Please point me toward some religious history lessons.
December 29, 2011 9:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm doing some shallow research on Christianity, its development and its place in popular life throughout time. Please help me find outstanding books on this subject!

Thanks to past Asks on the topic, I've either already acquired or am in the process of acquiring the following:

Don't Know Much About the Bible
The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning
Understanding the Bible: A Reader's Guide and Reference
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV (since the Bibles I already had were in the Catholic tradition)

This seems like a good start for a broad view, but I'm not interested solely in the Bible. I'm also looking for accounts of how the Christian tradition acquired its many folk tales, legends, splinter sects and observances that lack clear origins in accepted, canonical Biblical writings. For instance, I'd love to read about the Gnostics. I'd love to learn about how Mary became so important in Catholicism. I'd love to hear more about the figure of Satan and his evolution from a minor character in the OT into the force of nature he is in modern Christianity. I'm mystified by the elaborate systems of angel- and demonology that Christians arrived at centuries after the fact. If there are any compelling books you can recommend on more specialized subjects like these, please let me know about them!

My POV is that of a former Christian who is now an atheist-leaning agnostic, so I have a preference for skeptical (though not necessarily critical) authors, or at the very least, authors who are not hostile to the idea of questioning their faith. Scholarly stuff is also okay, but the less dry, the better. That's why it's shallow research, see?

I do have some background in basic religious concepts, so it doesn't have to be 100% entry-level. But clear language helps, and is preferred.
posted by the liquid oxygen to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Paul Johnson
posted by Ideefixe at 9:21 PM on December 29, 2011

The Foundation of Christianity by Karl Kautsky
posted by LonnieK at 9:34 PM on December 29, 2011

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan contextualizes Jesus in a way that I found very convincing and not at all dry. Crossan's a Biblical history scholar and doesn't think the virgin birth/resurrection stories represent historical truth, so you might appreciate his stuff.

For the Gnostics, The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is a good place to start.
posted by the_bone at 9:55 PM on December 29, 2011

A History Of The End Of The World
posted by mannequito at 10:03 PM on December 29, 2011

Anything by Peter Brown relating to the early Christian church will provide a balanced history.

(via my SO, via my phone - if you'd like more details, please ask)
posted by pompomtom at 10:35 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

A History of God is great, but looks more comprehensive, authoritative and unbiased than it is. You come out feeling like you have a real historical grasp on the evolution of the judeo-christian religions, then realise it hasn't answered any of say, the questions you mention above. For example, it doesn't *mention* Satan at all, let alone explain how he got his current place in Baptist traditions, etc.

The Pagan Christ, is very flawed (very!), but does fill a piece of the puzzle, in terms of explaining some mythos in terms of the pagan myths and culture of the time.

A bit of reading about Zoroastrianism fills in some of the gaps, like the apparent superficial overlay of a dualist framework (god & heaven versus satan & hell / Ahura Mazda versus Ahriman) in Christianity, over the Judaic monotheist view (JHVH, both vengeful and merciful etc).
Which leads to really bad puns about Mani being the root of all evil.


Yeah, anyway, it's fascinating enough that I definitely want to read the book synopsised by your question, I just haven't see it yet.
posted by Elysum at 10:54 PM on December 29, 2011

Paramahansa Yogananda's Second Coming of Christ is the most beautiful treatise on Christianity and religion in general that I have personally come into contact with.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:03 AM on December 30, 2011

What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills
posted by islandeady at 1:41 AM on December 30, 2011

Check out Bart Ehrman's book Lost Christianities. It's a fascinating account of early Christian sects and their sacred documents, including the Gnostics. (He has other books that are probably excellent, too, though I haven't read any others in full.) He also has lectures available through The Teaching Company, if you're more in the mood for audio.
posted by SpiralT at 2:01 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've recommended it here before but Karen Armstrong's The Bible - a biography is a brilliant primer on the origins and development of the tracts of Christian teachings. It discusses the non-canon stuff (eg Gnostic gospels) in some detail.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:02 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Authors (in no particular order):

Ramsey MacMullen
Peter Brown
Robin Lane Fox
Henry Chadwick
Jaroslav Pelikan
Martin Hengel
Raymond Brown
Wayne Meeks
Robert Louis Wilken

I'd recommend Peter Brown, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Henry Chadwick. You can find their stuff on Amazon.

