The Historical Jesus and the Raglan Scale

I have been talking to a number of Jesus mythicists lately and they have been putting forth something called the Raglan scale.  This is a scale that puts together all sorts of categories common to mythical heroes.  The idea is that the higher a person ranks on this scale, the more likely they are mythical and the lower they rank, the more likely they are historical.  In the link above, Jesus is ranked as 19 (out of 22), which would put him clearly in the mythical category.  For a person to be historical, you would want them to be 6 or lower.  There are all sorts of problems with this scale, but for the sake of argument, let us take it as it is.  I decided to not just accept the score but to actually put Jesus as we find him in the gospels (and not as later church tradition interpreted him) through this scale to see how he did.  Here are the categories:

1. The hero’s mother is a royal virgin
2. His father is a king and
3. often a near relative of the mother, but
4. the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
5. he is also reputed to be the son of a god
6. at birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
7. He is spirited away, and
8. Reared by foster-parents in a far country
9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but
10. On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
11. After a victory over the king and or giant, dragon, or wild beast
12. He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor and
13. becomes king
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully and
15. Prescribes laws but
16. later loses favor with the gods and or his people and
17. Is driven from from the throne and the city after which
18. He meets with a mysterious death
19. often at the top of a hill.
20. his children, if any, do not succeed him.
21. his body is not buried, but nevertheless
22. he has one or more holy sepulchres.

Here are my results:

1. No indication that Mary was royal.
2. Assuming you are talking about Joseph (otherwise this would overlap with 5) he was not a king.
3. Father was not a near relative of the mother.
4. Definitely unusual.
5. Described as the Son of God.
6. No attempt by father or grandfather to kill him.
7. Was spirited away.
8. Was not reared by foster-parents.
9. We are told something about his childhood.
10. He does not seem to have his own kingdom at manhood, he preaches the kingdom of God but it is not his.
11. I’m not sure what victory over a dragon is being referred to here. While that was later attached to what Jesus did at the cross and his resurrection, that is absent in the gospels.
12. Jesus never got married. Sorry Dan Brown.
13. Is Jesus a king? In a sense, although he has no kingdom in this world which is probably what is being referred to here. I will give this to you but I am being generous.
14. I do not see any uneventful reign in the gospels.
15. Jesus does not proscribe laws. He enters into the conversation of interpretation that the other Jewish leaders were involved in but that is very different from proscribing.
16. He does lose favour with the people.
17. Driven from a throne? Where in the gospels? He is not even driven from the city.
18. A mysterious death? Nothing mysterious about crucifixion. Thousands of people died this way.
19. I will give you the hill.
20. No children.
21. His body was buried.
22. He had a tomb but I would not call that a holy sepulchre. The later church may have done that but it is not found in the gospels.

How does Jesus do here? By my count, Jesus scores a 6 on this scale based on what we find in the gospels. I believe that is the range in which a historical figure is expected.  This is very interesting.

Liked it? Take a second to support Stephen Bedard on Patreon!

8 thoughts on “The Historical Jesus and the Raglan Scale”

  1. The scale, itself, seems curiously tilted toward a particular historical figure. It couldn’t possibly be that the scale was designed specifically for the purpose of discrediting that figure, could it?

    Naaaah. Just being cynical…

  2. Just read this to my kids. As lovers of mythology from around the world, they are rather offended by this scale. Mythical heroes from different cultures have very little in common – most of them would not rate as mythical on this scale at all.

  3. I think you’ve been a bit unfair in your assessment of how Jesus scores on this Raglan scale. By my count Jesus’ score is at least 12 with a few being open to debate. I differ from you on:
    1) Mary was of the line of David, so I be lieve she counts as a royal virgin
    6) An attempt was made on his life when he was a baby. The scale says “usually by his father or maternal grandfather”, so is open to the possibility of another being behind the attempt on his life
    11) Jesus’ successfully resisting Satan’s temptation in the desert would qualify as the sort of victory suggested here
    15) If you want to be literal “A new commandment I give unto you”, if you are not so tied to being literal then the Sermon on the Mount qualifies as rules for a new kingdom way of living
    18) A death where darkness covers the land, there’s an earthquake, the temple veil is torn and the tombs gave up their dead would qualify as mysterious in most people’s books
    20) “His children, if any, do not succeed him”, means that he is not succeeded by his children when he dies. The inclusion of “if any” means that it is open to the possibility that he had no children.

    You could also make a case that his father was a king, that he is raised by foster parents (as Joseph is not his real father), and that his body is not buried (it’s not currently buried).

    But this scale doesn’t particularly worry me. Louis XVI and Elizabeth I both score 8 but I don’t see a lot of debate about their historicity.

