Smith argues, in this short, fierce book, that "The origins of the question of Christian origins takes us back, persistently, to the same point: Protestant anti-Catholic apologetics...the characteristics attributed to 'Popery' by the Reformation and post Reformation controversialists, have been transferred, wholesale, to the religions of Late Antiquity ...ritual as ex opere operato" (p 34).
Protestants have clung to the idea of a pristine early Christianity, 'which suffered later 'corruptions' (p 43). They argue that early Christianity was Protestant, but by the third century and after, mystery cults attached like barnacles onto the church.
One example would be Hatch, who proclaimed the Sermon on the Mount belonged to the Judaic world, and the Nicene Creed to the world of Greek philosophers. "The former is concerned with 'ethics'. the ;latter with 'doctrine'" ( 60).
Much of the research and debate focused around 'mysterion', a word found rarely in the Old Testament, and also rarely in the New. Smith quotes Brown: "Parallels in thought and vocabulary in the OT...demonstrate that the NT writers, particularly Paul, had all the raw material they needed for the use of 'mystery' in this background, without venturing into the pagan religions" (p 80).
The old History of Religions school had died a long, protracted death by about 1950. But that has not stopped authors - none of them scholars and seemingly none of them very well read - about dying-and-rising gods. Gunter Wagner, Yamouchi, etc. published books showing exactly where these authors went wrong. But alas. Few people read books by actual scholars.
However, quickly: "the majority of the gods so denoted appear to have died but not returned; there is death but no rebirth or resurrection....There has never been a claim for the rising of Mithras...Adonis...no hint of rebirth....In the case of Attis...reconstructed Cybele-ritual which can be shown to be mistaken...the Day of Joy is a late addition...." (pp 101-2).
Very little in early Christianity appears to have focused on death; the catacombs are full of art depicting "the lamb, the anchor, the vase, the dove, the boat, the olive branch, the Orante, the palm, bread, the Good Shepherd, fish vine and grapes" (p 130).
In almost all cases, therefore, the claim that dying and rising gods were the most primitive, the earliest, layer, turned out to be, time after time, completely wrong. All the myths were "exceedingly late third or fourth century development in the myths and rituals of these deities" (p 103).
Bitter pill for the current crop of Jesus-is-just-another-dying-and-rising god these pagan cults "borrowed from Christianity" (p 104), not the other way around.
And, of course, none of these gods could claim that have arrived in historical time.
Jesus was not a vegetative myth. "Early Christianity appears as a relentlessly locative" (p 130) belief, set in historical time in a place well known, and verifiable by witnesses.