Myths and legends feature countless hero figures, and even real history features many people whose lives have been mythologized, being elevated into larger-than-life figures. Scholars have long recognized that Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament and its apocrypha is one of these heroic figures (Rank; Dundes; Campbell; Funk). In Jesus’s case, like many others, this process begins with his parentage, conception, and birth. In the field of mythological studies this initial phase of a hero’s life is known as “the birth of the hero” motif. This motif provides a framework into which many elements of Jesus’s infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke fit.
Scholars have studied this motif, breaking it down into a formal pattern with several elements based on parallel events in the myths. The most famous patterns identified are those of the psychologist Otto Rank and of Lord Raglan; Joseph Campbell also treated the birth and childhood of heroes as part of his hero cycle (318-34). No two scholars have come up with exactly the same pattern and number of elements, nor does any single story match all elements of any one such pattern. Nevertheless, the birth stories of many hero figures, including Jesus, do hit most of the data points identified by scholars, so it is worth examining this motif in some detail in relation to Jesus. There are parallels worldwide, but I will confine the discussion to those from the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean world up through the time when Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were written.
Several key elements of the archetypal “birth of the hero” pattern appear in Jesus’s infancy narratives (Rank 39-43; Dundes; Funk 498-5-7; Miller 133-53; Jung, p. 406), including:
- An earthly biological or adoptive father who is either a king or in a royal line, as in both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus. Other examples include Plato (descended from Solon), Aeneas (son of prince Anchises of Troy), Perseus, Theseus, Asclepius, Oedipus, Telephus, Heracles, Jason, and Romulus.
- A miraculous conception through divine intervention, as in both Matthew and Luke, and reputed to be the son of a god (sometimes a goddess), as in all of the Gospels. Other examples include Romulus (fathered by Mars), Aeneas (son of Aphrodite), Heracles (Zeus) Alexander the Great (Zeus), Augustus Caesar (Apollo), Plato (Apollo, also descended from Poseidon), Apollonius of Tyana (Proteus), Pythagoras (Apollo), Asclepius (Apollo), and Perseus (Zeus).
- His mother is a virgin (sometimes royal) as of just before such miraculous conception. Examples include Danae (mother of Perseus), Rhea Silva (mother of Romulus and Remus), Koronis (mother of Asclepius), Aethra (mother of Theseus), Alcemene (mother of Heracles); similarly among divinities Leto (mother of Apollo) and Semele (mother of Dionysus). Such classical examples, however, feature conception through sex (expressly or impliedly). Mary’s case goes a step further, making her conception by the Holy Spirit asexual and retaining her virginity afterwards.
- Prophecies, dreams, omens, or other portents of his coming and future greatness, as in Matthew 2:5-6 and Luke 2:10, 29-38. Other examples include Augustus Caesar, Apollonius of Tyana, Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander the Great (by magi), Aeneas (annunciation by Aphrodite), Cyrus, and Zoroaster.
- Soon after birth the child is abandoned or spirited away, or an attempt is made to kill him, as in Matthew’s account of the Massacre of the Innocents. Other examples include Heracles (once by his mother and again by Hera), Sargon I, Moses, Jason, Ion, Paris, Jason, Augustus Caesar, Zoroaster, Cyrus, Romulus, and Asclepius.
- He is born into and grows up living in modest/primitive and obscure conditions as in all of the Gospels; often he is raised by foster parents (Joseph was Jesus’s adoptive father) and sometimes even animals; in some cases nothing is said or known of his childhood. Other examples include Perseus, Paris, Jason, Romulus, and Cyrus. In Luke, Jesus’s humble beginnings are emphasized by his parents being unable to secure accommodations in Bethlehem, his being placed in a manger (presumably among animals), and the adoration by shepherds.
- Although his early childhood is obscure, later in childhood he displays exceptional qualities, as in Luke 2:46-47, 52. Other examples include Pythagoras, Epicurus, Alexander the Great, Apollonius of Tyana, the Olympic champion Theagenes, Cyrus, and the biblical figures of Moses, Samuel, Solomon, and Daniel.
