The Gospels and Greek Culture, Part 3: Representations of Jesus
Updated: Oct 7
This post is the third in a series that has been adapted from my MA thesis which I wrote over the summer of 2020.
I'm well aware that there are some instances in this section where it might seem like I'm implying that the passages about Jesus are fictional, especially in the Greek hero and theîos anér sections. This is not my intention at all - I fully believe in both the existence of Jesus and the historical accuracy of the Gospels. What I'm trying to convey is that the Gospel writers knew how to show Jesus to their readership in a way that would be easily understood, but this does not compromise the truth of what they wrote.
The concept of Jesus’ identity appears consistently throughout the Gospels, particularly in the Synoptic (first three) Gospels with his question, “Who do people say I am?” appearing in all of them, as well as frequent references to his mission and the Father as the source of his authority. The truth of his identity is often known to the reader before it is known to those within the narrative, especially the disciples (despite their proximity to him), yet each writer reveals it in different ways. In Mark, for example, Jesus’ status as the son of God is only fully revealed on the cross, whereas John makes it clear from his preface that Jesus was divine, eternal, and entirely at one with God.
There are several ways in which this identity is presented in the Gospels, and it is done through varying representations of Jesus as fulfilling different roles, each of which allows the Gospel writers to emphasise different elements of his character by drawing parallels with numerous figures, both historical and fictional. As this section will show, however, none of these representations alone can fully encompass his portrayal in the Gospels, and so we have to consider him as mirroring a variety of models so that we can gain a more complete perspective of the message being communicated to the reader by the Gospel authors with regard to his identity.
Jesus as a Greek Hero
One way in which Jesus is represented in the Gospels is as a Greek hero. Essentially, the Greek hero was a dead mortal who was seen as having retained power in death. Therefore, they were deserving of more honour than the ‘regular' dead, which often led to the establishment of a cult around them.
The Greek hero had god-like qualities inherited from one divine parent or ancestor and they were subsequently regarded as semi-divine. This generally meant that they received help from that ancestor in overcoming the challenges they faced, though in turn this often antagonised another deity who put most of these obstacles in place. This positioning within the cosmos meant that they were continuously in contact with the divine whilst still living a mortal life. If the hero wanted to attain full divinity and immortality, they typically had to embark on a journey that included a process through which their virtue was demonstrated, both in word and deed. This often involved the saving of a person or community in need and as such, they were perceived as paradigms of strength and valour.
Of course, these paradigms changed significantly over time as Greek culture mixed and merged with others as it spread, and as the hero cult developed. The traditional Homeric views of what constituted a hero (i.e. the characteristics of figures like Achilles/Hector) did not necessarily disappear, but they became incorporated into ruler cults such as that of Alexander the Great, or the Roman Imperial Cult (emperor worship) which was a particularly relevant institution within the contemporary contexts of both Jesus and the Gospel writers. The presentation of Jesus as a Greek hero in the Gospels reflects some key elements of both the Homeric paradigm and the hero of later centuries, but there is also an implication that he was superior to the typical hero.
The circumstances of Jesus’ birth strongly reflect those of Greek heroes - those from the ancient heroic age of Homer and those from later centuries. Firstly, if we look at the conceptions of both Herakles and Alexander the Great, we see that Zeus and Ammon (who was often equated with Zeus) come to Alcmene and Olympias respectively and they both become pregnant as a result, having previously been virgins. Now, of course, many of the parallels between these two stories likely came about because of Alexander promoting himself as equal to Herakles, yet the fact still remains that the motif of the hero’s conception from one divine and one mortal parent remains present throughout the Greek heroic tradition.
Of course, this presents many similarities with the conception of Jesus in Luke 1:26-38. The angel appears to Mary and tells her that she will become pregnant through God’s power. However, it is clear from the comparison of this passage with the stories of Herakles’ and Alexander’s conceptions that although there are definitely some similarities, the nature of the encounters are quite different. The primary difference is that Mary is told beforehand that she will become pregnant and that her baby will be the promised Messiah; it is the child that matters, not the lust of a deity for a mortal which results in pregnancy as a natural progression. Furthermore, she is given a chance to accept or refuse; her reply of, “May it happen to me just as you said it would.” shows that she willingly accepts the task given to her and that she is acting on her own faith, as opposed to Alcmene and Olympias who have no choice.
