Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Superman: Gnostic Christ Figure or Jewish Prophet?

supermanI have talked before about how Superman is actually a Christ figure, but I have always described and explained it in a mainstream Christian sense. However, there was a form of Christianity that existed on the fringes during the end of the second century called Gnostic Christianity: an interesting form of Christianity that combines Christianity, various Pagan beliefs, and esoteric philosophy. Largely regarded by other Christians as heretical, this form of Christianity eventually died out, though it did have some modern resurgence after some Gnostic texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947.

When I was studying theology in school, I was talking to my professor about Superman as a Christ figure and he argued that Superman was more of a Gnostic Christ figure than a modern Christian one. And it is true that Superman does share some similarities with the Gnostic depiction of Christ. But after doing more research into Superman’s character, I realized that the creators of Superman were Jewish and that Superman actually has a lot more connections with Judaism than with Christianity. Despite this, in recent years writers have taken a more Christian approach to Superman. It’s interesting that Superman, despite being created by Jewish writers, later became more Christian, particularly in regards to the more Gnostic version of Christianity. Gnostic Christianity was more a rejection of Judaism, because it views the God of the Old Testament as an evil god. So is Superman more of a Gnostic Christ figure, or more like one of the Jewish prophets?

Before I fully delve into Superman, let me explain a little more about Gnosticism. Gnosticism can take many forms and is not always strictly Christian. It has some connections to Judaism, Neoplatonism, and even Buddhism, but it is primarily discussed in a Christian context. Many scholars believed there is evidence that Gnosticism developed around the same time as Christianity or even existed before it, but there is no concrete evidence that Gnosticism existed before Christianity. Rev. Paul A. Hughes, in his article “The Gnostic Christ”, lists the basic beliefs of Gnostic Christianity. He explains:

“A more practical delineation of Gnostic religion is as follows:

  1. A transcendent and impersonal God rules the heavens.

  2. The material world is evil (i.e., cosmological dualism).

  3. Man has fallen from a pure pneumatic (i.e., spiritual) state into the evil material realm.

  4. God and the material realm are separated by a spiritual realm (the plērōma), filled with intermediate beings (aeons, “emanations,” or “hypostases”).

  5. The material world is ruled by an evil archōn or archōns (“rulers”) or Demiurge.

  6. God at times sends redeemers to man to reveal a saving gnōsis.

  7. Through the esoteric gnōsis, man is able to save himself, regain his spiritual (pneumatic) nature, and in the end ascend to his place in the plērōma.

  8. This salvation is available to a limited number of “elect” pneumatics.”

Some of these descriptions are a little simplistic in understanding Gnostic Christianity because Hughes is an Orthodox Christian and labels Gnostic Christianity heretical. However, this list is still accurate in its basic information. If you want a more in-depth Gnostic point of view, please check out this website. In summary, the basics of Gnostic Christianity are that the world has some essence of the Supreme Transcendent deity, but that deity did not create anything. Instead the physical world was created by an evil unconscious deity, the Demiurge, who thought itself to be the supreme god. The flaws in the world are not considered the doing of mankind but of the creator, which is a remarkably different take than Abrahamic creation myths. Abrahamic creation myths each have some differences, but the basics are that God creates mankind and the universe out of love, but then mankind falls from grace by disobeying God, causing original sin and the problems we have in the universe today. In Gnostic thought, humans have a divine spark in them from the True God, but are ignorant of this spiritual reality because of the illusions of the Demiurge. Humans need help to overcome this ignorance and achieve Gnosis. The mainstream Christ was both man and God and came to Earth to save people from sin and teach them how to live a better life. But the Gnostic Christ is in opposition to the creator God and realizes that all physical form is evil. The Gnostic Christ is sent to help people look past the illusion of the world and become enlightened. And when we compare the Gnostic Christ to Superman, we see that there are quite a few similarities.

superman-christ-figureOne of the main differences between the Gnostic Christ and the mainstream one is that Christ is never actually a man. Christ is the redeemer, the spirit sent by the True God, and dwelt in the human body of Jesus. In fact, in some versions of Christian Gnosticism, Christ’s body wasn’t even real but just an illusion. Christ did not actually have a physical form to the Gnostics, and was never actually a man because that physical/material/etc form is considered flawed. Likewise, Kal-El is sent to earth and takes on the form of Clark Kent. Clark is totally divorced from Superman’s identity in the comics, but he does take on the guise of Clark Kent so that people don’t know he is Superman. Unlike many superheroes, Superman’s true identity is not Clark Kent. His human form is far more of a disguise than his powerful god-like form. In this way he bears similarities to the Gnostic Christ, whose true form is not actually Jesus; he just inhabits that form.

So there are some things to Superman’s story that could be identified with Gnosticism, but what about Superman’s Jewish origins? Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were both the sons of Jewish immigrants and they created a character that has many connections to Judaism. One is Superman’s real name, Kal-El, as Rich Goldstein cites theologian Dr. Craig Detweiller in an article for The Daily Beast:

Detweiller cited the oft repeated evidence about the suffix “el” appending Superman’s Kryptonian birth name “Kal-el.” In Hebrew, the “el” suffix is used to denote Elohim, or Yahweh, Jehovah, or God, like in the names Michael, Rachel, and Angel. In his essay, Detweiller also referenced the Jochebedian orphanization Superman suffered as his parents, forewarned of the planet Krypton’s imminent demise, shot their baby into outer space like a futuristic Moses.

Superman’s name is just one way that he is connected to Judaism; as this quote mentions, Superman is also very connected with Moses. Not only was Superman sent off by his parents to save his life, but he was also raised by non-Jewish parents and didn’t realize his origins until he was older. After he discovers who he really is, he uses powers for good in order to save people, the same as Moses did after being called by God to save his people and given abilities in order to do what is right. Moses also challenges authority and abuse of power in the form of Pharaoh, while Superman does the same by fighting Luthor.

Finally, Superman’s story is uniquely connected to that of an immigrant. In the above article, Goldstein once again explains how Superman’s creators’ Jewish ancestry influenced the character:

Perhaps the most important link to a Hebrew superhero is Superman’s identity as a partially assimilated immigrant. The 1930s New York that produced the world’s first modern superheroes was awash in recent Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of 19th century Europe. According to “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation” by Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden at Brandeis University, “In 1900, more than 40 percent of America’s Jews were newcomers, with ten years or less in the country” and the next quarter century saw a wave of immigration as “another 1.75 million Jews would immigrate to America’s shores, the bulk from Eastern Europe.”

Superman was always a classic immigrant. At the comic’s core, it is a story about a man from a different place who is thrown into a world that doesn’t necessarily understand or accept him. And yet despite that, he is able to use his differences to support and help people.

Personally, while Superman may have some similarities to the Gnostic Christ figure, I definitely feel that Superman has more connection with Moses than really any Christ. My professor may have interpreted Superman as a Gnostic Christ figure, but that is really ignoring the history of Superman’s creation. While the author may be dead, it’s important to acknowledge such a major character’s minority heritage. I would enjoy seeing more of Superman’s Jewish heritage come back in both movies and in the comics. Especially considering Marvel’s numerous issues with Jewish representation as of late, this is clearly an issue for comics as a whole. DC Comics has the opportunity to take one of the most notable comic book heroes and connect him back to his Jewish roots. And I for one would be excited to see it.

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1 thought on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Superman: Gnostic Christ Figure or Jewish Prophet?

  1. Pingback: Oh, My Pop Culture Gnosticism: What if God isn’t God? | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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