Monday, 21 November 2011

Pagan Christ?

"The time of the Osirans is long past." (Dr Who, Pyramids of Mars)

I've been looking at "The Pagan Christ" by Tom Harpur, as I came across various people recommending it. I'm not impressed. Having read many of the books described in Evans "Cults of Unreason" or Colivito's "The cult of Alien Gods", the style, the form of argument, the rhetoric, and the presentation of the thesis as something new, controversial, likely to be criticised by academic historians (or even worse, ignored) is very similar to many of those books.

Harpur's thesis that Jesus is not historical, but is a mythic figure derived from Egyptian sources, and in particular the story of Horus. With the emphasis on the prevalent myths about a dying and rising god, this is really nothing new, but a modern revision of the Frazer's Sacred Bough, and he uses the same kind of techniques as Frazer - selecting those parts of sources which support his case, and ignoring others. But superficial similarities of a few features really don't make a case.

It's like the lumping of different fire rituals together because they have fire in common - which Frazer in fact also did. It is only as anthropologists have instead concentrated on the finer details of stories, and also the way in which those agree with the picture from archaeology, that the case Frazer built up just falls apart. It's what what Samuel Sandmel has called "parallelomania" – taking minor resemblances and using them selectively to make a case for essential similarities.

Here is an example of Harpur's reasoning - Anubis had to "make straight the paths to the upper realms of heaven". John the Baptist was Anubis to "prepare the way of the Lord" and to "make his paths straight.". Therefore John the Baptist must be Anubis!

Of course the verses about John derive from and can be seen to be quotes from Isaiah and Malachi., and are deliberately used to point up the Old Testament connection, they aren't derived from Egyptian, unless Harpur is suggesting that Isaiah is also somehow derived from Egyptian mythology, which seems unlikely given the books critique of idols and false gods. Are we to accept that the writer of Matthew, surely the most Jewish of the gospels, scoured the Old Testament for a suitable quotation that fitted the pattern of Anubis? Apparently, according to Harpur, this is precisely what he did.

I'm not saying, by the way, that the gospels are "straight history", but I do think that a supposed Egyptian connection involves a lot of special pleading, and suspect reasoning of the kind that Velikovsky made in Worlds in Collision, when he conflated hydrocarbons with carbohydrates, or Von Daniken made in Chariot of the Gods, or Lobsang Rampa with Tibet. It comes across as that kind of book in its treatment of documents and archaeology.

Here are a few more of Harpur's supposed "correlations" between the story of Horus and that of Jesus:

Like the "star in the east" of the Gospels, Sirius, the morning star in Egypt, heralded the birth of Horus. Horus was transfigured on a mountain; Jesus took Peter, James and John into a "high mountain" and was transfigured before them.

Stars before the birth of kings occur in many narratives, not just Egyptian. "Transfigured" in respect of Horus is pushing the texts to their extreme; again, like Frazer, there is a routine manipulation of texts to fit the thesis.

In fact, this kind of listing of story A against story B reminds me more than anything of the Lincoln / JFK coincidence stories; it's that kind of correlation, and when the fine detail - and what is cleverly left out - is considered, the "amazing coincidence" between Abraham Lincoln and J.F. Kennedy falls apart. Read Snopes for the details.

It is possible, of course, to make coincidence abound on the most unlikely places:

"He(God) is the primeval Potter who turned men and gods into being out of his hands." - Harpur's rendering of an ancient Egyptian text (let's just ignore the Egyptian pantheon of gods, by the way), and this: "Sirius became Harry's Potter's Godfather at his, Harry's, birth." So clearly JK Rowling was also influenced by Egyptian mythology?

This statement from Harpur could almost be lifted straight from Von Daniken. Notice the style of questions, the rhetorical gimmick question, which begs one answer alone. It's passages like this that make me think of Graham Hancock, and Von Daniken, and he seems to have the same selection for his own thesis approach.

Harpur backs his thesis with statements like this: ""The Ten Commandments, for example, are all anticipated in the teachings from the Hall of Judgment, where the soul was weighed in the balance at life's end. ", I really think he is skating on very thin ice. The prohibition on idolatry, and other gods against the Egyptian belief in a pantheon of gods? And I can't see the slightest mention of the soul being weighed in the balance in the Ten Commandments.

He says that "the entire course of Western history over the past eighteen hundred years would have been far different if a more spiritual understanding of the Christ and Christianity had prevailed at the outset." But Egypt, with its own mythology, had brutality, wars of conquest, a priest class which ruled over the ordinary person, and the divine kingship of the Pharaoh. Slaves toiled away to build the pyramids, monuments that are the wonders of the world, but also a tribute to a particularly unpleasant megalomania backed with the full power of the State. The idea that Egyptian religion represents ""the incarnation of the divine in the human" in its purest form displays a mind-boggling ability to tear apart the hierarchical and near-feudal society of ancient Egypt from the interpretation of texts.

