YHWH and Christ Among the Gods
In Defense of Superheroic Entertainment
Let me put this as bluntly as I can: yes, of course there is pagan influence in the collection of texts that Jews and Christians collectively and separately refer to as “Scripture” or “the Bible.”
There exists a list of points of academic consensus about the development of the religious trajectory we variously identify as ancient Israelite, Early Jewish, and/or Early Christian. The first is that ancient Israelites were a Canaanite people whose origins in the ancient Near East are mythologized by the patriarchal histories and Exodus narrative found in the Torah;1 to say such is emphatically not to deny that there might be historical veracity to the Exodus account2 or that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real people, but it is rather to say that the stories about these personages and events that the Pentateuch gives us are relatively late ways of codifying and presenting what was earlier a diverse set of Israelite oral and textual histories, whose intramural contradictions are still visible in the redacted texts we now possess. The second is that these ancient Israelites were not monotheists, at least if by “monotheists” we mean they were people who believed in one, and only one, god--not to mention people who believed in God--and identified that god straightforwardly with YHWH.3 Clearly, YHWH was of central significance for ancient Israel from its earliest times; equally clearly, YHWH seems to at first coexist with, and only gradually absorb and eclipse, other common Canaanite deities like El, Ba’al, and Asherah, and other more common Near Eastern divinities like solar gods.4 The Hebrew Bible is, among other things, almost like an archaeology of doctrinal development among the ancient Israelites as they progressed from a henotheistic attachment to YHWH as their ethnic divinity to belief in YHWH as a summodeistic king of the gods, manifesting the qualities and characteristics of the other gods and indeed sourcing them, and, finally, only much later in their history, to YHWH as the metaphysically supreme, sovereign, and transcendent God of cosmos and covenant.5 Third, this transition does not really take place until the period of what scholars call “Second Temple” or “Early Judaism,” from the Temple’s rebuilding in 516 BCE to its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, and even then, covenantal and philosophical monotheism among Early Jews does not preclude the existence of myriad divine beings, variously nameable as “gods” or “angels” dependent on text and context, such that Early Jews lived every bit in a complex divine and cosmic hierarchy full of gods, angels, spirits, daimons, heroes, demigods, numina, genii, and what have you as did other Mediterranean peoples. It is also during this period, fourth, that Early Judaism absorbed influences from, among other things, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman religion and philosophy, such that the YHWH of Second Temple or Early Judaism can, in some texts, be equated with the philosopher’s Zeus just as easily as he could, in the early layers of the Hebrew Bible, be conflated with El in his various manifestations (e.g., El Shaddai, El Elyon) or compared to Ba’al, whose mythology had long since been absorbed into the Jewish portrait of God (most especially in the Son of Man episode of Dan 7:9-14, which scholars have long seen as borrowing from the Ba’al Cycle).6
Fifth, the Jewish and gentile followers of Yeshua or Jesus of Nazareth, who came to believe that he was christos and Kyrios--that is, a divine and deified messiah--also narrativized his divinity in ways that consciously or unconsciously assimilated him to common Mediterranean and Near Eastern expectations of divinity.7 Many aspects of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension as reported in the Gospels or by Paul evoke no direct parallel from Jewish Scripture, even if they draw on scriptural texts to make the case, but are more directly and easily compared with the panoply of demigods, heroes, and other divinized humans readily available in surrounding Greco-Roman culture. This is not a reductionist fallacy of presuming that the Evangelists wrote the story to make Jesus like these other demigods; it is the acknowledgement that the thoroughly Jewish Jesus that the Evangelists want to talk about is, because thoroughly Jewish, also simultaneously Greco-Roman, and that the dominant cultural models for reception and interpretation that would have been available to their audiences were to be drawn from these mythic resources. Jesus turns water into wine in John not to say “Jesus is Dionysos,” but also not not to say that; Jesus’ corporeal immortalization and theonymy through ascent are similar to those of Asklepios, Herakles, and Romulus without being strictly equatable with them. The principle here--exploited rather than ignored or hushed by early Christian writers--is that Jesus is like these figures but exceeds them and so is the paradigm for them, of which they are the shadows, preparatory iterations, and demonic mimicries. Sixth, in early Christian theology, Hellenistic expectations of divinity continued to color not only Christian theology proper--that is, theology concerning the one God, the Father, and the divine ousia/physis--but also Christology, insofar as that which is identified as divine in Jesus is defined for the Nicene Fathers by standards of divinity they have derived from their philosophical education used in the reading of Scripture. That is to say, when Chalcedon will later distinguish between what Jesus does as God and what Jesus does as human, that is, how he hypostatizes each nature, it is precisely on the grounds of a logic worked out in the conversation between Scripture and contemporary Greek philosophy that allows the Council Fathers to make this distinction and clarify it as they do. Seventh, the liturgical practices of the early Christians in late antiquity and the middle ages--including but not limited to art and architecture, iconography and hymnography, and so forth--were primarily characterized by Christian drawing on Hellenistic and Roman resources rather than Jewish ones; Christ Pantokrator does not accidentally look like Serapis, nor the Theotokos with child negligibly resemble Isis with Horus. There is no “accident” here: the likeness was borrowed and emphasized in order to demonstrate succession and superiority to pagan antecedents and parallels, but never was it the case that Christian writers attempted to suggest that the mysterium fidei was somehow wholly abstracted from all human religious, philosophical, and artistic expectation that had preceded Christ.
