Some of you might recognize Tom Harpur’s 2005 book The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light from a past “Library Loot” posting. According to Harpur, much of the New Testament, especially the story of Jesus as well as the theology of St. Paul is actually rooted in pagan religious imagery and philosophy. Harpur concludes since these miraculous happenings are not unique to Christianity, nor can they stand up to modern scientific scrutiny, they should not be believed literally. Instead, Christians should embrace them as metaphors which speak to greater and more universal spiritual truths. While Harpur brings up some interesting points, unfortunately due to his weak scholarship and shaky assumptions his book falls considerably flat.
First of all, to make his arguments Harpur relies almost exclusively on the work of just two scholars: Gerald Massey and Alvin Boyd Kuhn. By doing so Harpur has essentially written a commentary on the writings of Massey and Kuhn as opposed to an original work of his own. This also hurts his overall credibility since it severally restricts the scope of his scholarly research.
Secondly, I might agree with Harpur that many miracles from the life of Jesus have similar parallels in ancient Greek, Egyptian, Persian and Indian mythology. Based on the evidence presented by Harpur many of these parallels do seem incredibly striking – but perhaps a bit too striking. By relying too heavily on just two scholars while lacking a strong background in the fields of Egyptology and Greek mythology Harpur’s claims look suspect. Therefore, in order to prove his points his examples look too good to be true. And we all know, when something is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.
Thirdly, Harpur claims that just as the ancients did not believe in the literal truth of their own mythology, we shouldn’t either; instead we should believe in the greater underlying metaphorical truths they proclaim. I find it hard to believe that ancient men and women, existing in a premodern world did not take literally in some way or another their beliefs in the legends and gods of the day. While some ancient Greek philosophers, especially later ones did question the literal existence of their gods, I believe the average man or woman in the street was clearly not as sophisticated in their religious beliefs as Harpur would like us to believe. Clearly, Harpur is ascribing to the ancients a kind of modern worldview in order to convince us of the validity of his arguments. That kiddies, in my humble opinion is incredibly poor scholarship.
In conclusion, I was quite disappointed with The Pagan Christ. While there might be a multitude of intelligently argued and well researched books about the life and significance of Jesus, sadly Harpur’s book is not one of them.