In including the interaction between Mary and the angel Gabriel in his account, Luke goes one step further than merely equating the nature of Jesus’ conception with those of Greek heroes. He clearly demonstrates that Jesus is the divine Son of God, but also emphasises that God cares for Mary in allowing her to choose after making her fully aware of the pregnancy and her baby’s significance.
Attainment of Divinity
Given their status as semi-divine, reaching full divinity was often the overarching goal of the hero’s journey, within which they had to demonstrate strength and virtue. This was mostly through overcoming various obstacles, such as Herakles’ labours or Theseus’ slaying of the Minatour. Although Jesus is shown as already fully divine from the outset of each Gospel, there are still numerous challenges he has to overcome during his time on earth which prove his virtues to the reader. One example of this is his temptation in the desert, where Satan tests him three times in the space of 40 days. His resistance to Satan despite the magnitude of these tests ultimately demonstrates that he is able to withstand temptation even in the wilderness (both physical and spiritual wilderness) and that he has spiritual authority so can therefore provide spiritual leadership. By placing this near the start of his account before Jesus’ ministry begins, Matthew shows from the beginning that Jesus has the strength to complete his journey and that he is already worthy of the divinity which a 'regular' hero would have to earn.
The overcoming of challenges on the hero’s journey was primarily focused on the idea of kléos, meaning ‘glory' or ‘fame', as well as the service of others. The hero’s attainment of kléos in life was vital in order for them to be remembered well after death, earning immortality and divinity. This is perhaps best exemplified in Herakles, the archetypal Greek hero, whose name literally means ‘he who gains kléos through Hera’. Herakles’ famous labours provide the paradigmatic example of divinely assigned tasks that provide obstacles for the hero to overcome in order to demonstrate strength and virtue, earn kléos, and serve communities in need so that the divinization process can be completed.
Jesus’ mission, although very different in nature from that of Herakles, still follows a similar pattern. His mission is assigned by God, the obstacles provided by the Pharisees are overcome with profound wisdom and compassion for others (without breaking Old Testament law), and the miracles he performs are in service of those around him. It is clear that Jesus is not the same as the typical hero in that he has no desire merely for his own kléos; he never performs self-serving miracles and frequently orders both people and evil spirits not to tell others about him. However, he is clearly shown as worthy of his kléos through the common motif of news spreading quickly about him, despite his instructions to the contrary.
The Gospel writers actively engage with these motifs in that Jesus' overcoming of the obstacles he faces makes him worthy of kléos in the eyes of the reader, yet the lack of value judgements from the narrator make these conclusions dependent on the reader - they are left to reach their own decision about Jesus being worthy of glory. Instead, the Gospel writers build on the more implicit concept of kléos, reserving the emphasis for the moments of Jesus’ death and resurrection, where both his divinity and glory fully culminate, entirely revealing him as the Son of God. This is signposted by the centurion’s comment in Mark 15:39: “This man was surely the Son of God”. Although there is a gradual build-up to this moment, the cross still provides an obvious pinnacle of glory, which is fully sustained by Luke and John in particular with their accounts of the resurrection appearances. In Greek heroic stories, it is also the moment of death which constitutes the culmination of the hero’s divinization process and transition to immortality.
The hero as pharmakós
The fulfilment of the role of pharmakós at the point of death was a highly significant way of demonstrating the hero’s true virtue in service to others. The pharmakós was someone who acted as a ritual scapegoat for a community through either their expulsion from that community or through their death, by which they took on the wrongdoing of the people and thereby cleansed the community from any moral pollution, or míasma. This then prevented the community from experiencing the consequences of that moral pollution. One especially relevant example is that of Oedipus, who does this for the city of Thebes by exiling himself, thereby taking the consequences of his previous míasma with him, or the Athenian king Codrus who sacrificed himself whilst disguised as a slave in order to save the city from capture.
In the rituals performed in Greek antiquity, the pharmakós was usually extremely virtuous, yet in this role they were treated as if they were a hated criminal, which is exactly what we see in the death of Jesus in the way he is falsely accused and convicted, beaten and spat upon, whipped, mocked, and subjected to death by crucifixion. Through assuming the role of pharmakós, Jesus takes on the moral and physical pollution of the world, and this is shown through multiple verses in the Gospels, in particular Matthew 8:17: ‘This was to fulfil what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “He Himself took our infirmities and carried away our diseases.”’ This verse underlines that it is the problem of our sin, our inner pollution, which provides the need for Jesus’ divine mission. In Mark 2:17, Jesus states, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” and this is made clear throughout the Gospels by Jesus’ constant demonstrations of compassion for those who need his help, regardless of their background or previous wrongdoings.
