What ancient non-canonical or non-Christian books give you the most valuable background to the New Testament, including by making you invulnerable to half the skeptical arguments out there? Here's my Top Ten list:
1. James Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library. (Almost all the extant Gnostic works -- most of them boring as all get-out, but highly revealing. Read with Plato's Parable of the Cave.)
2. Bart Ehrman's al-Scripture collection, Lost Scriptures: Books That did not make it into the New Testament. (My disagreement begins with the first two words -- not having these books, which are not "Scriptures," in our Bible is no loss, really. But seeing their unsuitability for yourself is part of the value of the collection - and some are interesting in their own right.)
3. Iliad and Odyssey, because Homer was the Greco-Roman Old Testament. Everything requires familiarity with these two books.
4. Plato, Dialogues+ Republic, because Plato (+ Socrates, whom he channels) was the Greco-Roman New Testament.
5. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Apollonius is the most-often cited "Jesus Clone." The absurdity of the analogy, and the desperation of the likes of Ehrman, Fredriksen, the Jesus Seminar, Carrier, et al, can only be fully appreciated if you actually read this often unintentionally hilarious work for yourself.
6. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. This includes about eight full novels, half or more love stories, and some primitive science fiction. Also about as many partial novels that have mostly been lost. Some are amusing, some boring. Golden Ass has been compared to the gospels -- you're not laughing yet? Read the thing, then. This is about 700 pages.
|This one wouldn't hurt,|
7. A good collection of Euripides, including the Bacchae. He was the most popular playwright of the time, and remains very interesting reading -- see what Clement of Alexander does with Pentheus in the Bacchae.
8. Herodotus' history of the Persian War. This is foundational. Also highly entertaining at times. Also the likes of Carrier try to use some amusing materials here for his weird purposes - cheat and actually read the references.
9. Thucydides -- here is what history could look like. Compare Luke's prefatory notes to Thucydides -- obvioiusly on the same page.
10. Arrian's Anabasis. The best extant biography of Alexander the Great, culling from two serious and early biographies, fairly judiciously, and borrowing other materials. Al is the anti-Jesus, the picture of a hero (along with Socrates, Hercules, and Homer's heroes) in the back of everyone's heads. (Arrian's collection of Epictetus' sayings is also wonderful -- Stoicism at its finest.)
Read these ten works, or collections, and you will be rendered impervious to half the skeptical New Testament scholarship on the market.