These seven points of consensus can, in my experience, really tank confidence in the divine value of Judaism and Christianity. I am not totally sure why; if I ever did understand this point of view, I cannot seem to penetrate it now. The argument seems to be that in order to be truly divinely revelatory, biblical literature and the religion which produced, received, and transmitted it have to be in some sense wholly insulated from the influence of the fallen world without; short of this, if there are to be “influences,” “parallels,” or even shared perspective or content in the canon of Scripture, then it needs to be regulated by a principle of total subversion of meaning and expectation. This is applied by Christians to Judaism as readily as to Hellenism or Near Eastern religion, for instance, in the litany of homilies and publications that assert, usually without clarification of terms or careful demonstration from texts, that Jesus was the messiah, but he was not “the messiah that the Jews were expecting,” as though a.) all Jews were expecting a messiah, b.) those Jews who were expecting a messiah were all expecting a particular kind of (usually political) messiah, c.) Jesus himself can be demonstrably shown not to have sympathized with such a popular messianic image in his ministry, and d.) that the New Testament does not present Jesus specifically in the messianic categories known and important to some Early Jews in the first century.8 For whatever reason--the logic is never clearly identified and defended--it is held by such people that it could not possibly be the case that Jesus and his earliest followers were simply Jews, fully a part of the diversity of Jewish thought and life in the first-century, and therefore that the messianic portrait of Jesus, while unique to his Movement, is still nevertheless intelligibly Jewish without the need for a total subversion of Jewish norms. This policing of the meaning of texts can happen in any area of biblical literature: it does not matter if we are talking about ancient Near Eastern parallelism in the Torah or the Tanakh or about textual construction of Jesus as a Jewish messiah alongside other messianic candidates or as a Greco-Roman divinity: in each case, so it is often pushed by Christian apologists, the Bible must somehow break the paradigm to be divinely inspired.
What is interesting about this is that this kind of thing is not exclusively the way that the Church Fathers argue their case for Christ. Early Christians were conscious, directly and unavoidably so, of the ways that Christian belief in Jesus was nested within interlocking and overlapping conceptual frameworks of Judaism and Hellenism. It is precisely on these grounds that Christian theologians were able to articulate their notion (a notion which I find problematic, but that’s another post) of Christianismos/Christianitas as a tertium genus between the two, superseding both: that is to say, the parallels prove the primacy. Without supporting that supersessionist theology, the intellectual resource they used to construct it remains a powerful one. That theological apparatus is the concept of the praeparatio evangelica: the notion that because the incarnation of Christ, inclusive of and completed in the glorification of his death, resurrection, and ascension, is in fact the center of the spatiotemporal and material universe, it echoes backwards and forwards in time, structuring the logical character and spiritual trajectory of the universe such that the paschal mystery might archetypically echo itself throughout history or be intimated to the human mind by other means. This is the assumption that stands behind the reading of Scripture Christians believe to have been gifted them by the risen Christ himself (Lk 24:25-27, 36-49); it is likewise the assumption that stands behind the historic Christian reading of natural history, including of world religions and philosophies. Christ is the paradigmatic referent and therefore always of comparative value as regards his humanity; because we can only comprehend his divinity by gazing upon his humanity with eyes illumined by the Spirit of God, the parallels themselves testify to Christ’s divinity even when Christ is not the obvious or explicit object of their deification.
This is sort of wild, but a corollary to the belief that Christ has filled all things above and below with himself is that even the daimonic powers which oppose Christ are now, paradoxically, Christophanic: quite to their personal displeasure, they are rendered servants of Christ even in their rebellion against God, since their raging against the divine goodness now serves to prepare and furnish the saints for glory. So too with pagan myth, thought Sts. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Clement of Alexandria: where formerly we could neither hear what Scripture was really about nor understand the myths as anything more than either fables or abstract allegories, we now see that all mutually testify to the one Christ whose identity as God and human grounds the potential divinity of human experience--of which all religion is minimally a concretization and a construction--and also coaxes it forth. That is to say, it is not simply that the apostolic kerygma of Christ is parallel to and makes use of the Judaism of which it is part and parcel--that is to say, apostolic Christ-faith simply is a Judaism--and also of the pagan world in which that Judaism existed; if it did not, it would not and could not be a significant proclamation, in the sense of “signifying” anything truly meaningful to its recipients.
