Last night CBC television aired a documentary on the Doc Zone entitled The Pagan Christ, based on Canadian Tom Harpur’s bestseller. Not exactly something I expect to see aired on US television any time soon. Too many Americans are far too insecure in their beliefs for allow dissenting opinion (I’ve always found that the insecurity of the belief holder increases as the square of the vehemence with which he/she protests). Harpur, a former Anglican minister and professor of Greek and New Testament at the University of Toronto, questions the existence of Jesus after realizing that there is simply no evidence for his existence. The description of the program contains the following passage:
So, what if it could be proven that Jesus never existed? What if there was evidence that every word of the New Testament – the cornerstone of Christianity – is based on myth and metaphor?
Indeed, so what if it could be proven that Jesus never existed? I suppose it might dispel the illusion that anything in the gospels actually happened, but one has to have total and complete blind faith already to believe the contradictory accounts anyway.
The idea that the Jesus myth is really the story of the Egyptian god Horus has been around a long while. The pro-existence scholars poo-pooed this, but I found their protestations very weak. Similarities between religions can’t be an argument for origins, they say. The problem is we are not talking about vague similarities here, but exact mappings between the most important points of the Jesus and Egyptian mythology stories. The virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection, baptism, turning water into wine at a wedding – these are all contained in both. Horus (and many other deities) also have their birthday (not coincidentally) on the winter solstice (which has drifted a bit relative to the less-than-accurate calenders of the past). The very words supposedly spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper (the whole blood and body representation of wine and bread thing and the betrayal) was taken essentially from a word-for-word translation of Horus mythology! These are not just vaguely homologous, but identical in the specifics. To make a handwaving dismissal of this as the pro-existence scholars interviewed did just underscores the weakness of their position.
But the Jesus myth is not simply a repackaging of Horus, as Harpur suggests. Along with Harpur were authors Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, who have penned (amongst other works) The Jesus Mysteries. I would not have relied on these two if I were producing the program as their scholarship is not up to my standards. But they do make some salient points.
For instance, there was a great deal of disparity amongst early Christian groups as to who Jesus was (again, an indisputable fact glossed over by pro-existence scholars). Was Jesus a god himself? Was he a man adopted by God? Was he the Son of God? Every group had their own view1. The modern ‘orthodox’ version of Jesus is simply the group that won out at Nicaea. You’d think it would be the deity itself that would make such things clear, not a group of politically-motivated bishops. Indeed, even with a standard canon Christianity has splintered into over 10,000 identifiable versions.
It was this very council at Nicaea which discarded the gnostic gospels in favor of the New Testament canon we now have. As different as the gnostic gospels are from Mark, Matthew, Luke and Peter, it is largely due only to their reduced (but by no means eliminated!) number of contradictions between these four accounts that is the basis of their elevation by the Council of Nicaea to orthodoxy. It seems rather relativist to accuse those following the gnostic gospels of heresy.
The pro-existence scholars on the program claimed that the evidence for a historical Jesus is very clear, something that is often paid lip service to without showing the evidence. I’ve heard it run the gamut from the gospels being eyewitness accounts (the claimant of which should be mocked into submission for uttering nonsense like this), to the writings of Josephus and Tacitus. These are awful evidences and only good at demonstrating that grasping at these straws by Believers convinces them of something for which there is no good evidence for. Aside from the fact that he is not contemporaneous to Jesus, Josephus (once the forgery of Constantine’s spin doctor Eusebius is removed) mentions Jesus and perhaps accepts Jesus’ existence, but this lends no credence to Jesus’ existence at all. He simply acknowledges that there are groups of people that follow the teachings of a man called Jesus. Nothing more. Tacitus is known to be an outright forgery. It is also more than just a little suspicious that what was supposedly the most important event in history went utterly ignored by contemporaneous historians living in the region (or anywhere else for that matter).
