this paper was written for a seminar course on Jesus and the Gospels, at UNM. (REL 463)
Jesus, the Hero
What makes a hero, and more specifically, what were the characteristics of a hero in Mediterranean cultures within 200 years on either side of the life of Jesus? The American Heritage Dictionary states that a hero is, "in mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods." or, in a second, less mythologically inclined sense, "A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life." The typical ancient hero, according to Dr. Gregory Riley, possessed remarkable talents, and his destiny was usually intertwined with the fate of many others, often times the fates of entirevillages or civilizations. The hero tended to have antagonistic relationships with certain gods and with human rulers; in these conflicts the character of the hero was tested, and the character of those who encountered him was simultaneously put to the test. In these stories, the hero often suffered an agonizing death at a young age, but gained the prize of immortality and the role of protector of and example to the living. A significant characteristic of the typical hero that Dr. Riley neglects to explore is the hero's reception of cultic honors in addition to his celebration in story and song. Without the cult, whether it is a roving band of disciples or a large group of ritual devotees, as a criterion for defining a hero, the category may lose its specificity and heuristic value, and degenerate into a broad category capable of accommodating any figures that represent cultural ideals, such as good kings and philosophers. A hero was also often described as having divine and, on occasion, royal parentage, and is sometimes orphaned, abandoned, or raised by a family other than his own; a classic example of this phenomenon is Moses, abandoned by his mother and raised by the pharaoh's daughter's handmaid. The portrayal of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, especially Matthew, fits the heroic pattern well.
I will now tell the stories of some Mediterranean heroes and I will point out the similarities to the life of Jesus. Some of the heroes are actual historical personages, and others are entirely fictional, but all are aspects of the evolution and dispersion of the same basic mythos. Herakles, Prometheus, Orpheus, Moses, Alexander the Great, and Augustus Caesar are all mythically proportioned figures who are similar to the Jesus we meet in the Christian mythos. Each of these allegedly had a god for a father and a virgin or a goddess for a mother. All had their births announced by stars. Each one was threatened by a personification of the darker side of human nature as an infant, and all but Augustus met violent deaths. Nearly all were worshiped by "wise men", some before, some after their deaths.
The story of the birth of Moses according to Exodus 2:1-10 can be summarized thus: A good Levite woman married a good Levite man and they had a beautiful son. The woman, fearing for her son's life, because the Pharaoh ordered all male Jewish children to be killed, sets him adrift on the Nile in a basket. The baby is then found by the Pharaoh's daughter who gets her Jewish handmaid to raise him. The handmaid names the child Moses because she pulled him out of the water (moishah). This story is, in some ways parallel to that of Jesus, and in some ways opposite. Mary and Joseph, fearing for their child's life hid him; where he was hidden depends on the narrative. However, instead of Jesus coming from a poor but good family into a royal heritage, from which he must redeem himself, he comes from a good and royal heritage to a plebian family, whose friends and neighbors need redemption.
It is suspected by some scholars, including Sigmund Freud, that the story of Moses was originally an Egyptian story about the grandson of Akhenaton, who left Egypt with his monotheistic compatriots after the death of Akhenaton. This is supported with evidence that the name Moses, an Egyptian word meaning 'child' is actually a component of many popular Egyptian names at the time.
Orpheus, the great Thracian musician was the son of the muse Calliope by Apollo. According to legend, Orpheus fell in love with the nymph Eurydice, and when she died while fleeing the attentions of another, less godly man, he followed her to the realm of Hades, and tried to lead her back to the land of the living. Here, we get a man born not only of god, but also of a muse, divine inspiration. Christian inspiration is often said to stem from the Holy Spirit, a facet of the God of Israel. Not present in the Bible, but popular in the Christian mythos of the early Middle Ages was the idea of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Jesus, before his resurrection goes into Hell, retrieves all the souls of the good, and brings them to heaven. This is like the attempted rescue of Eurydice, except that Orpheus fails where Jesus succeeds. Upon his return from the land of the dead, Orpheus teaches a kind of monolatry1; he teaches the people of Greece to worship Apollo above all other gods.
Josephus, writing near the end of the first century AD, compared the cults of Orpheus to the Essene movement of the Jews. The story of Orpheus is thought to have arisen from a collection of earlier god myths, including those of Dionysus (Grecian), Osiris (Egyptian), and Dumuzi (Persian)/Tammuz (Semitic). Like these gods, the somewhat more human, less archetypal Orpheus rises after a violent death. This suggests a basis not only in heroes, the sons of gods, but also gods for the story of Jesus.
Prometheus, a legendary Greek Titan, and thusly an older brother of the gods, is described in legend as the benefactor, and sometimes the creator of man. When the Olympian Gods went to war with the Titans, Prometheus sided with the Olympians, some say because he had a vision of their victory, others say because the Olympians would let him create man. Either way, Prometheus had great compassion for his creation and became quite incensed when Zeus mistreated them. To give man the much needed advantage, Prometheus took fire from Apollo's chariot and brought the torch to man. This is somewhat like what happened when the God of Israel sent Jesus to the people to bring them the fire of enlightenment, which would fend off evil. The teachings of Jesus, like the fire of Prometheus, were meant to be an advantage to those who received them. Zeus was amazingly displeased that Prometheus stood against him to protect man, who, at the time, he did not think very highly of. For his revenge, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock where an eagle would eat his liver every day for all eternity. This reminds one of the crucifixion, during which, Jesus was stabbed in the side with a Roman spear. The side, depending on which side, can be close to the liver, and to really drive the analogy home, the eagle was the symbol of Rome, and it was with a Roman sharp object that Jesus was stabbed. However, Prometheus, like Jesus, rose from his condition of torment. Unlike Jesus, though, it was not a self-effected or father-effected resurrection; Prometheus was rescued by Herakles, a later hero, and son of Zeus.
