Continuing Gullotta’s Criticism of Carrier’s Use of the Rank-Raglan Archetypes

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by Neil Godfrey

For an annotated list of previous posts in this series see the archived page:

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus

Criticized for being Euro-centric and male-centric, these holistic-comparative theories have been almost universally rejected by scholars of folklore and mythology, who instead opt for theories of myth that center on the myths’ immediate cultural, political, and social settings.

(Gullotta, p. 342)

Here Gullotta is introducing a criticism of the theories that may be applicable to values of comparative literature studies but has no relevance to Carrier’s use of one of those theories. At least Gullotta does not explain how the Euro- or male-centric bias of the theories undermines the questions that are raised when seeking to explain the significance of the stories of Jesus in relation to mythical motifs.

Nevertheless, if a general point of reference for Jesus is required, why does Carrier not use Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces as his reference class? Is it because Campbell’s system is so general and universal it would fit almost any figure or story (hence the term monomyth)?

(Gullotta, p. 342)

Here again we find an odd criticism. Does Gullotta seriously suggest that Jesus should be compared with a model that attempts to describe the common human attributes found in all figures of myth, history and everyday life of us all? What would be the point of showing that Jesus undergoes at some level experiences that every figure, real or imagined, fantastical or real-life, undergoes?

Why does Carrier preference a hybrid Rank-Raglan’s scale of 22 patterns, over Rank’s original 12? Could it be because Rank’s original list includes the hero’s parents having ‘difficulty in conception’, the hero as an infant being ‘suckled by a female animal or humble woman’, to eventually grow up and take ‘revenge against his father’?

(Gullotta, p. 342)

We addressed this rhetorical question in the previous post.

Why not Jan de Vries’ heroic biographical sequence or Dean A. Miller’s characteristics of a Quest Hero?

Jan de Vries (Wikipedia photo)

Let’s look at Jan de Vries’ heroic biographical sequence and the pages Gullotta cites:


I. The begetting of the hero

A. The mother is a virgin, who is in some cases overpowered by a god  . . . .

B. The father is a God. . . . .

C. The father is an animal, often the disguise of a god. . . . .

D. The child is conceived in incest . . . .

II. The birth of a hero

A. It takes place in an unnatural way. Zeus brings forth Dionysus out of his thigh, Athene out of his head. . . .

B. The ’unborn’ hero, i.e. the child that is born by means of a caesarean section

III. The youth of the hero is threatened

A. The child is exposed, either by the father who has been warned  in a dream that the child will he a danger to him, or by the mother who thus tries to hide her shame.

B. The exposed child is fed by animals.  . . . .

C. After that the child is found by shepherds, etc. In some cases it is found by shepherds or it is taken to them.

D. In Greek legend various heroes are brought up by a mythical figure;

IV. The wαγ in which the hero is brought up

A. The hero reveals has strength, courage, or other particular features at a very early age.

V. The hero often acquires invulnerability

VI. One of the most common heroic deeds is the fight with a dragon or another monster

VII. The hero wins a maiden, usually after overcoming great dangers

VIII. The hero makes an expedition to the underworld

IX. When the hero is banished in his youth he returns later and is victorious over his enemies. In some cases he has to leave the realm again which he has won with such difficulty.

X. The death of the hero

Heroes often die young. . . . .

Certainly not all of the above apply to Jesus. But not all of them apply to all heroes, either. Vries notes

Naturally, not every heroic life shows the complete pattern. Yet there are several examples that contain a large number of these features.

(Vries, pp. 211-216)

And now a look at Miller’s characteristics of a Quest Hero as Gullotta suggests, again from the same pages he footnotes:

A Charactery of the Quest Hero

Of the massive collection of typological characteristics assigned to or displayed by the hero, the following aspects seem to be particularly well fitted both to his questing role and to the quest taken as process or “test:”

1. The hero is unique and isolate. His mark is his strong and deadly arm, but a particular quest may demand a hero capable of cooperative venturing, an actor deploying plan and persuasion rather than unthinking and violent action. At the same time:

2. The hero is devoted to combat and confrontation: he must be prepared to seek out, or at least never avoid, those aspects of the quest involving “blocking” strategies, threats, and finally violence. He is both physically and morally prepared for such violence: a risk taker, superlatively courageous, honorable, single-minded in purpose—and probably, or even necessarily, without much imagination.

