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5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, readable: demolishes Christianity, praises Jesus, August 4, 1999
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This review is from: Myth, Magic, and Morals (Paperback)
In his scholarly yet readable 1909 book Myth, Magic, and Morals, A Study of Christian Origins, Oxford professor Frederick Conybeare celebrates the life of Jesus and demolishes the claims of Christianity. About Jesus's teachings, Conybeare writes, "...he desired to raise a hedge against the most common forms of selfishness; against envy, spite, illiberality, and time-serving timidity; against clinging to the lower forms of well-being at the expense of the higher; against the suppression of truths which seem to menace our comforts and vested interests. For a sublime intransigence breathes through these parables and precepts: a fierce scorn for the rich and selfish, a tender love of the poor and suffering, a contempt for shams and empty conventions, an uncompromising devotion to truth, a true humility. There is about them a ring of real manliness...."

The first chapter of this book is titled PAUL. ("...Paul's Christ is an a priori construction of his own, owing to the historical man of Nazareth and to those who knew that man and cherished his memory little except the bare name of Jesus."). Chapters two through eight excavate and reconstruct in fascinating detail the layered composition of the Synoptic Gospels, i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke. ("They are party documents, so far as their manifest aim is to show that Jesus was, what the majority of Jews denied him to be, the Messiah; nevertheless they are, on the whole, transparently sincere documents embodying naÔve traditions, mostly collected from the mouths of the people of the districts about which he had wandered and taught, of his wonder-workings, teaching, and death."). Ten more chapters examine Jesus's teaching, fill out the historical context for his life, chronicle the early development of the Church, philosophize about ultimate meanings, and exhort readers to maintain a rigorous intellectual honesty. ("Those who cannot accept a creed literally do best to avoid it altogether....")

Analyzing religious belief and practice, Conybeare rarely lapses into dry rationalism and its attendant materialist ideologies. Slicing through the underbrush of myths and religious hocus-pocus, Conybeare indeed skewers the Christians who may be hiding there. But his intent here is less to punish error, and more to promote virtue by revealing a human Jesus in sharp relief. Conybeare clears important ground. Decades later, other inspired English scholars, particularly the marine biologist Alister Hardy, would begin to build a modern theology on that cleared ground.

Myth, Magic, and Morals went into a second edition in 1910 and a third in 1925, but found few champions among English opinion-makers of the day. In 1958, University Books in the United States reissued the book under the title "The Origins of Christianity." The 1975 paperback edition restores Conybeare's original title. A comment in Joel Carmichael's introduction to the 1958 edition continues to ring true as we enter a new century: "There is a scholarly fashion, doubtless rooted in the overriding commercialism of the age, of snubbing last year's model in books; nevertheless, a really first-rate work of scholarship can survive...."
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