Sunday, May 17, 2009

Examining The Pagan Christ: Part One

I have just gone through the first few chapters of Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ. Already I've started seeing quite a few interesting assertions made by Mr. Harpur. I would like to dissect his comments and provide my thoughts/responses to them.

You will find that the allegorical, spiritual, mythical approach to the Bible and to Christian faith--that is, the true, spiritual Christianity, before official Christianism took over--solves the enigmas of Scripture and the Christos story as nothing else can do. Bible stories come alive with amazing new freshness, believability, and power. Our own potential for Christhood, and for experiencing the indwelling spirit of God here and now, sounds forth in a clear and relevant message for everyone. Hope for a truly cosmic faith is kindled and fanned into full flame. There is a theological grounding given for a faith that resonates with our own "matter", the natural world. Our fresh (yet ancient, more universal) understanding of the Jesus theme opens up doors to other faiths that orthodox Christianity as it is now can never hope to pass through. [1]

This is incredibly subjective, but it highly seductive and resonates well with the new-age mindset of many people living here in the post-Christian west. People are tired and/or disappointed with mainstream/orthodox Christianity, so they cling to some alternative spirituality that sounds and feels good to them, with relevance taking precedence over truth. Also, what is with this talk about "our own potential for Christhood"? Mr. Harpur claims that this is the true Christian belief before "official Christianism" took over, yet I find no historical evidence for such a claim. (unless you count the Gnostic sects) Just read the writings of the apostolic fathers, or any credible book on church history, and you will understand what I mean. Next:

The principal determinant of those admitted to the meaning of the myths or initiated into the widely popular Mystery Religions, where they were dramatized and experienced, was genuine zeal for the divine. Commenting on this esoteric approach, the great second-century theologian Origen said that ordinary people see only the exterior symbol, symbol: "It's allowed by all who have any knolwedge of the scriptures that everything there is conveyed enigmatically, i.e., esoterically." Once the early Church turned to literalism and an exoteric, bottom-line rendering of the faith, Origen was condemned as a heretic and his books were banned. To read them was to risk instant excommunication. The Church forgot or ignored the fact that St. Paul himself used the esoteric allegorical approach. [2]

Unfortunately for Mr. Harpur, Origen's exegeses of the scriptures are far from the commonly accepted norm back in his day. Granted, Origen came from the Alexandrian school, which was known for emphasizing allegory (as opposed to other schools such as the Antiochene school, which emphasized the typological and literal). But, even by the standards of the Alexandrian school, Origen was quite wild with his interpretations, and stretched the meaning of the scriptures far beyond what the texts allowed for. Other exegetes were more careful than he was, and didn't go off on wild tangents when it came to interpreting the biblical texts. [3]

Also, in an attempt to justify his ideas regarding the interpretation of scripture, Mr. Harpur attempts to offer Galatians 4:24 as an example of Paul giving an allegorical interpretation of scripture. Mr. Harpur's argument here is flawed for two reasons: 1) Although Paul gave an allegory based on an old testament story, he never denied the historicity of that story, and 2) Elsewhere in his writings, Paul affirms that he believes that the stories regarding Christ, such as the resurrection, actually happened. The most obvious example of this would be in his first epistle to the Corinthians, where he writes:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
(1 Corinthians 15:12-20)

Why would Paul write this? Obviously he must have believed that Christ really did live and that He really did die and rise again. Paul is clear on this. Next:

The sacred scriptures are written in a language of myth and symbol and the Christian religion threw away and lost the very should of their meaning when it mistranslated this language in to alleged history instead of reading it as spiritual allegory. [4]

Now, this is one assertion that is refuted by the very texts themselves. I think we should take a look at what the writers of the gospels say about what they have written:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
(Luke 1:1-4)

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.
(John 20:30-31)

As shown by the two passages I have highlighted above, the gospel writers did not intend the accounts they presented to be mere allegories or myths. They believed they were writing historical accounts, and that is how the early church recieved them (case in point: The Pauline quote that I had provided earlier). Once again, I would invite everybody, including Mr. Harpur, to take a closer look at the history books rather than relying on such sensationalist theories.

