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Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light (NY: Walker & Company, 2004)

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Liberal religion journalist and New Testament scholar (once a Professor of NT at the University of Toronto, thus no slouch) has at last converted to the newly reascendant Christ Myth theory. The present book seems to be as much a report of his subjective reaction to the evidence as an exposition of the evidence itself. One occasionally gets the feeling that Harpur is offering his testimony, in the fashion of a revivalistic convert, as evidence for his belief. There is also perhaps a bit too much cataloguing of big names in support of the proposition that Jesus didn’t exist. What did the trick for Tom Harpur was his very late in the day reading of three scholars who are as far off the chart for most NT scholars as a historical Jesus was for the apostle Paul: Geoffrey Higgins, Gerald Massey, and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (though he also quite properly draws attention to the erudite Earl Doherty). As a result, it is the similarity between the Jesus story and a number of Osiris and Horus mythemes that proves the mythic nature of Jesus for Harpur. But he hardly stops there. Harpur argues that the gospel writers were not only recycling already ancient myth-matter, but that they had no intention of claiming what they set down was historical fact. It was only the fascistic Church fathers of the third century who conspired to literalize the myth. Until then, he says, everyone (at least elites and initiates) understood the gospel story, like all other ancient incarnation and redeemer myths, to be allegories for the divine spark in every human breast and the resultant possibilities of human transformation. What leaden, iron-fisted Catholicism did was to restrict this divine humanity to Jesus alone, as if he were an actual living, breathing concrete individual, a Superman possessing remarkable powers that the mundane Jimmy Olsens and Lois Lanes around him lacked. But do we have to wait for the third century for that? As Helmut Koester showed long ago, one can already see Jesus sucking the spiritual air out of the room in the Gospel of John, where only he, and no longer you, is the light of the world.  

Harpur blames the Church for leaving Christians with a Christ they cannot hope to follow but are commanded to follow, then condemned for not following. Psalm 22 plus Catch 22. Oh that someone might break the chains of the spiritual proletariat and give them some manner of religious experience! If only they would get wise to the possibility made known through Egyptian parallels to the Bible, namely “Christ in you,” a power source through which the believer can do all things! But what a straw Christ this is! Can it have escaped Harpur that all our Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Fundamentalists, and Holy Rollers are already avidly pursuing spiritual rebirth and moral transformation, and that they are doing it because they believe the very Spirit of God is burning within them? I agree with Harpur that these dear souls are pathetically superstitious in their biblical literalism and their “butcher shop religion” (as Harry Emerson Fosdick once called it). But to depict them, with all orthodox Christians, as empty religious zombies is just absurd. I cannot see what difference it is supposed to make whether one believes the life-revolutionizing power entered him as of his born-again conversion experience or, a la Oprah and New Thought, it was always there but latent until one’s climactic realization that it was there. In fact, what the heck’s the difference? In the final analysis, one wonders whether Harpur’s gripe with these people is that they believe a bloody atonement was necessary to make their conversions possible. So what? Does our distaste for a particular doctrine matter so much that the rest of us have to set these “ignoramuses” (uh, like Karl Barth?) straight?   

And if we could just reduce Christianity to the mystical core it supposedly shares with all other religions, there would be no more bloodshed, such as Christianity has caused, like a roaring lion, throughout its sorry history, seeking whom it may devour. Or would there be? I’m not sure the New Testament promotes pantheism as Harpur supposes, but I’m pretty certain the Bhagavad Gita does, and it makes a point of dashing and smashing pacifist sensitivities. Precisely because humans are vastly greater than their paltry flesh-bodies, it is no big deal to kill these latter on the battlefield. Like changing a suit of clothes, Arjuna, m’boy! And Harpur frets that Born-Again Christians staff the Pentagon! (Do they? Is there some survey where he’s getting this?)

Harpur rightly excoriates church propagandists for their history of pious frauds, though in the same breath he admits there was no real standard of plagiarism or authorial ownership in the ancient world. And while he scorns the works of such lying churchocrats, he is pleased to admire the sainted Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who was such a crude hoaxer and confidence trickster that she actually had confederates drop folded paper notes through the air vents during séances and claimed they were messages from the Ascended Masters! Well, I guess Blavatsky can be forgiven because, unlike the Catholics, she’s “our son of a bitch.”

