The Pagan Christ
This is Harpur's most radical and groundbreaking work to date, in which he digs deep into the origins of Christianity and how the early Christian church covered up all attempts to reveal the Bible as myth.
What began as a universal belief system has become a ritualistic institution headed by ultraconservative literalists. As he reconsiders a lifetime of worship and study, Harpur reveals a cosmic faith built on these truths that the modern church has renounced. His message is clear: our blind faith in literalism is killing Christianity. Only with a return to an inclusive religion where Christ lives within each of us will we gain a true understanding of who we are and who we are intended to become.
Published:in Toronto, Canada by Thomas Allen Publishers
in Montreal, Canada by Boreal Press
in New York, USA by Walker Books
in Australia by Allen & Unwin Publishers
in the Netherlands by Ankh-Hermes bv
in Germany by Ansata Verlag, and in Japan
Praise for The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light
“…a truly revolutionary work, devout but subversive in the best sense, with a carefully constructed narrative that challenges believers and non-believers to fundamentally re-examine ‘the Greatest Story Ever Told.’” – Edmonton Journal, Alan Kellogg
“Read this book … to enrich your personal quest for truth in order to break through previously unchallenged boundaries of religious insularity and exclusivism. … it most certainly challenges complacency and opens new vistas of insight to the serious thinker.” – Toronto Star
“…those who cannot accept literal orthodoxy, and those whose spiritual quest is not yet at an end, will find renewed faith and hope in Harpur’s brave work.” – Calgary Herald
“…Harpur takes pains to argue that his discoveries are not a blow to Christianity … but rather that true Christianity emerges from these discoveries with new strength, new relevance and a new importance in the life and faith of the individual.” – Globe and Mail
“This startling work is sure to engender passionate controversy…. Of special interest to Christians, it provides nourishing food for thought for questing members of all religious faiths.” - The Hamilton Spectator
“…[Harpur] insists he hasn’t abandoned the essential meaning of Christianity. He says he’s adopted a more intellectual and dynamic faith.” - Vancouver Sun
“The facts in Harpur’s book, as he notes, have largely been known to some scholars since the end of the 18th century…. This makes The Pagan Christ a tour de force, all the more convincing.” – The Gazette (Montreal)
“…those who see the mythic/historic debate as crucial and compelling should add The Pagan Christ … to their reading lists. The material Harpur presents raises questions that need to be addressed, not repressed.” – Books in Canada
“Like it or not, what Harpur is telling us in this book is that we have chosen the limited security of the literal interpretations of sacred text over the sacred freedom of the mythical meanings of our quests for belief.” –Winnipeg Free Press, Karen Toole
“The message of The Pagan Christ, if we choose to hear it, is ultimately one of hope and liberation.” – FFWD
“This is a must read for theologians and theological students as well as true seekers.” – Glad Tidings (Women's Missionary Society, The Presbyterian Church in Canada)
“The Pagan Christ reminds us that beneath our political and economic systems, beneath both culture and character, lies the spiritual imagination.” – The Republic
By Wayne A. Holst for The Toronto Star
Tom Harpur would reject, outright, the philosophy behind the new Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ.
Gibson, the conservative Catholic movie director, portrays the life of Christ literally from scripture and reads the Gospel narrative as actual history. Harpur would find that indefensible.
He would also differ from many modern theologians such as Jesus Seminar members John Spong and Marcus Borg, who believe there was an actual Jesus of history. Unlike Gibson-like word-for-word literalists, however, Spong and Borg try to locate and mine the core meanings of Jesus after all the accretions are stripped away.
For Harpur, both literalist and modern critical attempts to locate the Jesus of history are dead ends. Transcending both positions, he believes that the real Christ is a universal archetype; a classic, pre-existent myth, known essentially by all humanity. He believes we need to re-mythologize, not de-mythologize (or historicize) that Jesus.
Truths at the heart of Christianity flow from the deep well of the human unconscious whose core ideas were planted there by God, he says.
Harpur, formerly the religion editor of the Toronto Star and author of many books on faith subjects, believes that originally, there was one primal, central myth which emerged Undoubtedly in Egypt. All the other ancient sacred stories flow from there.
The big difference between the Jesus legacy and other mythological traditions like that of the Egyptian god Horus, was that devotees of the other religions never viewed their divinities as historical figures or their sacred stories as actual facts like Christians did.
The Pagan Christ is forthright in declaring that counter to precedent, Christianity launched a hostile takeover of the ancient salvation myths. Many early church fathers, in an attempt to declare exclusive rights to this mythological Jesus, made him an historical biblical person.
Once these ancient antecedents to Jesus were assimilated into what became Christianity, the pagans and their mythological sources were declared heretical. Since heretics and their books were determined to have no rights, they and their writings were viciously tracked down and eliminated by those who claimed to stand for the newly defined "orthodox" Christianity.
