The Pagan Christ:
Recovering the Lost Light
Thomas Allen Publishers
A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother
by Gwen Nowak
Review published in Books in Canada, August 2004.
Christians today are caught on the cusp of a conundrum of mythic proportions. In fact, the issue at hand is the nature of myth itself. The area under intense scrutiny is that undefined interface between history and myth. Christian fundamentalists argue that the Bible should be read as historyas literal history. Other interpreters, most recently Tom Harpur, argue that the Bible must be read metaphorically, as myth. Many others have argued that the Bible needs to be read both ways, including historian D. H. Akenson [Surpassing Wonder 1998] and theologian Marcus Borg [The Heart of Christianity 2003].
At the centre of the swirling debate is the man Jesus aka ‘The Christ.’ At the margin is the mother of Jesus, most often referred to as ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’ but also recognized as Miriam [Hebrew] or Maryam [Aramaic] as a result of recent quests for the historical Mary of Nazareth.
A tumult of countervailing commentary and opinion was generated by Mel Gibson’s ‘take’ on Jesus in his movie The Passion of The Christ, released to coincide with Christian Holy Week 2004. A portion of the heated exchange is relevant to the history vs. myth conundrum. Gibson’s stunning [sic] portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus caused secular critics to argue that no human being could have survived Gibson’s version of the scourging long enough to be actually crucified. Faithful Christians countered that Gibson’s Jesus, properly referred to as ‘The Christ’, was divine ergo he was superhuman ergo he could ‘naturally’ survive all extremes of human torture. Most agreed that Mary fulfilled her marginal movie role as grieving mother with amazing grace.
Meanwhile millions of people have been reading Dan Brown’s phenomenally successful novel The Da Vinci Code as fact, when it is in fact a fiction. In this novel Jesus is just a man i.e., fully human not divine. Brown’s Jesus does not die by crucifixion, he marries Mary Magdalene and has children whose descendants now live in France. [Imagine Mary not as iconic Virgin Mother but as fully human grandmother.] Biblical scholars and clergy have responded to Brown’s very real though fictional threat to the traditional, and in their view factual, doctrine of the divinity of Jesus by producing a plethora of pamphlets and books to prove that Brown’s ‘take’ on Jesus is a mis-take.
Tom Harpur rushed to press his latest and most controversial book The Pagan Christ in order to catch the phenomenal wave of attention generated by Gibson’s Jesus. Harpur’s stunning proclamation that the bible is pure myth that there never was a historical Jesus runs directly counter to Christian orthodoxy [Gibson’s view] that Jesus was both human and divine as well as to Brown’s fictional version, the just plain human Jesus. Given Harpur’s reputation as a biblical scholar and theologian as well as the large readership of his Toronto Star column of many years, it is not surprising that The Pagan Christ is selling very well. This of course generates more work for defenders of orthodoxy who see Harpur as all-mightily misguided when he eliminates the historical Jesus but retains a mythical/divine Christ. There seems to be less concern that Harpur discards the historical Mary along with her son.
Meanwhile Mary appears, albeit on the media margins, by way of the latest book by award-winning author Lesley Hazleton. Hazleton’s catchy subtitle promises a “flesh-and-blood biography of the Virgin Mother.” Should Harpur happen to see Hazleton’s Mary displayed beside his Pagan Christ he would likely scoff. Given his relatively recent conversion to the conclusion that Jesus never lived as a flesh-and-blood son of any flesh-and-blood mom Harpur would presumably dismiss Hazleton’s Mary as yet another corruption of ‘bible history.’ [He might prefer Charlene Spretnak’s latest book, Missing Mary. The Mary of Spretnak’s personal quest is not the homespun Nazarene woman of the Gospels but rather the great mythic “Queen of Heaven” so unceremoniously dethroned at Vatican II.]
Interestingly, both Hazleton and Harpur have spent the last several years working out their hypotheses about the historic/mythic nature of their subjects, both writers presumably unaware of the research and conclusions of the other. Yet somewhat serendipitously the blue/black/white covers of both their books do blend rather nicely, a blend that belies the two author’s very different assumptions and resolutions about just who Jesus and Mary might have been.
Hazleton assumes that in spite of the astonishingly sparse data that we have about the mother of Jesus in the New Testament, that she did in fact exist there is a real woman to be found, or recovered. Hazleton attempts to draw a kind of composite portrait of such a woman by sifting through the scant references to Mary [the Galilean Maryam] in the New Testament. As well she follows in the footsteps of other researchers looking for the historical Mary by investigating the historical anthropological social context of the Palestine of Mary’s time.
