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The Leading Religion Writer in Canada ... Does He Know What He's Talking About?

Tom Harpur began his career as an Anglican priest and professor of New Testament at Wycliffe College, Toronto. Just over thirty years ago, he moved from academia into journalism. Today, he is perhaps the leading religion writer in Canada.

The Pagan Christ is the story of his discovery of the writings of one Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880-1963) and two earlier writers (Godfrey Higgins [1771-1834] and Gerald Massey [1828-1907]), who argued that all of the essential ideas of both Judaism and Christianity came primarily from Egyptian religion.

Toward the end of the third Christian century, the leaders of the church began to misinterpret the Bible. Prior to this, no one ever understood the Bible to be literally true. Earlier, in keeping with all other religions, the narrative material of the Hebrew and Greek Bible was interpreted as myth or symbol, read as allegory and metaphor rather than as history.

According to Harpur, there is no evidence that Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. He claims that virtually all of the details of the life and teachings of Jesus have their counterpart in Egyptian religious ideas. He does not quote any contemporary Egyptologist or recognized academic authority on world religions nor appeal to any of the standard reference books in Egyptology or to any primary sources. Rather, he is entirely dependent on the work of Kuhn (and Higgins & Massey).

Who is Alvin Boyd Kuhn? He is given the title ‘Egyptologist’ and is regarded by Harpur as “one of the single greatest geniuses of the twentieth century” [who] “towers above all others of recent memory in intellect and his understanding of the world’s religious.”

As it turns out, Kuhn was a high school language teacher who was an enthusiastic proponent of Theosophy, a prodigious author and lecturer, who self-published most of his books.

Not being myself an expert in Egyptian religion, I consulted those who are about their views of contribution that Kuhn, Higgins and Massey have made to Egyptology and whether they thought some of the key ideas of The Pagan Christ well grounded. So I sent an email to twenty leading Egyptologists — in Canada, USA, UK, Australia, Germany, and Austria.

I noted as a sample the following claims put forth by Kuhn (and hence Harpur):

•That the name of Jesus was derived from the Egyptian “Iusa,” which means "the coming divine Son who heals or saves".

•That the god Horus is "an Egyptian Christos, or Christ.... He and his mother, Isis, were the forerunners of the Christian Madonna and Child, and together they constituted a leading image in Egyptian religion for millennia prior to the Gospels."

•That Horus also "had a virgin birth, and that in one of his roles, he was 'a fisher of men with twelve followers.'"

•That “the letters KRST appear on Egyptian mummy coffins many centuries BCE, and ... this word, when the vowels are filled in., is really Karast or Krist, signifying Christ."

•That the doctrine of the incarnation "is in fact the oldest, most universal mythos known to religion. It was current in the Osirian religion in Egypt at least four thousand years BCE"

•Only one of the ten experts who responded to my questions had ever heard of Kuhn, Higgins or Massey!

Professor Kenneth A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool pointed out that not one of these men is mentioned in M. L. Bierbrier’s Who Was Who in Egyptology (3rd ed, 1995), nor is any of their works listed in Ida B. Pratt’s very extensive bibliography on Ancient Egypt (1925/1942).

Another distinguished Egyptologist wrote: “Egyptology has the unenviable distinction of being one of those disciplines that almost anyone can lay claim to, and the unfortunate distinction of being probably the one most beleaguered by false prophets. He goes on to refer to Kuhn’s “fringe nonsense.”

The responding scholars were unanimous in dismissing the suggested etymologies for Jesus and Christ.

Ron Leprohan, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Toronto, pointed out that while “sa” means “son” in ancient Egyptian and “iu” means ‘to come,” but Kuhn/Harpur have the syntax all wrong. In any event, the name ‘Iusa’ simply does not exist in Egyptian.

The name ‘Jesus’ is Greek from a universally recognized west Semitic name (“Jeshu’a”), borne not merely by the central figure in the New Testament but also by many other people in the first century.

While all recognize that the image of the baby Horus and Isis has influenced the Christian iconography of Madonna and Child, this is where the similarity stops. There is no evidence for the idea that Horus was virgin born.

There is no evidence for the idea that Horus was ‘a fisher of men’ or that his followers (the King’s officials were called ‘Followers of Horus”) were ever twelve in number.

KRST is the word for “burial” (“coffin” is written “KRSW”), but there is no evidence whatsoever to link this with the Greek title “Christos” or Hebrew “Mashiah”.

There is no mention of Osiris in Egyptian texts until about 2350 BC, so Harpur’s reference to the origins of Osirian religion is off by more than a millennium and a half. (Elsewhere Harpur refers to “Jesus in Egyptian lore as early as 18,000 BCE” and he quotes Kuhn as claiming that “the Jesus who stands as the founder of Christianity was at least 10,000 years of age.” In fact, the earliest extant writing that we have dates from about 3200 BCE.)

Kuhn/Harper’s redefinition of “incarnation” and rooting this in Egyptian religion is regarded as bogus by all of the Egyptologists with whom I have consulted. According to one: “Only the pharaoh was believed to have a divine aspect, the divine power of kingship, incarnated in the human being currently serving as the king. No other Egyptians ever believed they possessed even ‘a little bit of the divine’.”

Virtually none of the alleged evidence for the views put forward in The Pagan Christ is documented by reference to original sources. The notes refer mainly to Kuhn, Higgins, Massey, or some other long-out-of-date work.

Furthermore, Harpur's notes abound with errors and omissions. If you look for supporting evidence for a particular point made by the author, it is not there. Many quotations are taken out of context and interpreted in a very different sense from what their author originally meant (especially the early church fathers).

Acording to Harpur, Christian scholars have a vested interest in maintaining the myth that there was an actual Jesus who lived in history. First, he insists, there was "the greatest cover-up of all time" at the beginning of the fourth century; and thousands of Christian scholars are now participants in this on-going cover-up.

This perspective misses the fact that, for several generations, there have been professors of religious and biblical studies who are Jewish, Unitarian, members of every Christian denomination -- and many of no professed religious persuasion. And there are no religious tests for chairs in Egyptology. Presumably, the Jewish, Unitarian, secular and many very liberal Christians who happen to be recognized scholars have no axes to grind regarding whether or not Jesus actually lived, or whether most of the ideas found in the Bible stem from Egyptian or other Near Eastern religion.

If one were able to survey of the members of the major learned societies dealing with antiquity, it would be difficult to find more than a handful who believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not walk the dusty roads of Palestine in the first three decades of the Common Era. Evidence for Jesus as a historical personage is incontrovertible.

Rather than appeal to primary scholarship, Tom Harpur has based The Pagan Christ on the work of self-appointed "scholars" who seek to excavate the literary and archaeological resources of the ancient world the same way an avid crossword puzzle enthusiast mines dictionaries and lists of words. In short, Harpur's book tells us more about himself than it does about the origins of Christianity (or Judaism).