Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on some of the citations in the early pages of Hercules-Christus, a 1947 article by Dutch  Radical Critic Gustaaf Adolf van den Bergh van Eysinga, translated into German by Frans-Joris Fabri and posted on Hermann Detering’s RadikalKritik webpage. I have supplemented some of van Eysinga’s references in places. Other posts addressing Heracles:

Heracles (Hercules in Latin) in popular imagination with his club, his lion-skin, his twelve labours, his violent, gluttonous and promiscuous character, is so far removed from any conventional idea of Jesus Christ that any suggestion of the possibility of a comparison must seem utterly perverse. But the more I pore over the ancient texts I discern ever more striking overlaps at several levels. I try to imagine myself as an ancient dilettante philosopher familiar with the role of Heracles in a range of literary and philosophical writings and place in various devout and civic observances and wondering how I would respond to my first contacts with the writings about Jesus.

Let’s start with a most outrageous comparison. Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkardMary Marshall in her thesis Jesus and the Banquets and again in a derivative article, Glutton and Drunkard?, points out that such an insult was typically levelled at uninvited guests, at those who had tagged along as friends or hangers-on of the invitee: the point, Jesus was classed with those uninvited guests who had the reputation for overindulgence.

Matthew 11:19

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .

Luke 7:34

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard . . .

Bacchylides, Fragment 18 note by Richard Jebb:

Once, when Ceÿx was celebrating the marriage of one of his children by a feast (γάμος), Heracles, being in those parts, presented himself, an uninvited guest. This was told in Hesiod’s Κήϋκος γάμοs, from which only a few words remain . . . .

Euripides, Alcestis, lines 745 ff

The guests I’ve seen here in Admetus’ house have been from everywhere, and I’ve served hundreds. But never have I welcomed to this hearth a guest more rude, more utterly offensive than this one. First of all, he had the nerve to come inside, although he clearly saw my master was in mourning. Once he’s in he lacks the simple wisdom and restraint to take the hospitality that’s offered—he’s aware of this disaster, knows what’s happened! Still, whatever we don’t bring, he asks for. He takes an ivy goblet in his hands and drinks the black grape’s undiluted offspring until the fire of wine has warmed his mind. He garlands his head with pliant myrtle stems and bellows tunelessly. A double melody was heard then: he was belting out his song, with no respect for the sorrows of the household, while we, the servants, wailed for our mistress. . . . It’s only natural that I should hate this guest for showing up at a time like this.

Aristophanes Frogs F. 62–5, 549 ff.)

van Eysinga

SLAVE. You’ve returned, o dearest Herakles! Come on inside.
As soon as the goddess learnt you’d arrived down here,
She arranged for loaves to be baked and had several pots
Of pea soup boiled for you, got a whole ox roasted,
And had various cakes and breads prepared. Come on in!

. . . .

INNKEEPER. Plathane, Plathane, over here! Here’s the scoundrel himself,
The person who came to our inn some time ago
And devoured those sixteen loaves without paying.

Pindar, Fragment 168

The gluttony of Heracles, (narrated by his host, Coronus, son of the Lapith, Caeneus):

Two warm bodies of oxen he set in a circle around the embers, bodies crackling in the fire; and then I noted a noise of flesh and a heavy groaning of bones. There was no long time fitly to distinguish it.

Yes, but. Surely Jesus was blameless while Heracles was not. Maybe. We have different narratives about Jesus, not only canonical ones, presenting quite different characters of Jesus. Ditto for Heracles. And there is always room for the learned to rationalize the myths handed down.

To one type of thinker who meditated on the character of Heracles he was in fact the epitome of self-control.

Thus Pseudo-Lucian, The Cynic 13

Take Heracles, the best man that ever lived, a divine man, and rightly reckoned a God. Was it wrong-headedness that made him go about in nothing but a lion’s skin, insensible to all the needs you feel? No, he was not wrong-headed, who righted other people’s wrongs. He was not poor, who was lord of land and sea. Wherever he went, he was master. He never met his superior or his equal as long as he lived. Do you suppose he could not get sheets and shoes, and therefore went as he did? That’s absurd! He had self-control and fortitude. He wanted power, and not luxury.

