Heroic tales from the Bible to today
Walking through the doors of your local cinema can sometimes feel like a religious experience. For months, years, or even decades you might have been waiting to discover what happens next in your favorite saga, and the anticipation has finally reached its climax. The day, the very hour, is finally here as you patiently stand in line discussing the glorious past, the present buildup, and the possible future of the franchise with your family and friends. As you enter through the doors you are immediately struck by fantastic images attempting to tell you about the stories they represent; teasing you to the point of wanting to know more. “Who are the Jedi, and what could their return possibly mean?” “Who is this mighty hero called Superman and how can he fly?”
These movie posters tease us just as stained glass windows have teased the stories portrayed within them for centuries, leaving the people walking through the doors of churches and cathedrals eager to learn the full story. Sometimes you even discover it wasn’t quite what you expected or wanted it to be. And you are very eager to explain away anything good about the movie and focus on all of the things that made you angry. Perhaps you might even lash out at people you know that loved the movie despite your well thought-out lecture on why they are wrong to do so. There can be a dark side to every religious experience.
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While comic books and movies are relatively new concepts, superheroes and heroic tales are not. And neither is their appeal to the human heart. Poets and bards have been spinning the tales of legendary superheroes—whether they were demigods or simply humans touched by the divine in some way—since human beings were first able to weave them into being. They are older than civilization itself and will likely remain with us until humanity ceases to be. Superheroes, whether they hail from the planet Krypton or from the Tribe of Dan, are the embodiment of an audacious human emotion—hope.
When the forces of evil have turned a good world into something twisted, a hero will appear and set things right. When a meteor threatens to wipe out Metropolis, the Man of Steel will save the day. When a waitress walking home along the streets of Gotham City is attacked, the Dark Knight will appear from the shadows to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. When a people is oppressed, subjugated, and enslaved, a judge will rise up from among his brothers to bring them justice and freedom. Indeed it is this superheroic hope that manifests itself consistently within the pages of the Bible in the form of divine touched saviors, such as Moses, Samson, and David, and even the God of Israel himself. One can easily find poetic imagery within the Psalms and Prophets that puts Yahweh well beyond the Mighty Thor on the superhero scale.
Perhaps it is this constant longing for hope in the midst of the darkness that keeps bringing new heroes to life and why one can easily read the scriptures through the lens of Superman or Captain America. Whether ancient of modern, real or imagined, the world needs heroes to save the day.
Read more about the relationship between Superheroes and the biblical text in “Superheroes and the Bible” by Nicholaus Pumphrey, published in the Fall 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
The Hebrew Origins of Superman by James K. Brower. Using well-established principles of form-criticism, as well as the findings of Biblical archaeology and other methods of modern Biblical scholarship, I have discovered that the Superman stories—commonly thought to be of purely American origin—are in fact rooted in ancient Hebrew institutions.
Gilgamesh: Hero, king, god and striving man by Tzvi Abusch. No figure is more familiar—or more fascinating—in ancient Near Eastern mythology than the hero called Gilgamesh.1 Some say that a real person lies at the core of these resounding stories—a Sumerian king of Uruk during the Early Dynastic II period (c. 2700 B.C.E.). In a famous king list, Gilgamesh is the fifth ruler of Uruk after the great flood. But Gilgamesh is also referred to as a god in early Sumerian administrative texts. Scholars have suggested that Gilgamesh the king was deified soon after his death. However, it is not Gilgamesh the historic figure—but rather Gilgamesh the mythic hero, both human and divine—who intrigues us most.
The David and Goliath Saga: How a Biblical editor combined two versions by Emanuel Tov. Phenomena such as inconsistency, redundancy and thematic and stylistic variants were read as clues that a book combined the work of more than one author or age or that it had been revised. Following these clues, scholars sought to analyze the text into its original components. Though the arguments they marshaled were powerful the “analysts” were in effect arguing for the existence of lost documents which none of than had ever seen and no known source mentioned. Since actual copies of the presumed earlier stages of these books ware almost never available for consultation, the analysis was perforce confined to the traditional text, with little reference to external controls. The “analysts” never demonstrated that inconsistencies and the like necessarily pointed to revision and interpolation, and, with few exceptions, they did not show that any ancient compositions had demonstrably undergone the kind of evolution they hypothesized. Consequently, the results of biblical criticism, though impressive, have remained largely hypothetical.
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