Friday, August 16, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Twenty One]


It cannot be stressed enough that the suffering Jesus was regarded in early antiquity as a specifically Catholic invention. This is perhaps the most surprising development of our examination of the early Roman Jesus. At every turn, in just about every Pauline community it was acknowledged that Jesus was angelic and above all impassable, a term which means, he did not feel pain or emotion. Yet as is blatantly clear from Mel Gibson’s the Passion of Christ - a modern but wholly faithful representation of the traditional understanding of the suffering Christ - at some point in the history of the Christianity ‘the humanity’ of Jesus was inserted into the Pauline gospel, and once it was there it was very appealing to the Gentile converts to Christianity.

What made it so appealing? The best understanding is that it tapped into the tradition of religious tragedy that had been established in the Greek speaking world. Jesus is now little more than one of the many figures to wear the mask previously assigned to countless famous figures – Oedipus, Prometheus and most importantly Hercules. Before we develop this understanding it is important for the modern reader to witness a late addition to the gospel which is now taken for granted to be an essential part of the Passion narrative – Jesus’s ‘moment of weakness’ in the company of his sleeping disciples.

There is a small fragment of the gospel of Luke chapter 22 which is called P69 by scholars which has recently been argued to be a window to the Marcionite gospel. The fragment was survives in a very fragile state and the reconstruction of what exactly the text says is hotly contested. What is agreed upon is that this version of the Gospel of Luke demonstrates no knowledge of the key lines highlighted below. In other words, all mention of Jesus’s internal struggle or ‘humanity’ are absent from the text.

Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.

There are small differences between P69 and the portion of text not emboldened here but the underlying point is still the same – someone added the highly controversial material which emphasizes Jesus’s humanity.

Already by the time of the last pagan Emperor Julian the obviousness of the forgery here was noted – how did Luke know the angel appeared to Jesus or what he said or felt when he was alone? It was clearly a fiction created by the Catholic editor of Luke – an argument Julian may have taken over from the Marcionites who held fast to the original form of this gospel. The specific identification of P69 as a Marcionite fragment was put forward recently by Claire Clivaz of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and she is almost certainly correct. If it is not specifically ‘Marcionite’ it represents the original text of the gospel later corrupted into our canonical ‘Luke’ - more on that later.

The omitted section of text is important not only because it demonstrates how material was added in order to confound the older heretical forms of Christianity, but specifically how the new Jesus who emerges from this corruption begins to look more and more like Heracles from the Greek tragedies. It may seem odd to argue that the addition of these suffering details made Jesus more like Hercules but most people who care about the gospels are unaware of subtleties of Greek tragedy. To give perhaps the most famous example of Hercules or specifically – ‘Heracles’ as the demi-god was known in ancient Greece - Sophocles' Trachiniae reinterpreted the familiar myth of the hero's ascent to divinity where Heracles himself dies without knowledge of his apotheosis makes his suffering greater and the reward the more impressive.

In other words, as we shall see shortly, Jesus’s final words on the Cross resonate very strongly with the tragic end of Hercules because both men appear unsure of their divinity. Now there were certainly as many Jesus figures in antiquity as there were versions of Hercules. It is worth remembering that the great figures of Greek heroic tradition were never fixed by any definite historical record, but lived by floating in the minds of poets and their audiences. In Euripides’ Heracles he is an heroic figure stricken down by the hate of a Goddess, but rising, with difficulty, to the almost intolerable ordeal of life afterwards. In later thought he becomes a saviour of mankind, or is allegorized into a saint and a philosopher.

If we go back to the Trachiniae for a moment, the chief liberty which Sophocles has taken with the traditional Heracles legend is that he entirely ignores his hero's deification. When Heracles is carried out to his funeral pyre there is not a word to suggest that he will be caught up to heaven in the mounting flames. It is a significant change. The idealized hero of legend or the philosopher's suffering champion of virtue might merit such an ending, but Sophocles cannot give it to the sort of Heracles he has chosen to depict. It is enough to pity his sufferings, to reflect on his victorious deeds of violence and cruelty, and to pronounce judgment that ultimately the author of all is not Heracles nor any human agent; all of it is Zeus—His will, His work, in a sense indeed Himself.

