Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes

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by Neil Godfrey

Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno, Olio su tela,...
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There should be nothing controversial in the title of this post. I understand “critical scholars” generally agree that the Gospel narratives of Jesus are largely fictitious, exaggerations, theological metaphors, expressing what Jesus “meant to the authors” rather than what he historically did or said. Many scholars agree that there are a few core events that really do lie behind the Gospel narratives, but except for one or two (the crucifixion and baptism) they do not all agree on what these were.

Classical scholar John Taylor, in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition, shows us how the creators of both the Gospel narratives about Jesus and the Roman epic about Aeneas used the same technique for creating their respective characters (p. 85).

The poet Virgil drew upon well known mythical heroes in order to flesh out the character of Aeneas. Homer’s Odysseus is the most obvious foil used by Virgil. Aeneas is like the great Homeric hero in traveling by sea and through many adventures, and delays as a result of beautiful women, until he eventually reaches his destined homeland. Another Homeric hero used by Virgil was Achilles, the son of divine and mortal parents, a great warrior who changes the destiny of his people through his courage and skill in battle. Aeneas was likewise the son of a divine mother and mortal father, and as in Homer’s Iliad, the climax of the Aeneid is the slaying of the enemy’s hero (Hector and Turnus). Aeneas is also likened to Heracles by his descent into Hades and his many labours he must endure. He is also cut from Romulus, the direct founder of Rome.

Jesus is likewise cut from the templates of many Old Testament characters. He is a second Adam. He is compared with Abraham from whose seed came the first people of God, and from whose descendant Jesus are born the spiritual people of God. In the Gospels he is also presented as another Moses, another David, and another Elijah, and more. As a new Moses he leads his followers to a sea, crosses over, calls his twelve chosen followers from a mountain to be with him. As a new David he departs from Jerusalem, sorrowful, to the Mount of Olives to pray for escape from his enemies. As a new Elijah he departs alone to the wilderness for forty days where he is sustained by angels, and raises the dead.

John Taylor also reminds us that a historical character did much the same thing as Virgil did in creating his fictitious hero. Augustus, like other emperors who followed him, attempted to present themselves in mythical garb. Hadrian had himself depicted on coins as dressed up like Hercules. And Virgil did create Aeneas to remind readers of the emperor Augustus.

So ancient historical persons, emperors and poets, drew on traditional mythical characters to present new mythical personas. Virgil and Augustus were not mythical but creators of myths.

We can see the Jesus myths were created in the same way the Aeneas myths were created. We know who created the Aeneas of the Aeneid. But who created Jesus?

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Aeneas and Jesus: how they were each created from mythical heroes”

  1. The people at historyhuntersinternational.org suspect that it may have been intellectuals in the circle of Antonia Minor, who they call “Chrestians,” building on Philo and Paul. There seems to be some overlap there with possible candidates suggested by Eisenman in JBJ (p. 793f.), “Epaphroditus and his Intellectual Circle,” certain Herodians and others of this sort like Philo’s nephew Tiberius Alexander. They explain their reasons better than I can, and I find these to be intriguing guesses.

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