Friday, September 23, 2011

The archetypal hero

Just read a fascinating summary of an old book called 'The Hero' by someone called Lord Raglan. Published in 1936, the book is a study of many of the great mythical heroes from various civilizations. The book identifies a list of the 22 main characteristics common to these mythical heroes. None of the stories of the heroes actually contains all 22 elements, but each of these is common to several heroes. The list is as follows:
  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.
Does any of that sound familiar?

The Jesus story echoes 19 out of these 22 points. This is more than Hercules who only scores 17 and Robin Hood only manages 13 of them. Oddly enough, Moses manages to outscore Jesus, managing 20 out of 22 and Oedipus is the highest scoring myth with a whopping 21 out of 22.

By contrast, the highest scoring definitely 'historical' person is Alexander the Great, who only scores 7.

If this analysis is in any way valid (and I'm not really claiming that it is) then it would imply that Jesus is either a mythical character entirely, or that a great many legendary stories have been added on to the real Jesus.

As usual, the problem becomes how to filter the truth from the legend.

22 comments:

Mike said...

Very interesting. This is all coming towards the Historical Jesus study I guess.

I would recommend checking out "The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions" which is written by N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg. I've found it really helpful because, although I agree more with Wright, Borg shows that you can have a robust and defensible faith even if much of the "history" isn't.

His points are pretty interesting in that it's only recently we've started looking at everything through the lens of "historical sources" and to look at history as metaphor is bad but not awful but to look at metaphor as history is meaningless.

I'm in a similar place to you know where I doubt much of the history that we are taught about Jesus but I've now realised that it's only all important if you take a very Protestant sola-scriptura approach and abandon the passing down through generations of the church and God's direct relevation. That's just my take though, yours may vary, but it's increasingly making me wonder where to church myself so as to avoid being forced to make proclamations about "history" that I find neither compelling or relevant.

Ricky Carvel said...

Mike,

I read that one when it first came out (circa 1999 or 2000), and in some ways that book was one of the first steps on the theological journey that I'm on.

At the time I read it, I was well and truly on Wright's side, and was a bit dismissive of Borg's opinions. I guess my perspective has shifted quite a lot in the last 11 or 12 years though. Might dig it out of the loft and re-read it (unless it went to a charity shop during a books purge a year or two back; I remember offering it to my church's library, but they didn't want it).

Anonymous said...

Is it any wonder that studies of this kind - dominated by a Western perspective - can only replicate elements of the Christian narrative seeing as how Western civilization itself is so indebted to that narrative? Smells like the kind of "old scholarship" that can be safely ignored.

The real question is whether a careful study of the hero motif in civilizations not so heavily influenced by Christianity comes up with similar results.

James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for posting this! It inspired a blog post, and so I've linked from there to here, and have offered some thoughts of my own there at Exploring Our Matrix.

Ricky Carvel said...

Yes, Anonymous, there definitely is a selection bias relating to all heroes who were conceived or embellished after Christ. But the majority of motifs were established before Christ and are evident in the pre-Christian Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths.

Whether these archetypes go back further than stories of Moses may be another matter, so maybe everything stems from him?

Anonymous said...

"But the majority of motifs were established before Christ and are evident in the pre-Christian Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths."

I don't see how you can be so confident about this.

In any event, I highly doubt that Lord Raglan's book is up to the task of considering the hero motif outside Western cultures where the Christian narrative wasn't already ascendent to some degree. As a general rule, serious anthropological scholarship of non-Western and/or pre-Christian cultures didn't begin in the West until after WWII.

If you're really interested in investigating the potential mytho-historical roots of the Christian messianic figure of Jesus Christ you should take a look at what the contemporary scene of ANE scholarship has to say.

Erlend said...

Actually I counted you could get between 10-11 of them to stick on Alexander(2,4,5,10,11,13,14, 15,16,20, and maybe #12 if you allow marriage to a noble woman instead of princess). In fact the analogies between Jesus and Alexander have recently become the subject of a book 'Jesus and Alexander' by Ory Amitay.