In fact, Christianity, with its attribution of titles of "Lord", and "Saviour", "Son of God," and "Prince of Peace", while not directly challenging the Roman Empire, certainly challenged the legitimacy of that kind of megalomania. It is forgotten, perhaps, that those same titles which we see as peculiarly Christian were also, in the first century, the same titles used by and attributed to Caesar. There is a critique of power, which sadly was lost when Constantine made Christianity a State religion, and the Christians fell prey to the same abuses of power. But in the time of the formation of the New Testament writings, there is a strong counter-Imperial message, which challenges all kinds of secular power, especially when it seeks to become an idol; that is why the Christians were persecuted for a refusal to worship Caesar.

And we also have statements which are extraordinary - ‎"Horus was crucified between two thieves"? I thought he died from the sting of a scorpion in the stories, and then he is not "resurrected" as Harpur would have it, but resuscitated "By his words of power Thoth transferred the fluid of life of Ra, and as soon as this came upon the child's body the poison of the scorpion flowed out of him, and he once more breathed and lived.".

In fact, the full text is worth quoting, because it has nothing like the similarity with the gospel resurrection narratives, except if you assume (without any textual or historical evidence) that those narratives were somehow transformed from that below:

Then Isis cried out to heaven, and her voice reached the Boat of Millions of Years, and the Disk ceased to move onward, and came to a standstill. From the Boat Thoth descended, being equipped with words of power and spells of all kinds…Thoth, turning to Isis and Nephthys, bade them to fear not, and to have no anxiety about Horus, "For," said he, "I have come from heaven to heal the child for his mother." … By his words of power Thoth transferred the fluid of life of Ra, and as soon as this came upon the child's body the poison of the scorpion flowed out of him, and he once more breathed and lived.

Harpur says that the "broad scope" of his thesis is what matters, and not the "fine details". But that's really special pleading, an avoidance of evidence that does not fit. Paganism itself has moved towards critical thinking and away from, for example, the Margeret Murray thesis that the witch craze was to do with an underground pagan movement, and this thesis discredited largely because of a detailed and painstaking examination by historians of the minutiae of witch trials over a much larger sample, and less selectivity. What Harpur really can't do is make a statement like "establish beyond doubt" and then get annoyed about people who want to delve into the fine detail to test the thesis; he calls them "nit pickers" which is a strategy of evasion, not an answer. Of course, when people are totally emotionally wedded to a thesis, as he clearly is, it becomes extremely difficult for them to discuss it clearly.

Harpur also points up similarities between the story of Jesus and Zoroaster. But one problem with Harpur's taking texts about Zoroaster is that he doesn't mention that the earliest text we have is the Avesta, a collection of texts written down (presumably from an oral tradition) from the mid-4th century.

Now we can check how this kind of transmission works by looking at the Norse myths. What we know of Norse mythology comes from the Eddas and Sagas, and the poor correlation between those an archeology suggest considerable contamination of oral traditions by Christian motifs. The myths have rituals in Temples, the archaeology finds no temples, but instead rituals around sacred trees. It looks as if the Christian compilers of the Sagas have let their own traditions colour their writing down, much as the way in which fairly tales and folk tales were retold very loosely by the Victorians in order to comply with Victorian sensibilities.

That's the kind of critical historical problem which he should be addressing, but instead he takes the Zoroaster texts at face value. In fact, the situation is even worse in that while we know the original writing down of texts date to around the 4th century, the MSS date from around the 13th century. The New Testament, on the other hand, is in a complete form in 4th century manuscripts, with papyrus fragments going back to the 2nd century.

In his defense, Harpur says he does not address those problems because he is writing for a popular audience, but I would like to see a more academic tome to see if he can buttress his claims. His response on his website is evasive. As it stands, it seems to me very much of the same genre as Graham Hancock and others. Most of what I read by professional historians deals with sources, because it is that kind of minutae that enables (for example) teasing apart different sources in the Pentateuch, or assessing (another example) the probability that the "Sirius Mystery" is cultural contamination and biased reporting (it is both). Ronald Hutton produces a popular book "The Druids", but later published "Blood and Mistletoe" which is a more detailed and substantial and documented piece of work. That is lacking here.

Harpur makes a distinction between what he calls "literalists" who believed in a historical Jesus, and Gnostics, who believed only in a "Christ of faith", a mythological figure. This is surely an oversimplification - Bart D. Ehrman's "Lost Christianities" goes into much more detail of the complex diversity. But leaving that aside, Harpur argues that the "literalists" used their power, especially after Constantine to oppress the Gnostics.

