Books on early Christianity
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
For the novice, unfamiliar with the period, a good start would be Michael Grant's Jesus: An Historians Review of the Gospels, 1977. This is probably the last time you'll see me recommend a book by Michael Grant, to me he is a writer of popular history, but for an introductory overview his books serve well.
For an undergraduate level:
These books introduce what current scholarly research into the early Christian texts has been leading some scholars to believe. They are not books that fundamentalist Christians will accept or enjoy.
- The Historical Figures of Jesus E.P. Sanders, 1993; also his Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and Jesus and Judaism.
- Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews Paula Fredriksen, 1999
- From Jesus to Christ: the Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus, Paula Fredriksen, 1988
More scholarly, and from two different points of view:
More scholoarly still, somewhat difficult but highly recommended:
- Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity, David Wenham, 1995 offers the Christian perspective.
- The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, Hyman Maccoby, 1986, offers a Jewish perspective of Paul and Christianity.
For a different approach to the whole subject:
- Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come, Norman Cohn, 1993
- One Jesus, Many Christs, Gregory J. Riley, 1989
- The River of God, Gregory J. Riley, 2001
- Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth through Eight Centuries Ramsey MacMullen, 1997.
MacMullen is a professor of history and Classics at Yale University, he writes as though he is musing after his classes, with a lot of side notes in his sentences, almost like a stream of consciousness writer. He can be difficult to read, but well worth it. I highly recommend another of his books, Paganism in the Roman Empire, 1981.
- The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan, 1991. This is highly detailed, very difficult reading, and very good on the subject.
If you venture into the subject of early Christianity, Gnosticism, etc. you will run into Elaine Pagels, authors either quoting or disputing her. Her books are The Gnostic Gospels, 1979; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, 1989; The Origin of Satan, 1995.
- The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, 1996, looks at Christianity as a social movement, from a sociologist's perspective rather than that of an historian. Quite interesting.
- When Jesus Became God, Richard E. Rubenstein, 1999, considers the evolution of the concept of Jesus in Christian scriptures against a political background.
You will likely also run into Robert Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version, 1992 and Pagans and Christians, 1989. He can be difficult to read, tedious, and not always worth the effort.
Christianity from a Jewish perspective:
These should be enough to get you started on the early development of what became orthodox Christianity. There is an entirely different field of books on Gnosticism, on first century Judaism, on the Dead Sea scrolls, and several books arguing over specific texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and its relevance to the canon scriptures, and the 'Q' theory has generated a number of debates over whether it was a sourcebook or drawn from the canon, and whether there was one or two such 'Q' documents, and whether the Gospel of Thomas may have been one such source. Just some light summer reading for you.
- The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, 2001
- Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, Norman Golb, 1995
- The First Messiah, Michael O. Wise, 1999; this is not about Jesus but on a Jewish figure on whom the stories of Jesus may have been based.
- Mythology's Last Gods: Yahweh and Jesus, Wm Harwood, 1992, has a very sceptical, almost rabid perspective, some would say.
- The Hidden Book in the Bible, Richard Elliot Friedman, 1998.
- Hidden Gospels, Philip Jenkins, 2001
- Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, Bart D. Ehrman, 1999
- Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth, Burton L. Mack, 1989; very interesting perspective but he has been criticized for his methodology. More important is Mack's The Lost Gospel: The Book of 'Q', 1993.