Ricky Carvel said...

Anonymous, you're right. I'm not an expert in this. But it seems to me that going beyond 'western' hero archetypes is probably going further than I need to go to make the point.

The point is this, the hero themes were mostly there and established in at least Greek mythology (e.g. Hercules, Jason, the Odyssey, etc.) before the time of Christ. Others were established in Egyptian mythology. I know almost nothing about Mesopotamian mythology, but I believe there are similar stories of heroes.

We know what a mythical hero looks like before the time of Christ. We know how many of these myth themes are attached to the story of Christ. Thus, it appears very likely that some of the stories about Jesus are mythical, making it virtually impossible to 'reach' the 'real' Jesus. Which is what the past few blog posts are all about.

On this blog, I'm not interested in the archetypal hero as such, but am far more interested in trying to filter the myth to find the real Jesus, if I can.

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

First of all, forget that list in the main entry, the more I look at it the more contrived it seems. And besides, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the hero motif in pre-Christian cultures can tell you that such has little if anything in common with the NT figure of Jesus.

"On this blog, I'm not interested in the archetypal hero as such, but am far more interested in trying to filter the myth to find the real Jesus, if I can."

It's pretty simple, the principal scope of the gospels in the NT is the life of Jesus from the time of his baptism to the time of his glorification (i.e. when he seated at the right hand of God following his ascension). Within that scope, Jesus is clearly portrayed as an apocalyptic prophet who announces the imminent coming of the kingdom of God and through whom the Holy Spirit is performing miraculous signs so as to confirm the truth of his message to the people (Jn 3:2; 5:36; 9:33; Acts 2:22; 10:38). Take away the narrative of an apocalyptic prophet through whom God is performing signs and wonders and there's nothing left in the NT. So either the NT is a massive fraud, which is unlikely, or the real Jesus was more or less as described.

- NW

Anonymous said...

"We know how many of these myth themes are attached to the story of Christ."

This simply isn't true. The gospel accounts of Jesus life from his baptism to his glorification are obviously very Jewish and don't read like anything else from the ancient world. It's not like Jesus is a Jewish Messianic spinoff of the Grecian Hercules or the Egyptian Horus or some other Mesopotamian equivalent, the portrait of him in the NT is really quite unique.

Ricky Carvel said...

NW,

"Jesus is clearly portrayed as an apocalyptic prophet who announces the imminent coming of the kingdom of God"

Problem is, that's not clear. That's a common reconstruction of the historical Jesus, but look at Crossan's vast quantity of work. He (ans others) claim (with some good evidence) that Jesus wasn't apocalyptic.

My first real introduction to the 'Quest for the historical Jesus' was the book 'The Historical Jesus, Five Views' (reviewed on this blog, about a year ago I guess). The one thing that became totally clear to me from reading that was that all five authors found in the historical Jesus the very things they went looking for. All five reconstructions of the historical Jesus are therefore unreliable - and this from the leaders in the Quest... If they can't convince me, I'm not sure who's going to.

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

The fact that scholars have differing views on the historical Jesus doesn't mean that the historical Jesus is inaccessible to us. And while I would not dismiss Crossan's work out of hand - to the contrary, he has many interesting things to say - that doesn't change the fact that his conclusion concerning Jesus (i.e. that he was merely a peasant Jewish cynic) is quite wrong.

But with respect to the claim that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, for my part it suffices to observe that the majority of Jesus teaching in the NT can only be understood within the categories of Jewish apocalyptic (e.g. kingdom of God/heaven, "eternal" life, "eternal" judgment, resurrection/born of the Spirit, destruction of Jerusalem, coming of the Son of Man with his kingdom, new covenant, and so on). In fact, the apocalyptic is so pervasive in Jesus teaching that even his non-apocalyptic teaching regularly makes us of apocalyptic categories (e.g. Mt 5:19-20; Lk 16:14-17, 19-31). Frankly, the only way that I know of to avoid this assessment of Jesus is to at some point in the argument assert that the gospel accounts found in the NT are a massive fraud and that the vast majority of what is attributed to Jesus in them does not in fact go back to a historical Jesus, who might not even exist on this understanding; however, that kind of radical skepticism is prone to sloppy scholarship as it's almost always driven by the prejudices of an inverted form of religious fundamentalism.

