Paul’s Christ and Hercules Compared as Moral Examples

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by Neil Godfrey


Niko Huttunen has extended Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s work on showing how the apostle Paul’s thought was in many respects a mutation of ancient Stoic philosophy: Paul and Epictetus on Law: A Comparison.

One detail of a more general interest (I think anyway) is Huttunen’s concluding discussion of comparisons of the philosopher Epictetus‘ use of Heracles (Hercules) as a role model and Paul’s similar treatment of Christ.

Epictetus found examples of perfect morality in Diogenes, Socrates and Heracles. They were fully obedient to the divine law. . . . Heracles had a special position compared with Socrates and Diogenes. Heracles was more than a moral example; he was a demigod still living and actively affecting life in the world. Though this side of his figure is downplayed in Epictetus’ descriptions, the remnants of it are still present. This makes him a closer analogy to the Pauline Christ than to Socrates or Diogenes. (p. 150, my emphasis)

Both Heracles and Christ are in a class above mortals since they are both designated sons of God in a special sense:

But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he [Heracles] was the son of God, and he was. (Disc. 2.16.44)

for neither did [God] supply [much to] Hercules who was his own son (Disc. 3:26.31)

Like Christ Heracles was a moral exemplar by virtue of obedience to God and his law.

Who would Hercules have been, if he had sat at home? . . . Well, and in his travels through the world how many intimates and how many friends had he? But nothing more dear to him than God. In obedience to God then he [Heracles] went about purging away injustice and lawlessness. But you are not Hercules and you are not able to purge away the wickedness of others . . . . Clear away your own. From yourself, from your thoughts cast away . . . sadness, fear, desire, envy, malevolence, avarice, effeminacy, intemperance. But it is not possible to eject these things otherwise than by looking to God only, by fixing your affections on him only, by being consecrated to his commands. (Disc. 2.16.44)

What makes this obedience particularly outstanding — for both Christ and Heracles — is that it was accomplished through being “thrown into hardships put before them by their divine fathers”. We know of Christ, but here is the condition of Heracles:

[God] does not supply me with many things, nor with abundance, he does not will me to live luxuriously; for neither did He supply Hercules who was his own son . . . and Hercules obeyed orders, and laboured, and was exercised. . . .  but Hercules was [moral] ruler and leader of the whole earth and sea, who purged away lawlessness, and introduced justice and holiness; and he did these things both naked and alone. (Disc. 3:26.31 ff, my emphasis)

Notice in the same passages above that Heracles’ significance is not limited to a meaning for individuals. He more universally cleared away wickedness and lawlessness.

Niko Huttunen does not see such similarities as merely coincidental:

Similarities between the Pauline Christ and the Epictetan Heracles are probably not coincidental. Heraclean traditions were well known in antiquity. It is possible that Paul’s portrayal of Christ is partially made up of traditional elements from the ancient portrayals of heroes [c.f. Aune 1990: 19]. . . . .

The Pauline Christ is a living being who is still actively affecting external conditions. In this sense, Christ is a figure comparable to the Heracles of Greek religion who was believed to be capable of changing unwanted external conditions. (p. 152)

There are obvious differences, too, of course.

Stoics, like Epictetus, would be . . . offended at the apocalyptic view about the power of sin which Christ destroyed. They would not acknowledge such a power, and thus no Christ is needed to set people free.

Hercules. Gilded bronze, Roman artwork, 2nd ce...

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Paul’s Christ and Hercules Compared as Moral Examples”

  1. Our Superman looks very much like a modern avatar of Heracles. With Superman too we don’t need Christ. In his sphere of action, Christ has proved terribly ineffectual in getting rid of lawlessness and injustice.

  2. Paul’s thought, the form of his letters, the gospels as literature, their narrative contents, — all of these are necessarily products of their times and cultural matrix. We fail to understand them if we study them in isolation and without reference to the wider thought and literature in which they were born. Comparative studies are a sine qua non to understanding any literature or philosophical-religious thought. Biblical scholars have been notoriously ignorant of the wider literature of the world that produced the New Testament. It is only in recent years that a few of them have begun to redress this. Hutunen, for example, is not arguing that other work on Paul is wrong. He is highlighting another important aspect that has been overlooked. The Stoic concepts throughout Paul’s thought, whether applied to his arguments about conversion or the place and meaning of the law, whether one compares the Christ with the Stoic Logos/Reason or other figures adapted by the Stoic philosophers, are an essential study to more fully appreciate and comprehend the nature of what we are reading whenever we do examine Paul’s place in history.

  3. There may well be similarities between the Pauline Christ and the Epictetus Hercules which are not accidental. Whatever Paul used to construct his Christ myth, the significant point is that it is a mythical figure and not the HJ. See my reconstruction: Ogden: “We now know that none of the OT writings is prophetic {foretelling) witness to {the HJ), but also that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus.” Hence the writings of Paul, the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT are not reliable sources for HJ reconstruction see #1 Comment to this site. {The one exception to the NT writings not being reliable sources is The Letter of James which is the closest NT text to the SM.)

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