Sequential Art-icles is the place to find writings on the subject of comics. From discussions about the major headlines, to reviews of particular issues or storylines, to think-pieces encouraging dialogue around life and worldview, all drawn from the pages of comic books.
Image source: "How Superheroes Helped Hollywood Rediscover the Bible" from Forbes.com
In part one of this series, I offered my answer/non-answer to the question “Is Superman an allegory for Jesus?” My conclusion was that it ultimately depends on the context of your question. In particular, it depends on which iteration of Superman you’re talking about. It’s interesting that the character of Superman has become so entrenched in our cultural experience that we almost seem to lose track of him as a fictional character who has been portrayed thousands of ways by thousands of writers, artists, actors, directors, etc.
Think back to when you first read the question. Was your first thought “which version?” or did you just immediately jump to thinking about the character as you understand him? On the reverse end it’s a curious thing to see how we’ve so often done the opposite with Jesus Himself. Rather than acknowledging him as an actual, real person, we instead contextualize and spiritualize Him so that he becomes more of an ethereal, representative idea. The “my Jesus” type of notion, rather than the actual, real, historical person of Christ. How backwards are we that we can formulate an objective picture of a fictional character, and relegate a real person, the most important person to ever live, to subjective opinion.
We’ll save the conversation around some of the later representations of Superman for another article. For now, we want to again focus on how the character was originally conceived. In the previous part, I presented some background on the character’s creation by writer and artist duo Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. We noted that Siegel and Shuster were both the sons of Jewish immigrants who drew heavily from their heritage to create their soon-to-be beloved icon. Thus, were we to have asked them which biblical figure most influenced the creation of Superman, they would likely answer with one of the nation of Israel’s most important heroes: Moses.
The most direct connection to Moses in Superman’s mythos comes in the story of how Kal-El wound up on our little backwater planet. In anticipation of impending doom, Jor-El and Lara, denizens of the planet Krypton, make the decision to load their newborn baby onto a rocket and blast him off away from the coming destruction. The rocket makes it way to earth, crash-landing on farmland belonging to the Kents (originally known simply as ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ Kent). This very clearly echoes the life of Moses, as we find recorded in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus.
The Israelites were living as slaves in Egypt, but were growing rapidly in population. Fearing that they would become so numerous as to take over the nation, Pharaoh ordered all the male children of Israel to be cast into the Nile. Moses’ mother, in a bid to save her newborn son’s life, fashioned a basket to put him in and send him drifting away in the water, in the hopes that he may escape and perhaps be found and raised safely. He was ultimately discovered by the Pharaoh’s own daughter, who decided to raise him as her own. Both Moses and Superman, then, become children of two worlds after narrowly escaping destruction, and who would grow up to become great heroes, saving the lives of a great many people.
Superman was conceived, then, more to be an allegory for Moses than for Jesus. Does this mean that, even in this original iteration, there is no legitimate comparisons to Jesus? I would make the case that this clear connection to the story of Moses means a very direct link can be made to Jesus, not by way of allegory, but by way of what is known as ‘typology.’
It would probably prove fruitful to offer a very brief introduction to what I mean by ‘typology’. I turn to my former professors Dr. Wellum and Dr. Gentry to aide in defining the term: “Typology as a New Testament hermeneutical endeavour is the study of the Old Testament salvation historical realities or ‘types’ (persons, events, institutions) which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure, their intensified antitypal fulfillment aspect (inaugurated and consummated) in New Testament salvation history.” (Kingdom Through Covenant, pg. 103). Put differently, the Bible is replete with people, events, places, and institutions in the Old Testament which God, the author of history, uses as real-world foreshadowing anticipating Christ and the New Covenant. What separates this from allegory is that these are textually-affirmed relationships between what is recorded in the Old Testament and what is found and commented on in the New Testament, whereas allegory is more abstract and subjective, and not linked directly to the text itself.