- NW

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks NW, it is clear that you are convinced by the 'apocalyptic prophet' lines of reasoning. That doesn't mean that everyone is. The whole point of this blog is me working through the issues until I manage to convince myself one way or another. You simply asserting that Crossan is wrong provides little in the way of justification for your stance.

Nobody is suggesting that the apocalyptic language isn't in the gospels, the question is whether or not this goes back to the historical Jesus - does it reflect him, or those that came after him?

My jury's still out on that.

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

Fair enough.

My problem with the idea of a non-apocalyptic Jesus is that it creates far more problems than it solves. If Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet then why did the writers of the NT uniformly present him as such, and why did they proclaim him as both Lord and Christ? Heck, if he was not an apocalyptic prophet then why did he inspire a radical Jewish sect in the first place? For my part, these sorts of considerations settle the matter, but we all have our own journey of faith to walk

- NW

Ricky Carvel said...

Another problem is, if he was an apocalyptic prophet, then he was wrong. The end did not come. Nearly 2000 years later, the impending apocalypse has still not come.

If he is worthy to be worshiped as Lord and God, then he cannot have been an apocalyptic prophet.

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

"Another problem is, if he was an apocalyptic prophet, then he was wrong. The end did not come. Nearly 2000 years later, the impending apocalypse has still not come."

Now we're getting somewhere as I can actually help you on this point!

Although it is not widely recognized, the eschatology of the NT is in fact centered around two different events: the first event being the coming of the Son of Man with his kingdom and the second event being the revealing of the Son of Man from heaven to those who dwell on the earth. In particular, it is the first event that was prophesied to take place in the time of the NT nearly two thousand years ago (e.g Mt 10:23; 16:27-28; Lk 9:26-27) while the second event was understood to take place a long time afterwards (Mt 24:48; 25:5; Rev 20:7-9).

With respect to the first event, Jesus was very clear that the coming of the Son of Man with his kingdom (i.e. the coming of the Kingdom of God) was not an event that we would be able to observe from this earth (Lk 17:20). I cannot stress that point enough. The reason for this is that the kingdom of God was not understood to belong to "this world" but to the "world to come," which is not visible to us on this side of death. However, the NT does associate the first event with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which was supposed to be the earthly event that tells us that the coming of Son of Man with his kingdom has taken place and that the way has been opened for those who belong to Jesus to pass through the curtain that separates "this world" from the "world to come" and live with him in heaven (Heb 9:8, 24; 10:19-20) following death (2 Cor 5:1-5; Rev 14:13). Finally, the Matthean expression "end of the age" does not refer to the end of the world, as is wrongly translated by the KJV, but is an obscure Danielic reference that speaks to the end of the latter days (Dan 10:14; 12:13), which was a period of time at the end of which [old covenant] Israel would be destroyed (Deut 4:30; Jer 23:19-20; Jer 30:23-24; Dan 10:14 and 12:7) and the kingdom of God would be established (Isa 2:1-3; Mic 4:1-2; Dan 2:28, 34-35, 44-45). Therefore, I maintain that Jesus reputation as an apocalyptic prophet survives intact, the destruction of the temple took place within the time frame indicated by the NT and the coming of the Son of Man with his kingdom was not observed by those who dwell on the earth in keeping with Lk 17:20.

On the other hand, the second event whereupon the Son of Man will be revealed from heaven to those who dwell on the earth (Mk 13:24-27; Lk 17:22-37) has yet to take place, which is to be expected as it was not understood to take place until after a long stretch of time (i.e. the "thousand years" of Rev 20) in which the gospel would be spread to all the nations (Mt 24:14).

"If he is worthy to be worshiped as Lord and God, then he cannot have been an apocalyptic prophet."

I would hope to show you otherwise!

