Jesus Potter Harry Christ, ch. 10: From Mystery to History . . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

This post covers the final chapter of Derek Murphy’s Jesus Potter Harry Christ. All chapter by chapter reviews are collated here and on the Jesus Mysteries discussion group. I will do one more overview review of the entire book, but that may not be on this blog, but on amazon or such. A special thanks to Derek Murphy for sending me a review copy. His book has opened up for me a broader perspective on the question of Christian origins than I had till now been used to. (Recent posts on the place of “astronomics” in the ancient world may have been prompted by questions Derek Murphy has raised in my mind.)

Having argued in the preceding chapters that Christianity began as another type of mystery religion, or really a spread of “interactive and heterogeneous communities”, and not with a historical Jesus, Derek Murphy in this final chapter explains why such “mystery” type religious communities were displaced by something quite different based on a belief in the historical truth of the Jesus narrative. Murphy shows that the rise and spread of what became the orthodox Christianity that we know had very practical political and psycho-social causes, and can hardly be said to be the result of any miraculous forces. One of the main sources Murphy draws upon for this chapter is the reputable The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend.

The message of the literalness of the Jesus story was simple to grasp. Its message was uncomplicated: have faith in this historical event. Justin Martyr, for example, as Murphy points out, describes his conversion to Christianity explaining that its attraction lay in it being a much simpler set of understandings than other complex philosophies of his day.

New followers were told that they would be saved from death through only a few simple rites, and for publicly pronouncing the name of Jesus. Christian leaders expected very little other than blind faith in the historical figure of Jesus Christ, and as neither wealth nor intellectual powers were required, the majority of their recruits were poor and uneducated. (p. 376)

Such believers also took comfort from Paul’s assertion that such their lowly and less-educated status was something to be proud of. They saw themselves as wiser and superior to the pagans who more highly valued philosophy and reason. They took pride in their ability to believe against all reason and understanding in the gospel of Jesus.

They valued action, the urgency of what they believed was the time of the end and day of salvation, and often even welcoming martyrdom.

These things, simplicity of belief, a sense of urgency and zeal to make converts, were attractive to many of the less intellectually inclined. This was accompanied by a strong philanthropic ethic expressed in caring for the poor and ill, not only those of their own faith, but of all who were afflicted. This, too, obviously earned them favour among many.

I don’t think there is much doubt about this scenario. Perhaps the main differences among those who read of the evidence for this development would be among those who are sympathetic to Christianity and those less so. I personally suspect it was a very ugly time to be living through. One has seen a breakdown in civil discourse today among extremist groups who reject the traditional social values and beliefs. I think the rise of this sort of Christianity was a rise in intolerance and social conflict. Attempts by authorities to stamp it out by persecution from time to time only increased the social divide.

Except for Christianity, Rome was remarkably tolerant and inclusive of foreign gods and diverse religions. Christianity alone stuck out: because of its own intolerance and abuse towards other religious faiths and gods, it could not be tolerated. (p. 381)

This fanaticism extended to a willingness, sometimes even eagerness, to face martyrdom. This was the epitome of a rejection of all normal societal values.

This rash disregard for life, a nuisance to the Roman government, was considered the very image of courage to new converts. Passionate novellas were written about the virtues of martyrdom. . . .

To outsiders, Christians seems at once heroic and pathetic. . . .

Even worse, according to their contemporaries, was that they died for a fable.

While on the one hand Christians believed nothing exceptional, on the other hand their insistence on the physical, actuality of the stories and willingness to die for them made them seem both childishly innocent and dangerously depraved. (pp. 385-6)

I can’t help but be reminded of the reasons so many willing martyrs (e.g. suicide-bombers) have been found among certain groups today. When life is thought to be no longer worth living under certain conditions, when personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, mean that an individual’s “real life” has effectively ended, when all this is so unbearable, some people prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence. (Compare my review of Ghassan Hage’s Against Paranoid Nationalism).

Another key advantage of this form of Christianity was its tight organizational (authoritarian) controls. Like the Judaism of that day, it also actively sought to win converts. It also learned to extend Judaism’s strong community building to establish durable support bases. Murphy refers to Walter Burket’s Ancient Mystery Cults to explain that early Christian assemblies became “self-reproducing types of communities”.

By contrast the ancient mysteries lacked anything like the same type of cohesive organization.

This form of Christianity, like Judaism, also found a stability through controlling their story through establishing a narrow set of authoritative texts that pointed to a direct succession back to apostolic authority from concrete “historical” events. The Jewish scriptures gave them a head start here.

Sometimes Murphy veers from the explanations of the likes of W.H.C. Frend and suggests additional strengths of this early form of Christianity, such as Luke’s account in Acts of the members all giving up their own wealth and resources so that all of this was managed by a select few. Some scholars may be more likely to consider such a scenario in Acts as an idealistic fantasy, however. Similarly I am not sure what evidence Murphy has for suggesting that one reason for early Christian conflict with the state was the reluctance of many Christians to pay taxes.

