Jesus Potter Harry Christ by Derek Murphy – a review.
This book, a hefty 478 page work, sets out to find the parallels that exist between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ; the main characteristics being the fictional commonalities that they share. As Murphy sets out:
This book will trace the genesis of the story of Jesus Christ and examine the controversy concerning the historical founder of Christianity, to see if Jesus can be distinguished from Harry based on the claim that Jesus was a real historic figure, while Harry Potter is obviously a fable. (viii)
I was expecting the first chapter to start dealing with the character of Harry Potter, looking into the literary devices that Rowling may have used to develop her now legendary figure of popular culture, in order to then compare the characteristics of the Jesus of the bible. However, to my surprise, the entire first chapter is devoted to analysing the Harry Potter books as a phenomenon and seeing the impact that they had on the Christian communities around the world, though most notably in the States. This might well be a red herring to the whole thesis that the book is setting out, but it was a most stimulating and interesting red herring. I didn’t think that this would provide rich territory, but the chapter provides a really accurate insight into the mindset of modern Christian communities. Notably, we are given access to the kneejerk reaction to the Harry Potter stories that represents many Christians’ contradictory approach to popular culture. There often seems to be an incoherency to their ranting. And ranting it has been, as Rowling’s work as taken a battering from many Christians the world over for its witchcraftery and magic. What is obviously ludicrous is the average Christian’s acceptance, without the blink of an eye, of ‘Lord of the Rings’, the ‘Narnia Chronicles’, most fairytales (Peter Pan?) and any film that presents the non-God orientated supernatural painted in a good light.
For some reason, it seems, Harry Potter has been a massive scapegoat for the venomous wrath of many a Christian community, and Murphy does provide us with a good idea of the crazy world of many fundamentalist Christians through his analysis of the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Towards the end of the chapter, some worthy questions are raised. Notably, is Jesus the archetypal hero character that lays the benchmark down upon which other later characters always refer to; or is Jesus an example of such an ideal type, fitting neatly into grooves laid down by previous, earlier mythological hero-figures? As Murphy asks (p. 40):
Is Jesus absolutely unique in history, divorced from common universal mythological traditions, making all apparent similarities therefore unbinding or irrelevant? Or is he related to those mythologies, either as founder, or product?
Murphy then proceeds to ask the all-important question, flipping the notion of Potter-as-Christ idea on its head (p.40):
Perhaps the real question we need to ask is not whether Harry Potter is a “Christ Figure” (similar to a historical religious savior), but rather whether Jesus Christ is a “Potter Figure” (a composition of redemptive mythological symbols and philosophies).
As such, the first chapter lays an enjoyable and informative foundation upon which the rest of the book can be built.
Murphy sets out on a tack, early in this chapter, of looking at whether the conservative approach of denying the criticism that Jesus did not exist at all holds any merit. He does this, initially, by looking at near-contemporary ‘believers’ actually rubbed shoulders with this idea, starting with the Docetists. As Murphy points out, 1 John 4 seems to be attempting to deal with these early heretics who believed that Jesus had not come in the flesh.
Celsus, always a reliably contemporary critical view of Jesus in the early church period, is called into action by the author. Celsus chimes in with, “In truth there is nothing at all unusual about what the Christians believe”. I have to agree with the general point Murphy is making here, that all too often Christians claim that Jesus is a trailblazer, espousing hitherto fore unknown politics and approaches to life; that Jesus is nothing short of being utterly revolutionary. And this is not necessarily the case. Conservatives love to claim that the Higher Criticism of the 19th century is passé, when this is a naïve and lazy approach (as Murphy calls into question on page 58). Oftentimes, as Richard Carrier claims, Conservative scholars have never read these criticisms, but make their claimed based on biased received opinions. As Robert M. Price once claimed, he could not believe it when a PhD biblical scholar had never read the legendary work of David Strauss – The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. It’s easy to claim such work as being passé – anyone can do it. But in order for that opinion to be worth anything at all, it must be backed up by the correct research and knowledge, and worthwhile criticism.