If I was expecting something more from the scholars interviewed (and I was), I was hugely disappointed. They had the good grace not to bring up Tacitus, but one brought up the ‘eyewitness account’ baloney (!) and treats Josephus as if it were a slam-dunk for Jesus’ existence. He even suggested that we should accept a historical Jesus just because Josephus did! Yeesh! Early historians such as Josephus weren’t exactly rigorous in their efforts to verify their stories….
Modern historians have many tools at their disposal. Looking at World War II film footage, records, war correspondents’ reports from the battlefront – all can give us a very good picture of something that happened in the 1940’s. Imagine Josephus lacking any reliable source writing decades after the fact – no newspapers, no television, no file film footage – and you begin to comprehend the problem we have with just about any historian in antiquity. The meager mention of Jesus (as with Tacitus, its authenticity is in dispute) with no verification is hardly a smoking gun for a historical Jesus.
I have to ask myself, like Francis Collins complained to Bill Maher in Religulous, whether I am setting an impossible standard. But it takes little reflection to come back with the answer that I am not. I want reliable sources, verification, physical evidence. As Carl Sagan remarked in Cosmos, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and these are perfectly reasonable demands I am making. That Christianity can not meet what I think to be a reasonable standard of evidence is not the fault of the standard but a reason to discard the hypothesis. If you want a standard where the only available evidence is of such poor quality is unquestioningly accepted, why bother asking whether it’s true in the first place?
As for myself, I think the point moot. A historical Jesus is not the impossible biblical Jesus created decades after by later adherents. I’ve heard it argued that if the historical accuracy of the gospels can be established, then greater credence must be given to the rest of it, miracles and all. After all, if the authors wouldn’t lie about events occurring at the time of Jesus, why would they lie about the rest?
This is a poor argument, however. First, the original authors had many reasons to lie, not the least of which being their very survival. Anyone living in that time would have instantly recognized any lie about relatively recent events and dismissed the rest out of hand, hence the attempt at historical accuracy (which often fails). But when miracles or even the very life of Jesus are completely independent of historical events which we can verify, the accuracy of what we can verify says absolutely nothing about the existence (let alone the acts and miracles) of Jesus.
Did Harpur’s realizations change his religious views? Quite a bit, and not in what I would call an honest way. Once the conclusion is reached that Jesus is pure myth, why remain a Christian? Because Christianity has some values that he agrees with? So what? Those same values can be found elsewhere, even with those that have no faith at all. Certainly, values such as loving your fellow humans and helping others do not stem from Jesus (other philosophies and religions predating Christianity have similar values). Remove the religious parts (as Thomas Jefferson did) and you are left with a philosophy that can be evaluated without viewing it through a Believer’s lens (since Harpur is no longer left with a reason to believe the religious part of the bible). Yet Harpur continues to do so, which is why I feel he is being dishonest. As Christopher Hitchens wrote,
Philosophy starts where religion ends, just as chemistry starts where alchemy breaks off or astronomy starts where astrology runs out. It is the necessary argument. Not believing in the supernatural is the critical thing.2
Do I doubt whether Jesus existed? I’m unsure myself. I just don’t think it matters. After all, someone (whether Jesus was one person named Jesus or a group is unclear) had to write the Jesus sayings contained in the Q document. Jews following the teachings of Jesus were a part of an important social experiment centered around the philosophy outlined in those sayings it contained.3 It wasn’t till later that Jesus was deified by combining Middle Eastern cult stories (including that of Horus) with Jewish wisdom tales in which the Q document was made a part of in Mark and Matthew by whoever wrote those gospels. What I can tell you about my beliefs is that I believe that revealed knowledge holds no value since neither revealer nor the knowledge can be verified.
Here endeth the lesson.
- Ehrman, BD. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperOne, 2007
- Ehrman, BD. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperOne, 2007
- Hitchens, C. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve Books, Hachette Book Group, 2007
- Mack, BL. Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth. HarperOne, 1996