A couple of free iTunes courses: Kyle Harper, Harvard Phd in Roman History, Dale Martin, Yale PhD in Religious Studies.
posted by uncannyslacks at 6:04 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could try Documents of the Christian Church (edited by Bettenson and Maunder).
posted by midatlanticwanderer at 6:08 AM on December 30, 2011

I always liked David L. Barr's New Testament Story: An Introduction if you want to read the stories of the NT in historical context.

About the "Gnostics", I'd recommend Michael A. Williams' Rethinking "Gnosticism": an argument for dismantling a dubious category. This one might violate your "shallow" parameter, but most popular stuff about religious texts or groups being referred to as "gnostics", while easy to read, tends to be full of huge interpretive leaps, ahistorical assumptions based on zero to little evidence and some pretty serious unexamined assumptions about the development of Christianity, grounded in the Church's own story about how it arose.

Unfortunately I can't think of a really good text dealing primarily with Mary's position in the Church. If I wear you I'd look into primary texts or summaries of the proceedings of Church Councils. I wish I knew a good historical overview of popular conceptions of Mary.

Satan is hard to find, too, People usually read Jeffrey Burton Russell's books, or Elaine Pagels' Origin of Satan, but I wouldn't recommend either of those without real caveats. Unfortunately, I can't think of anything better in one book. So... If you read Russell please be aware that his presentation of every historical period really seriously needs to be reexamined by a critical historian, his discussions of heresy and witchcraft are particularly bad. He will give you a good idea about the usual sources and the typical stories told about the Devil. About Pagels, just read it as fiction, or research Pagels first so you are familiar will all the biases & agenda at work there.
posted by ServSci at 6:11 AM on December 30, 2011

Hi. MA in Christian Apocrypha here. First off, uncannyslacks provided a GREAT list.


Bert Ehrman's "An Introduction to the New Testament" is great for laymen.

Ditto Crossan for the Historical Jesus (although he is a very controversial scholar, so keep that in mind--he isn't authoritative!). For Paul, Murphy-O'Connor's Paul: A Critical Life is great.

I strongly recommend Paul Foster's The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction. It's very easy to read and provides a nice intro. And is cheap. And short. If you want to get an actual collection of the texts, either Ehrman's the Apocryphal Gospels (which only has the gospels, naturally) or Elliot's "The Apocryphal New Testament," which doesn't limit itself to the gospels but has very dated translations.

For the Church Fathers and all the Councils, I'd suggest Chadwick's The Early Church. Chadwick's work is sort of stereotypically '60s in many ways, but finding more recent scholarship about patristics that is accessible is shockingly difficult.

For Jewish-Christian relations in late antiquity, I'll have to mull it over. Lots of great books, but none are accessible. In fact, my favourite is Boyarin, but when we tried to read his book in a graduate seminar for people not in my subfield, every single student essentially gave up midway through and pretended to have read it, because it was too damn technical. So. I'll have to think.

The "apocryphal gospel du jour" is the Gospel of Judas, and it is a VERY polarizing text. Pick up either Kasser's "The Gospel of Judas" (Judas is a saint!) or DeConick's "The Thirteenth Apostle" (Judas is still evil).

Gnosticism. Urgh. Pagels is... ok, and in her sort of way is Marvin Meyer's The Gnostic Discoveries. Karen King's "What is Gnosticism" isn't as accessible as many works on this list, but it's pretty good. ServSci recommended "Rethinking Gnosticism," which is much in the same vein as King's work.

Mary! ServSci raises a good point, but it's been a good few decades for Mariology. Unfortunately, most of the books I know personally are from a self-consciously feminist perspective (Amy-Jill Levine et al.), or aren't very accessible, or only address Mary of the Bible and pretend there hasn't been any evolution in her perception. It's a sad state of affairs.