Harpur assumes that the astonishingly sparse historical data about Jesus outside of the New Testament is unquestionable support for his claim that the historical Jesus never existed. Harpur labours to present, or re-present, Jesus as one more mythic iteration of the archetypal dying/rising/god/man clones of the ancient world. To this end he reprises extensively the research and conclusions of previous scholars who discovered significant parallels for NT imagery and action in the much earlier mythos of ancient Egypt. Harpur endorses the conclusion of these scholars that the NT Jesus was a fully rescripted version of the god Horus of the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
Both Hazleton and Harpur carefully address some of the same notions and problems. Both authors offer correctives to the traditional and negative understanding of the term ‘pagan’; they both critically examine the problematic second to fourth centuries c.e. when so many gnostic gospels were repressed or destroyed; they both explore the relevance of myth, allegory and symbol as they inform meaning for sacred texts; and both see fundamentalist literalist interpretations of scripture as entirely misguided. They also agree that Christianity was never a brand new religion with a brand new story and a brand new symbol system.
But Hazleton and Harpur do not work out of the same context. Hazleton labours to show Jesus’ mother, the Galilean Maryam, grounded in place and time, in local geography and contemporary history, as well as the prevailing mythologies of her time. So Hazleton offers extended tours of Galilee and environs; she provides a lengthy reprise of background events from contemporary Jewish historian Josephus; and she parses in detail the Isis and Horus mythology, with emphasis on her putative Maryam’s connection with the ubiquitous Isis. Hazleton articulates her final resolution of the tension between the historical and mythical manifestations of Mary with relaxed confidence: “For if Jesus was the spiritual child of Wisdom, he was also the earthly child of Maryam. He could be seen as having two mothers - or the two mothers, the spiritual and the earthly, could be seen as one.”
In striking contrast, Harpur labours to show Jesus grounded in ancient mythology, specifically in the figure of the Egyptian god Horus, a dying/rising god figure who is in turn grounded in the great surround of nature and the cosmos. Harpur views every biblical reference to history as mere historical dress for what is actually Judaeo-Christianity’s extended allegory about Incarnation the indwelling of God or divine essence in every human. He points out that the notion of divine indwelling is not unique to Christianity but is “the central teaching of all ancient belief systems everywhere.” In full agreement with his selected sources Harpur states that Christianity’s orthodox dogma about Incarnation is entirely bogus when it limits Incarnation to one historical man who lived [not!] 2000 years ago. For Harpur Incarnation is a true myth i.e., not a fiction, a myth that, properly understood, reopens the door to authentic cosmic Christianity. Meanwhile Harpur presses his readers to accept his conclusion that the historical data seemingly present in the NT does not permit a historical interpretation of the narrative. He dismisses Josephus’ several references to a historical Jesus as entirely unreliable, a conclusion that respected historian D. H. Akenson rejects [Surpassing Wonder]. As well, Harpur intimates that John the Baptist of the Gospels was also a rescript of a mythical figure in the Egyptian mythos without offering to explain how a mythic John could have been accorded solid historical status by Josephus. An alert reader of such a rigorously one-sided vision might justifiably wonder if s/he is being pressured to throw out the historical baby to preserve the mythic bathwater.
In contrast to Harpur’s heated evangelical urgency to eliminate the historical Jesus, Hazleton seems the epitome of cool objectivity about her recovery of a historical Mary. Unfortunately, her subtitle’s promise of a ‘biography’ does prove misleading. Hazleton’s Maryam emerges as a sketchy heroine of variable narrative possibilities, especially when Hazleton considers the ancient and bedevilled question of the paternity of Jesus. According to Hazleton, Joseph may have been Jesus’ biological father; or he may not have existed at all [Harpur’s view]. Maryam could have been a victim of rape by a Roman soldier; on the other hand the rapist might have been a man from the local community. Not to worry, Maryam and her illegitimate child would easily and unquestioningly be integrated into Maryam’s extended family. None of the residual hints in the Gospels themselves that the conception of Jesus was a public scandal intrude on Hazleton’s idealized rendering of the relationship between Maryam and her healer/rebel son. And even though the Gospel of Luke highlights the solidarity between Maryam and her much older relative Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, Hazleton does not include Elizabeth in the story. Instead she creates for Maryam a wholly fictional, fairy/god/grandmother named Salome. Harpur might well use Hazleton’s virtual Maryam as more proof positive that the quest for a historical Mary is futile because, as he claims, no historical figure embodying the Virgin Mother archetype ever actually existed.
In spite of the above caveats, those who see the mythic/historic debate as crucial and compelling should add The Pagan Christ and Mary to their reading lists. Harpur will sharply raise the consciousness of Christians who feel oh so cozy/comfortable with traditional triumphalist Christian historiography and orthodoxy. The material Harpur presents raises questions that need to be addressed, not repressed. But Harpur’s unwavering conclusion that “Christianity began as a cult with almost wholly Pagan origins and motivations in the first century” should not be taken as the last word on the subject. Hazleton does offer an elegantly discursive corrective to Harpur’s overhasty splitting of history and myth. Her confident exploration of paradox, divinity and mystery sheds light on the dialectical tension between history and myth. Hazleton endeavours to negotiate that tension; Harpur feels compelled to negate it.