2007, Movies

The Pagan Christ (2007, directed by Cynthia Banks)

I just watched a brief news-magazine / “documentary” program about a book called The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur. This book seems to put forward a new version of a fairly well-known (if not well-accepted) claim, that Christian beliefs have their antecedents in various pagan cults and religions. He also suggests that Jesus didn’t exist at all, but is only a figure, like a pagan god. At first he seemed compelling, but a brief scan of relevant sites suggests that he is not using reliable sources. However, the idea strikes me as intuitively correct anyway. There was a historical Jesus, or there wasn’t, but either way the things attributed to him had to come from somewhere. It is unlikely that every aspect of the stories was invented at that time because human beings just aren’t that original. It is our nature to use what we have. Also, as a lay person, as someone who has almost zero background in theology, I can look at a picture of Isis and Horace and see the obvious similarities to a statue of Mary and Jesus. Now, that could merely be a coincidence, but it could be that the sculptor had his models.

It’s annoying to me how theologians and believers don’t like anyone looking for physical evidence of a real Jesus, because they worry that somebody might find something to suggest he was human, but they also don’t like anyone claiming that he didn’t exist. It’s one or the other, folks. Either there was a man named Jesus, who is somewhat similar to the guy discussed in the gospels and in some Roman history, or he is yet another creation of human beings, and the “historical” records were forged. He can’t be completely the same as the one in the gospels, obviously (well, obviously for those of us who don’t believe, anyway) but the second claim is interesting because of the arguments I’ve heard against it.

The CBC program either didn’t do a good job of finding theologians who could refute Harpur well, or they edited their interviews so that their best points were cut. It is not an argument to suggest that attributing not so nice behaviour to historical figures isn’t necessary. One of the fundamental truths of our history as a species is that the victors write the history. As such, is it inconceivable that the particular Christians who won in the last days of the Roman Empire were willing to forge documents so that they could claim a historical basis for the literalist interpretation of the bible? Why not? I am not saying they did, I have no idea. But it certainly is possible. It’s not like it’s never happened before. And it’s not like these folks were any better than the rest of us, or any less prone to that kind of nonsense. I mean, they burned one of (if not) the most significant libraries of antiquity because it was supposedly full of heresy.

I guess what I’m getting at is that the Christians might be better off with a symbolic instead of historical Jesus, because that way you don’t have to claim people eat his body, you don’t have to claim a human being performed miracles or rose from the dead, but you can still stick to what you think is beneficial from Christianity. If you stick to a historical Jesus, then people will continue to try to find his tomb (and they may have…), try to find his DNA, and people will still manage to be convinced somehow that miracles happened in the good old days, though they don’t seem to happen now. A literalist view of the bible is…odd, to put it nicely, and it can also be extremely dangerous, when made the basis for political action. Further it obscures the human construction of the religion. It is well-known (again, if not well-accepted by everyday believers…though theologians often admit it) that the bible was put together in its current form by human beings at various times over the course of some centuries. Decisions were made by councils as to what to include. Were these councils divine?

So even before you get to whether or not there are “180 similarities” between some Egyptian pagan cults and Christianity, the bible has been constructed. Even if you take all the books of it as divine, you still have to wonder whether some of the stuff that was left out by the various councils could also have been divine.

It makes sense to me that Christianity has its roots in earlier religions of the same region. To obscure that is like claiming that the stereotypical image of Jesus in the west, that is Jesus as northern European, is an accurate portrait of a man living in the mid-east 2000 years ago. Some times I think research into this area is called “fringe” not necessarily because of the bad sourcing but because it makes the majority of experts in the field uncomfortable or angry. Why is it so difficult to think that Christians lifted some of their stories from the Egyptians? This would coincide with what we know about storytelling, and it would fit with what we know about how human societies have evolved.

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