Was Christ's life based on pagan myths?

( [email protected] ) Jun 28, 2004 05:25 PM EDT

WHEN I first met Tom Harpur just over 30 years ago, he was teaching New Testament studies at Toronto's Wycliffe College. Shortly thereafter, he left the ivory tower to become, in due course, Canada's best-known religious journalist. Since then, he has written 17 books, and several thousand articles and columns; he has also achieved high visibility as a radio and television commentator.

To say that his religious views have changed over the years would be a gross understatement. In 1970, he was an evangelically committed Anglican priest, preparing students to faithfully preach and teach the doctrines of Christianity as understood by the classic creeds of the church. Today, his understanding of God, the world, and salvation seems to be that of a theosophist or a neo-gnostic -- though he continues to consider himself a Christian.

The Pagan Christ (Thomas Allen, 2004) is Harpur's story of his discovery of the writings of Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963), Godfrey Higgins (1771-1834) and Gerald Massey (1828-1907) -- who argued that all of the essential ideas of both Judaism and Christianity came primarily from Egyptian religion. Their thesis was that, toward the end of the third Christian century, the leaders of the church began to misinterpret the Bible.

Prior to this time, Kuhn and company maintained, no one had ever understood the Bible to be literally true, and the narrative material of the Hebrew and Greek Bible had been interpreted as symbol or myth; first among these myths was the concept of the incarnation -- i.e. that God resided within every "fully realized spiritual human being." According to this theory, the leaders of what became Christian orthodoxy made a tragic mistake by identifying this religious experience with a historical event: namely, the birth, life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

According to Harpur, there is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. Drawing especially on the writings of Kuhn, he claims that virtually all of the details of the life and teachings of Jesus have their counterpart in Egyptian religious ideas; he also maintains that there are strong parallels between Christ's life and Greek, Hindu and Buddhist myths.

Harper does not quote any contemporary Egyptologist or recognized academic authority on world religions, nor does he appeal to any of the standard reference books, such as the magisterial three volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (2001) or any primary sources. Rather, he is entirely dependent on the work of Kuhn, who he describes as "the most erudite, most eloquent, and most convincing . . . of any modern writer on religion I have encountered in a lifetime dedicated to such matters."

Who is Alvin Boyd Kuhn? He, along with Higgins and Massey, is given the title 'Egyptologist,' and is regarded by Harpur as "one of the single greatest geniuses of the twentieth century . . . [towering] above all others of recent memory in intellect and his understanding of the world's religious." Kuhn, he writes, "has more to offer the Church than all the scholars of the Jesus Seminar together. More than John Spong . . . C.S. Lewis . . . Joseph Campbell or Matthew Fox. I remain stunned at the silence with which his writings have been greeted by scholars."

As it turns out, Kuhn was a high school language teacher who earned a PhD from Columbia University by writing a dissertation on Theosophy. A prodigious author and lecturer, he had difficulty finding a publisher for his works; most of them were self-published. His only link with an institution of higher learning was a short stint as the secretary to the president of a small college.

I sent an email to 20 of the world's leading Egyptologists, outlining the following claims put forth by Kuhn (and hence Harpur):

* That the name of Jesus was derived from the Egyptian "Iusa," which means "the coming divine Son who heals or saves".

* That the god Horus is "an Egyptian Christos, or Christ.... He and his mother, Isis, were the forerunners of the Christian Madonna and Child, and together they constituted a leading image in Egyptian religion for millennia prior to the Gospels."

* That Horus also "had a virgin birth, and that in one of his roles, he was 'a fisher of men with twelve followers.'"

* That "the letters KRST appear on Egyptian mummy coffins many centuries BCE, and . . . this word, when the vowels are filled in, is really Karast or Krist, signifying Christ."

* That the doctrine of the incarnation "is in fact the oldest, most universal mythos known to religion. It was current in the Osirian religion in Egypt at least four thousand years BCE."

Only one of the 10 experts who responded to my questions had ever heard of Kuhn, Higgins or Massey! Professor Kenneth A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool pointed out that not one of these men is mentioned in M. L. Bierbrier's Who Was Who in Egyptology (1995), nor are any of their works listed in Ida B. Pratt's very extensive bibliography on Ancient Egypt (1925/1942). Since he died in 1834, Kitchen noted, "nothing by Higgins could be of any value whatsoever, because decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs was still being finalized, very few texts were translated, and certainly not the vast mass of first-hand religious data."

Another distinguished Egyptologist wrote: "Egyptology has the unenviable distinction of being one of those disciplines that almost anyone can lay claim to, and the unfortunate distinction of being probably the one most beleaguered by false prophets." He goes on to refer to Kuhn's "fringe nonsense."

