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Ancient Religion
Backgrounds of Early Christianity
by Everett Ferguson

An excellent book to start with.

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.


Available at Amazon .com.


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

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.

Available at Amazon .com. 



The Cults of the Roman Empire
by Robert Turcan

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 in depth details of the political history of the main ancient religions, and intricate details about the theology and ritual I've never seen anywhere else.  Highly recommended.

Available at



Greek Religion
by Walter Burkert

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

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.

Available at



The Gods of Ancient Rome
by Robert Turcan

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.


Available at


The Golden Bough Studies in Magic and Religion
Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) 


No library is complete without this essential cultural reference.  The Golden Bough traces western myth -- specific stories and general ideas -- back to the iron age.  Chapters on Adonis, Attis and Osiris cover the historical development of three important dying-reborn Gods. Solid scholarship based on original ancient sources [but you don't have to read it through, just pick the chapter / section you're interested in], yet it reads as easily as a novel.  Wow!

This book changed the world -- before the Golden Bough historians and anthropologists saw "primitive" religions as meaningless ceremonies practiced by savages;  Frazer understood that every religion has deep meaning to it's adherents, and he set out to understand that meaning.   

At several thousand pages the original 13 volume Golden Bough was unwieldy, so Frazer himself put out a trimmed down single volume in 1926 -- that's the version available at Amazon.  The full 13 volume version is also available - for $450 !!

Full copies of the original books 5 and 6 (aka Volume 4) of the 13 volume set were reissued as a single book in the late 1950s and again in the early '60s.  Out print now, you can still find it used, as Adonis Attis Osiris: Studies in the History of Oriental Religion

Paganism in the Roman Empire
Ramsay MacMullen

It doesn't get any more reliable and authoritative than this scholarly look at the content of ancient Pagan ritual and theology.  

The good news: MacMullen bases everything he says directly on ancient sources.  The bad news: the writing is terrible, though it flows better if this isn't your first book on the subject.

By a famous Yale historian, an essential, often cited text for serious students. Highly recommended.

Available at Amazon .com.



The Gospel and the Greeks
Ronald Nash

A Christian philosophy professor's refutation of scholarly claims linking the canonical Gospels with Greek philosophy.  An honest, well written book by a fellow who seems like a nice guy. Eighty percent explanation of the scholarly dispute; twenty percent gentle Christian refutation. Good chapter's explaining the monotheism of the Platonists and Stoics, the Mystery religions and the Gnostics.

Out of Print, but available used at Amazon .com




Birth of a Worldview Early Christianity in its Jewish and Pagan Context
Robert Doran

A scholarly but readable look at the theology (as opposed to myths) Christianity inherited from earlier Ancient religions, and at the new ideas the early Christians developed on their own. Easy to read and rigorous. Recommended for serious students.

Available at