    1. Yes, you are right and only expanding some points: 1) There are two (different) genealogies of jesus (Mathew and Luke). And why? Because they were needed to prove that jesus has a royal ascendancy in order to be the jewish messiah. Matthew’s gospel had a more jewish audience and therefore a strict male genealogy was given. Luke’s gospel probably had a mixed (jewish + non-jewish) audience (at least), so that it followed the pagan concept that more-than-only-human people had a HUMAN-MOTHER and a god-father (see plato, alexander, augustus, hercules’, etc… birth-legend/myths). As already said by Udy, the Mary’s genealogy point to king David is a clear attempt to make her a royal person. Nowhere in the tanakh one finds that the awaited (jewish) messiah’s can have a genealogy that includes woman names but only male names. This genealogy is a clear example of religious syncretism to pleasure the gospel’s audience.
      22) In part. As narrated in the resurrection history, women(an) went to the tomb in order to anoint angain the body, an act that simply was in no way was normal jewish costume at that time.
      As a final – and useless – note (adapted form jesusneverexisted), “it is always useful to remember Justin Martyr, that wrote in the “First Apology:
      “We say the Word, the first birth of God, was produced without sexual union. We say that He, Jesus Christ, our teacher, was crucified, died, rose again and ascended into heaven. We are propounding NOTHING DIFFERENT from what you believe regarding those that you esteem to be sons of Jupiter.” Who were the sons of Jupiter? Myths like Mercury (bringer of the word), Asclepius (who healed the sick) and Hercules (born to a virgin) – all of whom became gods.”
      But many people will always insist that jesus has nothing or very little to do with the old roman-greek mythology.

  4. I scored a 12 as well, although it took quite a bit of generosity to do it. As far as the royalty of Mary goes, I doubt that anyone could be considered “royal” when their last royal relative ruled six centuries previously. The point was to connect Jesus to David, not make Mary a royal virgin. This should be clear to any competent reader of the Gospels.

    Point 18 is correct, contra Udy. The death itself by crucifixion is not mysterious. This does not include the attending phenomena. What Raglan meant, if you actually read The Hero, is a “death” such as the chariot of fire that carries Elijah to heaven or some kind of immolation such as by a lightning strike.

    Point 20 is like several others – it doesn’t really say very much and allows enough flexibility to score a point for nearly any figure. Not very helpful.

    As far as the comment from Justin Martyr goes, most people who cite it as proof of the similarity of Jesus to pagan gods generally ignore why Justin said it. His goal was to get the Roman authorities to leave Christians alone, so he tried to argue the similarity of Jesus to pagan gods to get the Romans off their backs. And as far as the sons of Jupiter cited,
    1. Mercury was a messenger, not the “bringer of the word” in the sense of the logos. He was also the god of trickery and thieves, which certainly sounds nothing like the ethics of Jesus.
    2. Asclepius was killed by Zeus because his healings were keeping the dead from going to Hades and clogging up the earth, thereby controverting the natural life-death cycle. The miracles of Jesus are clearly portrayed as the restoration of the natural order, not the frustration of it.
    3. Hercules was not born of a virgin. In fact, Zeus not only has sexual relations with Alcmene, but does so for an unusually prolonged period of time (stretching one night into three).

    Sorry, but Raglan’s scale comes from a period in religious studies in which factual accuracy was definitely not a major concern. Very much like the history of religions school: overemphasize the similarities, ignore the differences.

  5. You could not have scored a 12 unless you think you are from some mythical beginning or live a mythical life. I believe your claim is false and unsubstantiated. So, prove it …

  6. 1. His mother is a royal virgin. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke state that Jesus’ mother is a virgin. (e.g. Matthew 1:23). The genealogies in the two gospels indicate that Joseph is of royal descent; Mary would partake of royalty by being married to Joseph. (e.g. Matthew 1:1-16).

    2. His father is a king. Jesus is regarded to be the Son of God, and God is often referred to as King of Kings.

    3. His father and mother are related. There is no match here. Nothing is known about the genealogy of Mary, so this cannot be confirmed. If the early Christians believed that Joseph and Mary were related, then this information did not make it into the Gospels.

    4. His conception was unusual. Both the Gospels of Luke and of Matthew state that Jesus was conceived by Mary “from the Holy Spirit” without having engaged in sexual intercourse with a man. (Matthew 1:20),

    5. He was said to be the son of God. This is seen throughout the Christian Scriptures. Considering only the first chapter of the Gospel of John, there are seven references to Jesus as the Son of God:
    • as “The Word” being with God.
    • as the “only begotten of the Father.”
    • as the “only begotten Son”
    • as “the Lamb of God.” (2 times)
    • as the “Son of God.” (2 times)

    6. There was an attempt to kill the hero while he was a child. In Matthew 2:16, Herod ordered that “all the Children who were in Bethlehem” and its vicinity were to be murdered. (KJV) 3 The NIV says that the slaughter was to be restricted to only male infants.

    7. He was spirited away. Matthew 2:13-14 relates how an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to flee to Egypt with his family.

    8. He was reared by foster parents in a country far away. Matthew 2:15 states that Jesus was raised in Egypt until Herod died, and it was safe for the family to return to Nazareth. Most hero myths involve a foster family. In the case of Yeshua, Joseph was not Jesus’ father; Joseph was a type of foster father.