Heracles was the personification of the Logos, of Reason itself. (Logos, of course, is translated most simply as the Word in reference to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.) Mythical tales accrued to the remarkable person so that exaggerated stories transformed him into a being beyond normal human powers. Some of the mythical tales began as metaphors, symbolic of some otherwise genuinely historical aspect. Imagination had to be kept in check, though…

Cornutus, On Greek Theology 31

‘Heracles’ is universal reason thanks to which nature is strong and mighty, being indomitable as well: giver of strength and power to its various parts as well. The name comes, perhaps from the fact that it extends to heroes, and is what makes the noble famous. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to be part of a divine race. There is no need to be disturbed by the more recent story: the son of Alkmene and Amphitryon was deemed worthy of the same name as the god because of his virtue, so that it has become hard to distinguish what belongs to the god from the stories about the hero. The lion skin and the club may have originated with ancient theology and been transferred to the latter – it cannot have seemed right that a good military leader who launched powerful attacks on many parts of the earth would have gone around naked, armed only with wood: rather, then, the hero was decorated with these badges of the god when his services had earned him apotheosis. Both the lion-skin and the club can be a symbol of force and nobility: for the lion is the most powerful of the beasts, the club the mightiest of weapons. Traditionally, the god is an archer, because he extends everywhere, and because even the path of his missiles is somehow unwavering – and it is not an irrational commander who faces his enemies with his trust in weapons like this. The Koans have a tradition that, appropriately enough, he lived with Hebe, as if to make him more perfect in intelligence – as it is said: “The hands of the young are fitter for action, but the souls of the older are better by far.” I suspect that it is more plausible that the service to Omphale refers to him [sc. the god]: through it, the ancients showed again that even the strongest ought to submit themselves to reason and to do what it enjoins, even if its voice (which it would not be extraordinary to call ‘Omphale’) happens to call for the somewhat feminine activity of contemplation and rational inquiry. It is also possible to explain the Twelve Labours as referring to the god, as Cleanthes in fact did. But ingenuity should not always win the day.

One can imagine Cornutus having presented a thesis in his earlier years proposing a study of the sources in order to discern behind them what can be known of “the historical Heracles”. Cornutus was not alone here, though Cornutus did have a reverential view of Heracles closer to the one the fourth evangelist had of Jesus. Other writers clearly distinguished between mythical traditions and historical reality: see the post The Relationship between Myth and History among Ancient Authors for other instances with specific reference to Heracles.

Eusebius surely was embracing a more widely understood belief when he wrote, Praeparatio Evangelica 1.3.11

‘But inasmuch as the sun wards off the evils of the earth, they called him Heracles …, from his clashing against the air … in passing from east to west. And they invented fables of his performing twelve labours, as the symbol of the division of the signs of the zodiac in heaven; and they arrayed him with a club and a lion’s skin, the one as an indication of his uneven motion, and the other representative of his strength in “Leo” the sign of the zodiac.

Returning to the Gospel of John, we are familiar with Jesus assurance to send a Helper, the Paraclete, in his place.

I will ask the Father and another Helper (Parakleton) He will send to you (John 14:16)

A very similar label is given to Heracles. Pausanias is describing an altar to Heracles the Helper near Olympia:

Pausanias 5.14.7 

After this stands an altar of Heracles surnamed Parastates (Assistant) . . .

At a popular level we have abundant evidence that images associated with Heracles were widely used to ward off danger and illness. Heracles was always “there”.

Which brings us to Heracles as a Healer:

Herodotus Histories, 7:178ff

There are hot springs in the pass – known locally as the Basins – with an altar over them dedicated to Heracles

Strabo 9.4.13

but also “Thermopylae,” for there are hot waters near it that are held in honour as sacred to Heracles.

But how can we compare the persecuted and suffering Jesus with the heroic figure of Heracles? Of interest in this context are the views of philosophers:

Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, On Antisthenes — Heracles was presented as the model of patient suffering. He submitted without complaint to the unreasonable orders of his cousin Eurystheus and undertook the pain of enduring the “twelve labours”.

2…. Later on, however, he became a follower of Socrates and derived so much benefit from him that he would advise his own disciples to become fellow disciples of Socrates. Living in the Piraeus, he used to walk five miles every day to listen to him. He adopted the man’s hardiness and emulated his impassivity, and thus he originated the Cynic way of life. And with his Great Heracles and Cyrus he established that suffering is a good thing, drawing one exemplar from the Greek world, the other from the barbarians.

71 He used to say that no success can be achieved in life without training, which he said could overcome anything. Therefore if men would live happily, they should choose, in place of useless toils, those that are in keeping with nature. But instead, through their own folly, they live wretched lives. And in fact the contempt for pleasure, if it has become habitual, is exceedingly pleasurable. Just as those who have been accustomed to living pleasurably find the opposite unpleasant, so do those who have engaged in the opposite practice find that despising pleasures gives them more pleasure than would the pleasures themselves. Such were his views and he clearly acted in accordance with them, thereby truly “restamping the currency,” since he assigned to convention none of the value he assigned to nature, and said that the life he lived was characteristic of Heracles, who preferred freedom to everything.