By presenting Jesus as a Greek hero in the Gospels, the Gospel writers were able to highlight his role as pharmakós as the primary focus of his mission on earth, made much more important than the sacrifices of figures like Oedipus or Codrus by its relevance to the whole of humanity, not just one community. Although none of the accounts mention the word pharmakós itself, or míasma in relation to sin, the combination of Matthew 8:17 and the central problem of sin with the other parts of the Gospels which represent Jesus in this light are still very effective in underlining the Passion narrative (the story of Jesus' arrest up to his resurrection) as a fulfilment of this crucial role as pharmakós.
The reading of the Gospels as presenting Jesus in the role of a Greek hero is not necessarily an all-encompassing representation, but it is certainly helpful to understanding his mission on earth. By representing him in this light, the Gospel writers were able to place emphasis on both the co-existence of his humanity and divinity, as well as his role as saviour and pharmakós through his death which, in a similar way to many Greek heroes, was his defining moment. Although there is no doubt as to his divinity from the outset, the presentation of his death in this way is still a revelation of his full kléos, mimicking the hero’s attainment of divinity and immortality in death. In using this representation, the Gospel writers were, therefore, able to present the Passion narrative as the most important part of Jesus’ story, amplifying his death and resurrection as the central part of the message of salvation and the goal of Jesus’ mission on earth.
Jesus as a Greek Philosopher
Another Greek representation of Jesus in the Gospels is that of a philosopher. By the time of Jesus, Greek philosophical thought had expanded from the early teachings of the Pre-Socratics to influence the philosophies of various cultures, including Jewish teaching. Philosophy was not a defined profession in the ancient world; you were generally classified as a philosopher by belonging to or having a theoretical association with a certain group or movement of thinkers, and the ability to speak well was what made you eligible for this association, as opposed to a formal qualification. Many philosophers taught and had students or disciples and their teachings often involved ideas about the natural, the supernatural, and key theories as to how people should conduct their lives in order to be virtuous.
There is a substantial amount of philosophical language in the Gospels, such as lógos ('word'/ 'principle'), psyché ('soul'), éthos ('ethos'/'morals'), and sophrosúne ('self-control'/'restraint'/ 'temperance), but the primary way in which the Gospels present Jesus in this guise is through an emphasis on the importance of moral transformation, in which many parallels can be found with Platonism, Stoicism, and Cynicism among others. There is also a clear emphasis on the fact that, in line with the philosophical practice of the time, Jesus promotes the examination of the inner self, not outward appearances. Furthermore, he himself is a model of what he teaches, as was expected of philosophers at that point.
As mentioned above, there was a general belief within Greek communities that sin was pollution and had to be removed in order for a full renewal of a person to take place. This concept is not only exemplified in the portrayal of Jesus as pharmakós, but also in his teaching and miracles. For example, before healing the paralyzed man, Jesus tells him that his sins are forgiven before then telling him to pick up his mat and walk, implying that before he could be healed, there was a need for spiritual purification.
According to Stoic philosophy at that time, purity was achieved by following God, which meant acting according to the governing rational principle of the universe: the lógos. As alluded to in the section on language, this is also a central principle of the Christian faith, but in that Jesus is the lógos. When instructing a rich young man, Jesus tells him that in order to have eternal life, he must keep the law, give all he has to the poor, and follow him. This motif of discipleship in the Gospels is indicative of the essential importance of following Jesus; though moral virtue is important, the Gospel writers make it clear that Jesus is the only way, truth, and life.
It was this belief and following which offered cleansing from sin, symbolised through the act of being baptised. In both Matthew and Mark, it is clear that the confession of sins has to come before the baptism, therefore the previous pollution is cleansed. However, although the physical process involves full immersion in water, John the Baptist highlights that the Messiah would be the spiritual purifier. Though John was still able to baptise people before Jesus started his ministry, this shows that the cleansing provided by baptism was internal and spiritual through divine power.
Ascetic appearance and inclusivity
The embracing of a simple life was a key concept within Graeco-Roman philosophy at the time of Jesus, specifically in Cynic and some Stoic philosophical circles. Much of this was embodied in dressing simply, which was generally a sign to others that you were a philosopher, but more importantly, it promoted the idea that the true philosopher was defined by their words, not their appearance. When sending his disciples out on mission, Jesus instructs them not to take anything with them except a staff, and to take only one coat. This indicates a choice; choosing to live as simply as possible even if one has the means to live above that standard. For the Gospel writers, this was a way of highlighting that outward appearance was insignificant for those who wished to follow Jesus - it's the inward appearance that matters.
