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.
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 30 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 Orphictheology 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.