Is Jesus a Rank-Raglan hero?

Richard Carrier argues in his book On the Historicity of Jesus that Jesus fits exceptionally well into the Rank-Raglan hero classification. He claims no known historical figures do, making Jesus unlikely to have existed. I will examine these claims in detail.

1. How does one become a Rank-Raglan hero anyway?

Lord Raglan developed twenty-two criteria for classifying a certain type of hero1. His work, although independent, mirrors previous work by Otto Rank2. These texts are strikingly imaginative and flourish with more or less fantastic associations, but are much weaker when it comes to formulating well-defined and testable hypotheses or examining claimed patterns in a stringent and consistent way. Unlike Rank, Raglan argues that his hero type fits only non-historical persons3. Raglan allows a score of six or seven for Alexander the Great. Carrier gives him ten4. I will examine the scoring for Alexander as well as for Jesus.

Carrier applies the criterion that someone who scores ‘more than half’—at least twelve—is thereby a Rank-Raglan hero. This limit is entirely arbitrary, but that is not problem. What Carrier needs is a limit that results in a class that clearly contains Jesus and enough known mythological heroes to get a statistically useful group, but which is unlikely to include many historical persons.

1.1. Isn’t the classification itself arbitrary?

A stronger objection is that given enough data, it is always possible to create an overfit model that includes a number of examples one wants included, and excludes the rest. Suppose that we want to prove that the koala is in fact a ferocious beast, and that we have a complete database of the DNA of the koala as well as tens of thousands of other animals. Clearly we will then be able to find a good number of animals known to be ferocious beasts that share an amazing number of DNA attributes with the koala. Carrier argues that this is not a problem because we only have limited information available about Jesus and the other heroes on his list, and because the parallels are meaningful and substantial5. I agree that this has some merit, but would add one important caveat: even though the data is limited, we must be very careful of tweaking the criteria in order to specifically include Jesus or exclude known historical figures. This is because there are an almost infinite number of ways that such tweaking can happen, even without creating obviously inappropriate criteria.

The strength of Carrier’s argument—I will argue—lies heavily in using lord Raglan’s criteria exactly as he developed them, assuming he did not formulate them for the purpose of including Jesus. Also, we must be careful to interpret them in the same way he did. Because if we don’t, we risk creating something that only appears to be a generic classification of heroes, but which is in reality a pseudo-classification shoehorned to fit Jesus.

1.2. Raglan’s criteria—and Carrier’s

Unfortunately, Carrier subtly changes the criteria to better fit Jesus, and reorders them. Worse still, Carrier does not inform his readers that he has done this. This is amounts to academic dishonesty, since he is clearly misrepresenting his sources. Of course, Carrier is free to invent his own criteria and to ‘improve’ on Raglan’s. He then has to convince us why this is justified. Instead, he leads us to believe that he is using Raglan’s criteria, stating clearly: ‘But I shall work from the traditional twenty-two.’6 Below, I will colour-code Carrier’s criteria side by side with Raglan’s: white for no essential change, green for rewordings that do not give Jesus any advantage, yellow for subtle changes that yet make the criterion fit Jesus better, and red for substantial changes favouring Jesus.

2. Scoring Jesus and Alexander

To use the classification consistently, we must be very clear about what sources will be used. Should we give a point if anyone ever has made a matching claim about a hero? Or should we perhaps rather limit ourselves to a single source, scoring the specific story? Carrier uses the Gospel of Matthew7. The advantage with this approach is that we can score a consistent and early story. The disadvantage, as we will see, is that there are claims missing in Matthew that many would still say are well established legends about Jesus. Keeping this in mind, I will score Jesus according to Matthew, but will examine the other synoptics (Mark, Matthew and Luke) and other early sources if Matthew does not give us enough information. For Alexander I will mainly use Plutarch’s books Alexander, ca 75 C.E., and Moralia, ca 100 C.E. Being completely contemporary with the synoptics, they draw from the same background knowledge. Since Plutarch does not tell us anything about what happened after the death of Alexander, I will use Strabo’s Geographica, finally edited around 25 C.E. Throughout, I will add on-line references to the source material used.

If these works are similar in time, they could however not be more different in style and content. The synoptics clearly contain highly mythologized legends, whereas Plutarch and Strabo are trying to convey history. There are, in fact, thoroughly legendary works dealing with Alexander, known as Alexander Romances8. But the extant manuscripts are rather late, and we cannot even rule out that they were influenced by Christian gospels. On the other hand, when Plutarch relates several theories, I will use the most favourable version, even if Plutarch comes out against it. It is important to remember that we are not scoring what we think really happened to Jesus or Alexander, but what was told about them.