This kind of philosophy also promoted inclusivity. Inclusion of all people, regardless of social status, was a vital idea within most philosophical schools at the time of Jesus; one should be judged by one’s virtues after the impact of studying philosophy, not how one was before engagement with it. This is exactly what we see in the Gospels in that Jesus’ interaction with others is always open, allowing them to respond to him before their character comes into the discussion. For example, when a centurion came to Jesus asking for his servant to be healed, Jesus acted because of the centurion’s faith, despite the fact that as part of the Roman occupying force, the centurion would likely have provoked hostility from others.
It is also important to note the significance of Jesus’ sharing of meals and the message this conveyed within his contemporary context. In Mark 2:16, the Pharisees complain to Jesus’ disciples, asking, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”. In Jesus’ contemporary society, meals were an ultimate indication of who was included in one’s social circle, and so the fact that Jesus ate with “tax collectors and ‘sinners’” was an explicit signal that nobody was excluded from his message of salvation.
Demonstration of teaching through action
Despite not being a profession as such, philosophy had come to be considered a way of life by the 1st century AD. It was not enough for a philosopher to simply teach – they had to live out and demonstrate what they taught, and this was the case for any philosopher, regardless of their philosophy. Doing this demonstrated the authenticity of what they taught, and thereby provided a moral model for their students in addition to just teaching; virtue was a state of being. This is something we can see particularly in the lives of both Jesus and Greek philosophers such as Socrates, especially in the way that both handle the concept of their own deaths.
Whilst praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is clearly in agony in the knowledge that he is about to die, yet he does not choose to walk away from the place to which he knows that God has led him. In Luke’s description of the crucifixion, we also see that he both teaches the crowds and prays for others whilst continuing to stay in communication with the Father. Similarly, Plato’s Phaedo presents Socrates as acting in the same way whilst accepting the prospect of his own death calmly, continuing to teach those present until the moment he takes the hemlock. He also chooses to die - he refused to concede that he had done anything wrong during his trial, despite knowing that his punishment would also be death.
Through the way in which they handle their deaths, both Jesus and Socrates demonstrate what it truly means to live out their own teachings. In the case of Jesus, he literally undertakes what he teaches in Matthew 16:24-26. By drawing this kind of parallel with a figure such as Socrates, the Gospel writers place Jesus among the ranks of one of the most admired philosophers within their contemporary context, meaning that the connotations evoked for the reader are reminiscent of a great teacher who died for what they believed in despite being innocent of the charges brought against them. In the case of Jesus, this is taken a step further by the implications of his death given his role as pharmakós, and the resurrection then shows the reader that although Jesus and Socrates are alike, only Jesus had the ability to overcome death.
By showing that Jesus engaged with contemporary philosophical ideas, the Gospel writers make the reader aware that the issues of míasma and the need for purification were central to the Christian message as well as Greek religion. However, by also stating that he is himself the lógos, they underline that he offered the solution to the need for purification through the invitation to follow him and that transformation happens as a result. In the same way as many of his contemporary philosophers, Jesus encouraged his followers to focus on the inner self, not outward appearances, which also promoted the vital message of inclusivity. His death on the cross demonstrated that he was able to follow his own teaching of obedience to God without fault, but despite some poignant parallels with Socrates, he is shown to be superior because of his divinity.
Jesus as a theîos anér
One representation that combines many aspects of the hero and the philosopher is that of the theîos anér – the holy man. A theîos anér was a travelling philosopher, but one with a special connection to the divine, which was demonstrated primarily by the performance of miracles. There was also an expectation of prophecy or foreknowledge, an extraordinary birth and death, and persuasive speech. The theîos anér was quite a popular way of representing miracle workers and magic men around the time of Jesus, and we see numerous parallels between Jesus and other holy men in 1st and 2nd century texts.
The primary comparison which can be made between Jesus and the idea of a theîos anér is in the miracles they performed. It is implied in many accounts of divine men that they performed miracles, which is mostly done through summaries given by the author to emphasise the scale of the protagonist’s acts. These signs acted as a way of legitimising any claims of divinity and were a demonstration of their strong connections to the supernatural.
