Paul L. Maier (b. 1930) is a Lutheran scholar on the history of Christianity. He is Emeritus Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, where he taught for 53 years (1958–2011). I highly recommend his work. Here are some of his more accessible works.
8 Books on the History of Early Christianity
Pontius Pilate: A Novel. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. This “documentary novel” depicts the New Testament world in a relatively entertaining way. Reading this genre engages a different part of your brain and encourages you to envision the world of the New Testament more vividly. It makes you think and feel in ways that are virtually impossible by reading only encyclopedia-type summaries of the New Testament’s historical-cultural context. This book is so valuable that I require students to read it for a graduate course I teach called “New Testament Background and Message.” Maier writes from Pontius Pilate’s vantage point, starting with Pilate’s political life in Rome and appointment as prefect in Judea (AD 26) and continuing through the murder of Jesus (which Maier calculates as 33), the death of Tiberius (37), the assassination of Caligula (41), and the beginning of the reign of Claudius (41–54). The overall plot and every proper name in the book is historically accurate, and Maier fills in this factual skeleton with colorful fictional details. He reconstructs many events from the Gospels and Acts from the viewpoint of an educated, unbelieving Roman prefect.
The Flames of Rome: A Novel. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014. Same genre as Pontius Pilate but a bit more explicit (sometimes uncomfortably so—for example, depicting Nero’s depravity). It’s an excellent way to enter the world of first-century Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian history.
A Skeleton in God’s Closet: A Novel. Skeleton Series. Nashville: Nelson, 1994. This novel is set in modern times and teaches you about the world of the New Testament via archaeology. The protagonist is Dr. Jonathan Weber, a biblical scholar who teaches at Harvard. The dialogue can be a little cheesy, but it’s worth enduring if it helps you learn about the world of the New Testament.
More Than a Skeleton: A Novel. Skeleton Series. Nashville: Nelson, 2003. The sequel to A Skeleton in God’s Closet, again featuring Dr. Jonathan Weber. A man named Joshua Ben-Yosef claims to be Jesus. The clever plot slips in all sorts of history along the way.
The Constantine Codex. Skeleton Series. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2011. This is a thriller about textual criticism! I didn’t know that genre existed until I listened to this audiobook. And I was delighted to hear Maier highlight Daniel Wallace as an expert on textual criticism. Dr. Jonathan Weber is again the protagonist for a provocative story that also raises issues about canonicity and Islam.
In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1991. Systematically demonstrates how history and archaeology illuminate the New Testament. This is the most textbook-like book in this list.
Josephus: The Essential Works; A Condensation of Jewish Antiquities and the Jewish War. Edited and translated by Paul L. Maier. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994. If you haven’t read Josephus before, start with this. Maier skillfully abridges Josephus (and indicates omissions in brackets). Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived from about AD 37 to 110. Other than the Bible, Josephus’s four books are the single most important source for understanding the Jewish world of the first century.
Eusebius—the Church History: A New Translation with Commentary. Edited and translated by Paul L. Maier. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–c. 340) is best known as a church historian. In this book Eusebius tells the story of the early church through 324 and highlights persecutions.
7 Books for Children
Our kids enjoy these illustrated books. (Warning: The prose is relatively advanced for children—not like Dr. Seuss!)
The Real Story of the Creation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2007.
The Real Story of the Flood. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2008.
The Real Story of the Exodus. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2009.
The Very First Christmas. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1998.
The Very First Easter. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1999.
The Very First Christians. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2001.
Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2004. Here’s what my wife, Jenni, and I wrote about this book in 2008 (‘Theology for Kids: Recommending Some Recent Books for Younger Children”): Maier superbly describes Martin Luther’s life and clearly and simply explains the controversy between Luther and the Catholic Church that led to the Reformation. This magnificently illustrated biography by a trustworthy historian covers a vast amount of history, and some young children may become lost in the details and need explanations for words like “indulgences” and “theses.”
Bonus: 2 Films + 1 Interview
- The Week That Changed the World. A 33-minute documentary from 2014 that features Maier.
- A Man Named Martin. A 82-minute documentary from 2015 that features Maier.
- “Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem?” Interview by Tony Reinke for Desiring God, December 22, 2015.