A quote from F. Kristensen’s The Meaning of Religion (p. 351) stresses Heracles’ servant role:

And among the Greeks it is precisely Hercules, the toiling servant, who is the greatest of all heroes or lares.

Not that Heracles experienced any of this unwillingly. “For joy” he endured the suffering. He was the exemplar of one who had escaped all vices of the flesh:

Epictetus Discourses 3

Now Hercules, when he was exercised by Eurystheus, did not think himself miserable: but executed with alacrity all that was to be done. And shall he who is appointed to the combat, and exercised by Zeus, cry out and take offence at things? A worthy person, truly, to bear the sceptre of Diogenes! . . .

. . . It is not his pleasure that I should live luxuriously; for he did not grant that even to Hercules, his own son; but another reigned over Argos and Mycene, while he obeyed, labored, and strove. And Eurystheus was just what he was, – neither truly king of Argos, nor of Mycene; not being indeed king over himself. But Hercules was ruler and governor of the whole earth and seas; the expeller of lawlessness and injustice; the introducer of justice and sanctity. And this he effected naked and alone. . . .

Discourses 2

If Hercules had sat loitering at home, what would he have been? Eurystheus, and not Hercules. Besides, by travelling through the world, how many acquaintances and how many friends he made. But none more his friend than God; for which reason he was believed to be the son of God, and was so. In obedience to him, he went about extirpating injustice and lawless force. But you are not Hercules, nor able to extirpate the evils of others; . . . Extirpate your own then. Expel, instead of Procrustes and Sciron, grief, fear, desire, envy, malevolence, avarice, effeminacy, intemperance. But these can be no otherwise expelled than by looking up to God alone, as your pattern; by attaching yourself to him alone, and being consecrated to his commands. . . .

Heracles was indeed an inspiration for a life of denial, of service, suffering to maintain the virtues. He has no place to lay his head, one might say. He was certainly no glutton or drunkard.

Dio Chrysostom, Oratians 8

As for Heracles, they pitied him while he toiled and struggled and called him the most ‘trouble-ridden,’ or wretched, of men; indeed, this is why they gave the name ‘troubles,’ or tasks, to his labours and works, as though a laborious life were a trouble-ridden, or wretched life; but now that he is dead they honour him beyond all others, deify him, and say he has Hebe [=Greek goddess and personification of youth] to wife, and all pray to him that they may not themselves be wretched — to him who in his labours suffered wretchedness exceedingly great.

29 “They have an idea, too, that Eurystheus [=the king who imposed the Twelve Labours on Heracles] had him in his power and ordered him about, Eurystheus, whom they considered a worthless fellow and to whom no one ever prayed or sacrificed. Heracles, however, roved over all Europe and Asia, though he did not look at all like any of these athletes; 30 for where could he have penetrated, had he carried so much flesh or required so much meat or drink into such depths of sleep? No, he was as alert and lean like a lion, keen of eye and ear, recking naught of cold or heat, having no use for bed, shawl, or rug, clad in a dirty skin, with an air of hunger about him, as he succoured the good and punished the bad. 31 And because Diomede, the Thracian, wore such fine raiment and sat upon a throne drinking the livelong day in high revel, and treated strangers unrighteously as well as his own subjects, and kept a large stable, Heracles smote him with his club and smashed him as if he had been an old jar. Then Geryones, who had ever so many cattle and was the richest of all western lords and the most arrogant, he also killed along with his brothers and drove his cattle away. 32 And when he found Busiris very diligently training, eating the whole day long, and exceeding proud of his wrestling, Heracles burst him open like an over-filled bag by dashing him to the ground. He loosed the girdle of the Amazon, who tried to coquet with him and thought to win by means of her beauty. For he both consorted with her and made her understand that he could never be overcome by beauty and would never tarry far away from his own possessions for a woman’s sake.

A philosophical discourse on the true nature of rulership, kingship, focused on Heracles in a surprising way. Of course, the author is imputing into Heracles all the virtues he himself prizes, but in one sense that’s how myths build up around the “historical Heracles”.

Dio Chrysostom, Discourse 1. As you skim over the passage keep a lookout for the Temptation of Heracles, the Deliverer, where he was led by a divine messenger into a hostile “wilderness” region and was confronted with two ways that only at first glance seemed very similar. We learn, further, how the myth of Heracles slaying wild beasts arose as a mythical colouring of the “historical” figure.

The Choice of Hercules

But if you would like to hear a myth, or rather a sacred and withal edifying parable told under the guise of a myth, perhaps a story which I once heard an old woman of Elis or Arcadia relate about Heracles will not appear to you out of place, either now or hereafter when you come to ponder it alone.

50 Once when I chanced to be wandering in exile — and great is my gratitude to the gods that they thus prevented my becoming an eye-witness of many an act of injustice — I visited as many lands as possible, at one time going among the Greeks, at another among barbarians, assuming the guise and dress of a vagabond beggar . . . .

