Jesus and the Stereotypical Hero

Ricky Carvel, on his blog Confessions of a Doubting Thomas, noted a set of characteristics that tend to be associated with heroes, and asked whether the very large correspondence, as he sees it, indicates something about the historicity of Jesus.

First, here’s the list, which is originally based on the book The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama by Lord Raglan:

  1. He is born of a virgin mother.
  2. His father is a King.
  3. The father has a unique relationship with the mother.
  4. The circumstances of the child’s conception are unusual, often humble.
  5. He is reputed to be the son of a god.
  6. There is an attempt to kill the child/god shortly after birth.
  7. He is spirited away, escaping a premature death.
  8. The child is raised by foster parents in a far country.
  9. We are told virtually nothing of his childhood years.
  10. On reaching manhood, usually at age 30, he commences his mission in life.
  11. He successfully overcomes the most severe trials and tests.
  12. He marries a princess.
  13. He is acknowledged as a king.
  14. He rules.
  15. He prescribes laws.
  16. He loses favour with the Gods or his subjects.
  17. He is forcibly driven from authority.
  18. He meets with a violent death.
  19. His death occurs on the top of a hill.
  20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.
  21. His body is not buried conventionally.
  22. He has one or more holy resting places.

Next, let’s note how many of these fit Jesus as he is depicted in our earliest sources, the letters of Paul, and in the earliest of the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark:

#2 (half a point for having an ancestor, David, but not a father, who was king), #5 (son of God appears regularly, although the sense in which it is used deserves discussion), #9 (although this is I think of debatable usefulness for determining historicity, since the tendency, if anything, is to increasingly fill in such gaps with legendary and mythical stories of the person’s childhood), #11, #16-21. That would give us at most 9.5 out of a possible 22 points. Obviously a much greater number are applicable when one considers later sources.

Raglan’s book recognizes that these mythical elements are not only associated with non-historical figures, but attach themselves to historical ones as well. Indeed, Raglan suggests that the difference between the purely mythical figure and the one with some historical root may be that the latter will have some connections to concrete historical events and data, and the myths will begin to accumulate to their historical biography around 50 years after their death (which is quite close to the standard dating for the Gospels which begin to add birth stories and other distinctive details from Raglan’s list; see further p.214).

At any rate, since mythicists regularly appeal to similarities between Jesus and other figures in a manner that fails to either note the accretion of mythical elements over time, or the fact that mythical accretions to historical figures are a regular feature of stories told down the ages, or many other considerations relevant to the matter of a historical Jesus, I thought it might be worth commenting on Ricky’s post and the broader topic that it touches on.

The trajectory in the development of stories about Jesus certainly runs in the direction of increasing numbers of mythical elements, while one popular mythicist standpoint suggests that the opposite was the case, that a purely celestial figure was subsequently historicized.

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  • GakuseiDon

    Yes, good points James. It is clear when the counts are done separately — one for Paul, one of the Gospel of Mark, then for each of the other Gospels, then for the wider literature — that the Raglan list supports the idea of an accumulation of legendary features.

    If the average pagan thought their saviour gods acted in a supernatural realm, then Christians would have been fighting against the spirit of the times. Not impossible of course, but it’s something that mythicists need to explain. I’m not aware that Doherty explains it other than using the “as stupid as necessary” argument: that is, as long as we can suppose any particular group are fairly stupid, we can assign pretty much any action to them.

    In Doherty’s “world of Myth” argument, where the saviour gods were thought to have acted in a supernatural world, and where the earliest Christians held to the same beliefs, it seems that not only did the belief die out from the earliest Christians, it also died out in the wider pagan world. When we see Second Century Christians attacking pagan beliefs, even those who have studied the philosophical traditions of the times like Justin Martyr seem unaware of pagan beliefs in a supernatural world. All very strange.

    Of course, if we start with the idea that there was a historical Jesus around whom legends developed, and the pagans didn’t believe that their saviour gods acted in a supernatural realm, all is explained. Or at least, better explained.

  • Pseudonym

    Joseph Campbell also mentioned this in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The gospels don’t fit with the hero archetype as closely as other texts.

    I wonder how a mythicist would interpret this…

  • admiralmattbar

    Is that a real Brave and the Bold?

  • James F. McGrath

    I don’t think it is, although I could be wrong. The original source of it (which seems to include the original comics combined to make that cover) can be found here:

  • Dave Burke

    Mythicist attempts to show that Jesus fits the Raglan/Campbell hero archetype remind me of fundamentalist attempts to squeeze current events into Bible prophecy.

  • Landon Hedrick

    James, I think Richard Carrier is impressed with the Raglan hero parallels, and it plays some role in his thinking about the historicity of Jesus.  He has mentioned before that he’ll be discussing this in some detail in his forthcoming book, so maybe he’ll be able to shed more light on it.

    • Aaron Adair

      As I understanding it, Carrier will use it to establish a prior probability for Jesus’ existence rather than proving Jesus didn’t exist.  That seems a more sophisticated methodology than “Jesus fits the paradigm, therefore there was no Jesus”.

  • Anonymous

    Our earliest sources for King Arthur certainly don’t meet very many of Raglan’s criteria either.

  • Kerry

    Why can’t we get any comparisons between Apollonius of Tyana, Isis, and Jesus? That’d at least make things interesting. Plus it’d set up more of what was going on in the ancient world rather than just ‘Greek gods, Roman gods, Zoroastrians, Jewish god, Jesus…’.

  • Bernard Muller

    I am many debates with Carrier on his blog. This is a blog post which deal extensibly with Lord Raglan’s list, and on which I participated: