Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Examining The Pagan Christ: Part Two

This is the second installment of my series critiquing Tom Harpur's "The Pagan Christ". I am currently at the beginning of the fifth chapter, and Mr. Harpur has already begun towing out all the alleged parallels between Christianity and other religions, and even takes the time to take jabs at quite a few of the early church fathers. I will provide here some rebuttals to various assertions made by Mr. Harpur in the 3rd and 4th chapters of his book.

This first paragraph is a citation from Oliver Wendell Holmes' introduction to "The Life of Asia", a biography of Buddha by Sir Edwin Arnold.

If one were told that many centuries ago a celestial ray shone into the body of a sleeping woman, as it seemed to her in her dream, that thereupon the advent of a wondrous child was predicted by the soothsayers; that angels appeared at this child's birth; that merchants came from afar bearing gifts to him; that an ancient saint recognized the babe as divine and fell at his feet to worship him; that in his eighth year the child confounded his teachers with the amount of knowledge, while still showing them true reverence; that he grew up full of compassionate tenderness to all that lived and suffered; that to help his fellow creatures he sacrificed every worldly prospect and enjoyment; that he went through the ordeal of a terrible temptation in which all the power and evil were let loose upon him, and came out conqueror of them all; that he preached holiness and practiced charity; that he gathered disciples and sent out apostles to spread his doctrine over many lands and peoples; that this "helper of the worlds" could claim a more than earthly lineage and a life that dated long before Abraham was---of whom would he/she think the wonderful tale was told? Would he/she not say that this must be another version of the story of the One who came upon our earth in a Syrian village during the reign of Augustus Caesar and died by violence during the reign of Tiberius? What would this person say if told that the narrative was between five and six centuries older than that of the Founder of Christianity? Such is the story of this person [the Buddha]. Such is the date assigned. The religion he taught is reckoned by many to be among the most widely prevalent of all beliefs.[1]

I don't know about you, but it seems a bit of a stretch to connect the story of a celestial ray shining on a sleeping woman and an angelic visit announcing to a wide awake young woman that she is to become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. There isn't even any mention of whether or not the mother was a virgin or not. Also, after having gone through the story of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, I can find no references to angels appearing. The part about merchants from afar bearing gifts and of an ancient saint worshipping him are based on some rather broad generalities and superficial similarities. Here is the actual story:

In the first few days after his birth, many people came to the palace to see the new baby. One of these visitors was and old man named Asita. Asita was a hermit who lived by himself in the distant forests, and he was known to be a very holy person. The King and Queen were Surprised that Asita would leave his forest home and appear at their court, "We are very honored that you have come to visit us, O holy teacher," They said with great respect. "Please tell us the purpose of your journey and we shall serve you in any way we can."Asita answered them, "I thank you for your kind welcome. I have come a great distance to visit you because of the wonderful signs I have recently seen. They tell me that the son recently born to you will gain great spiritual knowledge for the benefit of all people. Since I have spent my entire life trying to gain such holy wisdom, I came here as quickly as possible to see him for myself."The King was very excited and hurried to where the baby Prince lay sleeping. He carefully picked up his son and brought him back to Asita... (link)

The story goes on, but you will not see any references to merchants bearing gifts, or of the aforementioned old man "worshipping" the child. Only by distorting the actual stories and exaggerating the details can you come even close to painting the nativity story as a copy of this legend. The same goes for the rest of the alleged similarities presented in the aforementioned paragraph. Next:

The parallels in the birth and life of Lord Krishna, the Hindu Christ, are now well known. The Persian god Zoroaster was born in innocence and of a virgin birth, from a ray of divine reason (Logos). Eventually, he was suspended from wood or "from the tree"--the cross or tree of the later Calvary. There is also the story of Salivahana, a divine child born of a virgin in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He was the son of Tarshaca, a carpenter. His life was threatened in infancy by a tyrant who afterwards was killed by him. His story shows such close affinity to that of Jesus that it would be hard to deny a common source for both. [2]

On Krishna: Harpur does not mention what the parallels are. The closest I could find are some references to Krishna being born without sexual union, apparently from the Hindu text known as the Bhagavata Purana. However, it should be noted that this is not a universal belief of Hindus (though I may have to talk to a couple of Hindu acquaintances just to be sure),

On Zoroaster: He wasn't even a god, he was a prophet. The closest I could find to a parallel between Zoroaster's birth and that of Jesus is a reference to the glory of Ahuda Mazda descending from Heaven and entering the house of Zoroaster's mother. (link) While a few similarities in detail could be found here, the similarities are not incredibly great. Also, he wasn't suspended from a piece of wood or a tree. According to certain sources, he was murdered at the altar by Turanians during the storming of the city of Balkh.[3]

On Salivahana: There is very little evidence that such a figure exists, and virtually none to support the idea that he was either a divine child or that he was born of a virgin mother. Finally, one source by the name of "Captain F. Wilford" dates the stories of Salivahana to sometime around the seventh century after Christ. More info can be found on this here.

