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Rankled by Wrangling over Rank-Raglan Rankings: Jesus and the Mythic Hero Archetype

The scale was not designed to determine historicity. Its folklorist users show little or no interest in the attempt to do what historians do, namely peeling back layers of myth in search of underlying history, if there is any. The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were. And so Carrier’s attempt to use the scale to slant his calculations of probability in the direction of the non-historicity of Jesus are at best unpersuasive, and at worst deliberately misleading.

See Also: Did Jesus Die in Outer Space?

Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?

Mythicism and the Mainstream: The Rhetoric and Realities of Academic Freedom

By James F. McGrath
Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature
Butler University
December 2014

In my first review, most excellent readers, I addressed what Richard Carrier began to do and to teach in his recent book On The Historicity of Jesus, focusing on his treatment of the Ascension of Isaiah. In this second review, I will focus on his use of the “Rank-Raglan Scale” as a tool which he claims will allow one to evaluate the probability of Jesus’ historicity.

Introducing the Rank-Raglan scale

There have been many different attempts to draw up lists of common elements in human storytelling, in particular in the early 20th century, when comparative mythology was a focus of much discussion. The list that is adopted (not without modification) by Richard Carrier is based on the work of Otto Rank and FitzRoy Sommerset or Lord Raglan. In one common iteration, these are the components:[1]

  1. His mother is a royal virgin
  2. His father is a king, and
  3. Often a near relative of his 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, often by his father, 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 a 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 he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and
  17. Is driven from the throne and city.
  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 sepulchers.

The attempt to see patterns and archetypes in fairy tales and folklore is closely linked, in its origins, to Freudian psychoanalysis, Otto Rank having been one of Freud’s disciples at the time when he wrote The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Indeed, Alan Dundes, in a study that focuses on this aspect of the approach, notes that Freud himself wrote a section of Rank’s book.[2] We must also keep in mind that the era which produced these works is one in which parallelomania (to use Samuel Sandmel’s famous phrase) often ruled the day, in ways that have subsequently been criticized so severely by scholars as to leave their validity in doubt.[3] This is not to suggest that a list of typical elements may not have a certain usefulness. But we should not assume that it does, and must ask critical questions about whether superficial similarities are being noted which obscure more substantive differences, and whether the scale is designed precisely to allow a claim to be made about the similarity of Biblical and Greek stories.[4] As Robert A. Segal notes in his introduction to In Quest of the Hero (a volume which includes works by Rank, Raglan, and Dundes), the proponents of these typological views were often adamant that questions of historicity of heroes were at best irrelevant, and that it was the mythic archetype and its psychological meaning that mattered.[5] And so do the scales that were developed demonstrate that, or are they attempts to give that impression which are not entirely persuasive?

The vagueness of the points on the list, and their applicability to many historical individuals, must be noted. If someone is a king, they will by definition fit a number of points: they will be descended from a king, become king, and make laws. Numerous kings and potential heirs to the throne have had the experience of being exiled, either by a close relative who is a competing heir, or by imperial powers who were prone to take members of the royal family hostage. And so the scale is focused on royal figures, and such figures have been the focus of not only the extremes of historical and fantastical storytelling, but also a range of genres in between, including historical fiction and mythologized history. And so it is appropriate to approach with some skepticism the attempt to use this scale to determine historicity, something that it was not created to do. But even on the level of analysis of myth, the scale has been a focus of critical discussion among folklorists and others who study mythical stories.

Does Jesus score unusually high on the Rank-Raglan scale?

In our earliest sources, Jesus fits at most four of these in a fairly precise way – on the list given above, these are points 5, 9, and 19, and presumably we can include 18 as well, although crucifixion was hardly a mysterious way of dying in the first century, and so it depends what one means by “mysterious.” It is only in subsequent sources – and sometimes significantly later – that we find other elements added. On the basis of a modified version of the scale above, ignoring differences between earlier and later sources, Carrier gives Jesus a rank of 20. My reckoning would put him at 9, allowing for some stretching (e.g. descent from David is not the same thing as having one’s father be king), and focusing mainly on the New Testament sources - but generously allowing an additional point because there is a tomb of Jesus in Japan.[6] And so Carrier’s claim about Jesus getting a nearly perfect score seems to be simply false.

Carrier claims that people who rank that high or close to that high are consistently mythological figures. He also claims that it does not matter whether a person is depicted in this way in our earliest sources or is only conformed to the type later. These claims are not self-evident, and seem to in fact be at odds with the evidence which we will summarize below.

Do we know that people who rank highly on the scale are not historical?

Not only do the typical lists of heroes include both undoubtedly ahistorical and clearly historical figures, but Otto Rank’s book begins with Sargon I.[7] Raglan gave Muhammad 17 points.[8] Thomas J. Sienkewicz’ web page on the hero pattern includes both Czar Nicholas II and Harry Potter, the former getting 14 points while the latter a mere 8.[9] Alexander the Great and Kim-Jong Il have also been discussed in relation to their depiction in a manner that connects with many points on the scale.[10] The fact that the hero figure in view with respect to this scale is a royal one should make obvious that many fictional non-royal figures will score low on the scale, while historical rulers will start off with a number of points automatically.

