Tom Harpur’s starting point for this book is not terribly shocking: many of the elements of the story of Jesus, as told in the Gospels, share commonalities with the stories of pagan gods — gods who come to earth in human form, who suffer and die, who rise again. Some Christians might say that these stories were “pagan prophecies” of Jesus; others might suggest that all these images are part of a collective unconscious, a store of archetypal stories we all draw on.
But Harpur takes his thesis much further, indeed to a point where the majority of Christians would strongly disagree with him. Basing his theories largely on the work of three 19th and 20th century scholars, the most important to his theme being Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Harpur argues that every single element of the Jesus “myth” was already present in pagan myth, most fully realized in the Egyptian myths of Horus and Osiris. He argues that the original gospels were not intended to be biographies about a literal man named Jesus of Nazareth (who, he suggests, probably never existed at all — leaning heavily here on Earl Doherty’s controversial work), but were versions of the ancient Christ myths written with a Jewish slant. Then, in the third century, institutionalized Christianity, wanting to make the faith more appealing to the ignorant masses, dumbed down the spiritual (and gnostic) message of the Christ-myth into a real, literal story — thus losing everything of value in the original myths.
Perhaps surprisingly, Harpur, a former Anglican priest, finds these revelations not faith-destroying but faith-affirming. The gnostic, mystical, highly spiritual Christ-myth that he finds in Egyptian and other pagan sources, and which he believes is at the core of “true” Christianity, is, for him, more positive and affirming than the idea of a divine/human Savior. His message is that the real Incarnation is a spiritual awakening within each one of us; he uses Paul’s words about “Christ in you” and “having the mind of Christ” to support his belief that Paul taught this kind of Christianity, without any reference to a literal Jesus. This kind of Christianity, Harpur argues, makes true pluralism and universalism possible as it includes the “Christ-image” within all religions, as opposed to the exclusive “Jesus is the only way to salvation” message of traditional Christianity.
There’s plenty to critique and nitpick at in Harpur’s reliance on a handful of writers whose work is so far outside the mainstream of Biblical studies. There’s also plenty to be annoyed by in his insistence that all these parallels between Christianity and paganism will be “shocking” to Christian readers and that we’ll be horrified by the idea of a gigantic Church cover-up in third century (if Tom Harpur thinks painting the church of Constantine as evil manipulators perverting the original truth of Scripture is something new and shocking, he needs to go to an Adventist prophecy seminar sometime). But using the sources he’s chosen, he builds a case that’s obviously convincing to him and will be convincing, and perhaps even liberating, to some readers.
In the end, I always come back to the fact that so much of our belief is driven by what we want to believe. I know there are the exceptions; I’ve talked to people who seem to be driven to believe (or disbelief) almost in spite of themselves. But most of us, I think, select theories that are comfortable to us and congruent with what we want to believe. Tom Harpur likes the work of Alvin Boyd Kuhn because it meshes with what seems instinctively right to him: that humanity does not need an external Savior to come and rescue us, that we have the power within ourselves to be our own christs, our own saviors.
Likewise, I reject his findings not so much on the basis that I think they’re untrue (although I do: I recognize lots of parallels between Christianity and pagan myths, but I think many of the SHOCKING!! Jesus/Osiris parallels Harpur points to are on the level of the SHOCKING!! parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), but because I don’t believe humans are capable of saving themselves. I want to believe in a Savior; I want to believe in a literal Jesus of Nazareth who was completely human while also being the Son of God, however incredible that may seem.
After enumerating all the alleged similarities between the Jesus story and the stories of pagan gods, Harpur says that the only original thing about Christianity is that it’s the only religion that ever imagined or taught that all these things actually happened to a literal human man. Or, traditional Christians might reply when confronted with these parallels, the only unique thing about Christianity is that one time in history, these things did happen to a literal human man. That belief obviously strains Tom Harpur’s credulity; it also seems to him like a coarse, almost tacky (my word, not his) belief, literalism for stupid people, as opposed to the loftier, more spiritual gnosticism of his universal Christ.
Well, so be it. I recognize that to some extent I believe what I choose to believe; I hope Tom Harpur recognizes that too. I’m not convinced by The Pagan Christ, but then, I wasn’t likely to be, was I?