But I digress. Murphy continues by calling to the dock a certain Justin Martyr and his famous quote which claims that Jesus and contemporary pagans shared much in miracle, word and deed. The special pleading is evident: the difference between Jesus and these other pagan gods is that Jesus actually did these things. This almost defines ‘begging the question’. This is a theory very much espoused by (as Murphy points out) the famous Christian theologian C.S. Lewis. The underlying assumption from such theorising is that there is enough historical evidence to support the theory that Jesus existed as a dying and rising God figure.
The reason for Murphy doing this is not to prove that these early critics of the historical and material Jesus were necessarily right, but that the view that Jesus can be criticised on account of his existence, to some degree or another, is no new thing, and, as Murphy says, “the jury is still out”. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 for such beliefs.
What I found interesting of Murphy’s poring over of Enlightenment period critics was bringing to the fore the idea that the story of Jesus Christ was nothing more than a solar myth. Solar myths exist aplenty in the Old Testament, most notably in the form of Samson, but I had never seen this applied to Jesus himself. It makes some sense – the rebirth of Jesus at Easter, the Vernal equinox, Jesus as the light of the world, and so on.
Murphy continues to run through, chronologically, the foremost critics of the historical Jesus, from Strauss to Bauer, Jefferson to Bultmann, thus laying the groundwork for the book. Moving into the psychoanalysis of Jung and Freud, Murphy takes us on an interesting course into the world of mythology and the reflections it is claimed to have on our subconscious. The holistic approach that the author gives may be necessarily rushed, but it provides a vital cross-section of Jesus in the context of world mythology, psychology and historical criticism. This is very useful for the reader who has not had the chance or time to read the voluminous catalogue of crucial works by all these authors over the centuries. And we start to glimpse the attractiveness of such positions when seen in amongst the whole range of critical analyses.
As Murphy continues to give a synopsis of historical criticism over more recent times, from Bultmann on, he brings up a thoroughly interesting piece of modern research by McKnight (p 60-61):
Illustrating this point in his classroom, he asks students to take a test about what kind of person they think Jesus was. Was he outgoing, shy, friendly, pensive, exciting, etc. Then they take the same test, only about themselves. The results show that people picture Jesus to be just like they are; and the same is true, McKnight concludes, of religious historians.
And interestingly quotes McKnight quoting Dale Allison (p. 61):
Maybe we have unthinkingly reduced biography [of Jesus] to autobiography... The fragmentary and imperfect nature of the evidence as well as the limitations of our historical abilities should move us to confess, if we are conscientious, how hard it is to recover the past. We wield our criteria to get what we want.
Murphy continues by making a very salient point that is often overlooked: New Testament scholars are often presuppositionally biased, asserting their own religious beliefs on their exegesis and historical evaluations.
Chapter 3 heralds the beginning of the crux of the book. Murphy starts to divulge the arguments for the existence, in historical reality, of God. Now, I am agnostic over the issue as to whether Jesus existed historically or not. Actually, I would go further and say that, on balance, he probably existed in some form or another. However, for me, it matters little since the Jesus we are left with, after redactions, mythical overlay, evangelising agendas and dubious historical methodology is so far removed from the original nugget of truth or existence as to render the original Jesus fairly irrelevant. With this as my foundation, I feel in a fairly neutral and objective position, comparatively, to approach these arguments.
Murphy runs through in quick fashion some of the main arguments ofr Jesus’ historicity. The first one is something that hugely interests me: the notion that mentioning accurate contemporary historical details infers that the whole account is factual. Murphy calls into point Harry Potter as I would Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The descriptions of London, dates and places, that are accurate for the period, bare no historical relevance to the characters of Holmes and Moriarty. The defender of Jesus’ historicity would argue that Luke’s use of accurate historical background details implies that the whole account is most likely true (including the miraculous). This is evidently a non sequitur.
Other arguments include the fact that martyrs died for Jesus (thus implying that his existence must have been true), his life being prophesied in the Old Testament (which becomes a circular argument claiming that the veracity of the bible is proved by the biblical accounts themselves) and so on.
Next, Murphy delves into extra-biblical accounts or mentions of Jesus. Always a hotly debated topic. Any decent scholar will confirm that most, if not all, extra-biblical accounts are completely useless in confirming any historical fact concerning the life of Jesus. From interpolation to fifth hand sources, they are all fairly impotent as tools for the apologist to wield. I found the Larner list, one that I had not seen before, listing the reasons why the Josephus’ Testimoniam Flavianum is interpolated and untrustworthy. Citing Doherty as to the implausibility of Josephus as having an unlikely burden to bear on his shoulders as being the only extra-biblical source of this much details does strike a chord.
