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Raglan Reduced

Sceptics sometimes appeal to the work of the amateur British scholar Lord Raglan in an attempt to discredit the accounts of the life of Jesus with which the Gospels furnish us. Their argumentation goes roughly as follows: the life of Jesus as narrated in the Gospels contains motifs and patterns similar to those found in the biographies of many other heroic figures from different cultures; therefore, the Gospel writers must have been making most if not all of their material up.

This was almost certainly the implication that Raglan himself wanted his readers to draw from his work: he was by no means a devout believer, and the present Lord Raglan is a leading member of the National Secular Society.

The most obvious response to this sort of argument is that the person using it is seriously risking scoring an own goal: if the patterns detectable in Christian revelation and doctrine echo those found in other religious traditions, the claims of Christianity are thereby strengthened, not weakened: on the contrary, it would be worrying for us Christians if the teachings of our faith were strange and aberrant and did not chime with what we know of the general religious consciousness of humanity, since it is the same God Who has created us and Who reveals himself to us (all of us, albeit to different extents and in different ways).

The content of non-Christian religious systems has often been seen as a 'preparation for the Gospel': a praeparatio evangelica or praeparatio evangelii, to use the technical terms, which are taken from the Latin translations of the title of a work by the early Church Father Eusebius (c.260-340). This view is adumbrated in the Bible (Rom. 2.14-16 being the classic proof-text) and has been well-known among theologians throughout Church history. In our own times, it received expression in the document Nostra aetate promulgated by the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the Raglan schema doesn't prove what it is often used to prove even on the sceptics' own terms. To begin with, it is not unlikely that Raglan had Jesus in mind when composing his schema. For me, the motif which gives the game away is that which has the hero die 'at the top of a hill'. The sceptical argument exposes itself to the charge of circularity (though I must admit that, while doubtless logically fallacious, circular arguments can sometimes have a certain intuitive persuasiveness). It is, moreover, beyond dispute that many of the features of Jesus' life corresponding to Raglan's motifs did actually happen: Jesus' teaching ministry, for example, his rejection by the authorities, his execution and his alleged coming forth from his tomb.

Even so, however, the motifs which Raglan postulates don't match the life of Christ with particular exactitude: he at least wasn't so foolish or malicious as to stack the deck too blatantly. Raglan adduced 21 heroic lives in support of his schema: all allegedly involve some kind of combat and victory (though I find Raglan's claims convincing here in only 19 cases), all have the hero becoming a king (I have reservations in 4 cases, notably that of Elijah), 16 have him marry a princess and 11 make his father a 'near relative' of his mother.

These are just four example of motifs which can't be applied to Christ's life: we might also note that (for example) Jesus' father or grandfather should have tried to kill him in his infancy (Herod, the only man who tried to do away with the young Jesus, cannot possibly be seen as a paternal figure).

The problems mount up. Raglan doesn't choose his words with particular precision: motif 4, for example, requires that 'the circumstances of [the hero's] conception [be] unusual'. What does that mean? Anything and nothing. (Actually, convincing examples of motif 4 turn up in fewer than half of the stories which Raglan collects anyway: comparable criticisms about his schema's lack of empirical support may be made of e.g. motif 15, which makes the hero a lawgiver.) Motif 18 reads: 'He meets with a mysterious death'. Again, given that heroes are by definition unusual, superhuman and frequently even supernatural figures, this sort of generality isn't very useful.

Something similar may be said of motifs like 5 ('he is also reputed to be the son of a god'): mythology is littered with sons of gods, but if we compare Jesus with (say) Perseus, whose mother was fertilised by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold, or Erekhtheus, the legendary Athenian king, who was conceived when Hephaistos spilled his sperm onto Mother Earth, the differences between the various different 'godsons' may well strike us as more significant than the points of contact.

Raglan's schema had been prefigured by the work of several other (more competent) scholars. Von Hahn, who published in 1876, had restricted his schema to the Indo-European world, but included several motifs reminiscent of Raglan: illegitimate birth to a princess and a god, acquisition of kingship, etc.. Hahn's archetypal hero, moreover, was fratricidal and incestuous.

Hahn's schema was modified by a man called Nutt, who added elements such as combat with monsters, and his work was in due course followed by that of Lessmann, who collected analogues to the story of King Cyrus of Persia, and Schmeïng, who worked on stories involving princesses.