3. The hero is detached from cultural and social place, is mobile and uncommonly swift. As a figure of extraordinary celeritas he is thus easily capable of taking up the challenge posed by time and distance either in this world or another.

4. Precisely because the hero is easily detached from the societal matrix, he is often as dangerous to the social fabric as he is useful in defending it. Indeed, in the end, he is more useful outside of society and displaying his excellences elsewhere—that is, on a quest.

There may be other significant morphisms of the questing hero, such as the childlike, naive pursuivant, like Peredur-Percival-Parzifal, who evidently represents the innocent last who shall be first, but in the typical quest these primary characteristics, with others that may be demanded in special circumstances, project the hero into the adventure’s space and time.

(Miller, pp. 162-63)

Notice Miller’s opening sentence. He has been discussing the many lists of characteristics of heroes in myths (including Rank’s and Raglan’s) and is attempting here to distill what they all have in common. If we think this through it will dawn on us that had Carrier used Miller’s distillation he would have had a far more comprehensive fit for Jesus. I don’t think that such a conclusion was Gullotta’s intention, however. So when Gullotta answers his own rhetorical questions with

I can deduce that it is because other comparative mythological scales, being either too general or too rigid, would not suit his ends

(Gullotta, p. 342)

he comes across as more interested in seeking a nefarious motivation in Carrier than in genuinely understanding the nature of the arguments themselves. But to fault someone for choosing a tool that would “suit his ends” seems to me to be like faulting a carpenter for using a hammer. Would anyone fault a historical Jesus scholar for using the “criteria of authenticity” because they happened to “suit his ends”? (Well, perhaps we better not go there . . . .) Carrier’s fault, of course, in Gullotta’s eyes is that he seeks to argue a case for Jesus being mythical. Carrier uses tools he believes are appropriate to support his argument! How “unscholarly”! :-/

More problematic is Carrier’s exclusion of Paul in his assessment. If one looks at the earliest narrative formula about the life of Christ in Philippians 2.5-11 and other elements of Paul’s kerygma, Jesus would barely score 4 or 5 out of 22 on Carrier’s version of the Rank-Raglan hero-type scale. . . . Regardless of how one categorizes Paul’s writing in relation to the Rank-Raglan hero-type, it offers dramatically less evidence and contains far fewer heroic features than later Christian texts.

(Gullotta, p. 343)

Regrettably Gullotta here has failed to comprehend some basic principles that are part of discussions about such lists among folklorists. Earlier Gullotta wondered why Carrier did not turn to a list by Jan de Vries so I will respond to the above criticism that Paul’s Jesus only meets 4 of the 22 of Raglan’s points by quoting Vries’ words following hard on those cited earlier by Gullotta:

Many investigators of legends are in the habit of analysing the story of an heroic life, separating younger from older elements in it, and then reducing the legend to its simplest form. Thus Bethe tried to show that in the legend of Perseus the fight with the dragon, the rescue of Andromeda, and the story of his birth maybe considered as later additions. From the original contents there remains only the fight with the Gorgons and the slaying of Medusa. But it is surely remarkable that the Perseus legend as a whole conforms so completely to the pattern of an heroic life, such as we have drawn up above. Are we to assume, then, that features gradually came to be added to the legend of Perseus which were part of this universal scheme which lived in the subconscious minds of poets and singers, and that this gave rise to the pattern? But this raises another question. In the life of which hero does this pattern first reveal itself in clear form, and how was it then possible that it could assert itself, so to speak, as the obligatory form for the life of a hero?