MEDIEVAL CHRISTIANITY AND THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION/THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERNITY (sorry, Orthodox Churches, I only know about Ethiopia and and there isn't an accessible English-language history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church)

The East-West Schism (aka Great Schism 1.0): A Summary of Christian History by Baker (now taken off of the author's list, since it's been many editions since he's worked on it), Broadman, Holman and Landers.

The Protestant Reformation: Diarmaid's Macculloch's Reformation: A History. Read it in tiny chunks, not all at once. It is dense but accessible (and certainly more accessible than most works on the Reformation). That or Collinson's work of the same name.

No One Expects the Italian Inquisition: Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, about an Italian man who was just literate enough to get himself hanged for heresy. It can get... academic at times, but just skip over those parts until you get back to the foibles of the Italian man.

My Favourite Moment in History: Anabaptists capture a city, turn it into a communal theocracy with polygamy. Ends badly for them. The Tailor-King is the book for this.

OK, now explain who Anabaptists are: The classic work is Estep's The Anabaptist Story.

I wish there was a better book about medieval saints, but most of them are devotional or... odd.

Adventism, Evangelicalism, and Fundamentalism, or, why yes my knowledge is patchy

This isn't medieval but it certainly isn't about adventism or anything, but one of my professors (Emma Anderson) wrote a really accessible book about Catholic conversion of Canadian natives called Betrayal of Faith. I really love it.

OK, Adventism, aka "Jesus is Coming Soon". I love Millennial Fever by Knight, but it's a damn hard book to find these days.

Marsden's "Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism" is a standard text, although a little dry.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:56 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, regarding this:

I'm mystified by the elaborate systems of angel- and demonology that Christians arrived at centuries after the fact.

You may enjoy the Celestial Hierarchies, which is building on some non-systematic language the Epistles toss around.

About the Demonology, you may want to look into some of the books in the Magic in History series from Penn State. They are pretty light reads, but there's a lot of good scholarship there if you are interested in texts and manuscripts.
posted by ServSci at 9:25 AM on December 30, 2011

Mark S. Smith, The Memoirs of God (Explores "how the Bible chose to remember the history and religious of the Israel that gave it birth.")

Paul E. Capetz, God: A Brief History (Slim volume, easy to read, shows the ways different groups of Christians have understood the characteristics of God through time, and the events that caused those shifts.)

The following are from my to-read shelf, so I can't vouch for them:

John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible With the Dead ("A highly readable and engaging look at the history of biblical interpretation, presented in the form of nine case studies of some of scripture's most difficult texts. Thompson gives a brief overview of how commentators from the early church through the Reformation made sense of such troubling stories and teachings as the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter, the imprecatory psalms, and Paul's words about women's role in the church.")

Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries ("A study of the impact of Jesus on cultural, political, social, and economic history. Noted historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan reveals how the image of Jesus created by each successive epoch -- from rabbi in the first century to liberator in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries -- is a key to understanding the temper and values of that age.")

Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History ("Anderson shows how changing conceptions of sin and forgiveness lay at the very heart of the biblical tradition. Spanning nearly two thousand years, the book brilliantly demonstrates how sin, once conceived of as a physical burden, becomes, over time, eclipsed by economic metaphors.")

Robert Muchembled, Damned: An Illustrated History of the Devil ("Satan, writes Muchembled, represents 'the dark side of Western culture' and is a product of the human imagination, so any analysis of Old Scratch reveals a great deal about the changing landscapes of Europe and America through the ages. One particularly intriguing chapter touches on contemporary themes: how psychoanalysis has changed our view of the devil, how horror films have depicted Satan and how recent marketers have blithely employed his image to sell products.")

Timothy K. Beal, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book (It "takes us back to early Christianity to ask how a box of handwritten scrolls became the Bible, and forward to see how the multibillion-dollar business that has brought us Biblezines and Manga Bibles is selling down the Bible’s sacred capital. Showing us how a single official text was created from the proliferation of different scripts, Beal traces its path as it became embraced as the word of God and Book of books.")
posted by runningwithscissors at 1:21 PM on December 30, 2011

Oh wow, just when I'm positive this site can't get any more amazing, it somehow does.

