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Unmasking the Pagan Christ: An Evangelical Response to the Cosmic Christ Idea Paperback – June 1, 2006
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About the Author
Stanley E. Porter is President and Dean, and Professor of New Testament, at McMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Porter has M.A. degrees from Claremont Graduate School and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and the Ph.D. from the University of Sheffield. He has written widely on issues of concern in study of the New Testament, such as Jesus, Paul, the book of Acts, and John. He has a passion for education in the church, and preaches and teaches regularly. Stephen J. Bedard is the pastor of Woodford Baptist Church and First Baptist Church, Meaford, Ontario, Canada. He holds the M.Div. and M.Th. degrees from McMaster Divinity College, and is actively engaged in further graduate study. Bedard is an advocate of informed preaching and teaching, and is devoted to the ministry of the local church.
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Unfortunately, only one chapter was dedicated to refuting the claim that Christianity borrowed from Mithra-ism. It was a good chapter, but I wish there was more treatment on this topic. That is why I had to subtract one star.
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, 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.
I give it 4 stars because of its effectiveness in refuting the target. But this is kind of like giving 4 stars for accurately shooting fish in a barrel. Probably 3 and 1/2 would be more appropriate.
Such is the case with Harpur's book. Harpur's idea is that Jesus wasn't a historical figure. Instead, he's a sort of mishmash of varios pagan deities, though especially Horus and Osiris. He wants to go instead with a sort of Cosmic Christ. A universal Christ as it were. Yet to do this, the historical figure must simply be banished.
Thankfully, there are people out there like Bedard and Porter who are doing the work to make sure that this kind of material is dealt with. A large number of scholars have had the right attitude towards mythicism (This is nonsense) but had the wrong response. (Therefore if we ignore it, it will just go away.) This is especially so for Christian scholars who ignore this not at their peril, but at the peril of their fellow Christians who aren't as equipped.
Of course, atheistic scholars and others have a role to play in this as well. There are atheistic scholars out there who are frankly quite embarrassed by how many atheists are jumping on the mythicist bandwagon, as they should be. For atheists who complain about Christians arguing against them on evolution without studying science (And they are certainly right to do so!), it looks like too many atheists are jumping on this idea without really studying history.
Bedard and Porter take us through a course in what Egyptologists really say about Horus and Osiris and how what Harpur says just doesn't match up. They also demonstrate that Harpur relies on outdated scholarship like Massey and Kuhn, that quite frankly wasn't even taken seriously in its own day. One aspect I think quite helpful in the look at Egyptology is to point out that the word KRST that shows up in Egypt does not mean Christ, but rather refers to burial. This is commonly cited by mythicists.
The authors use the work of actual Egyptologists who reference what the original works about Horus and Osiris themselves say. They then demonstrate that the parallels that Harpur claims to see are more forced and read into the text instead of being read out of the text. They do demonstrate that there are some parallels, but these are parallels we can expect from all religions. (It's not much of a shock if many religions use water as a means of cleansing, have people share food together in a meal, etc.)
Along the way, the authors also give us a look at Mithras, another favorite of the pagan copycat crowd. They point out that if anyone dies and comes back in the story of Mithras, it is not Mithras, but rather it is the bull that he kills. Those who claim Christ is a copy of Mithras have likely never read any real scholarship on Mithras.
After that, we get to a more positive case. What is the evidence that Jesus existed? Here I think the authors do a fine job, though the arguments will not be new to people in this field. The authors point out how Harpur misunderstands sayings of the church fathers and does not deal adequately with the extra-biblical evidence.
I am thankful that books like this one exist and I hope more do come. Mythicism cannot be ignored at this point. It is not because it is a powerful theory. It is not. It is because it is a theory that leads away people from doing sound and real history. It results in a conspiracy theory thinking that is extremely anti-intellectual and anti-historical. It is my hope that scholars of all worldviews and positions will start to deal with this and give it the deathblow and humiliation that it deserves.
Deeper Waters Christian Ministries