- NW

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

I'm not going to clutter up the comments section of your blog anymore but I would just like to reaffirm that critical scholars are incorrect when they say that Jesus and Paul wrongly predicted the end of the world when what they actually predicted was the imminent coming of an invisible kingdom (Lk 17:20) that would exist alongside "this world" (Ps 110:2; Lk 17:21) until the day when "this world" is destroyed at the end. Moreover, the question of whether such a kingdom has actually arrived is a matter for faith as such a metaphysical claim cannot be proven nor disproven on this side of death.

But regardless of these considerations, I would stress that you cannot trust critical scholars anymore than you can trust conservative scholars for the same that the scholarship of both is coloured by their respective prejudices, which is understandable given the impact Christianity has had on the world and in particular Western civilization. So in your attempt to critically assess the faith that you once uncritically accepted for so long I would encourage you not to make the same mistake of uncritically accepting what critical scholars have to say about that faith.

- NW

Ricky Carvel said...

NW,

Thanks for that comment.

The problem I find at the moment is my observation that, whichever scholar you read, whatever their preconceptions are, they totally dominate their conclusions.

I'm beginning to feel that there simply is no objective way of looking at the whole topic. If your preconceptions determine your conclusions, even when combined with the data, then the data is clearly not sufficiently good to lead to a firm conclusion by itself.

The only reasonable solution then, is not to conclude anything...

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

Speaking as a professional scientist, I can assure you that the problem of objectivity extends even to the "hard" sciences, where maths and empirical data are frequently misinterpreted so as to fit preconceived biases. And yet somehow we manage to make a little progress in these fields every now and then. So it is with NT scholarship! If we give up on a field of study just because its researchers are biased then we might as close down our chemistry and physics departments as well. In my opinion, a better approach to scholarship would understand that while each school of thought has something interesting and worthwhile to say, nevertheless their findings must be interpreted in the light of their own preconceptions and predilections, which means that a little bit of work is required on our end as well. It goes without saying that the academy is not exactly a perfectly reliable source of knowledge.

For my part, I am utterly convinced in the existence of God and of the soul and of life after the death as the evidence for these sorts of metaphysical claims is very strong if not well-known, so the only question left insofar as I'm concerned is as to how this God has revealed himself to us and what he expects of us. With respect to the Christian faith, while I believe that I have experienced the presence of God in my attempts at following Christ as described in the NT, nevertheless I was not as convinced of the truth of the Christian narrative as I am today until I figured that the NT actually taught a form of universalism. I am not aware of any other world religion that teaches universalism quite like Christianity does, so that really settled it for me.

- NW

Ricky Carvel said...

NW,

I'm a professional scientist too (well, in an engineering school these days), and I have a PhD which used Bayes Theorem at its core, so I know all about prior assumptions biasing posterior estimates... But anyway...

You may have noticed I sometimes over state my case on this blog. I'm probably doing this here.

What I'm faced with, though, is a lot of theories by a lot of people with very different prior assumptions and a range of posterior estimates.

However, in all that I've read, I have come across several stories of people who started off with Christian preconceptions, considered the evidence and came to atheist or agnostic conclusions. I have yet to find one story of an atheist who considered the evidence (in isolation) and came to Christian conclusions. All stories of atheists coming to faith involve emotional responses and 'feelings', and generally the involvement of nice Christian people, rather than evidence based reasons.

Now I'm not dissing the emotional response, but I am looking for robustness in the evidence, and I'm no longer sure its there.

Anonymous said...

Ricky,

"Now I'm not dissing the emotional response, but I am looking for robustness in the evidence, and I'm no longer sure its there."

I've long since come to the conclusion that the sort of "robustness in the evidence" that is possible in the hard sciences is not possible in any other field of study (e.g. ancient history). But that doesn't mean we give up on other fields of study.

Here's a thought, once you're done making your way through NTW's first three volumes on Christian origins then perhaps you'll be in a better position to make a judgment call on where you stand on all this. If you study this stuff long enough you'll eventually make up your mind on it one way or another.

- NW

beowulf2k8 said...

"He is born of a virgin mother."

Conan isn't.