It seems like a terrible idea for a Christmas documentary: What if Jesus Christ never walked the earth and the whole Jesus story is based on Egyptian myth and metaphor?
That’s the premise behind The Pagan Christ, an hour-long documentary airing tonight at 9 p.m. on CBC’s The Doc Zone. The special is based on journalist and theologian Tom Harpur’s 2004 best seller of the same name. That controversial book makes the argument that a close examination of Biblical scripture produces very little real evidence that Christ ever really existed. That the eye-witness testimony in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John comes down to a handful of sentences. That what little is there is contradictory.
Harpur goes much further, suggesting that the whole story of Jesus is ripped off from ancient Egyptian mythology. In particular, on the tales of Horus, an Egyptian man-god and miracle worker who also happened to be born of virgin.
The fib was concocted at the insistence of Constantine, a third century Roman emperor desperate to shore up his crumbling empire with an official religious order. He even ordered his department of homeland security to effect a massive cover up, destroying books and evidence that might contradict the new state dogma.
Ho-ho-no! Why stop there? Why not produce a documentary revealing that George Bailey really did abscond with the Building and Loan savings in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or that Rudolph’s nose glowed due to too much alcohol consumption, no doubt poured into him from Yukon Cornelius, in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or that the Grinch returned all the toys to Whoville at the end of How The Grinch Stole Christmas, only to be beaten to death by all the bitter Whos.
Harpur’s assertions go much further than mocking plotlines in holiday TV favorites. They strike at the very heart of Christian belief. But, then again, ‘tis the season to crucify the church. While a British school teacher nearly got jailed in Sudan over naming as toy teddy bear Mohammad, Jesus jokes abound on everything from Robot Chicken to Family Guy. Sales of The Da Vinci Code weren’t exactly slowed due to the controversial nature of that book.
“Da Vinci,” however, was a work of fiction. While some might argue so is The Pagan Christ, Harpur’s credentials as a religious expert cannot be dismissed. Besides being a long time religion columnist at the Toronto Star, he is an ordained Anglican priest and a Rhodes scholar who taught courses on the New Testament at the University of Toronto.
He also insists that accepting that Jesus never actually walked the earth should actually strengthen faith. Stop taking the Bible literally, says Harpur. See Jesus as the way to salvation as an example of how to live, not as some flesh and blood Biblical hero.
The documentary also takes pain to present contrary views. Producer David Brady and associate Milt Avruskin allow religious experts such as McMaster University president and New Testament studies dean Dr. Stanley Porter to poke holes in Harpur’s assertions. Bible historian Ward Gasque also weighs in, as does pagan mystery expert Peter Gandy.
Objectivity aside, it does seem a little, well, un-Christian, to present this documentary in December.
The Pagan Christ also cuts back and forth to an outdoor Florida Passion Play featuring well-tanned actor Les Cheveldayoff as Jesus, hoisted on a cross for camera-toting tourists. If Michael Moore was making a documentary on the Church, he would probably see Cheveldayoff as a gift from God.
Still, even a Pagan Christ is some attempt to put Christ back in Christmas in a TV schedule otherwise filled with secular holiday fare. Tonight marks the 300th episode of ER—a series that almost goes back to Constantine—and, even though there are still 18 more shopping days, it is a Christmas-themed episode. Tomorrow night, there is a Christmas-themed episode of Las Vegas, and what could be more Christmassy than slot machines in the desert?

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