Well, that pretty much debunks the idea of Christ being copied from Eastern religious figures. Next:

Consider this: comparative religions studies reveal that almost every traditional faith the world over rests on a central story of the son of a heavenly king who goes down into a dark lower world, suffering, dying and rising again, before returning to his native upper world. Acted out in a moving, multi-faceted dramatic ritual, the story tells how this king/god wins a victory over his enemies, has a triumphant procession, and is enthroned on high Comparative religions scholars have made lists of thirty to fifty such avatars or saviour, including Osiris, Horus, Krishna, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hermes, Balder, Adonis, Hercules, Attis, Mithras, Tammuz of Syria, Thor (son of Odin), Beddru of Japan, Deva Tat of Siam, and many more. Kersey Graves, in his book The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviours, quotes a prophecy of the Persian divinity Zoroaster: A virgin should conceive and bear a son, and a star would appear blazing at midday to signalize the occurrence."[4]

Umm, no. Hinduism, Buddhism, the Egyptian and Greco-Roman mythologies, Zoroastrianism, etc. do not have these supposed elements in them. To tackle just some of the figures listed: Osiris was a fertility god who was chopped into pieces, thrown into a river, and pieced back together. Hercules was a demi-god who performed ten labours for a king as punishment for murder. I already tackled Krishna. Adonis was killed by a wild boar, and has not done anything characteristic of a saviour or king. Beddru doesn't even exist (some have speculated that this is just a variant of Buddha, but I already tackled him). If you don't believe me, read up on the mythologies for yourself.

Also, I would like to add that Kersey Graves' works are highly questionable. Even the folks behind the Secular Web and the anti-Christian documentary "The God Who Wasn't There" have advised against using his book as a source. That said, I don't know much of the supposed quotes that Harpur draws from him, but unless he can back up his claims with a more reliable source, I will treat these quotes with a high level of suspicion.

Next, we find Harpur slamming a few of the early church fathers, in particular Eusebius, the father of church history. He quotes from Charles Waite:

Charles B. Waite, in his History of the Christian Religion to the Year 200, tells how Eusebius, whose Ecclesiastical History is the principal source for the history of Christianity from the apostolic age until his own day, was a most conspicuous liar. What's almost equally bad is that Eusebius frequently made many sloppy mistakes. "No one has contributed more to Christian history, and no one is guilty of more errors." Waite charges. "The statements of this historian are made, not only carelessly and blunderingly, but in many instances in falsification of the facts of history. Not only the most unblushing falsehoods, but literary forgeries of the vilest character darken the pages of his... writing." I had heard not a word about any of this during any of this during my years of training for the Anglican priesthood.

Waite cites authorities who confirm this scandal by asserting that Eusebius had "a peculiar faculty for diverging from the truth." He was always ready to supply by fabrication what was wanting in the historical record. In other words, this great world religion actually rests on a foundation of falsehood and forgery. [5]

I will grant that Eusebius was not the most reliable of historians, and had clear biases (as is the case with many historians of all stripes). However, I think that Tom Harpur has greatly exaggerated the claims that are made against Eusebius and his honesty. See here for a fair treatment of this. And finally:

The greatest preacher of the early Church, John Chrysostom (the golden mouth), who lived from about 347 to 407 and was both bishop of Constantinople and a famous doctor of the Church, observed in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:19, "Great is the force of deceit, provided it is not excited by a treacherous intention." Few today can read this without some recoil and surprise. [6]

I shall note with interest that this quote has been attributed to other people. For example, Islamic apologist Abdullah Smith attributes this quote to St. Jerome in one of his articles against Christianity. (link) But does St. John Chrysostom actually say this? Fortunately, we have access to his writings, thanks to CCEL. Here is the actual homily on 1 Corinthians 9:19:

“For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more.”

Here again he introduces another high step in advance. For a great thing it is even not to receive, but this which he is about to mention is much more than that. What then is it that he says? “Not only have I not received,” saith he,” not only have I not used this right, but I have even made myself a slave, and in a slavery manifold and universal. For not in money alone, but, which was much more than money, in employments many and various have I made good this same rule: and I have made myself a slave when I was subject to none, having no necessity in any respect, (for this is the meaning of, “though I was free from all men;”) and not to any single person have I been a slave, but to the whole world.”

Wherefore also he subjoined, “I brought myself under bondage to all.” That is, “To preach the Gospel I was commanded, and to proclaim the things committed to my trust; but the contriving and devising numberless things beside, all that was of my own zeal. For I was only under obligation to invest the money, whereas I did every thing in order to get a return for it, attempting more than was commanded.” Thus doing as he did all things of free choice and zeal and love to Christ, he had an insatiable desire for the salvation of mankind. Wherefore also he used to overpass by a very great deal the lines marked out, in every way springing higher than the very heaven. (link)

Great is the force of deceit indeed, Mr. Harpur. I do not see the supposed quote where it is supposed to be. Anyway, I will continue reading this book, and then provide a continuation of my dissection in the next installment.

End Notes
1. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 31-32.
2. Ibid, p. 34.
3. Jackson, A. V. Williams. Zoroaster, the prophet of ancient Iran. New York, 1899.
4. Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ. 2004. p. 37.
5. Ibid, p. 54.
6. Ibid, p. 58.

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