I am a Paul scholar, so I talk a lot about Paul. I once realized I possibly talk too much about Paul when my 4-year-old looked at me and said:
“Pawl, Pawl, Pawl, Pawl, Pawl! All you ever do is talk about Pawl. Why don’t you talk about somebody different for a change? How ’bout Hercules?”
Well that was about a decade ago, and his request has pretty much gone unanswered. Until now, since I can possibly talk about both. What my son (and many believers) don’t realize is how much the early Christians actually talked about Rome’s Hercules in relation to “Pawl’s” Jesus. This is because there are striking similarities between the two. Here are some examples identified by New Testament scholar Abraham Malherbe:1
Both Jesus and Hercules were reported to have been born of virgins and to have had earthly fathers who resisted having intercourse with their respective mothers to ensure the boys’ divinity.
As infants, both Jesus and Hercules escaped attempts on their lives.
At the beginning of their public activities, both Jesus and Hercules received divine commissions.
Both Jesus and Hercules overcame temptation from supernatural sources, left their families to travel, and instructed their followers to pray.
Both Jesus and Hercules were called “son of God.”
Jesus and Hercules humbled themselves, endured public slander, and served the people they were intended to rule. What is more, both figures desired not to abandon their followers as orphans.
Both Jesus and Hercules were eventually betrayed by loved ones who went on to hang themselves due to remorse for what they had done.
Natural phenomena accompanied the deaths of Jesus and Hercules, and as the men were dying both comforted their earthly mothers and committed their spirits to their heavenly fathers. Additionally, both of them punctuated their lives with the great proclamation, “It is FINISHED”—and, after their deaths, both Jesus and Hercules harrowed Hell and conquered the grave before reappearing to comfort grieving women and ascending in the clouds to be enthroned with God.
In addition to these similarities, Hercules’ titles seem to apply to Jesus as well. Whereas “son of god” was Hercules’ most popular epithet, people also referred to him as the savior and champion of the cosmos, its hero-god and marvelous avenger who brings justice and righteousness to the world and purges it from all that is evil. What is more, Hercules was considered “the Word who permeates all things” and humanity’s constant helper in times of trouble.
Since Hercules was particularly promised to come to people’s aid in averting evil; therefore, many doorways had this Herculean motto inscribed upon them:
The son of god, gloriously triumphant Heracles, dwells here: Let nothing evil enter this door.2
An ancient hymn also underlines this evil-fighting role:
Hercules – immortal, wise, boundless and irrepressible – Come, O blessed one, fight against disease, drive evil away and ward off cruel death.3
The hero was so famous that people even took his name “in vain.” For example, rather than OMG, a popular expletive during the time was “Oh My Hercules!”
Stealing from the story of Jesus
Despite all the serious and conspicuous contrasts between Hercules and Jesus that we could bring up, early believers surprisingly still associated the two figures, starting at least around the time of Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) and Origen (around 184–253). Some did so to defend the case for Christ by answering the question that possibly came to your mind when you read the similarities above. Namely, how do we account for the striking parallels between Jesus and Hercules?
One way to answer this is the response given by Justin, an early apologist (defender) of the church. According to him, the pagans stole these ideas from the story of Jesus and attributed them to Hercules. 4 To be sure, there are cases of this later on. For instance, around AD 330–363, Julian the Apostate sought to make paganism great again by recrafting Hercules in the image of Christ as a counterweight to Constantine’s Christian reforms. 5 Julian therefore bedecked Hercules with Gospel traits such as being able to walk on water. Around this time, Hercules was also placed as a partner with Zeus and Athena in a “divine triad” meant to mimic the Holy Trinity.
If all this sounds odd, consider how our Superman comics borrow from the Gospels. For example, Superman’s heavenly father sends him to the Earth to serve and protect it. He is raised by Jonathan and Martha as a farmer in Smallville, Kansas, rather than by Joseph and Mary as a carpenter in little-known Nazareth. Also, just as Jesus seeks to conceal his identity in the Synoptic Gospels (the “messianic secret” motif), Superman humbles himself and tries to hide his real identity as he fights for truth and justice with miraculous powers against the forces of evil. Like Jesus, he even dies and comes back to life.
Using a myth to proclaim the gospel
Because some of these parallels with Hercules precede the time of Jesus, 6 a second answer is that these similarities reflect a “Christian pattern of the interpretation of ancient myths.” 7 According to this understanding, early Christians articulated their own ideas by drawing from popular legends. Once again, this does (at least) seem to be the case later on.
An example can be found in the Christian catacombs in Rome called the Via Latina, dating to around the fourth-century. The Jesus-followers who decorated these underground halls included paintings of Hercules beside those of Gospel stories, apparently to point to the Christian hope of resurrection, immortality, and the defeat of evil in the world. 8 Rather than being threatened by the resonances in the Hercules myth, these believers (and possibly those who came before), apparently borrowed from it because they considered the characteristics, titles, and functions attributed to Hercules as applicable to Jesus to an even greater extent than they were to Hercules.
The earliest Christians didn’t just hear about Jesus in a made-up myth or a threadbare wives’ tale. With their own eyes, they had seen the resurrected Jesus go up, up, and away (see 1 John 1:1-5; 1 Cor 15:1-9; Acts 1). 9 For this reason, early believers might have reached the same conclusion about the Hercules myth that C.S. Lewis did with the myths of Bacchus and Balder. “The story of Christ,” Lewis writes, “is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” 10
Likewise, today when we find resonances with the gospel in other religions, stories and myths, there may be a time to denounce them as counterfeit and another time to use them as ways to proclaim the true myth. Perhaps even a time to possibly do both.