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The Pagan Christ

Reverend Brian J. Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton, May 16, 2004

The great mistakes of Christianity, to paraphrase Tom Harpur’s latest book “The Pagan Christ”, were insistence on the literal truth of the stories about Jesus, and that the religion that emerged was both new and unique. By implication the shifting sands of these two foundational assumptions have led to a religion that is untenable before modern science and reason and unsupported by the historical record. There is a credibility crisis in Christianity today causing the erosion of membership in mainline sects and the poisonous isolationism of fundamentalists.

For Harpur, the only solution is to face the truth of Christianity’s past and to acknowledge that the Christ is a much larger and more transcendent figure than the church has allowed him to be.

What I describe and document in the following pages is one of the most far-reaching tragedies in history. It is the premise of this entire account that very early on, in the third and fourth centuries C.E., the Christian Church made a fatal and fateful error. Either deliberately, in a competitive bid to win over the greatest number of the largely unlettered masses, or through willful ignorance of the true, inner sense of the profound spiritual wisdom it had inherited from so many ancient sources, the Church took a literalist, popularized, historical approach to sublime truth. What was preserved in the amber of allegory was misrepresented as plodding fact. The transcendent meaning of glorious myths and symbols was reduced to a farrago of miraculous or irrelevant, or quite unbelievable, ‘events’. The great truth that the Christ was to come in man, that the Christ principle was potentially in every one of us, was changed to the exclusivest teaching that the Christ had come as a man. No other could match him, or even come close. The Dark Ages – and so much more – were the eventual result.” (pp 2-3)

Well, what is this sublime truth that got lost, and how did it happen?

Harpur begins with a chapter called “Myths Aren’t Fairy Tales”. Following Joseph Campbell he dismisses the popular misconception that myths are merely stories about the irrelevant. Instead he argues the ability of myth to alter consciousness and cites how myths were the primary means of teaching values and truths in ancient times. He also points out how myth was sometimes used to conceal sacred truths and argues that Scripture was written in the language and symbol of myth.

“All of this brings us to the Christos myth, which in its many different forms lies at the heart of every ancient religion…The central teaching of every religion is indeed the incarnation of the divine in the human.” (p. 21)

But here ‘Christos’ does not mean Jesus exclusively, but this idea of incarnation in each and every person. “The ancients placed at the myth’s center an ideal person who would symbolize humanity itself in its dual nature of human and divine. The ideal person – the names were Tammuz (Persian), (Adonis (Greek), Mithras (Mediterranean), Dionysus (Rome), Krishna (India), Christ and many others – symbolized the divine spark incarnate in every human being…” (p. 22)

In the chapter “Christianity Before Christianity”, Harpur begins to look at pre-Christian myths that bear striking resemblance to the story of Jesus. You heard the Buddha story told in those terms in our reading. But even more direct and complete parallels occur in the Egyptian story of Horus, son of Osiris.

Let me confess to a slight hesitancy here. Harpur relies heavily on the writings of two respected Egyptologists from 50 to 100 years ago and almost completely ignores contemporary scholarship. Having not had the time to investigate his sources or his critics thoroughly, I am unwilling to support Harpur’s claims fully. He makes a compelling case, but has not attempted to offer a fully annotated scholarly work. It’s a little hard to assess his claims academically …except that they feel so right, and certainly fit with a broad reading of facts. He presents a strong case supported by exciting evidence, but the evidence must be tested by scholarship better than I can offer.

Well, back to his evidence:

Harpur offers two sorts. First he details how the Christos idea – that of divine incarnation – is understood around the world. The Spanish Conquistador Cortez discovered that the Mexicans expressed. “The same things which God had taught Christendom,”… although he attributed the teachings to the Satan, since the story of Jesus himself was not part of the teaching. The Jesuits discovered much the same among the Hurons. In Turkestan the Tatars celebrated a Eucharist with bread and wine long before Christianity appeared.

Similar precursor stories like virgin births and crucified heroes can be found across Asia and India and throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The conclusion is inescapable, the story of Jesus was not unique. He was rather one representation of a human mythic archetype.