In 1909, the Freudian scholar Otto Rank analysed 34 European and Near-Eastern hero-stories and compiled a theoretically sophsticated archetypal pattern of which the most conspicuous feature was the hero's patricidal violence (though in my opinion this motif doesn't occur nearly as often as he claimed). He actually included Jesus as a case-study, but I honestly can't see how our Lord can be made to fit Rank's pattern, except insofar as his birth may perhaps be seen as having followed his mother's failure to conceive normally.

In 1927, Luria offered another schema, along with 16 hero-stories which seemed to correspond with it. Once again, Christ isn't a very promising subject: there is an incestuous element in 8 of his tales, for example, and they all involve various deeds of violence like unto nothing at all in the Gospels. The whole schema, moreover, revolves around the figures of the alt König (old king) and junge Prinz (young prince), who can only with difficulty be identified with Jesus and His Father (the king, for example, is typically warned that his son is going to kill him).

If we leave aside the work of Vladimir Propp, who worked solely on Russian folk-tales, it is at this point that we reach Raglan. In 1934, he published an article outlining his schema, then shortly afterwards included it in his major work, a book-length study of myth entitled The Hero.

Now, The Hero is an impressive work, given that its author was not a professional scholar and that it was written without the benefit of a properly-equipped research library. Most of the assumptions and conclusions found in it, however, have long been discredited: most notably, Raglan bought into the old idea, which originated with the Presbyterian theologian William Robertson Smith, that myth can be interpreted as a script for ritual.

This doesn't necessarily invalidate Raglan's hero-story schema; it is worthwhile remembering, however, that his work in general tends to be regarded as problematic, and that he cannot be regarded as ever having worked at the cutting edge of scholarship.

The hero-schemas didn't stop with Raglan. Shortly after he had published his findings, a scholar called Rees adapted his schema to the biographies of Celtic saints, and in 1949 Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a quasi-Jungian attempt to see in the myths of different cultures various recurrent episodes (the journey into the magical unknown, the encounter with the Goddess and the Father, the 'apotheosis', etc.) relating to the inner life of the individual.

In more recent years, Campbell's work has been taken up by David Adams Leeming, who has offered a schema of his own (the central innovation of which seems to be the introduction of the category of the 'quest', which creates all kinds of problems which I don't have time to discuss here).

Campbell's book must count as one of the most overrated works of popular literature of the Twentieth Century. It is not without merit - indeed, it is at times both stimulating and informative - but it suffers from such an excess of free-associative speculation and such a lack of methodological discipline that I cannot understand how it ever won the following that it did. In my opinion, all that Campbell has ultimately succeeded in doing is adding his own myth to the pile without explaining the true meaning and significance of those which he cites.

In 1954, Jan de Vries devised yet another schema, the final and significantly amended version of which was published in the early 60s. De Vries' work is rather disappointing and contains several clear errors (he confuses Perseus with Peleus, for example). Once again, there are major difficulties with applying it to Christ - de Vries' hero typically fought with monsters, won princesses et cetera - and in any case some of his motif-definitions are as loose as anything in Raglan (the hero's father doesn't even have to be a god, for example - he might just as well be bestial, incestuous, etc.).

In 1960, Dunn analysed 23 hero-stories from across the world and suggested his own set of motifs. Yet again, Jesus simply doesn't fit the pattern - he isn't exposed as an infant, for example, nor rescued by animals, and he isn't adopted into any royal family (though this motif in particular doesn't seem to occur quite as often in Dunn's test-stories as he claims).

In 1962, Claire Préaux published the resumé of a conference paper in which she had outlined a schema applicable to the lives of Greek kings. This is vaguely reminiscent of the work of Raglan and the others: notably, the king is typically 'capable de conqérir une princesse'.

Various work relevant to the present discussion was produced in the 1980s: Brian Lewis' study of the Sargon legend may be mentioned here, as may Lowell Edmunds' round-up of cross-cultural variants of the Greek myth of Oedipus. Neither would seem to be a particularly effective weapon against the Christian faith. The only other schema which I have encountered in the last few years (excepting Leeming's work, which I have referred to above) is that of the sceptical historian of Christianity Keith Hopkins, who in 1999 outlined a schema specifically applicable to the lives of religious heroes (without, however, seeking to demonstrate in detail its correspondence with the careers of specific figures).

Enough has perhaps now been said to show that, whatever Raglan's schema proves and whatever it is useful for, it is not the nail in the coffin of the Christian faith which its partisans too often perceive it as being.


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  • - , Heroic Song and Heroic Legend, London 1963
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