To close out the year in the world of writing about religion, how about a book about the Nativity? Or one on why religions seem bound to violence? Or a book about a woman in the Bible whom history has treated shabbily, Queen Jezebel?




Recent religion books have no shortage in diversity of subjects. Among them:




"" Geza Vermes is a respected Biblical scholar, specializing in Judaism during the time of Jesus. In his latest work, "The Nativity: History and Legend" (Doubleday, $17.95, 172 pp.), Vermes turns his trained eye to the story of the birth of Jesus, perhaps the pivotal tale of Christianity.




Stripping away the legends and add-ons of later years, Vermes casts his net far to explain (and, in some cases, debunk) what some believers hold true &

even while he maintains respect for the core story. According to Vermes, Mary, the mother of Jesus, could hardly have been a virgin her entire life, as the Bible specifically talks about her and husband Joseph enjoying marital relations after the arrival of their first-born. And though the world celebrates December 25, the actual event most likely occurred in the spring, roughly four years later than we think.




"" "The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations," edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton University Press, $14.95, 288 pp.) might go a long way toward settling disputes.




Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress and former faculty member of the history departments at both Yale University and the College of William and Mary, takes us straight to the sources, with some surprising results. In easy-to-reference form, he shows the founders loved their country but were quite capable of thinking outside the pew. Some examples:




Thomas Jefferson was not tied to book-chapter-and-verse. In one 1813 excerpt, he suggests people focus only on the words of Jesus. Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvania doctor who signed the Constitution, said he thought the Apostle Paul himself would rise from the grave and tell evangelists involved in matters of state to desist.




"" One of the best writers on religion today, Bruce Chilton, takes us into "Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" (Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pp.). He begins his inquiry with the story of Abraham and Isaac and shows how that close brush with human sacrifice sets precedent for all three religions. He makes a compelling argument that human sacrifice didn't stop with God's encouraging and then thwarting Abraham's sacrifice of his son. It continues today with militancy and fundamentalism that would ignore and even destroy those outside the boundaries of its faith.




Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield writes of a balanced approach to faith in "You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism" (Harmony, $24.95, 288 pp.). As a teenager, Hirschfield, now president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, left his family's upscale Chicago home to settle in Hebron on the troubled West Bank. He led tours through Jerusalem, armed with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other. He knew with assurance that the land belonged to the Jews and he dedicated his early life to making that a reality.




"Basic Teachings of the Buddha," by Glenn Wallis (Modern Library, $14.95, 288 pp.), is a compilation of 16 dialogues from the thousands of surviving "suttas" &

or scriptural narrative &

that make up Buddhist thought.




Wallis, an associate professor of religion at University of Georgia, has carefully chosen the writings so that the book is a good introduction for a serious student or a nice addition to a scholar's library.




In "Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn From America's Largest Churches," (Jossey-Bass, $23.95, 256 pp.), authors Dave Travis and Scott Thumma &

the latter from Hartford Seminary &

explore the relatively new phenomenon of megachurches, those Protestant organizations that draw at least 2,000 people for weekend services. There are roughly 1,250 of them with a combined annual income of $7 billion. One study says that 45 percent of people who attend worship services do so in the largest 10 percent of these churches.




"501 Minutes to Christ: Personal Essays" (Hawthorne, $13.95, 240 pp.) is not your average book on religion, but then Poe Ballantine is not your average religious person. He's among the country's best essayists and the reason is obvious here. The title comes from a trip Ballantine takes to play the horses at Churchill Downs. A rumination on his past bad old life contains this gem: "... Men are not mere flesh, for flesh without spirit cannot move, laugh, drink absinthe, forgive, or consider the end of time. Flesh without spirit (see meat) simply goes bad, simply stinks."




And, finally, it's time to reconsider Queen Jezebel. In "Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen," (Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pp.), Lesley Hazleton shows us why so much of what we know of this "harlot" &

so called because of her religion, not her sexual practices &

is wrong. Jezebel was a powerful, pragmatic ruler, deeply loyal to her husband, King Ahab, and able to survive as a leader for 30 years in a ruthless age that devoured the weak. Translating original Hebrew scriptures, Hazleton, a journalist and a former psychologist, traces the queen's life from her early years in the Phoenician city-state of Tyre, to her marriage at age 15 to the king of Israel, to her coming to grips with a culture that worshiped one god and rejected all others. And then there is her final scene, where she is thrown out a window and eaten by dogs.




the time Jezebel's life ends, Hazleton has convinced the reader that this is a truly sad loss, an end to tolerance that also spelled the end of the Israelites' freedom.