But when he begins to look at the Egyptian Horus story, it becomes clear that not even the Gospels about Jesus were original. The sayings, the miracles, the and even the death and resurrection of Jesus were all written in some form in Egypt 4000 years before the appearance of the Gallilean, and elements of the story were told (before writing) for up to 20,000 years ago.

19th century scholar Gerald Massey traced a remarkable 180 instances of, “close similarity … between Horus, the Christ of ancient Egypt, and the Gospel of Jesus.” (p.77)

After reading the evidence, Harpur says, “I was led inexorably to the conviction that Egypt was truly the cradle of the Jesus figure of the Gospels. Here already was the story of how the divine son ‘left the courts of heaven’… and descended to earth as the baby Horus. Born of a virgin, he then became a substitute for humanity, went down into Hades as the quickener of the dead, their justifier and redeemer…and leader of the resurrection into the life to come.”

Here are a few of the parallels:

  • The birth of Horus was marked by the shining of the star Sirius.
  • Horus was ‘baptized’ in a river by the god figure Anup who, like John the Baptist, was later decapitated.
  • Like Jesus, Horus has no history between the ages of 12 and 30.
  • Horus walked on water, cast out demons and healed the sick.
  • Horus was transfigured on a mountain.
  • Horus delivered a sermon very like the Sermon on the Mount recounted in the ‘Sayings of Iusa” (forerunner to name Jesus?)
  • Horus was crucified between two thieves, buried and resurrected.
  • Like Jesus, Horus was to reign 1,000 years.

The parallels are many and detailed. By the end of Harpur’s chapter one cannot help but conclude that the story of Jesus was merely a Hebrew adaptation of a widespread understanding of God and the “Christos” myth.

But why have we not heard the Horus stories before?

Simply, they were suppressed and all but erased from cultural memory by the Church of the third and fourth century in what Harpur dubs, “The Greatest Cover-up of All Time”.

In the first years after the time of Jesus, the Church Fathers developed a series of esoteric and wide-ranging interpretations to the story. Reflecting ancient pagan myth they were utterly unconcerned with the reality of Jesus’ life. Instead their approach embraced the older idea of the Christos within symbolized by great figures like Jesus and Horus to name two. Harpur even argues that Paul, in many ways the founder of the modern church, never wrote anything to suggest that Jesus actually lived. In fact, Harpur now believes Jesus never existed except in myth. I think that’s his weakest point and will leave it for you to decide on your own.

Whatever may be the truth there, the fact is that Christianity changed in its first four centuries. “The religion that started under the name of Christianity did not long retain its original deeply rooted spiritual nature and substance. I was quickly forced to realize that it was not by any means the same religion in the fourth century as it had been in the first.” (p. 50)

Somewhere the leaders of the church decided to shift away from the esoteric, hard to grasp and entirely Pagan understanding of the Christos, the “pre-Christian Christianity” if you will, and shift it into a literal form and story that would make it easier to persuade and control the masses of unlettered people.

“The earliest Church Fathers themselves admit that they took the high, symbolic, esoteric (or secret) wisdom that the Christian movement inherited from Paganism … and explained it, or rather downgraded it, by means of vulgar fables for the illiterate mob. One fifth century pope even exulted, ‘What profit hath not this fable brought us.’.. What emerged was in many ways a cult of ignorance.” (pp 52-53).

How was the suppression carried out? It wasn’t that difficult. Most of the people could not read and so only heard the word read or preached. By codifying the Bible (meaning choosing which books and Gospels would be ‘official’), the Church leaders were able to direct the teachings of the priests. Books that did not fit with the new understanding were condemned and destroyed and their authors declared heretics. And some of these works had been the leading Christian thought in earlier centuries. Doctrines like universal salvation, broadly accepted in the second century were declared to be in error in the fourth.

The entire great library at Alexandria was destroyed and burned by a mob led by Peter the Clerk. The greatest documents of the ancient ages were burned to cinders. Other libraries were torched as well as the very idea of non-Christian scholarship became poison. With so few repositories for these hand-copied texts, it only took a few major attacks to destroy thousands of years worth of literature.

And finally, the mystical/allegorical method of interpreting the sacred Scripture, used at the beginning by Paul and such eminent figures as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, was replaced by a wholly literal/historical approach. To Harpur this was a devastating mistake.

