Scholar or Myth maker? History of Scholarship Amateur Scholarship
Con: J. Z. Smith Con: AD Nock Con: BM Metzger Sourcebooks
Con: Habermas
What, you thought I was making this up?
Not all scholarship is serious scholarship


The Jewish world in which Jesus lived was awash in Hellenism, and contemporary biblical scholars are finding its influence everywhere—including, ultimately, in the historical Jesus.
[Russell Shorto. Gospel Truth (1997), pg. 68]

Little by little modern New Testament scholarship is exploring not just the broad fact of Christian borrowing, but also details about the Pagan origins of specific Christian ideas. Here's a smattering.

What, you thought I was making this up?

Borrowing in general

The Christian myths are Greek myths used to interpret Jewish ideals.

The myths it [Paul's church] generated are ultimately Greek myths, though they were used by Hellenistic Jews to rearticulate Jewish ideals.
[Mack, Burton. A Myth of Innocence; Mark and Christian Origins (1991), pg. 101]

POCM quotes modern scholars

The early Christians behaved like every other group in every other era—they adopted and adapted ideas from the culture around them.

"Richard Reitzenstein and Wilhelm Bousset were two scholars who did manage to grasp the relevance of these ancient faiths for the study of early Christianity. Their conclusion was a simple and seemingly inevitable one: Once it reached Hellenistic soil, the story of Jesus attracted to itself a number of mythic motifs that were common to the syncretic religious mood of the era. Indeed, as people familiar with the other Mystery Religions came to embrace the Christian savior, it would have been practically impossible for them not to have clothed him in all the accoutrements of his fellow Kyrioi."
[Robert Price, Deconstructing Jesus, Chapter 3, 2000]

POCM quotes modern scholars



Not only did Jesus do the same miracles the earlier Pagan Gods did—the stories of His miracles are told using the old Pagan formula.

In the healing miracles the encounter of the sick person with Jesus is usually followed by a remark about the severity of the disease. The healing is either accomplished through a word of Jesus (magical terms from Aramaic are sometimes preserved; (cf Mark 5:41; 7:34), through some manipulation (Mark 8:23), or a combination of both; the conclusion tells of the success of the healing and the applause of the bystanders. All these features correspond to the standard forms of the telling of exorcisms and healing narratives in [pagan] antiquity… Nature miracles ... basic form and narrative schema .., closely correspond to those of analogous stories from the Greco-Roman world, including those that can be found in the apocryphal acts of the apostles.
[Helmut Koester. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Volume 2, Introduction to the New Testament, 2d edition. (2000), pg. 63]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Jesus virgin birth was borrowed from Paganism.

There is also no virgin birth story in Paul's letters, the earliest written records of Christianity, dating from just fifteen or so years after the crucifixion. While the letters are filled with passionate devotion to the figure of Jesus Christ and point quite distinctly to his death and resurrection as the centerpiece of faith ... they are utterly silent of the subject of divine birth. This part of the story had not yet been necessary.

Nor was it necessary in Mark's day, twenty years later. Inventing it became important only as Jesus expanded into a whole new world: God of the Gentiles. To the Hellenized Gentiles [Pagans] of the Empire—people who were used to their gods' having miraculous beginnings to show that, right from the start, they were different from ordinary mortals—this Jesus, this Son of God, if he were worthy of worship, ought to have a divine birth.

This is where we see a variation on the Jewish practice of creative borrowing from ancient writings, for virgin birth was not a tradition in Jewish history. No Jewish story or legend spoke of the coming Messiah being born of a virgin. But there were dozens of precedents for divine-mortal coupling and virgin birth in Greek culture. Many Greek heroes were sired by gods, either through old-fashioned penetration or something more grandiose, such as (28)... Etc. etc.
[Shorto, Russell. Gospel Truth (1997), pg. 27 - 8]

POCM quotes modern scholars

The Judeo-Christian notion of Heaven was borrowed from the Greeks.