The main point is that the existence of Christians in no way supports the existence of Christ. People who believe in aliens in no way render the idea of aliens as true!
Moving on, after giving the same treatment of other sources, Murphy deals with the argument from silence. Though not proof in any way, this is part of a more cumulative case and needs to be addressed.
Murphy realises the need to look at the historicity of the bible itself since much of the verification for the existence of Jesus comes from the Scriptures themselves. Does this make the bible self-authenticating? I’m sure we’ll find out. The author starts off by looking at the Old Testament and the basis for trusting it.
One of the first examples of the OT that Murphy concentrates on is one of my favourites: The Epic of the Gilgamesh. The Mesopotamian Holy Book predates the bible by a good thousand years, and yet we have a Flood Myth which looks eerily like Noah’s Flood. In fact, Tablet XI has passages that are identical, verbatim, to the Genesis account and Utnuphishtin is clearly the Noah figure. P.84:
Rains came and the ark was carried on the waters. Finally it came to rest on a mountain. The survivors sent out a dove, and then a swallow, and then a raven to determine whether the earth was dry. Utnupishtim got out and sacrificed to the gods, who hovered over the sweetsmelling sacrifice like flies.
The Cyrus Gordon quote used on page 84 is very powerful and shows the patently obvious borrowing from the Gilgamesh.
It would have been nice to see some support for the mention of the juxtaposition between biblical accounts and archaeology from sources such as Israel Finkelstein and the new wave of archaeologists working in the area. And this is where the section on the OT ends. It seems to have been a very rushed and under-developed section of the chapter. However, the accuracy of the OT is a large tome of a book in itself. This then demands the question as to whether it was worth including the section at all since so much more could have been said. The idea, I guess, is to give the reader a sense of the historicity of the OT before launching into the ‘more relevant’ (to Jesus) New Testament.
The discussions concerning the New Testament (NT) are concise whilst giving a good flavour for what the arguments are concerning the Gospel writers. Simple observations that ring true follow:
They are also incredibly impersonal; they share no private conversations or anecdotes, no complaints, and no worries or thoughts of the author (which might be expected if the author had traveled in an intimate band of companions for a year).
Of course, to deny the Gospels eye-witness accountability, it then becomes a $64,000 question as to what exactly the Gospels are. Murphy sets out that in a context of many different sects, there was a tradition of seeking apostolic succession to claim authenticity and authority. Each sect could then claim the superiority of their brand of theology. The sects claimed to have received transmission from such apostles for their own ends whilst adapting the stories of Jesus in order to fit their theology.
However, and as Bart Ehrman has espoused in his latest book Forged, the trick of forgery was also popular. Murphy uses Hermann Detering to claim that some 27 of the NT books cannot “be traced back to an apostle, or a student of an apostle – and this is the case even though all the writings of the New Testament claim direct or indirect apostolic authorship”. Thus Peter, who knew Paul face to face, became the rock of the church over Paul. Not the case though in other Gospels we see other rocks – variously, Mary, James and so on. Murphy now starts to set out his stall (p.89):
In fact it was quite easy for a sect or community to attribute their theology to Jesus – they could just claim another revelation from the spiritual Christ, or a private conversation between him and a disciple not yet recorded. This opportunity was fortified by the fact that Jesus had resurrected, and could appear in the flesh (or in dreams) to anybody, at any time. It was probably this atmosphere of intense competition that made it necessary for the orthodox to deny the spiritual Jesus as much as possible and emphasize his one-time-only historicity. As such, they could codify a set of gospels to which nothing more could be added.
He continues with (p.90):
The Jesus of the early Christian communities, rather than a recently deceased historical person, was primarily a literary construct – a synthesis based on an academic exegesis that interpreted Jewish scripture as prophecy about the coming Messiah.
As Murphy, through Karen Armstrong, powerfully remarks, there is scarcely a verse in the New Testament that does not refer to Scriptures in the Old Testament. Hardly anything seems to stand on its own merit. Murphy often references or mentions aspects of the Didache, the early writing from the turn of the 1st Century CE, which deals with ethics and ritual. He claims there are many ethical statements which potentially predate the accounts of the historical Jesus and which were later attributed to him, prefixed with “Jesus said-”.