Herakles, perhaps the most famous of Greek heroes, pre-dates Jesus, and their lives and deaths are strikingly similar. Herakles was born of Zeus, the father of the gods, the king of heaven (Mt. Olympus), and Alkmene, a mortal woman. Mary, mother of Jesus, was also impregnated by God the Father. However, Mary was more accepting of the idea of being impregnated by a father god. In order to seduce Alkmene, Zeus took on the form of her husband, Amphitryon, and lengthened the night so that his vigor in creating the child would make it stronger. When Herakles was born, Hera, Zeus's wife, sent two serpents to kill him, but Herakles, being a strong and heroic baby, strangled both. Jesus, in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, causes dragons to worship him, a similar, if more large scale feat.
There exists the entertaining speculation, put forth by questionable sources, that Jesus was created as a result of Herakles, and other Greek mythic heroes. The theory suggests that prior to Jesus, Christianity was at a disadvantage in that it was one of the few religions that lacked an incarnate god-like figure. In addition to the actual gods such as Zeus and Apollo, the earlier of the Greeks had created Herakles and Prometheus, human "gods", and the presence of such a figure may have offered some degree of credibility to the emerging religion. This theory, which suggests that Jesus was created whole-cloth to fit the needs of a new tradition, is incredibly unlikely as it was far more popular at the time to take an extant person who was popular with the people and to apply mythic elements to his childhood to make a proper hero of him, as in the case of Augustus Caesar, or Alexander the Great.
Alexander the Great would have, according to legend, been a descendant of Herakles, had Philip of Macedon actually impregnated his wife. Alexander was said to have been conceived when a thunderbolt fell from heaven and made his mother Olympias pregnant before her marriage to Philip. The thunderbolt, of course, was a symbol of Zeus. In this case, not just Zeus as worshiped in Greece, but the exotic Zeus-Ammon of the outlying provinces. The obvious first similarity to Jesus, here, is that Alexander's conception did not involve sexual intercourse, and was the result of miraculous insemination by Zeus, who, as in the story of Herakles, above, is identifiable as God the Father. Olympias's husband, Philip, also had dreams regarding his wife's pregnancy and the child to be born, which were interpreted by the priests of Apollo, or depending on how the account is read, by the god himself. These are reminiscent of the vision had by Joseph concerning Mary's pregnancy in Matthew 1:20-212.
Augustus Caesar, writes Suetonius, the Roman historian, was a child of Apollo and a mortal woman named Atia, wife of Gaius Octavius. Suetonius claims as his source for this birth myth Asclepiades the Mendesian, who, according to Suetonius's description, wrote theological works. In the year of Augustus's birth, the Senate became aware of a portent "that nature was about to give birth to a king for the Roman people." (Suetonius, Augustus 94.) The frightened Senators proclaimed that no child born in that year should be trained for politics, but each father, hoping it would be his son, trained the children despite the pronouncement. This reminds one of the story in Matthew 2:1-9 in which Herod learns of the birth of Jesus, who is to be Christ, and is frightened by the political implications. Atia, it is said, conceived Augustus during a ceremony at the temple of Apollo - that he came to her in the form of a snake, and left a snake-shaped mark on her. After acquiring the mark, Atia would no longer use the public baths for fear that someone would see the mark and comment. The serpent-mark, in this context, would be necessary to set her apart from other pregnant women, as when she conceived, her husband was still in the city. In the case of Mary and Jesus, Joseph was out of town, and her pregnancy in the absence of a husband was enough to set her apart. After his birth, Augustus was said to have power over animals, as when he quieted the frogs in his grandfather's garden. As was mentioned in the paragraph on Herakles, Jesus is said to have caused dragons to worship him.
Some portions of the above myth regarding the birth and youth of Augustus Caesar is likely to have been extrapolated from a Roman version of the story of Herakles. Climbing stones and silencing frogs seem related to lifting large stones and choking serpents. The serpent Apollo also puts one in mind of the Neolithic myths of the Serpent Lord and the Maiden, from whom the first men were born, which were prevalent not only in Northern Africa, which is a Mediterranean area, and Southern Asia, but out into the islands of Polynesia and beyond.
Jesus may have been one or more Rabbis from the kingdom of Judah who taught a new way of thinking to the people, but it becomes clear that many deeds and qualities ascribed to him were already extant for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the mythologies of the area. Although I mainly discuss Greek heroes in this paper, many Greek heroes were adapted from older heroes, as I have noted where applicable. After the fashion of the deifications of Augustus and Alexander, Certain popular heroic elements may have been added to the life of Jesus, or to the conflation of figures that became known as Jesus. During the course of my research for this paper, I found that it was not only the heroic myths that influenced the story of Jesus, but also the stories of the archetypal gods who had inspired stories of those more human heroes. However, Jesus, in my opinion, will always be a hero because of his humanity.
1: "Polytheism we may define as the recognition and worship of a plurality of gods; monalatry as the worship of a single god - one's own - while recognizing others. Monotheism is the belief that there is finally but one substantial god…"
(Joseph Campbell, Occidental Mythology, 242)
2: Matt. 18:20-21: "20But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21she will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from sins.'"
1. Documents for the Study of the Gospels. Cartiledge, David and David Dungan, Editors.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.
2. The American Heritage Dictionary.
3. One Jesus, Many Christs. Riley, Gregory J.
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.
4. Catholic Encyclopedia.
5. The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius. (translated by Robert Graves)
London: Penguin Books, 1989.
6. Occidental Mythology. Campbell, Joseph.
New York: Penguin Books, 1964.
7. Primitive Mythology. Campbell, Joseph.
New York: Penguin Books, 1970.