A figure like the definitely historical King Cyrus also shows very clearly that his actual life has been reshaped according to the prototype of an heroic pattern. In this case it is useless to try and investigate the order in which the various motifs were connected with him. There has been no question here of a gradual development certain moment people saw in him, as the Ostrogoths saw in Theoderic, no longer an ordinary mortal but a true hero, and then his life was at once transformed in accord with the heroic pattern.

The Welsh tradition of Arthur shows a completely analogous development. He was soon thought of as the son and successor of the god Naudu. Even the story of the wounding of Naudu was transferred to Arthur, and he was therefore expected to return to his people one day from Avalon, the land of the dead. It is assumed that this transformation of the tradition of Arthur into myth began as early as the tenth century.

(Vries, pp. 217f)

Not only does Vries here address the widespread evidence for the maturation or evolution of mythical stories surrounding a hero, but also he reminds us (with Cyrus) that such stories do not necessarily prove that the hero was always mythical. That’s an important point that I will discuss soon.

Gullotta further faults the application of the Rank-Raglan elements to Jesus because the only way to get a high score is to take all the gospels collectively.

Per Carrier’s assessment of the Rank-Raglan hero-type applied to Jesus, Mark’s Jesus scores 14 and Matthew’s Jesus scores 20. But according to the traditional Raglan heroic archetype, Mark’s Jesus scores 7 or 8, and Matthew’s Jesus scores 8 or 9, producing a result that is less than 11 (the required result, according to Carrier’s methodology, to firmly place Jesus in the same reference class as Oedipus, Moses, Theseus, Dionysus, Romulus, Perseus, Hercules, Zeus, Bellerophon, Jason, Osiris, Pelops, Asclepius, and Joseph, son of Jacob.)

(Gullotta, p. 343)

Alan Dundes

Gullotta thinks that one should rather make an assessment of each source, each gospel, separately. But that’s not what folklorist Alan Dundes says (in the same work that Gullotta cites to make other points in his critical review):

To determine to what extent, if any, the life of Jesus might be related to the standard Indo-European hero pattern, one might ask which version of the life of Jesus is the one to choose. Biblical scholars are wont to distinguish sharply between the different versions told in each of the four gospels. A distinction is also made between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the gospel of John. Moreover, the materials in the four gospels are often considered separately, as being more authoritative, from details contained in the so-called apocryphal gospels. As a folklorist, I find it difficult to give a priori preference or precedence to one or more versions of a legend as opposed to other versions. As a genre, legend rarely exists in any one single version in any community in the world. Rather, a cluster of legends surrounds an important political or religious figure. It may be that no one individual in a community can relate the entire legendary life history of a particular figure. For this reason, a folklorist normally collects as many versions of a legend as possible before trying to reconstruct a composite notion of a legendary figure’s life story. In the present instance, I have chosen to regard all four gospels as primary sources for the life of Jesus although I will on occasion cite what I consider to be relevant data from the apocrypha. I do not intend to treat Jesus as miracle worker or healer or religious teacher. Rather, my purpose is to examine his life in the light of the hero pattern as this pattern has been described by folklorists.

If one wished to apply Raglan’s twenty-two incident pattern to the life of Jesus, one might include (1) virgin mother, (4) unusual conception, (5) hero reputed to be son of god, (6) attempt to kill hero, (7) hero spirited away [flight into Egypt], (8) reared by foster parents [Joseph], (9) no details of childhood, (10) goes to future kingdom, (13) becomes “king” [cf. the mock title of king of the Jews: INRI], (14) “reigns” uneventfully for a time, (15) prescribes laws, (16) loses favor with some of his “subjects” (e.g., Judas), (17) driven from throne and city, (18) meets with mysterious death, (19) at the top of a hill, (21) body is not buried, and (22) he has a holy sepulcher. While one may well quibble about the applicability of one or two of Raglan’s twenty-two points, it would appear that Jesus would rate a score of seventeen (which would rank him closer to Raglan’s ideal hero paradigm than Jason, Bellerophon, Pelops, Asclepios, Apollo, Zeus, Joseph, Elijah, and Siegfried). If one accepts the validity of the general outlines of the European hero pattern as delineated by Raglan (and others), then it would appear reasonable to consider that the biography of Jesus does in fact conform fairly well to this pattern. 

