Spoiler alert: if you’re a Christian who believes that today you celebrated the birth of someone who actually existed, stop reading--if you don’t want to run the risk of having your belief balloon punctured.
Harpur, a former Anglican priest and professor of Greek and New Testament at the University of Toronto, argues that Christianity is nothing more than warmed over Egyptian and Greek mythology. Jesus never existed as a historical personage. His Gospel story is an amalgamation of allegories that have no basis in literal fact.
Makes sense to me. But not for lots of others. I note that right now this book is selling for a rock-bottom $2.99 direct from Amazon. Probably the Christmas season is a slow period for books about the pagan origins of Christianity.
And Harpur, not surprisingly, comes in for some heavy criticism from erudite fundamentalists like James Patrick Holding.
My brain is still too much in my stomach after excessive gorging on a Christmas dinner to wade through Holding’s lengthy screed. I’ll simply observe that Bible skeptic Robert M. Price has his own extensive critique of Holding, along with critiques of numerous other apologists for Christian dogma.
Myself, I resonate with Harpur’s freeing message:
The personal Jesus concept is truly a limiting, and deeply divisive, dead end. The historical evidence simply isn’t there. It’s a classic example of the emperor’s having no clothes.
What is more, it commits idolatry by making a flesh-and-blood man into God—thus forever alienating Jews, Muslims, and believers of a host of other religions, and making full religious harmony on the planet a perpetual impossibility
It has, most notably in the United States, created a kind of passive-dependent Jesus cult totally prone to extreme magical thinking. It restricts Christhood to one person in all of history, instead of acknowledging the deep, archetypal power of a universal—yes, cosmic—principle and ideal.
Jordan Stratford is a Gnostic Christian blogger who likes “The Pagan Christ.” He straightforwardly lays out the choices: “Either Jesus Christ was a man who lived 2,000 years ago, suffered under Pontius Pilate and died, or he was not.”
Stratford points out, as does Harpur, that middle of the roaders like The Jesus Seminar participants try to have it both ways: Jesus really existed, but the Bible doesn’t accurately reflect who he was or what he taught. Stratford chooses one lane.
In my opinion it is far more honest to accept the premise, as put forth by a new current of writers including Freke and Gandy, that the Jesus story is entirely mythical with absolutely zero historicity.
So what happens with Christmas? If it isn’t a celebration of the birth of a once-real person, what is it? Just an opportunity to stoke the economy, or something more?
Harpur says that it definitely can be something more, so long as we take the Jesus story as a symbol of how divinity can be born in every person. He quotes John Dominic Crossan:
My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
We’ve got to wise up, Harpur advises.
This is to refute the charge that if the events of religious festivity are thrown out as non-historical, Christmas and Easter and ceremonies like them will lose all their gripping impressiveness.
On the contrary, [Alvin Boyd] Kuhn affirms, the symbols will exert a far weightier significance when they are envisioned truly as symbols and not falsely as events. I can only add that this has been my personal experience too.
The celebrations of Christmas and Easter have become infinitely more potent for me as I have learned to penetrate beyond the externals to the realities within. As Origen says, taken in its literal, allegedly historical sense, “Christ crucified is teaching for babes.”
Or, to quote St. Paul, “But when I became a mature man, I put away childish things.”
Yes, it’s time to grow up and become churchless.