Not Even Wrong -- Reviewing a Critique of Tom Harpur's The Pagan Christ

Written by Stanley E. Porter & Stephen J. Bedard, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea is a readable and short response to Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, which argues that Jesus never existed except as an allegorical understanding of true spirituality. New Testament scholars and historians usually avoid such marginal ideas, but – as Porter and Bedard explain – Harpur has garnered more attention than most advocates of the Jesus Myth (the notion that Jesus did not really exist). Given the vacuity of Harpur’s ideas, the only explanation for the attention is his credentials. Harpur seems to be an otherwise smart fellow, being a Rhodes Scholar and having taught Greek and New Testament at Wycliffe College.

Harpur’s main thesis is that Jesus did not exist as a real person, but only as a symbolic representation of universal spiritual principles based on pagan dying and rising savior figures. According to Harpur, Egyptian myth and religion as well as Mithraism (a pagan cult) are the true roots of Christianity. But as Porter and Bedard demonstrate in the first two-thirds of their book, Harpur’s argument rests on misrepresentations of the nature of the forerunning Egyptian beliefs, the couching of very different ideas and events in inapplicable Biblical terms, unsourced references to primary sources, dependence on secondary sources who themselves were even more wrong than Harpur, reversed chronologies (such as seeing Mithraic influences on Christianity when the reverse is much more likely) and a no-doubt genuine desire to fashion a universal religious ethic out of the world’s different religions.

After reading these chapters, the term “not even wrong” comes to mind as an apt description of Harpur’s reconstruction. Scientists use it to refer to theories that are so bad, so erroneous, so far off, that they are not even worthy of being called wrong. The notion that Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, death & resurrection are just recast Egpytian myths is so baseless it is not even wrong.

While performing their destructive work, Porter and Bedard provide a nice nutshell of Egyptian history and religious belief. The origins of development of the pertinent Egyptian myths are well-covered, though they could have been even more effective by highlighting the Jewish origins of so much that Harpur claims is pagan. However, given the effectiveness of what they do argue, this might have been seen as – in cold war terms – “bouncing the rubble.” Perhaps they were just showing mercy.

The last few chapters discuss the non-Christian evidence for Jesus, as well as a Harpur’s use of the Apostolic Fathers. The latter is fine and probably would have better served their purposes had it been moved up in the book. The discussion of non-Christian evidence for Jesus is very basic. It will be helpful for new comers to the debate, but anyone looking for more substantive discussion of these sources will best be served by reading Robert Van Voorst’s Jesus Outside the New Testament or even some of the online discussions at apologetics websites.

But the refutation is so easy despite some missed opportunities that it comes across to the informed reader like picking the low-lying fruit. Still, it is nice to see genuine New Testament scholars turning their attention to marginal but popularized theories about Jesus and early Christianity. I would like to see more, and more in-depth, books so doing.


Lurchling said…
Good post, the more I learn about the different viewpoints of scholars regarding the bible, the less I tend to take for granted what anyone with credentials says without backing it up. Each scholars methodology should be closely examined and withstand scrutiny amongst his/her academic field.

There is an apologetic website that has already given an extensive overview of Harpur here:
(JP of course).

Anonymous said…
Layman has done a fine book report with a scholarly flourish.

He points out how bad Harpur's book is, based, as it is, upon spurious parallelisms and fallacious etymologies. Another reviewer pointed out that Harpur's explanations are as bogus as the comparison of "gato" (cat in Sp.) with "gateau" (cake in Fr.) on the basis of their similar sound. Why would someone with Harpur's education (one who should know better) lower himself to this level. Surely, he knew full well what he was doing! It is therefore obvious that Harpur was cashing in on notoriety and the shock value of contradicting his 30 or 40 previous years as a leading evangelical in his church. This is cynical commercialism. We have seen it before. Sadly, the real "laymen" out there have no way to verify the sneakiness of Harpur's manipulations on behalf of his emolument. Harpur is fully aware of this.

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