51 At last I arrived in the Peloponnesus, . . . . At a little distance I saw a woman sitting, strong and tall though rather advanced in years, dressed like a rustic and with some braids of grey hair falling about her shoulders. 54 Of her I made full inquiry about the place, and she most graciously and kindly, speaking in the Dorian dialect, informed me that it was sacred to Heracles . . . . Thereupon she at once began to prophesy, saying that the period of my wandering and tribulation would not be long, nay, nor that of mankind at large. 56 The manner of her prophesying was not that of most men and women who are said to be inspired; she did not gasp for breath, whirl her head about, or try to terrify with her glances, but spoke with entire self-control and moderation. . . .

“Hear, therefore, the following tale and listen with vigilance and attention that you may remember it clearly and pass it on to that man whom I say you will meet. It has to do with this god in whose presence we now are. Heracles was, as all men agree, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, and he was king not only of Argos but of all Greece. (Most people, however, do not know that Heracles was continually absent from Argos because he was engaged in making expeditions and defending his kingdom, but they assert that Eurystheus was king at this time. These, however, are but their idle tales.) 60 And he was not only king of Greece, but also held empire over every land from the rising of the sun to the setting thereof, aye, over all peoples where are found shrines of Heracles. 61 He had a simple education too, with none of the elaboration and superfluity devised by the unscrupulous cleverness of contemptible men.

“This, also, is told of Heracles: that he went unclothed and unarmed except for a lion’s skin and a club, 62 and they add that he did not set great store by gold or silver or fine raiment, but considered all such things worth nothing save to be given away and bestowed upon others. At any rate he made presents to many men, not only of money without limit and lands and herds of horses and cattle, but also of whole kingdoms and cities. For he fully believed that everything belonged to him exclusively and that gifts bestowed would call out the good-will of the recipients. 63 Another story which men tell is untrue: that he actually went about alone without an army. For it is not possible to overturn cities, cast down tyrants, and to dictate to the whole world without armed forces. It is only because, being self-reliant, zealous of soul, and competent in body, he surpassed all men in labour, that the story arose that he travelled alone and accomplished single-handed whatsoever he desired.

64 “Moreover, his father took great pains with him, implanting in him noble impulses and bringing him into the fellowship of good men. He would also give him guidance for each and every enterprise through birds and burnt offerings and every other kind of divination. 65 And when he saw that the lad wished to be a ruler, not through desire for pleasure and personal gain, which leads most men to love power, but that he might be able to do the greatest good to the greatest number, he recognized that his son was naturally of noble parts, and yet suspected how much in him was mortal and thought of the many baneful examples of luxurious and licentious living among mankind, and of the many men there were to entice a youth of fine natural qualities away from his true nature and his principles even against his will. 66 So with these considerations in mind he despatched Hermes after instructing him as to what he should do. Hermes therefore came to Thebes, where the lad Heracles was being reared, and told him who he was and who had sent him. Then, taking him in charge, he led him over a secret path untrodden of man till he came to a conspicuous and very lofty mountain-peak whose sides were dreadfully steep with sheer precipices and with the deep gorge of a river that encompassed it, whence issued a mighty rumbling and roaring. Now to anyone looking up from below the crest above seemed single; but it was in fact double, rising from a single base; and the two peaks were far indeed from each other. 67 The one of them bore the name Peak Royal and was sacred to Zeus the King; the other, Peak Tyrannous, was named after the giant Typhon. There were two approaches to them from without, each having one. The path that led to Peak Royal was safe and broad, so that a person mounted on a chariot might enter thereby without peril or mishap, if he had the permission of the greatest of the gods. The other was narrow, crooked, and difficult, so that most of those who attempted it were lost over the cliffs and in the flood below, the reason being, methinks, that they transgressed justice in taking that path. 68 Now, as I have said, to most persons the two peaks appear to be practically one and undivided, inasmuch as they see them from a distance; but in fact Peak Royal towers so high above the other that it stands above the clouds in the pure and serene ether itself, whereas the other is much lower, lying in the very thick of the clouds, wrapped in darkness and fog.

69 “Hermes then explained the nature of the place to Heracles as he led him thither. But when Heracles, ambitious youth that he was, longed to see what was within, he said, ‘Follow, then, that you may see with your own eyes the difference in all other respects also, things hidden from the foolish.’ 70 He therefore took him first to the loftier peak and showed him a woman seated upon a resplendent throne. She was beautiful and stately, clothed in white raiment, and held in her hand a sceptre, not of gold or silver, but of a different substance, pure and much brighter — a figure for all the world like the pictures of Hera. 71 Her countenance was at once radiant and full of dignity, so that all the good could behold it without fear, but no evil person could gaze upon it any more than a man with weak eyes can look up at the orb of the sun; composed and steadfast was her mien, and her glance did not waver. 72 A profound stillness and unbroken quiet pervaded the place; everywhere were fruits in abundance and thriving animals of every species. And immense heaps of gold and silver were there, and of bronze and iron; yet she heeded not at all the gold, nor did she take delight in it, but rather in the fruits and living creatures.