For example, the exorcism of demons features frequently in theîos anér narratives. Apollonius of Tyana expels a demon from a young man in the middle of a lecture on religious ritual, the narrative of which is reminiscent of Jesus’ exorcism of the spirit named Legion. In both situations, we see the demon acknowledged, expelled, proof of its departure, and the restoration of the person it had possessed. In the case of Jesus, however, exorcisms hold further significance in that they place him in the middle of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan, which is mirrored by the interaction between Jesus and the demons on earth. This amplifies Jesus’ divinity and connection with the supernatural, whilst also not compromising his humanity.
However, it is important to note here the ways in which these miracles were viewed by the author. Interestingly, Philostratus (the author of The Life of Apollonius) claims that Apollonius was able to perform miracles because of his deep wisdom and ability to understand the universe better than others, as opposed to his divinity, whereas Jesus worked miracles on account of his own power and the power of God through him, representing him as an agent of divine power. This also gave Jesus more authority than other divine men, supported especially by the fact that he did not need to perform spells and incantations before he demonstrated his abilities.
It was typical for a theîos anér to be able to prophesy as a sign of their connection to the divine, meaning that almost all prophets were generally considered divine men. We see in the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus prophesies frequently, at one point regarding the destruction of the temple, which took place in 70 AD. The Life of Apollonius contains a similar example of foreknowledge in that Apollonius prays protection over the Ionian cities, which is thought to refer to an earthquake during the reign of Claudius.
The prophecies of the Old Testament also play a vital part in the Gospels, aligning the actions of Jesus and the events of his life with God’s promises to his people and demonstrating his divine messianic identity. We see this especially where John the Baptist is concerned; as mentioned above, he points to Jesus as the Messiah, calling himself the one referred to in Isaiah 40:3 – the one who prepares the way for the Lord.
The inclusion of prophecy by the Gospel writers was instrumental in distinguishing Jesus from other divine men because as one who was both the fulfilment of prophecies and a prophet, Jesus’ ministry, divinity, and belief in him are all legitimised.
The figure of the theîos anér can certainly be a helpful model for considering Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels. Not only does it draw together and incorporate much of the theory also relevant to the hero and the philosopher, but it is also a representation that allows for Jesus’ humanity and divinity to co-exist. However, it is clear that the Gospel writers were aware of the theîos anér figure gaining popularity at the time they were writing their accounts, and so it is apparent from the text that they wished to distinguish Jesus as superior to other contemporary miracle workers, making sure that they emphasised the fact of his Messiahship through prophetic legitimisation.
As stated at the beginning of this section, none of these representations of Jesus are able to fully encompass the image presented to us by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, the figures of the Greek hero, the Greek philosopher, and the theîos anér are each beneficial figures with which Jesus can be compared.
In drawing attention to his heroic aspects, the Gospel writers were able to place emphasis on Jesus’ role as pharmakós in death but for the whole of humanity, not just a small-scale community. This is the primary goal of his divinely assigned mission. As was the case with Greek heroes, his divine heritage and miraculous conception make him special, yet the Gospel writers present the circumstances of his birth in a much different light to those of other heroic figures such as Herakles and Alexander in that Mary is respected as a more active participant.
As a Greek philosopher, we see that Jesus fulfils the requirement of practising his own teaching without fault, as a philosopher had to do in order to demonstrate the validity and authenticity of what he taught. This representation is supported in that much of his teaching reflected both the topics and content of much Greek philosophical teaching during the 1st century AD, as well as the wide use of philosophical language.
The representation of Jesus as a theîos anér is a good allegory for presenting Jesus’ co-existent divinity and humanity; whilst he is god-like, able to perform miracles, and prophesy, he is also mortal. However, although there are numerous parallels to be found between Jesus and the theîos anér, the Gospel writers show that Jesus is different from the contemporary holy man in that he both fulfilled prophecy and was able to perform miracles because of his own supernatural power, not incantations or spells.
As we can see from this analysis, we have to combine all three of these representations of Jesus, as well as others not discussed here (especially, of course, his role as the Jewish Messiah), in order to grasp the most complete possible picture of him as the Gospel writers wished to present him. Although he displays many of the attributes ascribed to all three roles, he does not embody any of them in completeness but demonstrates aspects of each for these images to be clear enough to an audience with at least some knowledge of Greek culture. I think this extract from Stanton sums the whole issue up pretty well:
‘The more vigorously the Gospel traditions are sifted and weighed, the more rigorously the [historical context] is explored, the clearer it becomes that Jesus of Nazareth fits no formula. It is a mistake to try…’
Read Part 4a: 'The Genre of the Gospels - Historiography' here.