Thank you so much for the great recommendations. A lot of this stuff is exactly what I was looking for, and I can't wait to order some of these books and dive in. I don't know how I can possibly mark best answers without turning the page into a blinding field of near-unreadable light green. I especially appreciate the warnings about bias and spotty historical claims.

Huge thanks also to those who pointed me toward lectures and other audio. I'm really interested in these, as well, but I wasn't sure if including that would make my question too broad.

Also, I kinda love how the combo of ServSci's scare quotes around "Gnostics" and flibbertigibbet's "Gnositicism. Urgh" so succintly lets me know what I'm in for with this topic. :-)

Further suggestions are welcome, of course-- I just had to jump in to express my excitement.
posted by the liquid oxygen at 6:33 PM on December 30, 2011

The problem with gnosticism is manyfold:

One, whether we're reifying a concept that didn't really exist until the great heresiologists got ahold of it (and then only existed as something a good Christian didn't venture into)?

Two, what are the qualities one can associate with gnosticism?

Three, what texts (and to a lesser extent, who) was gnostic and who wasn't? For example, one of the bigger arguments is whether the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic. I'd say 'no,' personally.

Four, how to explain gnosticism in an accessible fashion without completely distorting it? I compared gnosticism to quantum physics in an earlier comment of mine, simply because they're similar in two major ways: one, there's a lot of crazy, not-based-in-reality crap about them, and two, they're both things that you can't fully wrap your head around and you'll just have to get used to being confused. (Quantum physics is worse on this point, but one of the people in my program is doing his PhD on Nag Hammadi and insists you cannot understand the Nag Hammadi texts unless you read them in the coptic, and if your Greek is good enough to make guesses at the original texts and wordplays found therein).

I guess one final bibliography:

Popular Christianity.

First off: be very wary of any book that bandies the term 'cult' around loosely. Academics now usually only use it in the sense of cultus, "care," the external religious devotion owed to the god(s). This use of the term is non-pejorative. For example, "cult of Mary" (the system of devotion to Mary) or the "Temple cult" (Jewish sacrifices in the Temple etc. etc.) are good and legitimate uses of the word, but "this here group is a cult," less so. If you want to learn about 'cults,' the academic term is "new religious movements" and includes movements that society considers more-or-less benign. (If you want to know more about all this, Zuckerman's Invitation to the Sociology of Religion is quite nice, written in a breezy, almost conversational style).

Margaret McGuire's Lived Religion is a good overview of contemporary religiosity and is pretty accessible.

I also quite like Winifred Sullivan's The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, which is about an interfaith group in Florida who tried to convince the courts that their personal graveside decorations were religiously protected. It is about the intersection of popular religion and law. It's good, although I remember thinking she didn't quite make the Jewish case right. (The Jewish family were English, and Jews in England have the custom [minhag] of covering the entire grave with cement or stone to prevent people from walking over the body. There's a principle in Jewish law that a family minhag is as good as halacha [law] and I don't recall that being brought up in the book).

I'd also suggest picking up Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction by William Kay. Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian denomination there is, super important to understand it.

In terms of films, you might want to watch Trance and dance in Bali (available on Youtube, black and white film by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson). It's a classic sociological film and you might be interested in the interplay between drama, dance, and religion. In the West, "performing" during religious ceremonies has a negative connotation (he's a charlatan!), but in other cultures, performance is central. Similarly, "Les maitres fous" is available on Youtube, but only in French (subtitled in Spanish or Italian).

I also hugely recommend this film, The Holy Ghost People. Really great.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 8:30 AM on December 31, 2011

Just had another thought - this isn't research but it might be an informative side-read: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. It's fiction but gives an interesting critical perspective on fable-making and storytelling in the Bible, and it incorporates some elements from the Apocrypha.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:13 AM on January 2, 2012

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