The responding scholars were unanimous in dismissing the suggested etymologies for Jesus and Christ. Professor Peter F. Dorman, of the University of Chicago, commented: "It is often tempting to suggest simplistic etymologies between Egyptian and Greek (or other languages), but similar sequences of consonants and/or vowels are insufficient to demonstrate any convincing connection."

Ron Leprohan, of the University of Toronto, pointed out that, while "sa" means "son" in ancient Egyptian and "iu" means 'to come," Kuhn/Harpur have the syntax all wrong. In any event, the name 'Iusa' simply does not exist in Egyptian. The name 'Jesus' is a Greek derivation of a Semitic name ("Jeshu'a") borne by many people in the first century.

While the image of the baby Horus with Isis has influenced the Christian iconography of Madonna and Child, this is where the similarity stops. The image of Mary and Jesus is not one of the earliest Christian images, and, at any rate, there is no evidence for the idea that Horus was virgin born. And the New Testament Mary was certainly not a goddess (like Isis).

There is no evidence for the idea that Horus was 'a fisher of men' -- or that his followers, the King's officials, were ever 12 in number. KRST is the word for "burial" ("coffin" is written "KRSW"), but there is no evidence whatsoever to link this with the Greek title "Christos" or the Hebrew "Mashiah".

There is no mention of Osiris in Egyptian texts until about 2350 BC; so Harpur's reference to the origins of Osirian religion is off by more than a millennium and a half. Elsewhere, Harpur refers to "Jesus in Egyptian lore as early as 18,000 BCE"; and he quotes Kuhn as claiming that "the Jesus who stands as the founder of Christianity was at least 10,000 years of age." In fact, the earliest extant writing that we have dates from about 3200 BCE.

Kuhn/Harper's redefinition of "incarnation," and their attempt to root this in Egyptian religion, is regarded as bogus by all the Egyptologists I consulted. According to one: "Only the pharaoh was believed to have a divine aspect, the divine power of kingship, incarnated in the human being currently serving as the king. No other Egyptians ever believed they possessed even 'a little bit of the divine'."

Virtually none of the alleged evidence for the views put forward in The Pagan Christ is documented by reference to original sources. The notes refer mainly to Kuhn, Higgins, Massey or some other long-out-of-date work. Very occasionally, there is a reference to a more contemporary work of scholarship, but this often has little or nothing to do with the point made.

Very few of the books listed in the bibliography are recent. Works that are a century or more old are listed by the date of the most recent edition. The notes abound with errors and omissions. If you look for supporting evidence for a particular point made by the author, it is not there. Many quotations are taken out of context and interpreted in a very different sense from what their author originally meant (especially the early church fathers).

Harpur's book is chock full of questionable claims, such as:

* That prior to the fourth century "it was believed that the coming of the Messiah, or Christ, was taking place in the life of every person at all times."

* That "Christianity began as a cult with almost wholly Pagan origins and motivations in the first century."

* That nearly all of the most creative leaders of the earliest church were pronounced heretics and reviled by "those who had swept in and grabbed control of [church] policies."

* That "the mystical/allegorical method of interpreting the sacred Scripture . . . was replaced by a wholly literal/historical approach" (presumably, in the fourth century).

* That "apart from the four Gospels . . . and the Epistles, there is no hard, historical evidence for Jesus' existence coming out of the first century at all."

* That Albert Schweitzer "concluded that there was no traditional Jesus of Nazareth as a historical person."

* That "Paul's Jesus lacks any human quality for the very reason that, in Paul's understanding, he was not a human person at all."

According to Harpur, Christian scholars have a vested interest in maintaining the myth that there was an actual Jesus who lived in history. First, he insists, there was "the greatest cover-up of all time" at the beginning of the fourth century; and thousands of Christian scholars are now participants in this on-going cover-up.

This perspective misses the fact that, for several generations, there have been professors of religious and biblical studies who are Jewish, Unitarian, members of every Christian denomination -- and many of no professed religious persuasion. And there are no religious tests for chairs in Egyptology. Presumably, the Jewish, Unitarian, secular and many very liberal Christians who happen to be recognized scholars have no axes to grind regarding whether or not Jesus actually lived, or whether most of the ideas found in the Bible stem from Egyptian or other Near Eastern religion.

If one were able to identify all of the non-Christian members of the major learned societies dealing with antiquity, it would be unlikely that you could find more than a handful who believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not walk the dusty roads of Palestine in the first three decades of the Common Era. Evidence for Jesus as a historical personage is incontrovertible.

Rather than appeal to primary scholarship, Tom Harpur has based The Pagan Christ on the work of self-appointed 'scholars' who seek to excavate the literary and archaeological resources of the ancient world the same way an avid crossword puzzle enthusiast mines dictionaries and lists of words.

W. Ward Gasque is a co-founder of Regent College in Vancouver, and a historian of early Christianity.