Again, this is not a “nothing but” argument, that Christ and Christianity are “nothing but” paganism repackaged, or that a purely perennialist, mythic understanding of Christ is theologically sufficient by any Christian standard. Do not mistake me. But I’m not the first to make this argument about the meaning of parallelism, nor is this even the first time I’ve made it: David Bentley Hart makes it in Roland in Moonlight, and I articulated the principle at length in commenting on this book over at Al Kimel’s Eclectic Orthodoxy blog.9 But I am finding that it bears repeating, because the evidence is too severe: the “pagan” or worldly influences upon biblical literature and faith are so obvious and ubiquitous that we can only take them as indicative of Judaism and Christianity’s relative truth value, as no more or less true than any other world religion, or we can take them as indicative of the centering power of the incarnation, of God’s gradual enfleshment in the life and kedushah of the people of Israel, in their texts and textual tradition, and finally in the person of Jesus himself, since to take on flesh means precisely to take on all of that contingency and interdependence and interwoven significance and referentiality by which flesh is naturally conditioned. The incarnation would not have been a successful divine communication were it uttered in a wholly novel and completely subversive way: the relativity of Judaism and Christianity does not undermine but can indeed support their claim to a kind of revelatory primacy.
I find I’m having to make this argument more recently for kind of a stupid reason: namely, the hate that is slung at superhero films, especially at Marvel Studios. I’ve written on that here with respect to Martin Scorsese, and I’ve written many times on the theological value of Marvel television and film over at the Pop Culture and Theology blog. For what it’s worth, a good many people I know and respect take the view I dissent from, that these movies are ruining cinema, our minds, and our morals. But for the life of me, I cannot quite hang my hat on why that might be other than fatigue at success, a kind of lingering elitism about art, and bad Christology.
Look, it is surely true that Marvel is owned by Disney, a capitalist entertainment empire of seismic proportions whose control on our psychic attention through its near-monopolized control of franchises is of minimally questionable goodness. And it is surely true that, at least in its early phases, Marvel Studios was happy to jettison the political and moral complexity of much of its intellectual content in favor of films and stories that either glorify or justify American imperialism and inflated egotism. I do not dispute that. It seems to me, though, that there are no less imperialist and egotist sympathies at work in films like those that Scorsese likes to make--that is, about white men living out the ultimate rich-white-man fantasy of adding to accumulated wealth and power the ultimate voluntaristic freedom to take or harm human life at will, beyond the reach of regular-people morality. There is certainly nothing less capitalistic in the films that Scorsese makes, since arguably a good deal of his complaint is motivated by the fact that the market no longer wants the product he is selling. Indeed, capitalism defines Hollywood, both its mainstream and its “independent” scene: a studio like A24, which put out the mythic psychedelic adventure of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight this year (2021), is no less a capitalistic enterprise than Marvel is; it is just one predicated on the production of films that meet the standards of a different audience. At that point it becomes a question of what we consider art and how we measure the reflection of intelligence in artistic sympathies; I am personally unconvinced by virtually every argument that I’ve ever heard that liking superheroes instead of serial killers, or kaiju instead of cannibals, or whatever the comparison du jour is really reflects some inferiority of aesthetic taste. All such binaries are binaries contained within human fantasy: the dark moral universes of DC, horror films, crime thrillers, mobster movies, and the melodramatic pieces of, say, Wes Anderson (whom I adore) are no less products of human imagination and phantasia than are the films of the MCU.
Taste is taste, aesthetics are aesthetics; I would not care that there are differences of opinion here, but for the suggestion coming from some of these same corners that superhero films are somehow theologically suspect, all the way to the suggestion that it is somehow less Christian or even un-Christian to prefer getting my capitalist entertainment from Thor: Ragnarok (2017) rather than The Irishman (2019). The Christological argument against superhero films as I have encountered it goes something like this: Jesus is a peaceful God, and a peaceful messiah, who humbly and meekly dies on the cross rather than taking up arms against Rome; ergo, superheroes, who powerfully fight their enemies, are suspect, giving us bad paradigms for savior figures and in turn bad gods. In a word, liking superheroes is too pagan.
