Competition between Heracles and Christ

Many scholars take a wrong view on the uniqueness of Christianity in the ancient world. According to Mitchell, among others, ‘Faith in Christ the redeeming god, which was at the core of Christian self-definition, was extraordinary by pagan and Jewish standard’ (2007:233). This is, however, not the case and for that reason gives a wrong perception of the success of Christianity in the ancient world. This can be demonstrated by an extensive comparison between Christ and the concept of the immortals, who started off as half-god, half-human and gained immortality (Talbert 1975). Particularly a comparison with Heracles will be drawn whose deeds, according to philosophers such as Seneca and Epictetus, were accomplished ‘pro salute gentium’, for the salvation and well-being of mankind. Already the pagan philosopher Celsus gives insight into the competition between Christ and Heracles when he asks why Christians are not satisfied with Heracles (Celsus apud Origen, Against Celsus 7.53). This competition was very important in the first three centuries CE. The Christian author of Hebrews modelled Christ on the figure of Heracles (Aune 1990), whereas Heracles, in turn, ‘became paganism’s last, desperate choice to head off the appeal of Christianity’ (Galinsky 1972:106; cf. Simon 1955). A sustained analysis of the similarities and competitive dissimilarities between Christ and Heracles will reveal why actually Christianity did appeal to the pagan world, not by way of simple opposition and proclamation, but through a process of hybridization in which mutual encounters and reciprocal negotiations took place. In this paper I shall suggest that the appeal of Christianity had probably to do with the unambiguous morality of Christ, compared with the moral ambiguity of the Heracles figure even in pagan sources.