I love the way, on page 92, that Murphy incidentally points out the ridiculousness of exegetes like Craig Blomberg, who states (p.91):
Consider the way the gospels are written – a sober and responsible fashion, with accurate incidental details, with obvious care and exactitude. You don’t find the outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing that you see in a lot of other ancient writings.
Murphy brilliantly retorts:
Overlooking the claim that a story about a man who walks on water, pulls coins out of fish and rises from the dead is “sober and responsible” and not “outlandish flourishes and blatant mythologizing,” we could easily respond that the gospels were written in this particular style precisely because the authors wanted them to be considered as historical testimonies – which in no way proves that they actually were.
I would like to see more exegetes conclude that the claims of the Gospels are outrageously miraculous and embellished. He mythological nature of many of the events are so obvious to the non-Christian that it is incredible that the Christian cannot see the sheer implausibility of the claims and the parallels with such outlandish claims of comparative religions! Even, as the author points out, the early writing of Contra Celsum agrees with this point:
It is sufficient however, to represent in the style of a historical narrative what is intended to convey a secret meaning in the garb of history, that those who have the capacity may work out for themselves all that relates to the subject. (Book 5, Chapter 29)
And this is one of the most difficult issues for biblical literalists and infalliblists. What is allegory and what is actual fact? How do we tell the difference? How can we tell what parts of the bible are true?
The author continues in looking at the NT by claiming that Jesus’ teaching were nothing out of the ordinary, nothing out of the context of time and place. In other words, there was nothing original in his teachings. There is also mention of what I call the Sherlock Holmes Method (Murphy uses Gone With The Wind) which I alluded to earlier. Historical contextual accuracy does not mean historical fact.
In his section on the Gnostics I found a fascinating quote from a Latin translation of a commentary to the First Epistle of John, written by Clement:
It is said in the tradition that John touched the surface of the body of Jesus, and drove his hand deep into it, and the firmness of the flesh was no obstacle but gave way to the hand of the disciple.
This really shows the huge variety of contemporary views and theologies surrounding the beliefs about Jesus. The quote explicitly shows that the body of Jesus was not, in fact, a corporeal body, as many claimed the resurrected body was.
The broader point is that Christianity was replete with so many various theologies that it is hard to pick out the real historical Jesus from the overlays of theology which cloud the history. Moreover, it is possible to detect the evolution of these ideas form contemporary and pre-Christian movements. Though this does not necessarily invalidate them, it does show much of the theology to be unoriginal and the climax of anthropological evolution of thought.
A particularly interesting conclusion on the circularity of the New Testament being used as authentication of the historicity of Jesus is as follows (105):
At the same time, it is possible that Jesus did exist and left no evidence; we should not doubt a historical founder of Christianity simply because there are no contemporary records of him, and only a handful of later (possibly forged) accounts. However, in searching for the truth, we cannot afford to automatically discount evidence from external traditions that problematize the historical Jesus on the grounds that they fail to edify his actual existence.
As I’ve demonstrated in this chapter, the danger in trusting the Bible as a historical testimony is that it was written for precisely that purpose. Given the fact that the New Testament, narrative version of Jesus Christ’s ministry was written in response to the pre-existing communities and teachers such as Simon, it represents exactly the idea of a historical Jesus, which was necessary to secure its own authority, rather than reliable history.
Murphy continues to illustrate this problem of historical authenticity on p.106 :
The problem intensifies when you look outside of Judaism and compare Jesus to older mythological and religious traditions. This is true especially of his central features: his resurrection and ascension, miracles and teachings, forgiveness of sins, relationship to God and role in creation as the Logos or Word. Is the evidence for the historical Jesus strong enough to save him from this unraveling process? The short answer is no – in fact, it points in the other direction: that Jesus may have originally been a literary metaphor and religious symbol, which became historicized deliberately for a specific agenda.
Thus Chapter 3 ends after a whistle-stop tour around the arguments about Jesus’ historicity. This provides a solid-enough backdrop for the next chapter, which seeks to survey the landscape of comparative mythology. Which mythologies is it that people claim that Jesus arose from, and do these theories stand up to scrutiny?
More to follow.