Harpur quite rightly (to my way of thinking) protests that we must not demythologize the gospels, as if that were to subtract the myths, but rather we ought to interpret them. Needless to say, that is exactly the point of demythologizing: to interpret, not to eliminate in the manner of “scientific,” “rationalist” liberal theology. Bultmann, Gogarten, and Tillich were not some sort of tin-eared Unitarians. But what does Harpur’s allegory yield? He thinks Philo and Origen had the correct and original understanding. But Origen was much more like Catholic supernaturalists than Harpur wants to think. As I read him, Origen’s allegorical method was mainly a hermeneutical license to kill every text that didn’t fit into his version of Christian theology. The Old Testament was a ventriloquist dummy for the New. What we call Origen’s “allegory” was more often simply an allusive citation of scripture to invoke the language of this passage to exposit the teaching of that one. And as for Philo, he labors mountainously to bring forth the merest mouse: like his heirs, Swedenborg and Charles Filmore, Philo makes every passage mean, in the last analysis, the same thing. Every sentence of scripture is a redundant, alternative way of describing the faculty and role of reason and/or the rudiments of psychology and cosmology, ideas derived from philosophy and only being read back into the Bible. Albert Schweitzer somewhere complains about reductionistic gospel exegesis as a systematic attempt to defuse bombs and club baby seals. I don’t know if the gospels are so interesting if all they are about is to tell me that because I have a spark of the divine I can be more optimistic, as if a “divine” pedigree means I can do better on my diet today than I did yesterday. Is that it? When he is done, I suspect it is Tom Harpur who has effectively subtracted the myth and let the air out of the tire. For hallowed esotericism and the mysteries of the ages, it doesn’t sound so profound to me.

Though eventually Harpur grants that the gospel mythemes descend only indirectly from Egyptian prototypes, through the channels of Greco-Roman Mystery cults and even the Old Testament, most of the time his citation of Egyptian stories and iconography, a la Massey, et. al., implies a direct borrowing from Egypt, as when he suggests that “Matthew” may be derived from Ma’at, or that Herod takes the place of the Egyptian Herut—even though there actually were men named Herod. I am friendly to this position up to a point. It seems to me that much of the Jesus and Lazarus myths do reflect those of Osiris and Horus pretty directly. And the eucharist, with its mystery of flesh-eating and blood-drinking, cannot have originated as a sectarian Jewish reinterpretation of Passover but simply must be derived from Osiris and Dionysus. The mourning of the women seeking Jesus’ body surely comes from the same source as Isis and Nephthys (not to mention Cybele and Anat and Ishtar and Aphrodite). These points are enough to grant Harpur the game. But he appeals to many, many more bits of Egyptian myth and liturgy, and most of these do not strike me with anywhere near the force that they did Harpur.

For one thing, all the mythemes and I-sayings and promises of salvation are just too generic. If his point is to prove that little of the gospel soteriology and Christology is new or unique, fine. (And, of course, that is blasphemous enough to some ears.) But is there direct dependence between this saying of Jesus and that one ascribed to Horus about being the path to salvation? Again, one wonders if these bare quotations of gospel-sounding stories, tips of icebergs as they are, are not misleading quoted out of context like this. (One keeps flipping over to the endnotes hoping for longer source passages, discussions by other scholars on the same point, something to substantiate the author’s claims, but, as with many biblical commentaries, it is the juiciest parts on which no further light is shed.) It was the duty of Anubis to “make straight the paths to the upper realms of heaven” (not in quotes in the text, so how close was the original?), while John the Baptist (herald for Jesus as Anubis was for Horus) was to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make his paths straight.” But is Harpur leaping to conclusions when he implies John was simply a renamed Anubis? Such a “tit-for-Tut” approach makes nonsense of the gospel evidence that implies the herald position of John evolved as a product of propaganda between rival sects, as well as the fact that John’s “making straight his paths” comes from an Isaiah passage that meant something else in a different context. You can’t just play “connect the dots” diachronically when there are so many synchronic connections crying out to be made. 

