Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Truth About Christian Origins

by Gregory J. Riley

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-06-066799-0

 An insightful portrayal of Jesus as a classical hero-martyr, by New Testament scholar Riley (School of Theology, Claremont). The first half of the book is a quick romp through Greco-Roman heroic literature, but with a point: Riley argues that Jesus had a lot in common with familiar figures like Hercules and Achilles. The classical heroes claimed a mix of divine-human parentage, usually with a virgin human mother and a god for a father; they possessed some remarkable or even miraculous skill; they had divine enemies and were hated by powerful humans; they died, often young and violently, as martyrs for a principle; and their deaths powerfully transformed other people's lives through emulation. Jesus fits the bill perfectly, Riley argues, because the Gospel writers had obtained a classical education, which meant that they were thoroughly steeped in heroic lore. Early converts readily embraced Christianity's message, despite tremendous penalty from a hostile Roman government, because it captured the heroic formula that peasants had heard recited and then memorized. The second half of the book drives home this point about the source of Christianity's popularity. Riley demonstrates that it certainly wasn't doctrine that attracted the masses, since the earliest apostles couldn't agree on the most basic tenets of the faith. Dozens of sects arose in different cities, all claiming to be the religion of the risen Christ (though whether he had risen in spirit or body was itself a subject of heated debate). What they could agree on was that Jesus was a hero and that they, as martyrs for the faith, could become heroes themselves. Such faithfulness constituted the religion of Christ into the fourth century, which witnessed the conversion of Constantine and the great creedal controversies. Written in a refreshingly easygoing style, this new view of why Jesus' radical message spread so rapidly is clearly aimed at a mainstream audience.