Friday, April 3, 2015

The Pagan Christians

About a decade or so ago, the former Toronto Star religion columnist Tom Harpur (who was once an Anglican-church priest) published a book called the Pagan Christ, in which he argued that the Biblical stories of the Son of God have precedent in pagan legends.

Harpur’s thesis was met with much criticism. But the details of Christ’s life, as reported by the Apostles in the Bible, have much in common with (of all people) the classical-Greek mathematician Pythagoras.  

As historian Leonard Mlodinow writes in Euclid’s Window (The Free Press, 2001, p. 24): 

It is hard to believe that the myths told about Pythagoras did not influence the creation of some of the later stories about Christ. Pythagoras, for instance, was believed by many to be the son of God, in this case, Apollo. His mother was called Parthenis, which means "virgin." Before traveling to Egypt, Pythagoras lived the life of a hermit on Mount Carmel, like Christ's solitary vigil on the mountain. A Jewish sect, the Essenes, appropriated this 'myth and is said to have later had a connection to John the Baptist. There is also a myth that Pythagoras returned from the dead, although, according to the story, Pythagoras faked this by hiding in a secret underground chamber. Many of Christ's miraculous powers and deeds were first ascribed to Pythagoras: he is said to have appeared in two places at once; he could calm waters and control winds; he was once greeted by a divine voice; he was believed to have the ability to walk on water. Pythagoras' philosophy also had some similarities to that of Christ. For instance, he preached that you should love your enemies...

There is no question, too, that most, or even all of the Christian holidays were adopted from pagan festivals. Thus, All Hallows’ Eve, the day prior to All-Saints’ Day, is celebrated widely by children and adults alike as “Halloween”. Its origins are in the harvest festivals marked by pagans of the Celtic peoples of Britain, before the arrival of Christianity, or even the Romans themselves. 

The exact birthdate of Joshua ben-Joseph is unknown; but it almost certainly wasn't the 25th of December, the date upon which, for centuries now, Christians have celebrated the appearance of their Saviour (it seems more likely that Jesus was born during the spring). 

December 25 was, in the Roman world, the date of the Saturnalia festival, known for hedonistic disregard for care and responsibility (as conveyed in the term “saturnalian”). 

Similar festivities were held in the pagan medieval world prior to Christianization. 

It is clear that the Roman church, eager to convert the European heathens to the One True Faith, simply took over the Saturnalia festival, and remaking into the date of the birth of Christ. Even so, the rituals known to the pagan December 25th, were maintained as it became a Christian holiday. 

Happy Holidays!

The ethologist Desmond Morris looked into the origins of Christmas rituals. Almost without exception though, they are all derived from pagan practices: the Christmas tree, the hanging of mistletoe, wreaths, etc. 

In fact, the rituals of Christmas are so obviously pagan that the Puritan republic of Oliver Cromwell in Britain between 1649 and 1660, actually banned the celebration of the holiday. It was also banned in Boston between 1659 and 1681.  

This weekend is, in 2015, when we mark the death and resurrection of Jesus, which in the English-speaking world is called “Easter” (in French, it is called “Paque”, which recalls the Jewish holiday held simultaneously, Passover, when according to the Old Testament, Yahweh sent plagues upon the Egyptian people, which in turn “passed over” the residences of their Jewish slaves, aiding their escape from bondage and the commencement of their journey to the Holy Land). 

The English-language name, however, conveys more accurately the origins of the holiday in pagan festivity. The term “Easter” itself shares the same etymological roots as “estrogen” and “estrous” and similar terms indicating the female reproductive cycle (not to mention, the given-name “Esther”). Easter was, in other words, the traditional fertility celebration of pagan Europeans. Bede the Venerable, the Anglo-Saxon monk of the eighth century AD, described just such rites, related to the worship of the Germanic fertility goddess Ä’ostre


These fertility rituals are unwittingly played out in contemporary times with such activities as the Easter-egg hunt, the identification of the holiday with the rabbit (probably the most fecund of mammals), not to mention the icons in chocolate of the bunny itself (and indeed, these days, fetishes of all the other things that kids love). 

So, when it is said that the Christian holidays are being corrupted and betrayed by this sort of paganism, the reality is that in our modern “post-industrial”, “post-modern” society, people engage in rituals that began thousands of years ago, in agricultural, even pre-civilized cultures.

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