The "Pagan Christs" is a term given to figures who match some of the characteristics of the story we associate with Jesus of Nazareth. In the times previous to Jesus, there are said to be other figures who died and rose again. The story of Isis and Osiris is one, for example. It is said that there are many of these dying and rising god stories. James Frazer's The Golden Bough is the classic text for this thesis. A scholarly Christian refutation of Frazer is A D Nock's book Early Gentile Christianity and its Hellenistic Background. One of the more recent academic text dealing with the area seems to be The Riddle of Resurrection Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East by Tryggve Mettinger. A great website for a quick intro, even if you disagree with its conclusions is Pagan Origins of the Christian Myth.
When I began to read Tom Harpur's "The Pagan Christ," I did an internet search on the issue and was surprised by the frequency of debate and its passion. It clearly goes beyond :the "academic" and touches people's beliefs deeply.
Apparently there is some neat footwork among scholars as to just what constitutes a dying and rising God. But that aside, there is no doubt there are pre Christian stories that do sound very similar to parts of the Christian story. The question is, what does it matter if there are stories of other figures who died and rose again, or are shown on crosses, or who had 12 disciples? Does it matter if there is not only one of these stories, but several or even many?
If a person has assented to the idea that Christianity is unique and, or, that the bible is literally inerrant, then the idea that there are pagan Christ stories will hardly be welcome. A person could argue that these stories were partial pre-recognitions of the Truth, and that Christianity was the final understanding and revelation of the Truth. But they would be disconcerted (at least) by the claims that some authors make that the pagan christs are in fact a refutation of Christianity's unique status.
However, if we were hostile to the church for some reason, or skeptical, then the claims of the pagan christs might be welcome. What authority can the church claim, we might ask. It is simply one more reiteration of the same old legends. We are seeing one more example of how ignorant and wrong it is.
If we have a sense of something more to life than just the obvious physical that surrounds us, and if we have found the Christ story helpful, or a channel, for the understanding of that sense, then why would we be surprised by the story of a pagan Christ? If there is some overarching presence, some thing we may call the divine, is it surprising that different people in different times and places would have similar experiences of it? If Islamic believers can write a prayer that an unknowing Christian might feel speaks of God, is it surprising that some of the deep stories of the soul are the same. I would expect that the great stories are the same. Would it matter if the tradition I have found helpful and life giving had recognised truth in another and borrowed from it?
In fact, if I have some sense of God, which I tell you relates to the ultimates of our existence, and if I am afraid of your stories of similar gods, what does it say? It says my god is too small. It betrays the shallowness of my experience, and says my faith is too little, and is itself derived, not experienced.
Posted April 2005
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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