Let the scoring begin.

2.1. The hero’s mother is a royal virgin.

The hero’s mother is a virgin

Raglan’s vagueness and lack of consistency causes immediate problems. In the context of Jesus, we might assume that the virginity in question refers to a virgin birth. However, Raglan appears to have meant only that the mother was a virgin at the time of the hero’s conception, that he is her first child9. It is indeed unclear if any of Raglan’s heroes were said to have had a virgin birth, most certainly did not. Moreover, Raglan goes on to score a full point for a number of mothers simply because they were princesses, quickly ignoring his own virginity test. In this situation, I will instead give the hero half a point. Of course, this means some of Raglan’s heroes should score lower.

Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin10. However, she is not in any of the synoptics said to have been of royal birth. Alexander’s mother Olympias was a royal virgin. She had just married his father Philip II of Macedonia when he was conceived11.

Jesus: 0.5, Alexander: 1.

2.2. His father is a king, and

His father is a king or the heir of a king

Jesus’ father was not nearly a king. Though Joseph’s lineage is carefully traced back to David12, royal ancestry does not make one king. Neither is God a king. Alexander’s father Philip II was the king of Macedonia13.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.3. often a near relative of his mother, but

His parents are related to each other

Neither Jesus’ nor Alexander’s parents are said to have been related.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 0.

2.4. the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and

 The circumstances of his conception are unusual

Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit14. Olympias was said to have had a dream of a thunderbolt striking her womb, impregnating her on the eve of her marriage15. Though Plutarch and several of his sources are clearly skeptical of this claim, he establishes that this legend was widespread enough to be reported, which is all we need to give Alexander a full point.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 1.

2.5. he is also reputed to be the son of a god.

 He is reputed to be the son of a god

Jesus is reputed to be the son of the Hebrew God16. Alexander is reputed to be the son of Zeus171819.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 1.

2.6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but

An attempt is made to kill him when he is a baby

King Herod attempts to kill Jesus at birth20. He is not Jesus’ father or grandfather, but that is not a requirement. There is no attempt to kill Alexander at birth. Philip is said to have tried to kill him later21, but we can’t give him even half a point for this since it is central in the narrative that it happens at birth.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 0.

2.7. he is spirited away, and

To escape which he is spirited away from those trying to kill him

Jesus flees to Egypt with his parents22. After Philip tries to kill Alexander, he likewise flees with his mother to the south-west21. But again, he gets no points since it happens later in life.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 0.

2.8. reared by foster-parents in a far country.

He is reared in a foreign country by one or more foster parents

Jesus is raised by his mother and father, not by foster-parents. Neither is Jesus reared in a far country. Among the synoptics, only Matthew mentions the Egyptian escape, and he has the family return soon after24. Since Philip is away waging war, Alexander is reared by others. Plutarch reports Leonidas to have been called his foster-father25. Later, Philip retains Aristotle to tutor his son in Mieza26 close to the border. However, this is still within Macedonia itself and clearly not a far country, so Alexander can only get half a point.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 0.5.

2.9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but

 We are told nothing of his childhood

Of the synoptics, only Luke has anything to say about Jesus’ childhood, and it is not much27. As evidenced by the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, legends about Jesus’ childhood sprung up relatively early, possibly as early as the other gospels. Thus, we can only give Jesus a point by staying strictly with the legend as told by Matthew. Although not extensive, there are some details on Alexander’s childhood28.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 0.

2.10. on reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.

On reaching manhood he returns to his future kingdom

Jesus has nowhere to return from, no future kingdom to return to, and there is no tale of any travel upon reaching manhood. Alexander returns home from Mieza at some time before the age of 16, when he defends his father’s kingdom while Philip is away29.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon or wild beast

Before taking a throne or a wife, he battles and defeats a great adversary (such as a king, giant, dragon or wild beast)

Jesus does no such thing. Carrier argues30 that Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert would qualify. However, this is really a stretch, since Jesus merely turns down a proposal31. Although Satan is sometimes referred to as ‘prince’, in context ‘the king’ here clearly means the hero’s father or predecessor, not just any vaguely kingly character. Satan is also neither a giant, a dragon nor a wild beast. Giving a point to Jesus would mean that anyone who has ever resisted any sort of adversity or temptation in life would score. This would make the criterion meaningless. Of Alexander, a legend is told about how he tames the horse Bucephalos after his father deems him to be ‘altogether wild’32.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.12. he marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and

He marries a queen or princess related to his predecessor

Jesus does not marry. Alexander’s second wife Stateira is the daughter of Darius III of Persia33, whom Alexander has defeated and thus succeeded. It may be objected that the order of events is reversed, Alexander only marries after he becomes king, even though the reverse order is (loosely) implied in the criteria. If Raglan had considered it important, he could have made that clear by inserting a ‘later’ at the end. Clearly he did not intend this, since he gives a point to Theseus who likewise married only after becoming king of Athens3435.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.13. becomes king.