Harpur’s discussion contains many dubious fact claims. Is there really evidence that Christians torched the library of Alexandria? As I understand it, this cavil goes no further back than the Christianity-hating Edward Gibbon. Is Matthew the only gospel to declare (like one Egyptian source) that God numbers the very hairs of one’s head? What about Luke 12:7? Did John really say that Jesus shares the very nature of the Father? If he had, that would have saved a lot of fourth-century travel expenses. Did Papias and Irenaeus believe Jesus died peacefully in bed as an old man? I think not. Irenaeus did believe Jesus was 50 when he was crucified, but that’s a bit different. Was Celsus’ The True Logos utterly destroyed by the Church, so that we can only wish to know what he said? Was there an alpha-privative in Hebrew, or in Egyptian hieroglyphics? I’m no linguist, but I’d be surprised. Nor do you really need to try to make “Abraham” come out to “a-Brahman” (as if a Hindu demigod) if you’ve already dispensed with the patriarch, a la Ignaz Goldziher, as a personification of the moon (which I think is correct)?

Tom Harpur seems to me to commit the fallacy of hermeneutical ventriloquism, as if to say: the biblical writers were surely as smart as me. Now, if I decide the gospels, which are grossly legendary, make much better sense as allegories, then the gospel writers must have thought the same thing. (John Dominic Crossan, whom Harpur quotes in this connection, also takes this approach.) Harpur admits Luke started the insidious process of petrifying allegory into pseudo-history, but the other evangelists he seems to exempt, laying the blame on later churchmen, villains right out of Dostoyevski. But can you really get Mark off the hook when he seems to want to gull the reader into accepting the (new) empty tomb episode with the excuse that the women told no one about it? Sure, he was concocting fiction, and he knew it, but did he want you to know it?

To widen the angle a bit, this is another way of saying that, for Harpur, the vast majority of the biblical text (whether edifying or vexing) goes into the meat grinder to produce a synthetic potted spam called mysticism. “Once you understand that all the myths, legends, stories, ‘histories,’ allegories, parables, and symbols are a kaleidoscope of variations on this one central theme, the Bible comes alive in a wholly new way, I have found” (p. 181). It’s like one of those “metaphysical Bible dictionaries.” Whatever you look up, from “Hezekiah” to “cubit,” it always says “a symbol for the divine force in the human heart.” For Harpur, as for his inspirations Higgins, Massey, and Kuhn, it all equals one thing: pantheism and the challenge of inner transformation. Well, I’m sorry, but there’s just no way you can make the Deuteronomic History or the Priestly Code or the Davidic Succession Narrative or discussions of eating meat offered to idols boil down to that. It is just as spurious as when Orthodox Christianity tries to tell us that the Old Testament is somehow about the Christian gospel. Nonsense.

In all such cases, all the “interpreter” is doing is cashing in a closetful of stuff he doesn’t like for a handful of stuff he likes better. Consider Harpur’s grossly over-simplistic account of how the biblical books were produced: “From the beginning, they were preserved in memory only. They made up the body of what is known as the great oral tradition, a set of ritual formulas, ceremonial rites, allegorical depictions of truth, myths, number graphs [!], and pictorial symbols of the realities and the phenomena of human spiritual history that had been handed down from generation to generation in unwritten form. Only here and there, chiefly to avoid their being lost, forgotten, or too badly corrupted by change, they were set down in writing and so, at last, came to later ages as books, presumably ‘written’ or edited and revised by somebody” (ibid.). If this were true, one would never find, e.g., the vast and intricate patterns of redaction and theological embellishment one can trace from Samuel to Chronicles, from Mark to Luke, etc. It just wouldn’t be there. The biblical books would be chaotic repositories of bits and pieces like the Upanishads or the Koran. But such textual intricacies have by no means vanished; Harpur simply has lost interest in them and so they have dropped beneath his notice. He is engaged in the strategy Derrida called “the dangerous supplement.” He thinks he is adding on to an entity something to modify or finish it, when in reality he is supplanting it with some new, rival entity which he implausibly claims to be the same as the original.

It seems to me that Harpur is doing what all allegorists have always done, treating the ancient author as Eric Idle does Terry Jones in the old Monty Python skit, saying “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, eh?” while Jones looks back at him in utter puzzlement.


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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