- He is said to be divine or semi-divine, as in all Gospels. Other examples include Heracles, Pythagoras, Plato, Asclepius, Epicurus, Augustus Caesar, Apollonius of Tyana.
These characteristics are what people in the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean world came to expect of their heroes, so inevitably myths and legends of heroes developed using these stereotypes to satisfy these expectations. These elements were often attributed to historical persons; it is these common elements in their biographies conforming to the hero pattern that are historically suspect and are the material of myth (Dundes 180).
New Testament scholarship has shown that early Christians were striving competitively to prove to skeptical pagans and Jews that Jesus shared in these marks of divinity and hero status, and that he even exceeded and was superior to the pagan gods in these respects. For example, the early Church father Justin Martyr famously wrote, “When, indeed, we assert that the Word, our Teacher Jesus Christ, who is the first-begotten of God the Father, was not born as the result of sexual relations, and that he was crucified, died, arose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, we propose nothing new or different from that which you say about the so-called sons of Jupiter” (First Apology 21).
As M. David Litwa stressed in his valuable study of Jesus’s depiction as a Mediterranean god, the point here is not to argue for genetic, direct influence on Matthew and/or Luke from particular Greco-Roman myths and legends (although this seems plausible in some cases such as the birth of Aeneas (MacDonald 13-17)). Rather, the takeaway should be that the motifs through which the birth of Jesus was mythologized were part and parcel of Greco-Roman Mediterranean culture and thus available, and could be and were applied to Jesus, as was recognized and argued in the patristic literature (Litwa 20, 37-67; Ehrman 2012, p. 215). It was this audience, after all, to which Matthew and Luke were directed, in order to win converts and grow Christian communities in the face of pagan beliefs and Roman imperial propaganda increasingly concerned with the Emperor cult.
How well Jesus’s later life, death, and resurrection fit into the hero pattern is more subject to debate, and is important for how to interpret his mythologization. He is certainly a hero in terms of being the savior of individuals and all of humanity, and, as I discussed in last year’s Christmas post, Christ was viewed as a solar hero in ways similar to other solar heroes. What bears stressing here, however, is that, while in our times we think of a humble Christ with a more purely spiritual (as we define that these days) message rather than being a classic powerful warrior figure, the scenario during his life and among the first Christians was broader than that because of Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. John the Baptist, Jesus, and St. Paul were all apocalypticists, and the earliest Christian communities were apocalyptic in nature: They were awaiting the imminent end of the world. Jewish apocalypticists such as John the Baptist and Jesus believed that God would soon intervene in history to destroy the enemy and the forces of evil, and set up the Kingdom of God on earth. God would accomplish this through the Son of Man, who would then reign over the Kingdom. St. Paul and other early Christians believed that Christ was this figure, and that he would imminently return to accomplish this (Ehrman 1999). Now that’s a hero! Jesus’s mythologization reflected this perspective.
Note: The mythology underlying Christmas is covered in more detail in my new book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae.
Sources and Bibliography
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books (1949).
Dundes, Alan. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in Segal 1990, pp. 179-223.
Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press (1999).
Ehrman, Bart. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne (2012).
Funk, Robert. The Acts of Jesus. New York: HarperSanFrancisco (1998). This volume reports the results of the study of the historicity of the events of Jesus’s by the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute.
Jung, Carl. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol.11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969).
Litwa, M. David. Jesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014).
MacDonald, Dennis. Mythologizing Jesus: From Jewish Teacher to Epic Hero. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield (2015).
Miller, Robert. Born Divine: The Births of Jesus & Other Sons of God. Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press (2003), pp. 133-53.
Raglan, Lord. 1990. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama, Part II, in Segal, pp. 89-175.
Rank, Otto. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, in Segal, pp. 3-86 (originally published in 1914).
Segal, Robert, ed. In Quest of the Hero. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1990).