He is crowned, hailed or becomes king

Jesus never becomes king. Carrier refers to a number of Bible verses where Jesus is called a king, claiming that it is ‘denialism’ to disagree that Jesus was a king. However, these verses are either prophecy363738, or depict Jesus being mocked as a supposed but in reality clearly powerless ‘king’39. Words have meanings, and to be a king means to have subjects and territory. Jesus has neither, and is not a king. The criterion does not say ‘is called a king’, or ‘hailed a king’, but ‘becomes king’. Also, Carrier’s tweaked criterion of being ‘crowned’ again favours Jesus since the encounter with John the Baptist clearly has the form of a coronation event40. It is true that Raglan sometimes scores points for other sorts of de-facto or delegated rulership. Asclepius is probably the most dubious case where not even this clearly applies, but in every other case Raglan’s heroes really do become rulers, and usually kings. Jesus simply does not fit in this group. Alexander becomes king41.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.14. For a time he reigns uneventfully, and

He reigns uneventfully (i.e., without wars or national catastrophes)

There is no initial ‘uneventful’ period being described in Jesus’ career. Immediately after being baptised, he goes off to be tempted by Satan42 and perform miracles43. Alexander immediately heads off for war.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 0.

2.15. prescribes laws, but

He prescribes laws

Jesus has no authority to prescribe laws. He offers his opinions, but who doesn’t? Opinions are not laws. Criteria must have some power of exclusion, or they cease to be criteria. It is plausible to argue that Raglan himself applied this criterion in a loose way, for instance he claims Asclepius ‘prescribed the laws of medicine’ and Apollo ‘the laws of music’. Even in these cases, at least the ‘law-givers’ successfully impose their commandments, while, according to the synoptics, Jesus does not. Alexander prescribes laws44.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.16. later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects,

He then loses favor with the gods or his subjects

Jesus loses favour with God45 as well as all of his supporters, including his most loyal46. Alexander faces the threat of rebellion, and meets significant disapproval after he murders some of his most loyal men, Parmenion and Cleitus. However, his power remains intact until his unexpected death.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 0.

2.17. is driven from the throne and city, after which

He is driven from the throne or city

Jesus has no throne, but there is a story in Luke where he is driven from the city of Nazareth47. However, this is at the very start of his career, and not related to the hero’s downfall, which is clearly central to the narrative. So just like we cannot give Alexander points for his father trying to murder him as a teen, we cannot give Jesus points for this either, even if we included Luke. At the time of Jesus’ downfall, he is not driven from either throne or city. Neither is Alexander.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 0.

2.18. he meets with a mysterious death,

 He meets with a mysterious death

As described in the synoptics, the death of Jesus does not appear to have been mysterious. They crucify him, and he dies after six hours according to Mark48. Carrier argues that it was mysterious that Jesus died so quickly, since ‘crucifixion was supposed to take days’49. However, the time frame is not given in Matthew, and this claim is not consistent with modern scholarship50. The truth is that although crucified people could survive for days, we do not know the typical causes of death, much less that it would be ‘mysterious’ for someone to die after six hours. Carrier is here committing one of his own favourite fallacies: possibiliter ergo probabiliter. He assumes that because someone might survive for days, we can say that Jesus would probably and in fact almost certainly have done so. Nevertheless, Raglan appears to have interpreted ‘mysterious’ very loosely, including any non-natural, suspicious or otherwise remarkable death. In this light, it appears that the criterion is simply ill-defined from the very beginning. Certainly, we must give Jesus a full point for being executed. For Alexander, the rampant speculation that he was poisoned must likewise suffice51.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 1.

2.19. often at the top of a hill.