Harpur claims as one of his formative influences for understanding this mythological Jesus the Canadian, Northrup Frye (1912-1991). In Frye's book The Double Vision the great literary critic who taught for decades at the University of Toronto, states that when the Bible is historically accurate, it is only accidentally so. Reporting was not of the slightest interest to its writers. They had a story to tell which only could be told by myth and metaphor. What they wrote became a source of vision, not doctrine.
Three virtually unknown authorities used in this book are Godfrey Higgins (1771-1834), an early English mythologist who, through groundbreaking studies of ancient writings, sought freedom from the exclusivism and dogmatism of Christianity; Gerald Massey (1828-1907) an American, who studied Egyptian mythology and there discovered antecedents to images and themes appearing in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963) another American, who pursued extensive academic research into the origins of religious symbols and meanings. His work, though esoteric to untrained eyes, convinced Harpur of the validity of Egyptian sources for much of what appears in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.
Basing his ideas on these authorities, Harpur goes to great lengths to promote Horus (the son of Isis or Osiris) transforming him into Jesus, the central figure of Christianity. Horus, who receives but a paragraph of mention in the classic New Laurousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1968), becomes, for Harpur, the metaphorical and allegorical truth behind the person of Jesus.
From his research into ancient myth, Harpur feels he has undergone a spiritual re-awakening that has revolutionized his Christian faith. Because of its links to the great archetypal themes of primal and classic spirituality, the Bible has assumed new potency and vitality for him. Harpur believes he now possesses an awareness of the cosmic Christ he has so long sought.
Ancient symbols and metaphors, existing yet hidden in biblical literature, have been clarified for him. He has come to appreciate, in a new way, the dangers of reading the Bible literally. He sees how humans must take responsibility for their own spiritual evolution and not leave it to other would-be authorities to define truth for them.
The Jesus story can become a profoundly spiritual allegory of the soul, he says. Classic festivals and rituals of our faith traditions can be infused with new meaning. Our understanding of life after death can be enhanced.
Harpur is on to something when he speaks of universal truth existing in primal myths. The collective human unconscious does influence the story of Jesus as found in the Gospels. The influential mythologist, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) has opened the door for many to a rich inquiry into such matters. In our time of global culture, religious pluralism and the need for constructive inter-faith encounter, Harpur's insights are appealing.
But his serendipitous "discovery" of virtually unknown authorities, now long dead and his extravagant use of terms like "overwhelming and incontestable evidence" from them which is "beyond rebuttal" and about which there is "absolutely no question" seems rather overstated. They strike this reviewer, who has studied the mythologies of Canada's First Nations and comparative global mythology for many years, as excessive.
Harpur does not view this book as an attack upon Christianity or any other religion, for that matter. He goal is quite to opposite, actually. He wants to help people realize a richer, more spiritual faith as he has come to experience it.
Read this book, then, to enrich your quest for truth that breaks through boundaries of Christian insularity and exclusivism. Tap into the rich spiritual resources offered from the great cycles of classic metaphors and allegories. There is much potential here for approaching the Bible mythologically.
Mel Gibson's Passion, or Spong and Borg notwithstanding, Harpur offers a post-literal and a post-critical approach to the study of Jesus. It is one that takes myth seriously. Though it will not be the last or even the most precise word on the subject, it challenges thinking and opens new vistas to the serious religious thinker.
Wayne A. Holst is a parish educator at St. David's United Church, Calgary. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.
Defending the Spark: A Review of The Pagan Christ
The Republic - Vancouver
August 5, 2004
My grandfather once said that the story of Jesus was really a retelling of a far older tale, one told in many mythologies over many ages. He'd have felt vindicated had he lived long enough to read Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2004).
Harpur's one of Canada's most respected and well-known Christian thinkers. He's a former Anglican priest, and he was a professor of the New Testament at the University of Toronto from 1964 to 1971. A Rhodes Scholar, he's done post-graduate work in the early Fathers of the Church at Oxford under some of the world's foremost academics. He's covered ethical and spiritual matters for The Toronto Star for the past thirty years, he's regularly appeared on Canada's major radio and television networks, and he's written numerous best-selling religious books. When someone like this challenges the existence of the historical Jesus and champions Gnosticism, people take notice.