73 “Now when Heracles beheld the woman, he was abashed and blushes mantled his cheeks, for he felt that respect and reverence for her which a good son feels for a noble mother. Then he asked Hermes which of the deities she was, and he replied, ‘Lo, that is the blessed Lady Royalty, child of King Zeus.’ And Heracles rejoiced and took courage in her presence. And again he asked about the women who were with her. ‘Who are they?’ said he; ‘how decorous and stately, like men in countenance!’ 74 ‘Behold,’ he replied, ‘she who sits there at her right hand, whose glance is both fierce and gentle, is Justice, aglow with a surpassing and resplendent beauty. Beside her sits Civic Order, who is very much like her and differs but slightly in appearance. 75 On the other side is a woman exceeding beautiful, daintily attired, and smiling benignly; they call her Peace. But he who stands near Royalty, just beside the sceptre and somewhat in front of it, a strong man, grey-haired and proud, has the name of Law; but he has also been called Right Reason, Counsellor, Coadjutor, without whom these women are not permitted to take any action or even to purpose one.’

76 “With all that he heard and saw Heracles was delighted, and he paid close attention, determined never to forget it. But when they had come down from the higher peak and were at the entrance to Tyranny, Hermes said, ‘Look this way and behold the other woman. It is with her that the majority of men are infatuated and to win her they give themselves much trouble of every kind, committing murder, wretches that they are, son often conspiring against father, father against son, and brother against brother, since they covet and count as felicity that which is the greatest evil — power conjoined with folly.’ 77 He then began by showing Heracles the nature of the entrance, explaining that whereas only one pathway appeared to view, that being about as described above — perilous and skirting the very edge of the precipice — yet there were many unseen and hidden corridors, and that the entire region was undermined on every side and tunnelled, no doubt up to the very throne, and that all the passages and bypaths were smeared with blood and strewn with corpses. Through none, however, of these passages did Hermes lead him, but along the outside one that was less befouled, because, I think, Heracles was to be a mere observer.

78 “When they entered, they discovered Tyranny seated aloft, of set purpose counterfeiting and making herself like to Royalty, but, as she imagined, on a far loftier and more splendid throne, since it was not only adorned with innumerable carvings, but embellished besides with inlaid patterns of gold, ivory, amber, ebony, and substances of every colour. Her throne, however, was not secure upon its foundation nor firmly settled, but shook and slouched upon its legs. 79 And in general things were in disorder, everything suggesting vainglory, ostentation, and luxury — many sceptres, many tiaras and diadems for the head. Furthermore, in her zeal to imitate the character of the other woman, instead of the friendly smile Tyranny wore a leer of false humility, and instead of a glance of dignity she had an ugly and forbidding scowl. 80 But in order to assume the appearance of pride, she would not glance at those whom came into her presence but looked over their heads disdainfully. And so everybody hated her, and she herself ignored everybody. She was unable to sit with composure, but would cast her eyes incessantly in every direction, frequently springing up from her throne. She hugged her gold to her bosom in a disgusting manner and then in terror would fling it from her in a heap, then she would forthwith snatch at whatever any passer-by might have, were it never so little. 81 Her raiment was of many colours, purple, scarlet and saffron, with patches of white, too, showing here and there from her skirts, since her cloak was torn in many places. From her countenance glowed all manners of colours according to whether she felt terror or anguish or suspicion or anger; while at one moment she seemed prostrate with grief, at another she appeared to be in an exaltation of joy. At one time a quite wanton smile would come over her face, but at the next moment she would be in tears. 82 There was also a throng of women about her, but they resembled in no respect those whom I have described as in attendance upon Royalty. These were Cruelty, Insolence, Lawlessness, and Faction, all of whom were bent upon corrupting her and bringing her to ignoble ruin. And instead of Friendship, Flattery was there, servile and avaricious and no less ready for treachery than any of the others, nay rather, zealous above all things to destroy.

