Tuesday, January 06, 2015

McGrath on Jesus as hero

Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype

The scale was not designed to determine historicity. Its folklorist users show little or no interest in the attempt to do what historians do, namely peeling back layers of myth in search of underlying history, if there is any. The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were. And so Carrier’s attempt to use the scale to slant his calculations of probability in the direction of the non-historicity of Jesus are at best unpersuasive, and at worst deliberately misleading.

By James F. McGrath
Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature
Butler University
December 2014
A very sensible discussion about the use and abuse of the Rank-Raglan scale as applied to Jesus. Many years ago when I used to teach Ancient Mythology, I used this scale on heroes from Gilgamesh to Jason the Argonaut and found it to be a useful heuristic device for comparison and as a discussion starter. But James is quite right that historical figures can sometimes be cast (by themselves or their later followers) in the role of the hero and doing well on the scale has no bearing on an ancient figure's historicity.

I'm not sure what James means by "earliest" vs. "subsequent" sources, but for what it's worth, I would give the Jesus of the four Gospels quite a high score on the scale: full points for 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 (Egypt-Nazareth to Jerusalem), 11 (over Satan in temptation narrative), 15, 16, 18 (mysterious: darkness over land, torn Temple curtain, resurrected saints, etc.), 19, 20, 21, 22; a half point each for 1 (mother virgin of royal line, but not royal herself), 2 (likewise Joseph from royal line but not a king), 8 (reared in Egypt, then Galilee, but by his mother and arguably his "foster" father), 9 (very little about his childhood), 14 (uneventful interlude, but not "reign"), and 17 (driven from Jerusalem, but not throne). That comes out to about 16/22. The elements that do not apply at all are 3 (Joseph is not a near relative of Mary) and 12-13 (Jesus doesn't get married or become king). But I can see how some of these could be up for debate.

UPDATE: Professor McGrath comments here.