Half banana: FTS, enjoy your conference. Hearing the serious thinkers in the field of late classical knowledge is a joy. I heard a lecture last week from the academic Karen Armstrong, (she is extremely well informed and assiduous in presenting an accurate picture but still, I believe, leans towards a deist interpretation).
Thnx for your good wishes! Many of the academics that I have come to know reasonably well, are believers. But their beliefs may not conform to orthodoxy.
Perhaps there are more books about YHWH/Jesus than any other topic, but (aside from the true believers) there are many,many differing views about the development of belief in this deity.
HB: I agree heartily on the matter of JW mistrust of proper disinterested scholars, they are the ones at the coal-face of reality not "Bible scholars" who have only one object in mind.
I wasn't thinking only of Jws. Perhaps most 'true believers' distrust scholarship, and will accept biblical statements as 'truth' as evidence of their 'faith.'
HB: To understand the true birth of christianity demands a knowledge of contemporary life and thought which involves knowledge of the many sects and pagan beliefs. Manicheanism was an important ingredient as was the big cover-up you mentioned once Roman Christianity had gained ascendancy.
HB: Have you early textual references for this ?
I suggest to you that its a matter of the starting point and the evidence for that starting point.
If you see Judaism, the context for early Christianity as a unified, structured, coherent organisation (like a modern church organisation) - then you will likely also believe that early Christianity was a similar highly structured and organised social group.
But were they? More, were the predecessors of the Judaism of early Christianity, also coherent organisations? Did everybody that lived in first temple Israel believe the same things?
Did the peasant farmers have the same beliefs as the elites? Did the political elite (Military and its organisation and the King and his court administration) have the same beliefs as the religious elite (the priests who may have been factionalised) at lest on occasion?
During the so-called Babylonian captivity, did the peasants etc, that stayed behind have the same beliefs as the elites who were taken to Babylon?
We find some evidence that during the exile, the Jews absorbed some Zoroastrian beliefs like 'dualism' and that likely the Jews who remained behind in Babylon and never returned to second temple Judaism (in Jerusalem) moved on a somewhat different doctrinal trajectory to those who did return.
If you start to question some of the 'accepted' views of the development of second temple Judaism, you may easily understand why Josephus could argue for three somewhat different (but related) religious groups (doctrinally) in saying that they were the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. A close reading of the translated Dead Sea Scrolls indicates quite distinct differences when compared to the Pharisees, who were distinct again from the Sadducees. Were there still other groups? We dont know for sure, but can suspect that there were. It's often that Jews in Jesus time were expecting the Messiah. Who were these people? Were they organised? Were did they live? Did they talk to each other? If so, how? Did they meet in little groups? Were they connected in some way, outside of a shared belief?
And in regard to these Messiah expectant Jews, did they all accept Jesus as the Messiah? What about those who had heard about the Messiah figure described in the Books of Enoch? And how did all these interact with the Essenes and any other group?
Similarly, what about the early Christians? The WTS pictures them as a united organisation, but they may not have been so united, but rather existed as distinct groups but sharing a common (but not neccesarily identical) belief in Jesus. We can trace differences between Paul's group and James' group. How distinctly were they organised? Some scholars suggest that the people addressed in the John letters were another distinct group. Since the various books of the NT were not united into one canon for a few hundred years, there is really little evidence that all these groups of believers in Jesus shared more than a common belief in Jesus.
Why not start somewhere there and using google scholar ( a search engine that focuses on scholarly research, see what you can find. If you live near a university you may be able to access the library for a fee. (Sydney uni charges $40 for 6 months). You are likely able to download for free many scholarly essays on topics of interest.
Hoping that helps you on your way.