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River of God, The: A New History of Christian Origins Paperback – March 4, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Believing in Jesus means so many different things to so many people that it's difficult, if not impossible, to define the true essence of Christianity. The differences between a charismatic Baptist hymnal, for instance, and a high-church Anglican communion merely scratch the surface of the many varieties of Christian belief. The River of God reminds readers that Christian belief has always been wildly diverse, and that Christianity was preceded and informed by many ancient cultural traditions. This is the point made by author Gregory J. Riley, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the Claremont School of Theology in California and the author of One Jesus, Many Christs. Riley's prose is mostly uncomplicated, and his metaphorical argument is fairly clear: many cultural streams converged to form the river of God, and material from those streams built up the delta of Christianity. But this book is not, as its subtitle claims, "A New History of Christian Origins." It is primarily a reworking of a familiar and amply documented fact, made popular by the work of Elaine Pagels and Jack Miles, among others: Christianity did not spring into being independent from its cultural context. Like life, it evolved, and continues to evolve. Though not original, Riley's point does bear repeating. Its repetition cultivates Christian humility, by helping to remind us that everyone in history who has ever learned to live well--including, or perhaps especially, Jesus--has learned largely by paying attention to the world around him. --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In what is now a rather commonplace argument, Riley (One Jesus, Many Christs) contends that Christianity originated from the tremendous theological diversity of Near Eastern religions and that its origins cannot be explained or understood adequately by simply emphasizing its roots in Judaism, as he claims conventional scholarship has done. He proposes instead a threefold model of genealogy, punctuated equilibrium and the "river of God" to investigate Christian origins. First, he examines Christianity's genealogy, examining all the branches of its family tree to locate the sources of ideas such as the Devil, body and soul, and monotheism. Second, he argues that Christianity evolved by embracing certain ideas that would ensure its survival and rejecting others that did not contribute to its longevity. Finally, in an unoriginal manner, Riley uses the image of a river to demonstrate the diversity of religious traditions that have flowed into Christianity as well as the variety of traditions that have developed within Christianity itself. But Riley's book is plagued with problems. His subtitle is misleading, for he doesn't offer a new history of Christian origins; acknowledging and emphasizing the religious diversity upon which Christianity depended has been a standard approach for more than a decade. Riley also passes along some inaccuracies. Plato never equated the Good with God, and Aristotle probably would be horrified to learn that his Unmoved Mover is God. Riley's pedestrian prose and lack of originality combine to steal the zest from what otherwise could have been an exciting book.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; 1 Reprint edition (March 4, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060669802
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060669805
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #121,472 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By K. R. Vincent on October 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In The River of God, Gregory Riley shines light on much of the history of Christian origins often ignored by scholars. Most researchers of Christianity restrict themselves to the influence of the West (Greek and Roman) and often confuse Rabbinic Judaism with the Judaism of Jesus' times; Prof. Riley adds the whole of Middle Eastern religious history to the story of our search for God. Riley includes the development of Cannanite and Mesopotamian religion in the history of ancient Judaism. In addition to Greek ideas of Orphism, Pythagoreanism and Plato, he recognizes the Egyptian and Persian Zoroastrian influences on the development of Christian concepts of afterlife. Riley outlines the role of Persian Zoroastrianism on our understanding of Satan and a world savior. He details how various ancient religious models of God from both East and West as well as Greek science contributed to the development of our understanding of the division of body and soul and the creation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century. The River of God is not a general overview of world religions; it is specifically about the development of Christianity from a modern Christian perspective. Prof. Riley writes with a broad brush in his outline of the development of Christianity and, while scholars will quibble over some of the details and generalizations, I found The River of God to be an excellent overview of our understanding of "the process of the River of God."
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Format: Paperback
This work by Gregory Riley of the Claremont School of Theology, also author of "One Jesus, Many Christs," makes the case that the major doctrines of the New Testament and early Christianity came from the Jewish Gnostics, who were centered in Galilee, Jesus' home base.
The peoples of the Mediterranean world, including the Hebrews, all believed that the earth was a flat disk sitting on top of a disk of water. Over that was a hard dome, not more than a few thousand feet high, on top of which sat the gods. All the gods had bodies, including the Chief One. The Hebrews, like everyone else, never believed that God was an immaterial spirit or that people had spiritual souls that could unite with God after death. People just lived out their lives on earth under the gaze of the gods and the fates.
This view was challenged by the great mathematician Pythagoras in the 6th century b.c., who stated the earth is a sphere, and by Eratosthenes, who in the 3rd century b.c. computed that the earth is 40,000 kilometers in circumference, wonderfully close to its actual size. Riley says we cannot over emphasize the dramatic effect this new Greek science had on religious beliefs (the whole premise of his book is that religious beliefs are constantly changing in response to their times). For one thing, these discoveries made the material universe immense, infinite. For another thing, there was a commensurate change in the idea of God. The Greeks developed the via negativa method of describing the new God as immaterial, ineffable, and unknowable. Plato extended this idea of God to humans, describing their bodies as shells from which the soul-an emanation of God of sorts-would escape after death and return to God.
Riley says that these ideas were slow to catch on, but they did.
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Format: Paperback
The River of God is a well written book by Prof. Gregory J. Riley on the origins of Christianity. Riley uses three metaphors to trace the development of Christianity-- of river, of genealogy, and of evolution, and he names his book with the metaphor of river. I think a more appropriate title for the book might be the River of Christianity because Riley is tracing the development of Christianity.

We, human beings, live our life based on how we understand life. Religion, as I understand it, is a combination of a view of life and a way of life based on it, and it varies according to time and place. Christianity is an instance of religion at a specific time and place. How this form of religion came into existence and how it further evolved is the subject of Riley's book. Several streams contribute to form a river, and it further splits into several tributaries. A human being is a child of two parents, and he/she with a partner further gives birth to children. A species evolves to adapt with the changing environment. Using these three metaphors in the background, Riley explains how Christianity evolved.

This, I think, is an honest and scientific approach to the study of religion, which is opposed to the fundamentalist approach, which is subjective, naïve, and biased. This approach doesn't entertain any claims of superiority to any form of religion. It places a specific form of religion in a time and place, and traces its genealogy backward and forward. A form of religion is not necessarily of more quality than its parents or its siblings. Survival of a form is not always due to better quality.

At any point in time and place a variety of religious forms exist simultaneously.
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Format: Paperback
"The River of God" is the metaphor Professor Riley uses to describe the history of today's New Testament---and a very effective metaphor it is! He talks about the context of the events: political, sociological, and religious atmospheres throughout history as the 'tributaries' which influenced the document as we use it today. He has a style of writing that is quite pleasant to read. The book is scholarly without being stuffy (or dry!) or judgemental. Highly recommended for a surprisingly good read!
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