83 “Now when Heracles had viewed all this also to his heart’s content, Hermes asked him which of the two scenes pleased him and which of the two women. ‘Why, it is the other one,’ said he, ‘whom I admire and love, and she seems to me a veritable goddess, enviable and worthy to be accounted blest; this second woman, on the other hand, I consider so utterly odious and abominable that I would gladly thrust her down from this peak and thus put an end to her.’ Whereupon Hermes commended Heracles for this utterance and repeated it to Zeus, who entrusted him with the kingship over all mankind as he considered him equal to the trust. 84 And so wherever Heracles discovered a tyranny and a tyrant, he chastised and destroyed them, among Greeks and barbarians alike; but wherever he found a kingdom and a king, he would give honour and protection.”

This, she maintained, was what made him Deliverer of the earth and of the human race, not the fact that he defended them from the savage beasts — for how little damage could a lion or a wild bear inflict? — nay, it was the fact that he chastised savage and wicked men, and crushed and destroyed the power of overweening tyrants. And even to this day Heracles continues this work and you have in him a helper and protector of your government as long as it is vouchsafed you to reign.

Heracles was held up as a righteous foil to the greatest kings and rulers:

Philo, in his Embassy to Gaius

81 – And yet why, O Gaius! did you think yourself in need of spurious honours, such as the temples and statues of the beings above-mentioned are often filled with? You ought rather to have imitated their virtues. Hercules purified both the earth and the sea . . . .

90 – But I suppose you imitated Hercules in your unwearied labours and your incessant displays of valour and virtue; you, O most wretched of men! having filled every continent and every island with good laws, and principles of justice, and wealth, and comfort, and prosperity, and abundance of other blessings, you, wretched man, full of all cowardice and iniquity, who have emptied every city of the things which can conduce to stability and prosperity, and have made them full of everything which leads to trouble and confusion, and the most utter misery and desolation.

Isocrates held up Heracles as a foil to Philip, Macedonian king and conqueror of Greece:

all the world, with one accord, would praise — next to the unrivalled excellence of Heracles . . . — . . . And yet we know that the bravest and most famous of [those who marched against Troy] held their sway in little villages and petty islands; nevertheless they left behind them a name which rivals that of the gods and is renowned throughout the world. For all the world loves, not those who have acquired the greatest power for themselves alone, but those who have shown themselves to be the greatest benefactors of Hellas [=Greece].

Seneca – On Benefits, 13

. . . But what did that crazy young man [=Alexander the Great] have in common with Hercules? In place of virtue, Alexander possessed nothing but boldness and good luck. Hercules’ conquests were not undertaken for his own benefit; he traveled the world not because of a lust for conquest, but because of his judgment about what to conquer; he was the foe of evil men, the defender of good men, the bringer of peace on land and sea. But Alexander, ever since childhood, had been a bandit and a worldwide pillager, as dangerous to his enemies as he was to his friends. He thought the highest good was to strike terror into the heart of all mortal creatures—forgetting that it is not only the fiercest of animals, but also the basest of animals, that are feared on account of their venomous nature.

Diodorus Siculus – Book 4.8.5 — shows how Heracles was the Benefactor of the World:

And strange it would be indeed that Heracles, while yet among mortal men, should by his own labours have brought under cultivation the inhabited world, and that human beings should nevertheless forget the benefactions which he rendered them generally and slander the commendation he receives for the noblest deeds, and strange that our ancestors should have unanimously accorded immortality to him because of his exceedingly great attainments, and that we should nevertheless fail to cherish and maintain for the god the pious devotion which has been handed down to us from our fathers. However, we shall leave such considerations and relate his deeds from the beginning, basing our account on those of the most ancient poets and writers of myths.

We saw above (Dio Chysostom, Oratian 8) that Heracles was not one to be seduced by a woman. Contrast myths that glorified his sexual appetite. Yet even here we find a heritage of celibacy in his honour!

Pausanias [9.27.6]

At Thespiae is also a sanctuary of Heracles. The priestess there is a virgin, who acts as such until she dies. The reason of this is said to be as follows. Heracles, they say, had intercourse with the fifty daughters of Thestius, except one, in a single night. She was the only one who refused to have connection with him. Heracles, thinking that he had been insulted, condemned her to remain a virgin all her life, serving him as his priest.

Plutarch, The Pythian Oracle:

There is in Phocis a temple consecrated to Hercules the woman-hater, the chief priest of which is forbid by the law and custom of the place to have private familiarity with his wife during the year that he officiates; for which reason they most commonly make choice of old men to perform that function. . . .

Heracles died in flames. Did anyone speak of his resurrection?