He dies atop a hill or high place

Today, Jesus is always imagined as having been crucified on a hill. However, the synoptics do not mention anything about this, only that it was at ‘a place called Golgotha, that is to say, The place of a skull’52. It is not until after Helena of Constantinople ‘discovers’ it along with the ‘true cross’ in 325 that it begins being referred to as a hill or mount53. Today, it is often speculated that the ‘skull’ in question must have been a rock formation, but this is pure conjecture. Since we do know that it was a place of execution, it may easily have referred to an actual skull on display. Moreover, even if there was a skull-like rock at the place, it does not follow that Jesus would have been crucified on top of it; he may have been killed in front of it. Neither can we assume that people were always crucified on hilltops. The places were chosen to be as public as possible, which often meant that people were hung by the roadside. Indeed, modern Christian tradition somewhat implausibly maintains that Jesus was crucified both on a hill, and at the same time by a public road54. Clearly, we must give up our modern preconceptions of the crucifixion and accept that Matthew does not refer to any hilltop. Alexander was said to have been carried to the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II three days before his death, and to have remained there55. There is no specific point being made that the palace is on a spectacular hill, where it was and still remains, albeit clumsily ‘rebuilt’ by Saddam Hussein56. Given the lack of emphasis, Alexander can score only half a point.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 0.5.

2.20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.

His children, if any, do not succeed him

Jesus has no children. Alexander has children, but they do not succeed him57.

Jesus: 1, Alexander: 1.

2.21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless

His body turns up missing

All the synoptics agree that Jesus is buried585960. Carrier has simply changed the criterion to something different. Likewise, Alexander is buried, first at Memphis and then, after a few years, reburied at Alexandria.

Jesus: 0, Alexander: 0.

2.22. he has one or more holy sepulchres.

Yet he still has one or more holy sepulchers (in fact or fiction)

There is no mention of any holy sepulchre in the synoptics, neither in Acts. This tradition does not appear to have arisen until the fourth century. Alexander’s sarcophagus was put on display and venerated for centuries61.

 Jesus: 0, Alexander: 1.

2.23. Summing up

In my best estimation, Jesus scores 8.5 points while Alexander scores 13. Carrier rarely motivates his scoring of Jesus, but it appears the vast difference is mainly because Carrier’s tweaked criteria simply fit Jesus much better than Raglan’s criteria. In my view, the fact that Jesus was not a king in any normal sense is clearly the main reason he does not fit in with the group. In fact, the classification might easily have been known as the Rank-Raglan hero-king, since that is really the type of hero that is treated. Might it be possible to improve Jesus’ score by using more sources? Probably, although it would go both ways. We might lose one point since there are many stories about Jesus’ childhood outside of Matthew, but we could gain two points by placing his death on a hill and giving him holy sepulchres. This gain is modest and probably does not offset the problems involved with using much later sources.

As for my scoring of Alexander, Carrier either fails to mention one criteria he agrees fits Alexander or he sums his scoring wrong62. Of the criteria he mentions, there are six differences with my scoring. These are Olympias being a royal virgin, Alexander being raised by foster-parents, defeating the wild beast Bucephalos before becoming king, meeting a mysterious death, his death on a hill not being emphasized and Alexander having a holy sepulchre, netting Alexander four more points than Carrier lists and three more than he sums.

It might be argued, perhaps, that my scoring is too strict. Raglan himself appeared willing to sometimes move his own goal-posts, can we not do the same? But if we do, we must allow the same leeway for known historical persons, making a mockery of the classification63. Being strict is in fact the only way to make the classification useful at all.

3. The case against tweaking

But, one may wonder: is tweaking the criteria really so bad? Can’t we use any criteria we like, as long as we use them consistently? No, we absolutely cannot! Because there are almost infinitely many ways to subtly change criteria around and still make them fit most of the other heroes in the class, such tweaking massively reduces the discriminatory power of the reference class.

3.1. A mathematical argument

To quantify the problem with allowing oneself to tweak the criteria, I constructed a mathematical model. In this example, the hero candidate has twenty-two ‘stats’, each of which is a number that is randomly distributed between zero and one in the general population. To be considered a hero, an individual here needs to score above 0.7 on at least 12 stats. A simulation shows that this happens in 1.4% of the cases, a stronger discrimination than Carrier claims for the Rank-Raglan hero class64. Now we introduce tweaks: for three stats, we may subtract 0.3 from the limit. For another three, we can remove 0.2, and for three more we can lower the limit by 0.1. The simulation shows that this tweaking ups the chances of a random individual to be considered a hero to well above 70%65. Although it is obviously debatable how severe Carrier’s tweaks are, I would say my numeric tweaks are in the same ball park.