    9. Little or no information is known about his childhood. The Christian Scriptures give almost no details about the life of Jesus, from the time that he was circumcised at the age of eight days (Luke 2:21) until his baptism at about the age of 30. The only exception is Luke 2:46-49 where, at the age of 12, he was described as having been taken to Jerusalem at the time of Passover. He is described as debating theological matters with the priests. Presenting the hero as a child prodigy does not appear in the Mythic Hero Archetype being considered here. However, Robert Price states that “it is a frequent mytheme in other hero tales not considered by Raglan…” 1

    10. He goes to a future kingdom. Jesus went to Jerusalem just before his last Passover, where he was declared king by the public. John 12:12-13 says that “a great multitude took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out: ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! The King of Israel!’ ” (NKJ)

    11. He is victorious over the king. The passage in John 18:36-37 describes how Jesus demonstrated superior debating skill when interviewed by Pilate. More importantly, Jesus’ resurrection which was mentioned in all four Gospels and many additional locations in the Christian Scriptures is the ultimate victory over the king who was responsible for ordering the crucifixion. Pilate ordered Jesus death and Jesus was triumphant. Pilate was not a king; he was a procurator — a type of governor. But he still had enormous power.

    12. He marries a princess. There is no match here — only the suggestion of a tie-in as the church, the bride of Christ. There is no record of Jesus having been married. However, some theologians have suggested that the miracle story in which he converts water into wine may have taken place at his own wedding. The Gospels talk extensively about women being in Jesus’ retinue during his ministry. In the culture of Palestine during the 1st century CE, these female followers would have had to be married to Jesus and/or the disciples, or they were prostitutes. One assumes the former, because one would otherwise expect the Pharisees to repeatedly and viciously criticize Jesus for moral laxity if he was followed by a crowd of hookers. It has been argued that Jesus was probably married. Jewish society strongly pressured men to marry while young; if Jesus remained single, then one would have expected the Pharisees to criticize him for remaining a bachelor. Luke 8:3 indicates that one of the women who followed Jesus was at least close to King Herod.

    13. He becomes king. John 18:36-37 describes how the people of Jerusalem proclaimed him the King of Israel. Pilate jokingly recognizes that the public considered Jesus as a king in Mark 15:12 and John 19:15. In Mark 15:18, the Roman soldiers jokingly referred to him as king of the Jews. A plaque was placed above his head during the execution. It called him “The King of the Jews.” (e.g. Mark 15:26).

    14. He reigns uneventfully, for a while. He does not reign in the sense of having temporal power. However, Mark 12:27 to 13: describes how he holds court in the Jerusalem temple.

    15. He prescribes laws. In Mark 12 and 13, “…He issues teachings, parables, and prophecies, which are taken with legal force by his followers.” 1

    16. He loses favor with the gods or his subjects. The Gospels record how the public turns against Jesus and demands that he be crucified. (e.g. John 19:15).

    17. He is driven from the throne and city. In Luke 23:26-32, he is led out of the city by Roman soldiers.
    18. He has a mysterious death. During Jesus’ crucifixion, he died after an unexpectedly short time. (John 19:31-33). More mysterious than that were the events at the time of his death. Luke 23:44-45 describes how the sun stopped shining and the curtain in the temple was torn in two. Matthew 27:51-53 describes major earthquakes sufficiently strong to split rocks. Matthew also discusses the resurrection of many people from their graves, who subsequently entered the city and appeared to many people.

    19. He dies at the top of a hill: He was executed on the hill of Golgotha, on top of Mount Calvary.

    20. If he has any children, they do not succeed him. There is nothing in the Christian Scriptures to indicate that Jesus had children. It was Jesus brother, James, who succeeded him as leader of the disciples, and the head of the Jewish Christian group in Jerusalem. (Some faith groups regard James as Jesus’ step-brother, cousin or friend).

    21. His body was not buried: Rather that being buried in an earthen grave, his body was temporarily laid out in a rock cave. At some unknown time between late Friday afternoon, when he was laid in the tomb, and the following Sunday morning, the Gospels all say that Jesus was resurrected. Price comments that this “would seem to be within legitimate variant-distance of the ideal legend type.”

    22. One or more holy sepulchers are built: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built over the place where many Christians believe that Jesus was executed.

  7. I’ve done a detailed analysis with sources for all assessments here:

    My score lands at 8.5. I agree with Stephen on most points but there are a few where I think Jesus clearly scores, and one where (to my great surprise) Jesus doesn’t actually score when you look carefully at the Gospels, and not at “what everyone in the modern age think they know about Jesus”.

    One point about Mary being ‘royal’ because Joseph (!) is said to have been ‘of the line of David’. It is simply not the case that you’re royal if you marry someone who has an ancestor from 1000 years earlier who was a king. You might extend ‘royalty’ for maybe up to three generations (great grandchildren of a king or queen) but beyond that you are redefining the concept. It’s just special pleading and if you allow that, you can make everyone fit. Hey, maybe I’m a Rank-Raglan hero too?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.