(Dundes, pp. 190f)

Yet once more we have seen Gullotta’s criticism being too much a Gish Gallop of any point he might harness for the race and too little thoughtful and informed engagement with the arguments and background knowledge. Had Gullotta read Vries and Dundes (both of whom he cites in the same review to make other points) he could scarcely have faulted the use of the Rank-Raglan archetypes on the basis of Paul and each gospel using only a smattering of each.


Hoo boy! So I have not addressed the principle of the RR archetype as promised in my previous post. Late last year I promised to write a complete review of Daniel Gullotta’s critique of Richard Carrier’s book and that’s what I am finally doing. So hopefully this little segment will be finalized next time. Meanwhile, I think some of these posts are informative in their own right and not limited in relevance to Gullotta’s review.

Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press.

Dundes, Alan. 1990. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus.” In In Quest of the Hero. The Myth of the Birth of the Hero / by Otto Rank. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama: Part 2 / [by Lord Raglan]. The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus / [by Alan Dundes ; with an Introduction by Robert A. Segal. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press.

Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15 (2–3): 310–46. https://doi.org/10.1163/17455197-01502009.

Miller, Dean A. 2000. The Epic Hero. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Vries, Jan de. 1963. Heroic Song and Heroic Legend. London: Oxford University Press.

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  • 2018-08-21 21:04:05 GMT+0000 - 21:04 | Permalink

    Since the Rank Raglan scale is largely drawn from the story of Oedipus (hence 21/22 points for Oedipus), it might just be that Jesus is being portrayed as the new and greater Oedipus. Dennis MacDonald has made a career out of suggesting Greco Roman parallels to the life of Jesus.

    • nightshadetwine
      2018-08-21 22:47:57 GMT+0000 - 22:47 | Permalink

      In “Reading Dionysus: Euripides’ Bacchae and the Cultural Contestations of Greeks, Jews, Romans, and Christians” Courtney Friesen says the same thing about Dionysus that you’re saying about Oedipus:
      “A juxtaposition of Jesus and Dionysus is also invited in the New Testament Gospel of John, in which the former is credited with a distinctively Dionysiac miracle in the wedding at Cana: the transformation of water into wine (2:1-11). In the Hellenistic world, there were many myths of Dionysus’ miraculous production of wine, and thus, for a polytheistic Greek audience, a Dionysiac resonance in Jesus’ wine miracle would have been unmistakable. To be sure, scholars are divided as to whether John’s account is inspired by a polytheistic legend; some emphasize rather it’s affinity with the Jewish biblical tradition. In view of the pervasiveness of Hellenism, however, such a distinction is likely not sustainable. Moreover, John’s Gospel employs further Dionysiac imagery when Jesus later declares, “I am the true vine”. John’s Jesus, thus,presents himself not merely as a “New Dionysus,” but one who supplants and replaces him.”

      It’s interesting that the wine miracle takes place at a wedding because during the month of January they would have Dionysus festivals where water turning into wine and marriages would take place. From “Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life” by Karl Kerenyi:
      “On the island of Andros, after the introduction of the Julian calender, the same date was set for a Dionysian miracle, the transformation of the water from a certain spring into wine…It seems strange however–and was already thought strange in antiquity–that the Athenians should have chosen so cold a month as their Gamelion for marriages…The marriage performed between the two festivals of Dionysos, the Leneaia and the Antheesteria, permitted the wives to participate in the second festival in a different way from the virgins. In that night Dionysos appeared as the woman’s higher husband, the embodiment of indestructible zoe, and for this their
      marriage was a preparatory phase.”

  • nightshadetwine
    2018-08-21 21:36:04 GMT+0000 - 21:36 | Permalink

    I really don’t understand why it’s so hard for people to accept that Jesus fits in with other heroes and saviors. You don’t even have to believe he didn’t exist. These motifs were added to the lives of historical people too. It’s absurd to see all these similarities to other heroes/saviors but still think Jesus has nothing to do with them.

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