Towards the end of the book he draws this conclusion:

The personal Jesus concept is a truly limiting, and deeply divisive, dead end. The historical evidence simply isn’t there. It’s a classic case of the emperor’s having no clothes. What is more, it commits idolatry by making a flesh-and-blood man into God – thus forever alienating Jews, Muslims, and believers of a host of other religions, and making full religious harmony on the planet a perpetual impossibility. It has, most notably in the United States, created a kind of passive-dependent Jesus cult totally prone to extreme magical thinking. It restricts Christhood to one person in all history instead of acknowledging the deep, archetypal power of a universal – yes, cosmic – principle and ideal. There is no doubt that by exalting Jesus in a unique magnificence, the Church has too often let the divinity in every human heart – yours and mine – lie fallow.

“The truth, I have discovered, is that this inner experience of the presence and power of God as the Christ within our own consciousness is the best proof of the authenticity of true Christianity. As a scholar friend of mine puts it, “I don’t need and external, allegedly historical figure to experience God. But I do need the story of Jesus, the mythos, to bring home to me in power and meaning the struggle and destiny of my own soul.”(pp. 175-176)

What this passage highlights comes through often in the book. Tom Harpur has had a conversion experience. It’s been a 50 year journey from Anglican priest and Professor of the New Testament to his present understanding of the faith. It was not a journey he sought nor an endpoint he ever anticipated. Rather, he let his questing mind follow the evidence over a lifetime. The resulting shift has been quite dramatic and at times even traumatic. He is fully aware that this book will make him many enemies. “This book is not about seeking controversy or headlines; it is a sincere and earnest search for spiritual truth… In the end it is about the realization of a richer, more spiritual faith than I ever knew before.” (p3)

Years ago a man named Fowler adapted some landmark social research to religion. He took the idea of developmental stages in children: a model that shows how children learn differently at different ages and applied it to how we develop our faith. He detailed six stages of faith, and argued that most people get stuck in the mythic-literal stage (number 3) roughly parallel to early adolescent development. People in that stage look for absolute certainties and definite truths. Their religious world is black and white. For them, faith is not something one chooses, it is an undeniable and self-evident fact. No questioning is allowed. I suspect we all know someone with that degree of unquestioning belief.

But Fowler asserts that the maturing soul can pass through to more sophisticated levels. The sixth and final stage, which few ever attain, is a Universalizing Faith where the strictures and boundaries of church doctrine fall away. In this final stage the truth of all religion can be seen. I think Tom Harpur has broken through to this Universalizing level. What does not come through in rehashing his arguments is his love for the faith. This is a passionate book, written by someone who has discovered something that literally lights him up. That made the book a joy to read, even though there is a fair degree of repetition of arguments and evidence.

And frankly, I was caught up in his enthusiasm. This universalized idea of the Christos, the god in every person waiting to be discovered and awakened is very much in keeping with my own personal theology. I have come to believe over the years that there is a divine spirit present in the universe. I do not speak of an organizing intelligence or even a caring divinity. Rather I believe in the spark that is creation. I believe that the spark is available to each and every person, which is why I so comfortably hold the first Unitarian principle affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s not because we are gods ourselves, nor that we are god’s children, which has always been too literal for me. Rather we all have a spark of the divine in us, an ember to be tended, nurtured and fed until it becomes a fire for good.

I suspect that at least some of you will resonate with what I just described, even if you can’t claim my description as your own. For that reason, I believe you will find a great deal to savour in “The Pagan Christ”. On one level it seeks to correct a terrible historical mistake, that of literalizing Jesus and the Gospels. Well, most of us reached that conclusion a long time ago. For you, this is a book providing some evidence to back your claims. But on another level it is a book of deep and living faith discovered and claimed. And that might seem novel and even a little disconcerting for Unitarians and Universalists… but then it’s good for us to be disquieted from time to time. If you do choose to read “The Pagan Christ” I invite you to be open not only to Harpur’s evidence, but also to his faith. At the very least, let yourselves enjoy his sense of inner discovery, even if you can’t agree with his conclusions. I promise it will make you think about your own beliefs, and that’s always good.

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