Sometime in the mid-second century BCE, it appears, the Jews found heaven. But where did they find it? Uta Ranke-Heinemann notes that the Greeks believed in immortality of the soul long before the Jews did. She points out that Josephus was quite certain where the Essene [Jewish] belief in immortality came from: "Sharing the belief of the sons of Greece," Josephus writes of the Essenes, "they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved an abode beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever-gentle breath of the west wind (76) coming from the ocean; while they relegate base souls to a murky and tempestuous dungeon, big with never-ending punishments." [Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.8.11]

So here, suddenly, and probably as a result of Greek influence on Judaism, we have heaven and hell.
[Shorto, Russell. Gospel Truth (1997), pg. 75 - 6]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Jesus death was understood as a martyr's "nobel death"

The logic behind both views of Jesus' crucifixion can be traced to contemporary conceptions of martyrdom. There is now a strong consensus among New Testament scholars that martyrological ideas were used by early Christians at some time to understand Jesus' death.….The ideas of 'vicarious, expiatory suffering, death, or self-sacrifice," to use [Harvard scholar] Williams' terms, were not Jewish ideas. A similar investigation of Greek traditions, however, turned up many analogies.
[Mack, Burton. A Myth of Innocence; Mark and Christian Origin (1991), pg. 105]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Luke wrote his gospel as a foundational epicfollowing the traditional Pagan formula.

[T]he literary model for Luke's work was the ancient Greek epic .... The epic is a political and highly charged endeavor to provide a foundation story for a community. As Virgil's Aeneid is connected to the legendary events of ancient is the hero of Luke- Acts, Jesus of Nazareth, presented as the heir of Israel's ancient prophecies. Divine providence guides the course of his activity and the activity of the apostles.... The course of events demonstrated divine legitimation for a new nation that, in spite of adversity, is destined to set the stage for a new era of history that is seen as the eschatological fulfillment of ancient prophecy.
[Koester, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Volume 2, Introduction to the New Testament, 2d edition. (2000), pg. 51]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Mark and John's Gospels follow the old Pagan formula of an 'aretalogy,' listing the miracles and great deeds of the god.

The literary genre of another early written source for the extant gospels of the New Testament can also be recognized: one or several collections of miracle stories of Jesus, which were used by the Gospel of Mark and also by the Gospel of John. This type of literature enumerates the great deeds of a god, hero, or famous person; it must be properly designated as an 'aretalogy.'
[Koester, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Volume 2, Introduction to the New Testament, 2d edition (2000), pg. 47]

POCM quotes modern scholars

Good Books for this section

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.


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!"

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.



Bandits Prophets & Messiahs
Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus

by Richard Horsley
Professor of Classics and Religions, U Massachusetts

What you'll find:
a readable history of the popular movements in 1st century Palestine—bandits, prophets and messiahs. Lots of messiahs.




Cynics and Christian Origins
by F. Gerald Downing

What you'll find:
An influential book with many striking parallels between the lifestyle and sayings of Jesus and the lifestyle and sayings of Hellenistic philosophers of the Cynic school

Even if it weren't true, Downing's book would be a fascinating look at a niche of ancient history/ thought you didn't know existed. Would be, that is, if Downing could write a coherent paragraph, and organize his ideas. He can't. I've read hundreds of books about Christian origins — this one is absolutely the worst, coherence-wise. I wonder if Downing was sampling some of Allegro's Jesus mushroom.

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.

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 Scepter and the Star
The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other Ancient Literature
by John Collins

What you'll find:
A look a ancient Jewish ideas about "the" messiah. There were at least five kinds of messiah. Lots of messiahs.




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


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 Science and Dreams
Oneirology in Greco-Roman Antiquity
by Andrew Holowchak

What you'll find:

A readable scholarly survey of ancient ideas about dreams.

The dream related ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, Stoic philosophy, Artemidorus, Synesius.

Dreams in ancient medicine. Hippocrates, Roman secular medicine, ancient religious incubation.

A nice bibliography of ancient sources.

An excellent, readable, evidence based survey of the basic facts. Highly recommended.

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.



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.

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

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.



Martyrdom and Noble Death
Selected Texts from Graeco-Roman, Jewish and Christian Antiquity
by Jan van Henten and Friedrich Avamarie

What you'll find:

Ancient Pagan, Jewish and Christian texts about the Pagan idea of the noble death, which entered Christianity as martyrdom.




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.