Pagans never existed, argues James O’Donnell in his new book on pagans. The blunt self-contradiction of this premise gives both a good taste of the revisionist and polemical aims of O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity and also an accurate sense of the book’s curt self-satisfaction, incompleteness, and inconsistency.

The stage is set with a survey of classical religion in broad thematic strokes: the local character of ancient deities and the tendency toward syncretism; the transactional and formulaic character of ancient religious practices; the quasi-human nature of the gods and the relative unimportance of a transcendent divine realm; even a curious indifference to the question of whether religion was true in any logical or philosophical sense. All this is tackled in a flamboyant...

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