As we have seen, there is something in this developed literary portrait of Hercules that spoke to the early Christians. Where Justin may be argued to have come upon the parallels between Hercules accidentally, one can make the argument that Irenaeus’s Latinized Gospel of Mark played up these features more prominently. We should consider for a moment the consistent emphasis of emotional displays on the part of Christ in Mark – something which was certainly not present in the original gospel in the hands of heretics. Jesus is frequently ‘angry’ with people alongside other spontaneous examples of pathe. Yet most objectionable of all was the emphasis of ‘sweat and suffering’ in the Passion narrative. The heretics again by contrast portrayed Jesus as impassable through all his toils.

To this end Professor Roman Garrison developed an interesting study of the possibly influence of the Hercules myth on the development of the Gospel of Mark. Garrison begins by noting that several figures from Greek mythology offer themselves as potentially significant models for Mark's Jesus. An obvious example of a suffering hero is Prometheus the one 'crucified' by Zeus. Harrison adds however that “the character of Prometheus seems an unlikely model for two principal reasons: (1) he is not a son of God; and (2) he does not die. It is essential to recognize the identity of Jesus as God's son and it is central that he died; in these respects Jesus is clearly different from Prometheus.”

Harrison however speaks very differently of Hercules noting that “he was reputed to be the begotten son of Zeus: (by a human mother). Heracles performed many mighty deeds before suffering an agonizing death” and adding that “it is perhaps coincidental, but nevertheless of interest, that Sophocles regarded the last words of Heracles to be a potential source of revelation.” Switching to a discussion of the Gospel of Mark Harrison notes that “Mark immediately identifies his subject as God's son (l.l) one ‘more powerful’ than John the Baptist, God's messenger ( 1.2, 7).” As such it is important to note that “the deeds of Jesus are described as 'mighty works' (cf. 6.2) and he is regarded as the virtual embodiment of power (5.30, cf 6.14)

Jesus is able “by his presence alone” to subdue the demon-possessed man whose strength was unparalleled (5.1-6) and the crazed man anticipates torture from this 'Mighty One': 'What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God"! I adjure you by God, do not torment me' (5.7; cf. 1.24). Indeed, Jesus' power over the demons is regarded as evidence that he has overcome the 'strong man', even Satan (3.23-27). “While significant differences must be recognized between the two accounts,” Harrison notes “it is reasonable to conclude that a powerful son of God in the literature of Mark's cultural environment provided a model by which he understood (and portrayed) Jesus.”

The author also spends a great of deal noting on the manner in which the “the inevitability of Heracles' death is foreshadowed.” At one point he is blinded by a spirit of insanity that provokes him to murder his wife and children. Crushed by guilt, grief, and despair, Heracles considers the option of suicide. In this context the chorus expresses a sympathy that eerily anticipates the anguish of Mark's readers as they find Jesus crying out in pain, 'My God. my God, why have you forsaken me?' Watching in horror the chorus calls Ah Zeus, why this why this stern hate against thy son? Why hast thou brought him to this sea of ills? Because of the compassion and friendship of Theseus, Heracles chooses not to end his own life despite his agony and self-hate.

Nevertheless as Harrison notes it is fated that one day Hercules will die. Much later when Heracles prepares to offer a sacrifice, he drapes himself with a cloak, unaware that it has been soaked with the venomous blood of a centaur he has slain. The poison torments Heracles and he is unable to relieve its effects; he is racked with pain, dying slowly. He cries out to his father “O Zeus! Tenure, torture is all you give me!” Heracles ends his agony by having others, including his son, burn his body on a pyre. The story of Heracles then claims that his spirit is received among the gods after his death. Zeus embraces him as his noble son and Heracles is welcomed in Olympiad.

To this end Harrison emphasizes that “there are remarkable parallels between these two 'mighty' sons of God who suffer agonizing deaths and question the purpose of their father.” The possible influence of the literary tradition about Heracles on Mark, Harrison comcludes, may provide insight into his intentions in reporting the last words of Jesus to be ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ The literary world of Mark's readers included a son of God whose father permitted him to suffer a miserable death. Heracles had protested Zeus's sanction of his torture and yet through his dying Heracles came into a greater glory than he had known in his mortal condition.

Within this literary (and theological!) context in the Graeco-Roman culture of his day. perhaps Mark used the last words of Jesus to draw harsh attention to the agony of his execution and to confront his readers with God's apparent approval of the death of his son. Jesus' divine son- ship would be recognized through his death as the centurion's statement clearly proves: Truly this man was God's son!' (15.39).

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.