The Formation of Q
by John Kloppenborg

What you'll find:

The world's hottest Q hot shot explains his theory that Q has three layers: wisdom sayings, prophecy sayings, Son of Man sayings.

A highly technical book written by a scholar, for scholars, but still accessable to non-specialists.

Q is the document Matthew and Luke used as the source for many of their Jesus sayings.


New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content
by Reverend Bruce M. Metzger

What you'll find:
An arch apologist scholar recounts the orthodox legend of Christian origins.

The political, social, religious, and Greco-Roman religious/philosophical background of Palestinian Judaism
The apologists' scholarly version of the orthodox legend of Jesus' history
The Apostolic Age -- the early church, Paul and the other New Testament letter writers

A clear and concise version of conservative Christian scholarship telling the orthodox legend. As always, Rev. Metzger stays as rational and scholarly as possible without ever doubting the legend itself.

Read this because you're interested in understanding conservative scholarship. To get a better introduction to the facts, read Everett Ferguson's Backgrounds of Early Christianity.