Josephus, Antiquities 8.5.3

Menander also, one who translated the Tyrian archives out of the dialect of the Phenicians, into the Greek language, makes mention of these two Kings, where he says thus; “When Abibalus was dead his son Hiram received the Kingdom from him: who when he had lived fifty three years, reigned thirty four. He raised a bank in the large place, and dedicated the golden pillar which is in Jupiter’s temple. He also went and cut down materials of timber out of the mountain called Libanus, for the roof of temples: and when he had pulled down the ancient temples, he both built the temple of Hercules, and that of Astarte: [and he first set up the temple of Hercules in the month Peritius]

You did not see it in the above Whiston translation? Here is a closer look at the relevant passage by John Day, “Resurrection Imagery from Baal to the Book of Daniel”, p. 133:

Thus, Menander, as reported by Josephus {Antiquities, 8.5.3, § 146), refers to the festival of the resurrection of the Tyrian god Herakles (i.e. Melqart) as his έγερσις — an awakening from a condition similar to sleep. Also, we may note, much earlier, in the Ugaritic texts {KTU 1.19.ΙΠ.45), Aqhat’s death is referred to as “sleep” (šnt; cf. qbr, “grave”, in the previous line).

Compare Acts 3:15 and 5:30

And the Author of Life you killed, whom God has raised up [ἤγειρεν / ēgeiren] out from the dead . . .

The God of our fathers raised up [ἤγειρεν / ēgeiren] Jesus whom you killed . . .


Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5.14

And the same, in the tenth book of the Republic, mentions Eros the son of Armenius, who is Zoroaster. Zoroaster, then, writes: These were composed by Zoroaster, . . . : having died in battle, and been in Hades, I learned them of the gods. This Zoroaster, Plato says, having been placed on the funeral pyre, rose again to life in twelve days. He alludes perchance to the resurrection, or perchance to the fact that the path for souls to ascension lies through the twelve signs of the zodiac; and he himself says, that the descending pathway to birth is the same. In the same way we are to understand the twelve labours of Hercules, after which the soul obtains release from this entire world.

Even here we meet ancient scholars discerning behind the mythical colouring a “historical” core:

Servius in his Commentary on Vergil 6 (395) interprets Heracles’ emergence from Hades as the mortification of all fleshly passions:

[395] . . . Hercules . . .  When he is said to have emerged from the realm of Cerberus,  . . . all manner of lusts, and all vices are subdued by the earth: for it is in the land of Cerberus that all bodies are consumed. . . .

Seneca saw the burning of Heracles’ flesh as the removal of his mortal part so that he could become immortal:

Seneca, Tranquillity of Mind, 16, 4

I weep for Hercules, he was burned alive, or for Regulus because he was pierced by so many nails, or for Cato because he maketh sore with his words? For all these by a slight sacrifice of time found out how they would become immortal, and in dying reached immortality.

By fire Heracles becomes a god:

Ovid, Metamorphosis 9,229ff

Hercules, who conquers all, will conquer the fire you see there: only the human part, which he owes to his mother, will feel Vulcan’s power. What he derives from me is eternal, beyond the reach of death, and not to be overcome by any flames. When that part has fulfilled its time on earth, I shall receive it into the realms of heaven, confident that my action will be a source of rejoicing to all the gods. If there is anyone, however, who is likely to be annoyed at Hercules’ becoming a god . . .

His death, we know, took a form to be imitated as some have sought to be literally “crucified” with Christ: see Roger Parvus’s post on the Ignatian Letters.

[Draft bibliography]

Aristophanes. 1938. “Frogs.” In The Complete Greek Drama: All the Extant Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the Comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, in a Variety of Translations, 2 Volumes, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill Jr, 1st Edition edition, 919–1006. Random house.

Bacchylides, British Museum. Manuscript. Papyrus DCCXXIII, and Richard Claverhouse Jebb. 1905. Bacchylides. The Poems and Fragments. Cambridge : University press. http://archive.org/details/bacchylidespoems00bacciala.

Boys-Stones, George, ed. 2019. L. Annaeus Cornutus: Greek Theology, Fragments, and Testimonia. Atlanta: SBL Press.

———. n.d. “Cornutus, On Greek Theology.” Accessed July 5, 2020. https://www.academia.edu/6394535/Cornutus_On_Greek_Theology.

Clement of Alexandria. 1885. “The Stromata. Book 5.” Translated by William Wilson. New Advent. 1885. https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/02105.htm.

Day, John. 1997. “Resurrection Imagery from Baal to the Book of Daniel.” In Congress Volume Cambridge 1995, edited by Emerton, 125–33. BRILL.

Dio Chrysostom. 1932a. “The Eighth Discourse: Diogenes or On Virtue.” LacusCurtius. 1932. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/8*.html.

———. 1932b. “The First Discourse on Kingship.” LacusCurtius. 1932. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Dio_Chrysostom/Discourses/1*.html.

Diogenes Laertius. 2018. “Antisthenes.” In Lives of the Eminent Philosophers: By Diogenes Laertius, edited by James Miller, translated by Pamela Mensch, 259–310. New York: Oxford University Press.

