"Scholars have confessed themselves puzzled over the basic question as to why Christianity -- out of all the Messiah cults of that time and place -- should have been the one to survive and flourish. As we have seen, the reason why the Jesus movement was almost the only such group to have gained lasting ground outside Judaea was that it was already recognizable as a mystery cult. The secret of its appeal was that it was essentially a hybrid, a blend of certain aspects of Judaism and of pagan, mystery school elements. Christianity was unique because it was reassuringly familiar to many Jews and also to Gentiles, while at the same time being excitingly different."
- Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Templar Revelation
This book has a lot of very interesting stuff about Jesus and early Christianity. One of the most surprising things was this connection of Christianity to pagan religions, particularly the Isian religion of Egypt (the worship of the goddess Isis). Pretty much all the mythological aspects of Jesus' life (virgin birth, resurrection, the various miracles, etc.) can be traced back there. The Lord's Prayer came from an Egyptian prayer to the sun god, beginning "Amon, Amon, who art in heaven...". Baptism was an Egyptian tradition (I had always assumed it must have been Jewish, since John the Baptist baptized Jesus). While Jesus may have been ethnically a Jew, there is a lot of evidence for his teachings being pretty far removed from Judaism.
The authors also spend a lot of time exploring the roles played by John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, which have been considerably edited and downplayed by the Gospels and the Church over the centuries. The information about Mary Magdalene was particularly interesting because of the implications it has for viewing women as the spiritual equals of men. Apparently, in the first couple centuries C.E., women could not only be priests, but even bishops. Things changed around the time of the Council of Nicaea, of course, with the decisions and declarations about what was and wasn't Christianity, and the labeling of so much documentation as heretical.
The Council of Nicaea is something I still want to learn more about. The interpretations tend to come in two versions: 1) The council members were divinely inspired, had the right idea, chose the most accurate sources to base the religion on, etc. or 2) They made their decisions based entirely on what would work best to give the Church the power, control, or whatever that they needed. It seems that I tend to read things that work off one assumption or the other, whereas I would like to see some direct discussion of it to see where such an assumption would come from. That's actually the same issue that came up for me when I was reading The Case for Christ (by Lee Strobel) about a year ago. The whole argument of that book was very good if you accept his trust in the Gospels, which to me was the weakest part.
The Case for Christ is something I should probably go back and re-read parts of now, though, for comparison. One thing I did notice about The Templar Revelation was that the authors seem to assume that Jesus didn't necessarily die on the cross (which of course means that he wouldn't have been resurrected). Given that Strobel made a very good argument for that, I would have liked to see it addressed more. But still, Picknett and Prince had a lot of good stuff to say, regardless of which way you go on that particular question.
What I did like about this book, though, was that they're not just pulling all this stuff out of their hats and making up conjectures. A great deal of what they do is just collating independent research from many different historians, and showing how much historical evidence has been accumulated over the last century or so that isn't necessarily common knowledge, particularly in the Christian community, where a lot of the ideas would be rather problematic.
So anyway, this is an extremely interesting book, which I highly recommend. It's certainly a good follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, if you want to see where some of that stuff is coming from.