With this woefully brief introduction to typology in mind, there are numerous ties between Jesus and Moses in the Scriptures. Moses and Jesus both share a similar narrative in their birth, as they both escaped calamity, with Jesus’ parents even fleeing to Egypt specifically (Exod. 1:15-16; Matt. 2:16-18). Later in life Pharaoh specifically desired to kill Moses, causing him to flee, and Jesus’ family’s flight was on account of a tyrannical ruler seeking His life as well (Exod. 2:15; Matt. 2:13-14). Both Jesus and Moses return home upon divine instruction to do so following the death of their persecutor (Exod. 4:19; Matt. 2:19-20). We see parallels in both Moses and Jesus ascending the mountain to deliver the Word of God, the former at Sinai and the latter during the sermon on the mount. Moses even told of a prophet greater than himself who was to come in Deuteronomy 18. Manna was provided for the people in Moses’ day, Jesus supplied food for five thousand on one occasion, and four thousand on another.
The New Testament, on top of tying together the type/anti-type relationship between Moses and Jesus, also draws the same correlation between Christ and the Exodus event, which God used Moses to aide in bringing about. The Exodus stands as one of the most crucial and significant events in the history of Israel as they were delivered from captivity, anticipating the salvation from sin which Christ would bring about on the cross. The theme of salvation would again come up in the life of Moses during the incident in the wilderness where the Israelites are accosted by serpents and Moses lifts up the bronze serpent for people to look upon and be saved, a clear anticipation of Christ being lifted up on the cross (Numbers 21:4-9).
In essence, then, the typological relationship between Moses and Jesus can be summarized under three broad categories: their childhood escape from destruction, their position as mediator between God and man, and the shared theme of salvation. All three of these elements tying together Moses and Jesus typologically can also be gleaned allegorically from the story of and character of Superman. We’ve already discussed the clear allusion to Moses’ early life in Kal-El’s flight from Krypton. Clark/Kal-El also straddles two worlds, one which is clearly intended to be representative of the divine given the inclusion of the Hebrew ‘El,’ a term for ‘God’, in both Superman’s Kryptonian name, and the name of his biological father. Then there’s the whole point of Superman as a character: a hero, saving people wherever and however he can.
Early life, bridging the human and the divine, and salvation all closely tie together Superman and his Jewish inspiration. These same themes are the very things that the New Testament uses to draw a typological link between Moses and Jesus Christ. In many ways, then, while it was likely never intended by Siegel and Shuster, Superman fits very well, despite his original inspiration from Judaism (actually, more accurately because of it), as an allegory for Jesus.
But that’s only Superman as he was originally presented. The character has undergone numerous updates and changes over the years as he has been depicted by countless others. Is it still fair to make comparison between Superman and Jesus? Have others done the same? Have some tried to distance the character from and Messianic affiliations? Further still, have some tried to influence us to think unbiblically about Christ through their presentation of Superman as a Christ allegory? Much still remains in our consideration of our original question, so stay tuned as we explore this question from yet another angle in part 3.
Gentry, Peter J., and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012
Schreiner, Thomas R. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
© 2013 – Warner Bros. Entertainment
When Warner Bros. released Man of Steel a few years back, they (very intentionally) sparked quite a bit of discussion around the movie’s presentation of the world’s first super hero. Specifically, it was the filmmakers’ emphasis on the idea of Superman as an allegory for Jesus. They even went so far as to hire a faith-based marketing company to hold special screenings for pastors where they would highlight these allegorical elements and moments from the film, encourage they be used as sermon fodder and bible study topics.
Personally, I’ve always loved Superman. As a small child, I would run around the house in my Superman costume, fighting the powers of evil and injustice wherever they may lurk. My love for the character hasn’t really dimmed at all as I’ve grown older, in fact I’d say that it has grown. I remember seeing all the hype for the movie around the time of its release, and seeing as I was in bible college at the time, I definitely sat up and took notice. It genuinely warmed my heart to see people looking to bridge the gap between comics, one of my favourite pastimes, and faith, the central facet of my life and studies.