Interestingly, Tom Harpur also comments on C.S. Lewis' Miracles in this page, calling his work a "failure on philosophical and other grounds". He doesn't give much of a reason why, save for a comment on how C.S. Lewis treats as history what the author rejects as history. Next:

Few Christians are aware that Augustine himself received the Christian doctrine of the Trinity from the Pagan philosopher Politnus (c. 205-270 C.E.), who "fed his mind on the attributes of the Pagan divinities and was steeped in Hellenistic rational religion and esotericism." [5]

Wrong again, Mr. Harpur. Plotinus may have influenced a few of Saint Augustine's ideas, but his belief in the Trinity isn't one of them. Augustine got his belief in the trinity from the natural development of the Church's understanding of God's revelation. And contrary to what some skeptics want to believe, it is not due to Pagan influence. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge has this to say on the Trinity:

There is no reason to seek for sources or types of the doctrine of the Trinity outside of Christianity or the Bible, though in the eighteenth century efforts were made to derive the Christian dogma from Plato, and later from Brahmanism or Parseeism, or later still, from a Babylonian triad. Even were the resemblance between the Christian Trinity and the pagan triads far greater than it is, there could be no serious question of borrowing. The development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is historically clear, and its motives were equally well known, being almost exclusively due to Christological speculation. The formulation of the dogma was ruled by the necessity of establishing the absolute character of the Christian revelation, a process which required the closest association of the historic Christ with the life and essence of God. At the same time, Christian faith could tolerate neither any menace to monotheism nor any lowering of the person of the Redeemer to a mere function or transitory phenomenon of the Godhead. The Apostolic Fathers did not feel the relation of the Father and the Son to be a problem, since they either considered the Son simply as an instrument of the Father, or identified him with the Father and the Holy Ghost. The apologetes, on the other hand, who adopted for their basis the concept of the Logos for their interpretation of the person of Jesus, were indeed able to assign the Logos to a place within the revealing activity of God without impairing their monotheism, but could not make sure the concentration of revelation in Christ or his specific relation to the Father.[6]
There is also the quote from J.N.D Kelly that I quoted in a previous post, but bears repeating here:

Until the middle of the of the second century, when Hellenistic ideas began to come into the fore, Christian theology was taking shape in predominantly Judaistic moulds, and the categories of thought used by almost all Christian writers before the Apologists were largely Jewish. This explains why the teaching of the Apostolic Father, for example, while not strictly unorthodox, often strikes a strange note when judged by later standards. And it is certain that this ‘Judaeo-Christian’ theology continued to exercise a powerful influence well beyond the second century.

The two features of later Palestinian Judaism which call for mention here are its attitude to divine ‘hypostases’ and its heightened interest in angels. It is certain that the former, and by no means unlikely the latter, helped to create an atmosphere of thought propitious to the development of the Christian conception of God as three-personal. Students of the Old Testament are familiar with the growing tendency there visible to personify Wisdom and to assign it creative functions; and the readiness of New Testament writers like St. Paul to avail themselves of the idea in order to explain the status of Christ is also a commonplace. [7]

So we see that the historians themselves do not buy into the theory that Christianity was copied off of Pagan religions. And finally, I must deal with one last quote from the book:

Celsus, a famous Jewish philosopher with whom Origen waged a well-known, detailed debate, said; "The Christian religion contains nothing but what Christians hold in common with the heathen; nothing new." For this, Origen had no rebuttal. As well, Ammonius Saccas (c. 175-240), the great founder of Neoplatonism (born of Christian parents himself) and the teacher of Origen, stoutly maintained that Christianity and Paganism differend on no essential points.[8]

Okay, I will have to deal with several points here:

1. Celsus was a Pagan philosopher, not a Jewish one. I hear this mistake has been corrected in later editions of this book, but it remains in the copy that I hold in my hands.

2. Origen actually does have a rebuttal to Celsus. It's entitled "Contra Celsus" (go figure). You can view it for yourself here.

3. It is doubtful whether or not Ammonius Saccas actually taught Origen. It is believed, however, that he taught a Pagan platonist philosopher by the same name.

4. We have no extant writings of Ammonius Saccas available to us, so it is virtually impossible to verify the assertion that Mr. Harpur gives. Most of what we know about Ammonius Saccas comes from later writings, particularly from fragments from the writings of a Neoplatonist named Porphyry.

That is all I have to say on the book for now. I will post more on Tom Harpur and his book as I go further into his writings.

End Notes
1. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 4
2. Ibid, p. 19
3. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, 5th Edition. 2000. p. 69-75.
4. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 20
5. Ibid, p. 28.
6. "Trinity, Doctrine of the". New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. XII: Trench - Zwingli. p. 19.
7. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, 5th Edition. 2000. p. 6-7.
8. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 29

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