Euripides. 1938. “Asclestis.” In The Complete Greek Drama: All the Extant Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the Comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, in a Variety of Translations, 2 Volumes, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill Jr, 1st Edition edition, 677–722. Random house.

Eusebius of Caesarea. 1903. “Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel).” Translated by E.H. Gifford. 1903. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_pe_00_eintro.htm.

Herodotus. 1965. Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.

Isocrates. 1928. “To Philip.” In Isocrates, Volume I: To Demonicus. To Nicocles. Nicocles or the Cyprians. Panegyricus. To Philip. Archidamus., translated by George Norlin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Josephus, Flavius. 1987. “Antiquities of the Jews.” In The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston, New, Unabridged, Updated edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub.

Kristensen, F. 2013. The Meaning of Religion: Lectures in the Phenomenology of Religion. Springer.

Long, George. 1890. The Discourses Of Epictetus. Goerge Bell And Sons. http://archive.org/details/discoursesofepic033057mbp.

Marshall, Mary. 2005. “Jesus: Glutton and Drunkard?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3(1), 47–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/1476869005053865

Maurus Servius Honoratus. 1881. “Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil.” Perseus Digital Library. 1881. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0053.

Ovid. 1993. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Translated by Mary M Innes. New York: Penguin Books.

Pausanias. 2014. Complete Works of Pausanias. Delphi Classics.

Philo. 1993. “On the Embassy to Gaius.” In The Works of Philo, translated by C. D. Yonge. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.

Pindar. 1915. The Odes of Pindar, Including the Principal Fragments. Edited by John Edwin Sandys. London Heinemann. http://archive.org/details/odesofpindarsand00pinduoft.

Plutarch. 1936. “De Pythiae Oraculis.” Perseus Digital Library. 1936. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0248%3Asection%3D20.

Pseudo-Lucian. n.d. “The Cynic.” The Lucian of Samosata Project. Accessed July 6, 2020. http://lucianofsamosata.info/wiki/doku.php?id=2012:the-cynic-lucian.

Seneca. 1932. “De Tranquillitate Animi.” Perseus Digital Library. 1932. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a2007.01.0021.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. 2010. On Benefits. Translated by Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Siculus, Diodorus. 1935. Diodorus Siculus: Library of History, Volume II, Books 2.35-4.58. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Strabo. 1927. Geography of Strabo Vol_4. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. Loeb Classical Library. William Heinemann ; Harvard Univesity Press. http://archive.org/details/in.gov.ignca.2916.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Hercules, a Fitting Substitute for Jesus Christ”

  1. …Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard…

    A Nazarene is possibly identical with a Nazirite Samson, the strong man (Judges 13:5-7) was such a Nazirite, one «consecrated to God». The Nazirite was forbidden to have his hair cut and to drink wine. He is often regarded as the type of the ascetic. The verbal distinction between Nazarite and Nazirite has given rise to a conflict about ascetic ways of life. The anti-ascetics have brought up their surname Nazarene against the ascetics’ password Nazarite, to «paralyze» their ascetism or Nazarism.
    (John Mackinnon Robertson: The Gospel Myths, Jena, 1910, p. 51ff seq.)

  2. A subtext in this post (very “sub”, very well hidden, I suspect) —

    Church Fathers embraced Plato’s condemnation of the immoral behaviours of various gods and heroes and declared, in contrast, the purity of the Biblical heroes and Deity, especially the NT one.

    A precursor to their stance might be the Jewish scribes of the Persian and/or Hellenistic era as per Russell Gmirkin’s thesis (along with others such as Philippe Wajdenbaum’s): Plato’s condemnation of Greek myths was accompanied by a new rewrite of those myths in new garb — the myths of the Greeks were structurally copied by the biblical authors in their creation of a Jewish sacred history. One wonders if there is a similar process here with the creation of Jesus Christ: he is not only a personification or allegory of Israel, both the sinful and ideal Israel, but also a embraces the ideals of the pagan gods and heroes, too.

    Was Christianity’s origins comparable to the origins of what we associate with “biblical Judaism”?

  3. Re “the Logos, of Reason itself. (Logos, of course, is translated most simply as the Word in reference to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel.)”

    Is there any support for translating logos as reason in the gospels?

    1. No. Not according to the list at https://biblehub.com/greek/logos_3056.htm – but that’s as it “should” be. . . . If Christ were Reason then Christianity would be Stoicism, not Christianity.

      Recall Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s thesis of Paul’s model of the Christian calling being a structural borrowing of the Stoic framework. The Stoic was devoted to Logos (Reason) in the same way the Christian was devoted to Logos (Christ). Posts addressing this model: https://vridar.org/tag/engberg-pedersen-paul-and-the-stoics/

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