Finally, Murphy surveys the periods of pagan-Christian conflict of the third century, including periods of savage persecution, and the final emergence of Christianity as supreme (apart from one interlude under Julian the Apostate) with the conversion of Constantine. He then portrays the way Christians turned to persecuting others, especially the Jews, and the coercive measures, sometimes violent, in forcing the shut down of many pagan temples.  The way the Church understanding of Jesus evolved is marked by a summary history of the various church councils and theological controversies.

As a historical overview of the rise of orthodox Christianity, Murphy’s survey is generally sound. We must inevitably left to speculate about the finer details of what must have transpired between the more mystically minded Christians and their more literal minded rivals.

Final Conclusion

Derek Murphy makes some important philosophical observations on the significance of the question of the historicity of Jesus, and the reasoning that underlies many who insist Jesus cannot have been a myth. I don’t think many believers will be content with Murphy’s comparison of Jesus with inspiring literary characters, though:

Many people assume that by making the claim that Jesus was mythical it means I think he was worthless. That’s not true at all; in the same sense, nobody would argue that Harry Potter is worthless just because he’s a fictional character. People love Harry Potter — he’s had a profound, meaningful and inspiring affect on the lives of countless children. Literature can be very edifiying and should be praised as such.. . .

Often those who defend the historicity of Jesus do so because Jesus is meaningful to them personally, and if he were not historical, then he would have no meaning — therefore he is historical. I think Murphy is correct with this observation. It is one that I have sensed is the subtext of some of those who most forcefully attack the idea of a mythical Jesus.

Nor do I think too many believers will be content with Murphy pointing out that other types of early Christians, such as the Gnostics, found Jesus very meaningful though he was not truly a human being.

Truthfully, to accept and appreciate Jesus Christ’s literary legacy, very little about Christianity has to change. Christ’s spiritual significance, importance, and active role as an ever-present moral guide could be maintained with much less conflict with reason or science. One could still believe in a Divine Being that, at the beginning of time, emptied itself in its creation, and that we are somehow mystically died to this being. Must of the rituals could remain the same. (p. 416)

It sounds reasonable enough, but I think much of the appeal of Christianity today remains the same as attracted many to it in the first place centuries ago: it is a form of simplicity that enables a sense of superiority for not having to think. Albert Schweitzer also called on Christianity to remove itself from faith in a historical event and person, and to seek to establish itself in a “metaphysic” removed from this earth. Perhaps it is the influence of a dominant America, with its strong fundamentalist or conservative religious base, that has perversely led Christianity in the opposite direction from that call.

So when Derek Murphy speaks of the meaningfulness of myths for peoples of all times and societies, and when he quotes mythologist Joseph Campbell lamenting Christianity’s ‘failing’ by interpreting myth as literal history, he is appealing to a level of sophistication and reasoning that those attracted to a literalist Christianity can surely never accept.

Rather than attempting to distinguish Jesus Christ from Harry Potter by referring to the non-proof that Jesus was real, a more profitable enterprise might be to analyze the two characters as literary influences and ask, which is better. In other words, in light of the discovery that claims of historicity cannot separate the literature of Jesus from Harry, the important thing to analyze is how the stories make people feel and act. (p. 417)

From this base Murphy speaks reasonably and shows that while Harry Potter’s sacrifice was more noble than that of Jesus Christ’s because Harry accepted this without any hope of a restoration to life again; and because Harry is fully human with human weaknesses who makes mistakes, and thus is one we can identify with even more, and find a more inspirational character; and because Harry shows that true character is about making difficult decisions and living with the consequences rather than obedience to an unbending law; for these reasons Harry can be seen as a far more inspiring figure than Jesus. Jesus, on the other hand, is perfect, divine, and not someone we can ever truly emulate. He can only make us feel ashamed of our humanity.

So though Harry Potter is indeed modeled on Jesus Christ in many respects, his story and character surpasses Jesus Christ as an empowering example and inspiration for people today.

So Murphy concludes optimistically that perhaps we can begin to appreciate the true spiritual meaning of the Christian myth and jettison the narrow view of the story that depends on a literalist (and historicist) interpretation.

I find the literary comparison Derek Murphy makes at the opening and conclusion between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ a potently valid and most useful construct.  Murphy covers much in between showing the way the mythical and literary concepts that emerged in the Christian story were part of the warp and woof of ancient cultural belief systems and customs. Murphy is, I think, pitching his book at a popular rather than a scholarly or scholarly-minded audience. This is a good thing for expanding awareness that the historicity of Jesus can be, indeed has been and currently is, open to question. I think that any shift towards a more widespread acceptance of the possibility of asking the question will be generational, and this book is contributing to such a shift.

I would like to see in a future book a followup with more focus on the Gospels’ narrative through this literary model and explanation of the characters, plot and themes. Or till then, nothing will be lost in discussing the contents of this book. That, after all, is contained in a coda at the end of the book:

This book is meant to generate discussion. You can affect the impact and direction of this discussion by posting your own review.

Now that I’ve read the book once, and read it again more closely for the purposes of these chapter by chapter reviews, I am in a position to reflect and prepare a review of the book as a whole that I hope to post soon on amazon. Other feedback is also welcome, of course.

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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