This is a really stupid thing to believe, for at least three reasons. First, it misunderstands the genre of comic books and the films based on them: the most interesting comic book stories are never about simple exercise of brute strength to overcome a foe, but about mustering the intellectual and emotional power of character to make meaningful sacrifice to resolve crisis. When fighting is the instrumental means of victory in comic books, it is rarely simple or straightforward, and it is almost never simply about killing or violence qua violence. Second, this kind of thinking operates on the principle of regulatory subversion that I mentioned above with regard to the person of Jesus: that is, assumptions about what kind of messiah Jesus is that are less about what the New Testament says and more about a kind of posturing and imposition onto the text of what we want or need for it to say to feel confident about our own religious identity. What I mean is this: it is the case that Jesus resists, and rejects, the use of violence to establish the Kingdom of God during his earthly ministry; he resists and is implicitly critical of Roman imperial power; he dies as a victim of the state, executed in the worst possible way, and commands his followers to do the same. All of this is absolutely true. But the New Testament is also clear that Jesus submits to terrestrial humiliation and embraces humanistic pacifism for the sake of theomachy: that is, Jesus is a divine warrior who comes to do battle with cosmic forces and gods of darkness that enslave Israel and the gentile nations. The whole narrative of Christ’s descent into the underworld and his ascent to the right hand of God, which the crucifixion enables, is one of divine conquest of the universe, of every cosmic, angelic, and divine archon in the celestial world above (Eph 1:21). The paschal hymnography in the Byzantine Tradition is especially clear about this: Christ’s descent into Hades is so that he may pierce, burn, consume, and defeat the chaos monster of Death itself, and claim the Lordship of hell for the liberation of the souls entrapped there. That’s as superheroic and mythic a messianism as are the Avengers or the Justice League or Monster Island.
But third, believing that Jesus is somehow different than contemporary superheroes or the ancient gods and demigods on which they are largely based presumes that ontic divide between the apostolic kerygma of Christ and the normative expectations of Greco-Roman religion that the evidence simply does not bear out; it also misunderstands the real character of Greco-Roman mythology and its reception among Greeks and Romans. When, in 1 Apology 21.1-3, St. Justin Martyr writes that the Christian proclamation of Christ proclaims nothing different about him than what the Greeks assert about “sons of Zeus” like Hermes, Asklepios, Dionysos, Herakles, Perseus, and Bellerophon, he means exactly that: Jesus is like these demigods, and the likeness grounds his succession of them. And that implies, conversely, that what can be predicated about Jesus--divine birth, virtue, miraculous benefaction to others, martyrdom--was also widely perceived about each of them by ancient people.
This is the other problem: we habitually misunderstand and mischaracterize Greco-Roman paganism. We do this because, historically, it has been a useful rhetorical tool to contrast Judaism and Christianity on the one hand from paganism on the other, as though they stood in hermetically sealed opposition and the moral value of the one side was obvious in contrast with the violent hedonism of the other. But this is to take pagan mythology at a face value that pagan worshipers and philosophers rarely did, and explicitly instructed not to do: it is as disingenuous if not more so as reading passages in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament depicting divine misbehavior, wrath, violence, or even cruelty as though it were the final or ultimate word about the divine in Jewish and Christian religion, when, obviously, Jews and Christians would insist otherwise. Herakles was not just the angry naked brute we might suspect him to be from reading some of his myths; to the ancients, he was a pious, God-fearing, law-abiding man tortured by the oppression of Fate and the anger of the goddess Hera, as well as a mystic who became divinized through submitting himself to Death; after Plato, the point of reading Homer and thinking about Achilles and Patroklos and Hektor and the rest is not to glory in their violent brutality, but to observe their other, more philosophical virtues; the Zeus of Stoics, Middle Platonists, and Aristotelians was not an angry philanderer, but the source of life itself, etc.
All of this to say: superhero movies do for us what mythology did for the ancients, in large part because it is mainly the same myths recycled in modern clothes and cosmology, and so if we misunderstand what mythology did for them we are just as likely to misunderstand what it does for us, whether we like these films or hate them, and whether we like or hate what they are doing to the culture. Here, again, I do not care to argue over tastes or sympathies: it is perfectly fine for me if someone hates Marvel films. What I have no patience for, though, is the notion that these films are despicable for some kind of theological reason. If anything, comic books, science fiction, and fantasy universes do a better job of evangelizing the modern imagination with a physical and metaphysical cosmos far more like that of the ancient sources of Judaism and Christianity than other kinds of media, even when their creators are implicitly or explicitly dissidents from Abrahamic or Adonaistic traditions. If they and their protagonists are too pagan for us, it is likely that we will find biblical literature similarly distasteful. Again, mistake me not: let one give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s however one might like for the sake of escapism; judge art as you will. But beware, lest disdain for myths also cost one’s messiah.
See Benjamin Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 145-174.
See Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
See, among other excellent resources, James Kugel, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2017).
On the Ba’al Cycle and Daniel, see John J. Collins, Daniel: With an Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984); and idem, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).
See M. David Litwa, Iesus Deus: The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).
See Matthew V. Novenson, The Grammar of Messianism: An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and Its Users (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).