Reviewing Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ
In 2004, former Anglican priest and prolific author Tom Harpur wrote a book titled The Pagan Christ. The thesis of Harpur’s work is that the story of Jesus was never meant to be viewed as that of a real, historical person. Instead, the story of Jesus is a “myth” that has deep spiritual meaning only when it is seen as an allegory that represents the divine spark that lives, dies, and comes back to life in each of our hearts. In fact, Harpur suggests that the Jesus story is simply the copying of myths from Egypt that were around thousands of years before the first century. He stated: “I will clearly document that there is nothing the Jesus of the Gospels either said or did…that cannot be shown to have originated thousands of years before, in Egyptian Mystery rites and other sacred liturgies such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead” (2004, p. 10). Harpur concludes that “[l]iteral, descriptive narrative inevitably leads to either idolatry or utter nonsense,” thus the stories about Jesus’ life and work recorded in the gospel accounts cannot be taken literally.
While reading Harpur’s book, it quickly becomes apparent that the “clear documentation” for his claims is wanting. He rarely includes an original source for the alleged parallels between the stories of Jesus and other myths. He relies heavily on secondary sources, and even then he fails to cite specific page numbers or the immediate contexts of the quotes he uses. In addition, his oft-repeated allegation that the story of Jesus is simply a hodge-podge of reiterated ancient myth has been definitively refuted (see Butt and Lyons, 2006), along with his charge that Jesus was not a historical person (see Butt, 2000).
Harpur’s book does, however, offer the reader some valuable insight into how Christ’s critics often attempt to discredit Him. Much of Harpur’s attack is directed against human traditions that have nothing to do with the Christ of the Gospel or New Testament Christianity. For instance, Harpur stated: “Massey found numerous parallels between the stories of the Egyptian sun deities, Osiris, Horus, and Ra (all interchangeable), and that of the biblical Jesus. The “three kings,” or magi, of the biblical account, for example, echo a triad of solar deities who symbolized the ancients’ thinking about the three regions, earth, heaven, and a netherworld” (2004, p. 83, emp. added). Interestingly, both Harpur, and his secondary source Gerald Massey, misrepresent the biblical text in that no where in any gospel narrative are “three kings” or “three magi” ever mentioned. Magi who brought three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are mentioned, but the number of magi is conspicuously missing. The concept of “three kings” is not a product of the biblical narratives, but of later tradition appended to the original story. By “finding” parallels (many of which are tenuous at best) between humanly devised tradition about Jesus and other ancient religions, Harpur has done nothing to discredit the Christ of the New Testament.
Throughout The Pagan Christ, Harpur insists on drawing material that does not originate in the Bible. In his discussion of Jesus’ nativity, he wrote:
Jesus’ Nativity will always be associated with the ox and the ass because of the stable and the manger. But these two animals were also with the Egyptian Iusa, ages upon ages before. What this earthy feature of the birth story is really about, in the true, esoteric sense, is the coming of the divine into the basic animal nature to create that wholly new reality—the human being (part animal, part divine). Significantly, both these animals are in a way asexual, or “crossovers,” which suggests that ultimately the Christ in us is a melding of the male and female principles (2004, p. 92).
This quote epitomizes Harpur’s scholarship. First, he extrapolates from the biblical mention of a manger, that an ox and a donkey (or ass) were present at Christ’s birth. Yet none of the biblical narratives ever mention either animal associated with Jesus’ birth. Second, Harpur does not give a citation for any original source where a person could find that the ox and the donkey were with Iusa, specifically at his birth. Third, he forces an outlandish interpretation on the two animals (that are not even in the biblical text), and attributes to them “asexual” qualities that neither really possesses. He then derives the “higher, spiritual” meaning that the ox and the donkey really mean the Christ in each person melds male and female qualities together. Such interpretation is foundationless and purely subjective. One could just as easily say that the ox plows and the donkey kicks, which means that the two represent the sowing of truth in our hearts and the stubborn human will that kicks against the Christ in us. Or that the ox eats corn and so does the donkey, and the corn represents the kernel of truth that grows in our hearts. But please remember, there is no corn in the original text, nor is there a donkey or an ox.
In addition, Harpur makes much of the fact that the birth of Christ has traditionally been celebrated on the 25th of December. He stated:
The evidence that Christianity was in its beginning firmly rooted in the Egyptian-style, equinoctial mode of thinking still abounds today. The birthday of Jesus Christ was first celebrated by the earliest Church in the spring of the year. But in 345, Pope Julius decreed that the birthday (nobody knew any precise date for it, suggesting again that the entire thing was pure myth) should thenceforth be held on December 25, three days after the “death” of the winter solstice and the same day on which the births Mithras, Dionysus, the Sol Invictus (unconquerable sun), and several other gods were traditionally celebrated (2004, pp. 82-83, emp. added).
This quote provides yet another classic example of the way Harpur reasons. First, we are never given a source that documents his assertion that Christians first celebrated Jesus’ birth in the Spring of the year. Second, Harpur never supplies the first hint of an original source that the birthdays of Mithras, Dionysus, or Sol Invictus were celebrated on December 25. And third, his entire discussion is moot if we are trying to assess the story of Jesus found in the New Testament, since never once is a date mentioned for Jesus’ birth, nor is any celebration of his birth recorded or enjoined.
Numerous additional instances of similar reasoning and “clear documentation” could be cited. These few examples are sufficient to show that Harpur’s attack against Jesus is ill-founded and unsubstantiated. It is sad that Harpur has chosen to deny that Jesus came in the flesh, a concept expressly condemned by the inspired apostle John: “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God” (1 John 4:2-3, emp. added). Legitimate, honest scholarship and the testimony of the Bible writers stand united in their denunciation of Harpur’s false teachings.
Butt, Kyle (2000), “The Historical Christ—Fact or Fiction?,” [On-line], URL: https://apologeticspress.org/articles/157.
Butt, Kyle and Eric Lyons (2006), Behold! The Lamb of God (Apologetics Press: Montgomery, AL).
Harpur, Tom (2004), The Pagan Christ (New York: Walker).
REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.