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Historical Jesus Theories: Gregory Riley

The purpose of this web page is to explain and explore some of the theories offered up by contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus and the origins of the Christian religion. Issues include the nature of the historical Jesus, the nature of the early Christian documents, and the origins of the Christian faith in a risen Jesus Christ.

Gregory Riley

From the title of One Jesus, Many Christs, one might expect three themes in the text: the first theme is the identity of the one and only historical Jesus, the second theme is the diversity of Christian images of Christ, and the third theme is how one gets from the former to the latter. Instead, we find that the first and third themes are missing entirely. The book by Riley is solely about the different ways in which early Christians viewed Christ and particularly in how these views of Christ are all based on the model of the Hellenistic hero.

One Jesus, Many Christs:  Buy at! Riley concludes his first chapter with these words (p. 14): "The story of Jesus was the story of a kind and righteous man, a man from God, the son of God, whatever was meant by the phrase, who followed the will of God against evil to the death and thereby not only gained resurrection for himself, but could offer it to others who would do the same. And in so doing, the early Christians brought new meaning to the word 'martyr.' I think that Tertullian was right: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. That is the kind of energy necessary to start a world religion and call forth the commitment that requires one's whole life. That energy is ofund in only one place in the Greco-Roman world - in the tales of the heroes that had been told for a thousand years. The very culture was founded on them, and the people lived and died imitating them. For those who heard the story of Jesus in the ancient world, whichever doctrinal form it came to them in, Jesus was a hero. He was also, of course, many other things to his followers far more familiar to us arising out the many doctrinal formulations. But why the story of Jesus was able to inspire so many people in the ancient world, why they imitated him and followed him to the grave, was that, in some way lost to us, he was their hero."

Chapter 3 of the book is quite valuable, in which Riley explains "The Story of the Hero and the Ideals of Antiquity." Riley begins with an exploration of the different types of living beings according to Plutarch and Hesiod. Hesiod combined the story of the Four Ages of gold silver, bronze, and iron with the concept of the types of living beings: gods, daimones, heroes, humans, and animals. According to Hesiod, gods and humans came from the same source, and the Golden race was happy and favored by the gods. Hesiod says that the souls of those living in the Golden age became daimones, "agents of Zeus who now invisibly watch over human affairs, kindly spirits who guard and deliver us from harm (Works and Days, 122-24)" (p. 33). The daimon was not to be seen as purely evil until the rise of dualism after the Exile in intertestamental Jewish literature. After the golden age comes the silver age and the bronze age, which are successively more unhappy and violent. The bronze age destroys itself, and instead of leading to a further degeneration (in line with the ANE myth of the Four Ages), there comes the Age of Heroes: "they are not degenerates, but righteous demigods, literally hemitheoi, 'half gods,' again to be ruled over by Kronos in his new capacity as sovereign of the blessed afterlife. Yet they are curiously human like ourselves; they fight the battles and suffer the pains and death of the famous epics of Greece, the battles of Thebes and the Trojan War. These are the classical heroes of antiquity." (p. 34) After the age of heroes, comes the age in which we live, the worst of all ages, known as the Age of Iron. Yet, according to the myth, the age to come will be a return to the Golden Age.

Riley notes that the hero is typically "the offspring of the union between divine and human parents," as reflected in Greek literature and even in Gen. 6:4. The hero is known to be a person of remarkable talent, such as a Homer or Alexander the Great. The fate of the hero is interwoven with the fate of the hero's people; "their very genetics placed them in the mids of destiny on a larger-than-human scale" (p. 43). Continuing his exploration of the hero in Greek culture, particularly in the Illiad, Riley notes: "This choice to die for principle and with honor became one of the most famous heroic events to be imitated in the entire tradition." (p. 47) And Riley says: "The issue of destiny, often fatal destiny, points to another aspect of the heroic career - heroes have divine enemies." Riley observes that heroes have rulers as human enemies and that the rulers who abuse the hero bring suffering on their cities (such as Troy and Thebes in Greek legend, or Jerusalem in Christian). Riley states: "Common to all stories of heroes is the test of character - the critical situation that is the hero's destiny and shows forth the true character of the soul," as is most obvious in the choice of Heracles between Vice and Virtue and subsequently in the labors (p. 51). Riley claims: "The fate in which the hero is bound while alive often forms a complex pattern of divine justice in which the gods themselves are partners: the hero suffers humiliation, privation, and even death as a kind of bait in a larger divine trap designed to catch and destroy the wicked." Riley points out the example of Odysseus, whose wanderings eventually led to the destruction of the wicked suitors. Riley also argues that the hero dies "in the prime of life, in the midst of the very test, the crisis for which they were destined" (p. 54). The prize of immortality is a theme among some stories of heroes: "One may see here the concept that among the ancient heroes suffering led to a prize. The prize for Heracles was immortality, but for the rest of us, in spite of the assurances of the philosophers, the prize was an uncertain remembrance of bravery among our friends and family, or perhaps nothing at all." (p. 58) The hero could act as an intermediary: "What remained after death was the right of the hero to stand on behalf of his or her worshipers who themselves passed the test. This was true because through death the hero became a transformed being." (p. 58) Riley also notes: "Heroes not only offered help - their stories also provided understanding of the proper modes of action. They were models, examples, and ideals." (p. 59) This sums up the concept of the hero.

Riley boldly declares: "If one is not a New Testament scholar, one may see with little difficulty from the preceding chapters that stories of the life of Jesus were very much set in the mold of the stories of the ancient heroes." (p. 61)

Please enjoy exploring the varied Historical Jesus Theories offered by these authors through the links below.

Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ

Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past

Jesus the Hellenistic Hero

Jesus the Revolutionary

Jesus the Wisdom Sage

Jesus the Man of the Spirit

Jesus the Prophet of Social Change

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

Jesus the Savior

For more information on the debate over the historical Jesus, visit the Christian Origins web site.

Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

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Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.