An old and esoteric religious tradition, Gnosticism proclaims that human souls are incarnate expressions of the Godhead. According to the Gnostic account, at birth each of us emerges from eternity to become a finite, embodied, and separate consciousness. In Harpur's words, "The vitalizing item of ancient knowledge was the prime datum that man is himself, in his real being, a spark of divine fire struck off like the flint flash from the Eternal Rock of Being, and buried in the flesh of body to support its existence with an unquenchable radiant energy. On this indestructible fire the organism and its functions were 'suspended,' as the Greek Orphic theology phrased it, and all their modes and activities were the expression of this ultimate divine principle of spiritual intelligence, energizing in matter." During our incarnation, we forget our cosmic origins and suffer within a state of existential amnesia that Gnosticism hopes to remedy. Valentinus, a second century Gnostic, expressed this best when he wrote, "What liberates is the knowledge of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereinto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth." To the Gnostics, each of us is a slumbering Christ.
Gnostic Christianity was the first "heresy" to be persecuted by the Church. Gnostic writings were destroyed, while Gnostic teachers were often killed. Despite this, Gnosticism has survived as the most powerful subterranean spiritual current in Western culture. It can be found among the troubadours in thirteenth-century France, and in the Renaissance hermeticism of John Dee and Giordano Bruno. It appears in the poetry of William Blake and the philosophies of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx. As a staple of Freemasonry it framed the thoughts of America's founding fathers. It informed Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley, as well as the 1960s counterculture and the makers of The Matrix trilogy. In his most recent book, Harpur not only taps into this widespread Gnostic current, he also demonstrates that it runs far deeper than we ever imagined.
The Pagan Christ draws upon the research of such scholars as Alvin Boyd Kuhn to argue that Christianity's central myths were formulated in Egypt many thousands of years before the Gospels were written. Harpur focuses on Horus, a mythical figure whose miraculous birth was heralded by a star in the east; who was baptized by someone who was later decapitated; who had twelve followers; who walked on water, cast out demons, and healed the sick; who was transfigured on a mountain; who was crucified between two thieves, buried in a tomb, and resurrected; and who was known as the KRST or "anointed one", as well as the "good shepherd," "the lamb of God," "the bread of life," "the son of man," "the Word," and the "fisher". Harpur goes on to argue that this myth was never intended to be taken as a literal story about a supernatural person named Horus; instead, Horus symbolizes humanity itself. By representing both our divine and our human natures, Horus is Everyman and Everywoman; his story is the Gnostic story of human consciousness. The legend of Horus resurfaced in the myths of later saviors, like Tammuz, Adonis, Mithras, Dionysus, Krishna, and Buddha. By deconstructing the evidence for the historical Jesus, Harpur backs up his assertion that the Jesus narrative is simply one more variation on this archetypal theme.
The defining feature of traditional Christianity is its literal treatment of this allegorical pagan tradition. Harpur writes, "Not only did the early Christians take over almost completely the myths and teachings of their Egyptian masters, mediated in many cases by the Mystery Religions and by Judaism in its many forms, but they did everything in their power, through forgery and other fraud, book burning, character assassination, and murder itself, to destroy the crucial evidence of what had happened. In the process, the Christian story itself, which most likely began as a kind of spiritual drama, together with a 'sayings' source based on the Egyptian material, was turned into a form of history in which the Christ of the myth became a flesh-and-blood person identified with Jesus (Yeshua or Joshua) of Nazareth. The power of the millennia-old Christ mythos to transform the whole of humanity was all but destroyed in the literalist adulation of 'a presumptive Galilean paragon'. Centuries of darkness were to follow. "Harpur suggests that it's time the darkness gave way to the dawn, for religious literalism to be put aside in favor of the revelatory power of spiritual allegory.
A book like this is certain to incite controversy, and The Pagan Christ has had its share, much of which has been unfair. It takes courage for someone with Harpur's background to promote such views. He may well have opened himself up to devastating slander and professional marginalization. If so, he'll be in good company. Gnosticism is forever persecuted and forever precious.
The Pagan Christ reminds us that beneath our political and economic systems, beneath both culture and character, lies the spiritual imagination. This is the faculty that connects the mundane periphery of our existence to its sacred core, the faculty that informs our deepest yearnings and illuminates our ethical pathways. The American abolitionists knew this, as did Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, the social justice and environmental activists of the modern age have largely abandoned the spiritual imagination, allowing it to be captured by apocalyptic fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Mel Gibson. If we want to challenge fundamentalism, it's not enough to point out its many hypocrisies and flaws; we have to take the battle straight to the heart of the spiritual imagination. On this terrain, visionary allegory of the kind Harpur recommends may be the only virtue powerful enough to triumph over dogmatic literalism.
Harpur isn't the only religious scholar to come to this conclusion. In Omens of Millennium (Riverhead Books, 1996), Harold Bloom wrote that the cruelties of neo-conservatism "might well provoke a large-scale Gnosticism of the insulted and injured, rising up to affirm and defend the divine spark in themselves." Given the increasing popularity of books like The Pagan Christ, perhaps the rebellion has finally begun.