The problem that I’ve observed with allegory, especially those drawn from pop culture, is that they can often be a bit…forced. People draw the loosest of connections to anything that even remotely resembles a vaguely biblical concept and then play it off as though these things have a lot to teach us about the Bible. Never mind that the team behind it was made up of stone-cold atheists, or that the actual message of the thing is actually fundamentally anti-biblical. On the other side, some people allow allegory to shape theology, rather than the Bible itself, and so you have otherwise orthodox believers accidentally spouting heresy!
Don’t get me wrong, I love comics, movies, games, etc. And I often find that they will lead me to thinking about the things of God, though not always necessarily in a direct or positive way. Sometimes I’m lead to thinking about truth in contrast to what I’m watching or reading, which only happens when you are sure to be investing your time in what the Scriptures say directly. But I’m sure I’ll talk more about my overall approach to entertainment some other time. My point here is that I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the question of whether Superman really can be seen as an allegory for Jesus. My answer is YES!
… but also no.
In this first article, I want to elaborate a bit on what I mean by this answer by taking us back to Superman’s beginnings. Let’s cast our minds back to the late 1930s. Two young men, both the sons of Jewish immigrants, had been working for some time trying to make a name as storytellers. They had tried being published in science fiction magazines, self-publishing, and then trying to break into the world of comics. One of their previously unsuccessful stories, first as an illustrated sci-fi story and later as a comic book, was called “The Reign of the Superman,” which was really more of a sci-fi spin on Frankenstein, and which featured the titular “superman” in the role of the villain, not the hero. Later, after having gained some success with other comic book characters and properties, they decided to revisit this “Superman” idea, but flesh it out some more, and make Superman a hero, not a villain. They found a home for their story with a publisher, who would later come to be named after their already successful comic series “Detective Comics,” who was looking to create a second title called “Action Comics.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
In developing the origin tale for their new super hero, the two young Jewish men took inspiration from one of the most important Biblical figures. No, not Jesus. We’ll get to that. I’m talking about Moses. Think about it, being confronted with impending tragedy, parents make the decision to send their child adrift where he winds up being adopted. Then later, upon discovering his heritage, embraces said heritage and goes on to become a great hero in saving multitudes. There are some other Old Testament influences as well, such as Samson as a root for the idea of Superman’s tremendous strength. Other elements, such as being bullet-proof or being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound all have other roots and influences as well. At the end of the day, however, there is one figure that can never be truly said to have influenced Siegel and Shuster in creating Kal-El: Jesus Christ.
In his truest, most original incarnation, then, Superman had no direct parallels to Jesus in any way. At least, none intended by the original creators. However, there are two things to keep in mind at this stage:
The first is that we’re talking about a character now has over 80 years of history in media, including a multitude of comic books and series, as well as movies, tv shows, video games, novels, and more. I’d hazard to say, though I’m not sure I’d be able to definitively prove it, but my guess is that there is no medium known to mankind where Superman has not appeared. His stories have been told by literally thousands of different people coming from all different backgrounds and walks of life. So just because Superman wasn’t originally a Jesus allegory, that doesn’t mean those elements didn’t eventually get introduced.
The second thing to keep in mind is that Superman was originally rooted in Old Testament figures such as Moses and Samson. And while it may not have been fully grasped by the original authors, the divine author of those books, not to mention the author of the histories they record, was always directing to the Messiah, the one who would come to save the world. As such, many of these Old Testament figures, Moses included, serves as a prophetic type, a historical foreshadowing as it were, of Jesus.
Tune in for part 2 of this article where we’ll explore the parallels between Jesus and Moses in further depth, thus drawing out those same parallels with Superman. Then, in part 3 I’ll explore some of the other elements in the character and lore of the Big Blue Boy Scout that aren’t rooted in Old Testament typology, whether intentional or not, and whether by direct comparison or instead by contrast, can lead us to deepen our thinking about Jesus when compared with the Scripture’s presentation of Him.