But the situation is more complex that this. Before Constantine, when the Christians were being persecuted and killed for not doing homage to the Emperor as a God (how fascist can that be!), the Gnostics (for example Valentinius) said this didn't matter, that you could outwardly conform to Roman practices because that didn't really matter, and cheerfully offered sacrifices to the Emperor as God. When Christians inherited the Pax Romana, they also inherited its cruel methods of control, but the instruments of conformity were put in place by a Pagan Empire, who ruthlessly crushed any opposition, and made all kinds of propaganda war against its enemies as well - e.g. Carthage, Anglesey, Massada. The shame of the Christians is that they were seduced by the trappings of power provided to them, and have often, through history, shown no more sign of using power wisely than the Pagan rulers they replaced.

It is also true that Christianity as with Paganism could exist extremely well as societies which accepted slavery, and it took people of courage and real faith in equality of all peoples to stand up against the institution, some Christians, some free-thinkers. Before that the split between private faith and the public sphere meant that Christians were slave-owners (George Washington, to name one notable), and free-thinkers (John Locke owned slaves as well). There are still Christians today who don't see any of the wrongs of society, and who think it is perfectly fine to go to church while social injustice and suffering cries out. They'll give to charity, but as Orwell noted, sometimes people want a juster society rather than the indignity of hand-outs; they'll take the charity because they need to survive, but what they need is self-sufficiency, as EF Schumacher said.

Moreover "literalists" is not perhaps the best and most accurate portrayal of Christians who often used allegorical exegesis in their arguments! It seems rather an oversimplification. One of Irenaeus defense of the four gospels based on all kinds of numerological arguments to do with the number four, certainly wasn't literalist.

Pliny is quite clear on how to deal with Christians: "Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time,
threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished...An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ."

Pliny, of course, thinks there is nothing wrong with his position; he is a dutiful civil servant of the Roman Empire. He is in fact writing at a time when there was not organised campaign of persecution (e.g. Nero, Domitian, Diocletian) but just general persecution of anyone who could be seen as endangering the fabric of the Empire. As we know from the writings of the Gnostic Valentinius, his followers (of spiritual enlightenment of the kind that Harpur espouses) had no trouble with adopting a chameleon like approach and worshiping the gods and cursing Christ. that is certainly prudence, but it can also be seen as a lack of moral backbone. Certainly, the Valentinian gnosticism didn't make the same kinds of radical demands of standing up to the power of the Roman State; instead they were happy to collude with power.

Does it matter? The argument is often made that what matters is the teachings, not whether there was a real Jesus or not. This seems to me, looking at the matter not from any religious perspective as such, but a philosophical one, to be a remarkably cavalier attitude to truth. I happen to believe that historical truth, like scientific truth, matters. That's not to say I or anyone has a monopoly on truth, but as a guiding principle, yes, it does matter - truth, as Richard Robinson says (in "An Atheist's Values") is a "great good". It's not the only good, but it is a great good, and to say that history doesn't matter, or it doesn't really matter if Jesus existed or not, leads to a principle that runs completely against, for instance, the idea of whether it is important whether evolution or creationism is a true view of the history of the world.

I think that is a debate which does matter, and that the road to creationism would be one in which obscurantism and dogmatism would triumph, because creationism is argued as a position to support a belief, but because it is historically true; if the Bible had said something different, those same people would believe that instead. To apply this kind of post-modern history doesn't matter, is to say it isn't important whether evolution or creationism, two alternative histories, are true, all that matters is whether something is "true for me".

That seems to be the crux of the Harpur thesis - he is presenting a mythology that he can believe in, and this is a matter of belief, despite what the evidence might give. The self-critical examination seems to be lacking, and instead, we have a kind of pop-culture, which as always, defends itself by saying that academics won't give this "truth" a proper hearing, the strategy we find throughout Von Daniken.

In his Histories, Herodotus, the "father of history," (book 2:43:iv) explicitly says that the priests at Thebes told him (in the fifth century BCE) that the great gods of Egypt existed over 17,000 years earlier in the oral history. These deities included Iu-em-hetep, the coming bringer of peace. The name Iu is basic to the later name Yeshua/Jesus, as well as to Isaac, Isaiah, and many others.

Are we really to take this as a solid linguistic argument?

And here is Harpur's pop-message:

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."

No doubt this chimes extremely well with the modern New Age culture of "enlightenment", but I can't help notice there is a very Western style consumer image of an autonomous man reflected in Harpur's book; man as part of the cosmos, but in a vague, general way, that perhaps doesn't leave a clear message about social justice, a mirror image of our culture.

In fact, The Pagan Christ doesn't discuss the most notable aspect of the Gospel narratives, the Parables, perhaps because Horus didn't speak in Parables. But it is worth reflecting on them, and how they speak strongly as a challenge, and not perhaps of our personal self-enlightenment as the most significant matter:

"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."(Matthew 25:31-46)

Which message really is the challenge? And which leaves us with a more troubled conscience?

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