In addition to knowing that some historical figures rank highly on the scale, it must also be pointed out that in many instances we do not know whether a myth is based, however distantly, on some historical figure. And so using this scale as though it could demonstrate non-historicity is actually assuming what needs to be proved.

Do historical people ever conform themselves to mythic archetypes?

Adrienne Meyer, in her book The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy, gives Mithradates a perfect score of 23 using a combined Rank-Raglan scale.[11] This is explained in terms of ostension, which is the phenomenon of historical people patterning their lives on hero figures[12]. One can easily think of other figures who may have deliberately patterned themselves on famous heroes, or on expectations and myths. If the information we have about John the Baptist is accurate, then there were deliberate echoes of Elijah in his clothing, and perhaps in other details. Some of the messianic figures that we know of from the first century are said to have moved to the wilderness, or expected the Jordan to part, echoing the stories of the Exodus and arrival in the Promised Land. When Thomas Thompson wrote about Jesus in light of Israelite royal myths, and the expectations of a messiah descended from David, he offered a very plausible way of understanding Jesus – as one who may have taken this well-known pattern and sought to live it out, and whose followers may subsequently have taken the process further still.

And to whatever extent historical individuals may sometimes pattern themselves on heroes from earlier stories, it is clear that later admirers and followers of the individual may also do so, whether beginning the process or enhancing what is already there. For instance, Alwyn D. Rees studied the tales about saints that were popular in Ireland, using an adapted scale.[13] But one need not turn to the distant past for examples. One can look at some of the statements made about president Barack Obama by supporters – and then can turn to the way that some people who did not share their admiration have attempted to depict there being a cult of Obama which views him as lord, savior, and messiah. The entire discussion proves unhelpful, inasmuch as it obscures what was actually being said, but in that very process it serves as an illustration of the way in which claims and counterclaims can ratchet up the level of mythologically-laden praise being recounted about an individual, and alleged parallels with earlier figures can be exaggerated not only by supporters in the interest of acclamation, but also by opponents in the interest of discrediting the individual and the movement around him or her.

This is the heart of the issue. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for supporters of political figures to depict them in relation to earlier figures, whether historical or mythological, making someone out to be a “new Moses” or a “new David” or a “new John F. Kennedy.” On the other hand, parallels are often in the eye of the beholder and are subject to exaggeration for a variety of purposes.

Is the scale useful for determining historicity?

It seems to me, in view of the evidence surveyed above, that the answer to this question is clearly “no.” The scale was not designed to determine historicity. Its folklorist users show little or no interest in the attempt to do what historians do, namely peeling back layers of myth in search of underlying history, if there is any. The Rank-Raglan scale does not seem, contrary to Carrier’s claim, to consistently fit figures who were definitely not historical better than ones who certainly were. And so Carrier’s attempt to use the scale to slant his calculations of probability in the direction of the non-historicity of Jesus are at best unpersuasive, and at worst deliberately misleading.

Let me conclude with a quotation from folklorist Alan Dundes:[14]

The fact that a hero’s biography conforms to the Indo-European hero pattern does not necessarily mean that the hero never existed. It suggests rather that the folk repeatedly insist upon making their versions of the lives of heroes follow the lines of a specific series of incidents. Accordingly, if the life of Jesus conforms in any way with the standard hero pattern, this proves nothing one way or the other with respect to the historicity of Jesus.


[1] This list is provided by Prof. Mary Magoulick, a folklorist at Georgia College It is slightly different from the one that Carrier provides in his book, pp.229-230. Some have noted Carrier’s changes to the scale, which seem to them to be changes made intentionally to make Jesus fit the scale better. See for instance Johan Rönnblom’s blog post, which also comes up with a higher score for Alexander than for Jesus:

[2] Alan Dundes, Bloody Mary in the Mirror: Essays in Psychoanalytic Folkloristics, p.43. See also his Interpreting Folklore, Indiana University Press, 1980, which includes a chapter on “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus” - see esp. pp. 231-259. The book illustrates well the willingness of folklorists to stretch points on the scale to fit new data – such as when Dundes connects the manger scene with the element of being suckled by an animal (p.236).

[3] Debates about the work of Rank and Raglan among American scholars are detailed by Rosemary Lévy Zumwal in American Folklore Scholarship: A Dialogue of Dissent (Indiana University Press, 1988). See also the discussions in this online forum:

[5] In Quest of the Hero, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. xxvii-xxxi. See also p.xv, where he notes how poorly Moses fits Rank’s own scale.

[6] On the tomb of Jesus in Japan see Atheist blogger Chris Hallquist gives Jesus a score of 13, and has critiqued Carrier on this point:

[7] See Rank’s book here: For the way Sargon I became increasingly mythologized, see here: For an example of Sargon-mythicism, see Jim Cornwell’s page here:

[11] Adrienne Meyer, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy, Princeton University Press, 2010, p.371.

[12] See also the discussion of probability, and the possibility of subsequent accretion, on p.41.

[13] “The Divine Hero in Celtic Hagiology,” Folklore 47:1 (1936) 30-41.

[14] In Quest of the Hero p.190.