3.2. Tweaking it for Alexander

We can of course also tweak the criteria for Alexander. For instance, let’s subtly drop the requirement that the murder attempt by the hero’s father, and the subsequent escape, has to occur in infancy. Let’s change the upbringing from a ‘far country’ to ‘away from home’. Let us use some source for Alexander that simply does not deal with his childhood. Let’s change his initial ‘uneventful’ reign to a period of power consolidation. Let’s argue that in fact Alexander’s early death equals losing favour with the gods, and that the rebellion and disapproval he meets with are sufficient. Let’s give him a full point for dying on a hill. Finally, let’s change the lack of burial to require that the fate of the body was unusual (Alexander’s body was stolen by Ptolemy, and he was buried twice). We can now score Alexander at twenty-one out of twenty-two, and I honestly do not believe these proposed tweaks are any less subtle than those employed by Carrier.

4. Conclusion

Jesus shares some remarkable attributes with Rank-Raglan heroes, perhaps most notably the attempt to kill him as a baby, his reputation as son of God, and the rejection by his disciples and abandonment by God at the time of his downfall. Many other criteria do not fit Jesus well and it is doubtful that Jesus belongs in the class. Alexander almost certainly scores higher than Jesus, and probably well enough to falsify Raglan’s claim that no historical figures fit the pattern.

Show 65 footnotes

  1. Raglan (1956). The Hero. In Segal, R. A. In Quest of he Hero (p 138)
  2. Rank, O. (1909). The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. In Segal, R. A. In Quest of he Hero
  3. Raglan (1956). The Hero. In Segal, R. A. In Quest of the Hero (p 137)
  4. Carrier, p 231, note 193
  5. Carrier, R, On the Historicity of Jesus (2014), p 228, note 187
  6. Carrier, p 230
  7. Carrier, p 232
  8. Wikipedia, Alexander Romance
  9. Raglan (1956). The Hero. In Segal, R. A. In Quest of he Hero (p 148)
  10. Matthew 1:18
  11. Plutarch, Alexander, 2.2-2.3
  12. Matthew 1
  13. Plutarch, Alexander, 2.2-2.3
  14. Matthew 1:18
  15. Plutarch, Alexander, 2.2-2.3
  16. Matthew 16:16
  17. Plutarch, Alexander, 3.2
  18. Plutarch, Alexander, 27.5
  19. Plutarch, Alexander, 28.2
  20. Matthew 2:16
  21. Plutarch, Alexander, 9.5
  22. Matthew 2:14
  23. Plutarch, Alexander, 9.5
  24. Matthew 2:21
  25. Plutarch, Alexander, 5.4-5.5
  26. Plutarch, Alexander, 7.2-7.3
  27. Luke 2:40-52
  28. Plutarch, Alexander, 4-8
  29. Plutarch, Alexander, 4-8
  30. Carrier, p. 233
  31. Matthew 4:1-11
  32. Plutarch, Alexander, 6
  33. Plutarch, Alexander, 70.2
  34. Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 22.3
  35. Plutarch, Life of Theseus, 27
  36. Matthew 2:2
  37. Matthew 21.5
  38. Matthew 25.34
  39. Matthew 27
  40. Matthew 3.13-17
  41. Plutarch, Alexander, 11.1
  42. Matthew 4:1-11
  43. Matthew 4:23-25
  44. Plutarch, Fortune of Alexander, 1.5
  45. Matthew 27:46
  46. Matthew 26:70-75
  47. Luke 4:29
  48. Mark 15:25-39
  49. Carrier, p 232, note 194
  50. Maslen, M. W. and Mitchell, P. D. (2006), Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine doi:  10.1258/jrsm.99.4.185
  51. Plutarch, Alexander, 77
  52. Matthew 27:33
  53. Catholic Encyclopedia, Mount Calvary
  54. For instance: Gill, J. (1746-8) An Exposition of the New Testament, John 19:20
  55. Plutarch, Alexander, 76.3-4
  56. Google maps, Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in old Babylon
  57. The Geography of Strabo Book XVII. Chapter I. 11. Egypt. Alexandria.
  58. Matthew 27:57-66
  59. Mark 15:42-47
  60. Luke 23:50-54
  61. The Geography of Strabo Book XVII. Chapter I. 8. Egypt. Alexandria.
  62. Carrier, p. 231, note 193
  63. Utley, F. L. (1965). Lincoln Wasn’t There or Lord Raglan’s Hero
  64. Carrier, p 243
  65. Johan Rönnblom, Python simulation for tweaking heroes

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