Is Jesus Christ a Mythical Entity Prefigured by Osiris-Horus Mythology? A Response to Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, Part One

In his book, The Pagan Christ, Tom Harpur makes the sensational claim that Jesus Christ was not a historical man but an allegorical symbol that evolved from ancient Pagan religions. Harpur asserts that “Christianity was turned in the early centuries into a literalist copy of a resplendent spiritual forerunner…There is nothing the Jesus of the Gospels either said or did…that cannot be shown to have originated thousands of years before, in Egyptian Mystery rites and other sacred liturgies.”[1] One allegation Harpur makes is that the ancient Egyptian god Horus was a theological forerunner of a mythical Jesus; he supports this idea with what he considers credible evidence for a multitude of parallels between the two figures. Careful examination of the actual historical data reveals that Harpur’s thesis is deeply flawed, relying upon unsubstantiated source material, speculation, rhetoric, and erroneous interpretation of documented history.  There are actually excellent reasons to believe that Jesus walked the earth as a literal man and that the Gospel accounts are not religious plagiarism of Pagan mythology.

Did Jesus Really Exist?

            Harpur devotes an entire chapter of his book to the idea that Jesus never existed as a literal person in history. He laces his argument with patronizing rhetoric:

I am fully aware that the discussion that follows will be at first quite intimidating for some…To claim that a historical figure who has inspired so much love and devotion over centuries is in fact a mythical copy of many preceding saviors is somewhat of a shock, I know…But in matters of faith, as in all else, truth demands my allegiance over everything…[2]

He repeatedly assures the reader that his belief that Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed was not an easy conclusion to accept, and uses persuasive language intended to make his reader feel as if they are in dire need of enlightenment about the truth of the matter. He liberally tosses around phrases such as “most Bible theologians agree” to give artificial authority to his assertions, and discounts the Gospels by claiming late authorship dates. But as the late F.F. Bruce (distinguished scholar of biblical history and literature) remarked, “The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories.”[3]

A significant problem in Harpur’s estimation is what he considers a virtual lack of first-century extra-biblical evidence for the existence of Jesus. He says, “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.”[4] It seems that Harpur didn’t research this supposition sufficiently. There are in fact several credible first-century secular sources that refer to Jesus as a historical person. Secular sources are particularly good; their records of a religious leader and the events surrounding his life can be taken into consideration without suspicion of religious motive.

Around A.D. 52, the historian Thallus wrote an account that spanned the time between the Trojan War and his own time.[5] In the third book of his histories, he attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for the darkness that covered the land during Jesus’ crucifixion; he attributes the darkness to an eclipse of the sun (an unviable explanation, since Jesus died during the time of a full moon).[6] Notice that Thallus did not endorse the miraculous concerning the events of Christ’s life and death and attempted to explain away any phenomena in question. Surely he wouldn’t have bothered to include this in his historical writings if Jesus was a mythical rather than literal person.

Another excellent example is the writing of Cornelius Tacitus (c. A.D. 55-120), who is considered one of the great historians of ancientRome. In writing about Nero’s attempt to divert attention from speculation surrounding the fire ofRome, Tacitus refers to Jesus Christ (“Christus”—a common Pagan misspelling) and “Christians”:

[Nero was] believed to have ordered…the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judeain the reign of Tiberius…[7]

Obviously, a serious historian (and a secular one at that) wouldn’t treat a mythical figure as a literal person; it is safe to assume that Tacitus considered Jesus historical.

            A frequently cited non-Christian source that attests to the historicity of Jesus is Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities. Josephus, a Jewish aristocrat, was born around 36 A.D. There has been heated debate among scholars about his surviving works, because there is reason to believe that certain lines of text were inserted by later Christian editors. However, there are passages considered by the vast majority of scholars to be authentic that refer to Jesus as a real person.[8] For example, in Antiquities XX, 9, Josephus mentions both Jesus and Jesus’ brother James. He says, “[Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”[9] Obviously, mythical figures don’t have brothers who are executed by historically documented government officials.

Interestingly, Harpur does believe that the Apostle Paul was a historical figure, even though there is no more extra-biblical attestation to his existence than Jesus’.[10] Concerning Paul’s letters, however, Harpur argues that those writings do not attest to a historical Jesus, but rather take an esoteric, allegorical approach.[11] He says, “Paul never once mentions the man Jesus, in the full historical sense…most Bible theologians agree that even when he [mentions Jesus], he is not talking about a man of flesh and blood, a historical person.”[12]  Contrary to this fantastical notion, there are quite a few passages in Paul’s letters that are easily interpreted as referring to a literal man. For example, Paul says in Romans 1:1-3, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh.”[13] The phrase “born…according to the flesh” has the obvious connotation of an actual physical birth. Various passages in other letters mention Jesus eating a meal and having brothers (such as the aforementioned James). I Timothy6:13 mentions Jesus testifying before Pontius Pilate (a historical figure) and numerous passages talk about Jesus’ subsequent crucifixion and death. It’s clear that Paul considered Jesus a real man; Harpur’s claim to the contrary is utterly groundless.

Harpur assigns late dates of authorship to the Gospel accounts in an attempt to reduce their credibility as literal history. He says that their “full witness” wasn’t established until sometime between 140 and 170 A.D.[14] This is a misleading statement. According to Robert Bowman, even non-conservative dating for the authorship of all four Gospels places them all between the 60’s and 90’s A.D. Harpur may be referring to the earliest date for when the Gospels are known to have been circulating together. It is unclear why a second century compilation of the Gospels (if that assertion is even accurate), in Harpur’s opinion, reduces their reliability as literal history. It is commonly held that the accounts were brought together as a four-fold Gospel very early in the second century; the harmony and common information in the four accounts is strong evidence that the writers weren’t independently piecing together mythology from various Pagan sources. 

Ultimately, we can confidently conclude that Jesus Christ was a flesh-and-blood man who walked the earth during the first century. Despite Harpur’s claim to the contrary, credible historians and biblical scholars do not share his view. The Gospel accounts convey a coherent history of Jesus’ life on earth, and the possibility that they circulated independently for a few decades is irrelevant to any argument against their records being literal. First-century extra-biblical evidence supports the biblical history and has convinced serious scholars of a literal Jesus.

[1] Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ (New York,NY: Walker & Company, 2004): 10.

[2] Ibid., 158

[3] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999): 120.

[4] Harpur, 160.

[5] McDowell, 122.

[6] Ibid.

[7] McDowell, 121.

[8] McDowell, 126.

[9] Josephus, Antiquities, XX, 9. Josephus: The Complete Works Translated by William Whiston (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998): 645.

[10] Stephen Bedard and Stanley Porter, Unmasking the Pagan Christ (Toronto,Ontario: Clements Publishers, 2006): 122.

[11] Harpur, 19.

[12] Harpur, 167.

[13] Romans 1:1-3,NASB.

[14] Harpur, 160.

One thought on “Is Jesus Christ a Mythical Entity Prefigured by Osiris-Horus Mythology? A Response to Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, Part One

  1. I took part in a lengthy discussion on the historic reliability of the Bible in general just this past week. This article will be forwarded directly to him and will hopefully help with the names and dates that I admittedly did not have memorized. 🙂

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