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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: The Jefferson Bible

There’s an atheist in the Oval Office!

While not busy expanding his federalist agenda, he sits at his White House desk with a razor, literally slicing the New Testament down to his own, non-“superstitious” edition. The miracles, the resurrection, any mention of Jesus Christ’s divinity, they’re all cuttings in his tax-financed waste basket.

I would demand Congress begin immediate impeachment proceedings, but God has already struck the sinner down. His name was Thomas Jefferson, and he died in 1826. To be accurate, deists aren’t atheists, and the Oval Office wasn’t built yet, but we still can’t allow this sort of wanton division of church and state to fester in our history books. I demand an immediate reboot erasing the author of the Declaration of Independence from all canonical texts.


Jefferson was called a “howling atheist” and infidel even before he edited The Jefferson Bible (“Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion”), but the founding father was neither the first nor last to edit the gospels into personal coherence. They originally numbered in the dozens, until the Council of Laodicea officially razored them down in 363 AD. The Children’s Bible my parents gave me when I was two says the New Testament begins with four books, “but as they contain one message, they are combined as a single story.” The Golden Press advisory board included a rabbi, who I doubt agreed “the New Testament completes the Old.” According to the 1968 inscription, “from Mommy & Daddy,” it was a Christmas present. Jesus is drawn with blonde hair and beard inside, but a surprisingly dark-skinned, turbaned man walks beside a camel on the spine—an image my heretical imagination interpreted as a camel-headed man for years and years.

My imagination was more at home interpreting Marvel Comics. They were still being edited by Jewish heretic Stanley Lieber, AKA Stan Lee. His uncle, Martin Goodman, sold Marvel to another company in 1968 but stayed on as publisher till 1972, when Lee took over, handing his Editor plaque to a string of apostles. Though Lee’s Jewish parents immigrated from Romania, he “always tried to write stuff that would be for everybody. I never wanted to proselytize.” When asked about all the Jewish artists and writers he worked with, he ticks off the names of all the Italians instead. He had nothing to do with the Thing’s conversion to Judaism. He’s proud of Izzy Cohen though, the Jewish soldier he created for Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandoes, but only because Izzy was part of “the first fully ethnic platoon in comics,” which included a black soldier, an Italian, an Englishmen, and an American Indian—“everything I could think of! A full international platoon of all religions and people.”


Though “not a particularly religious person,” Lee says he “read the Bible” and loved “the phraseology,” all those “Thous and Doths and Begets,” which were “definitely in my mind when I was writing things like Thor.” More than a little phraseology crept into Spider-Man.  When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him “with great power comes great responsibility,” he’s paraphrasing Luke 12:48 (“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded”) and Acts 4:33 (“And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all”). And the whole tragic twist of Lee’s Silver Age superheroes—that superpowers are both a blessing and a curse—comes down to one word from Job 1:5, “barak,” which can be translated either “blessing” or “curse.”

When asked if there’s a God, Lee answered: “I really don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Thomas Jefferson was more diplomatic. He names “Nature’s God” in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, men’s “Creator” in the second, and “divine Providence” in the last. Still, the U.S.’s 5th President and Marvel’s 4th Publisher have a lot in common. Like Lee, Jefferson kept religion out of his workplace, coining the “wall of separation between church and state.” As a deist, Jefferson believed God, like a clockmaker, manufactured human beings, wound them up, and watched them go. Stan says the same:

I gave them minds as I recall

It was all so long ago.

I gave them minds that they might use

To choose, to think, to know.

For the hapless weak must need be wise

If they would prove their worth.

And then I gave them paradise

The fertile, verdant Earth.

At first I found the plan was sound

And somewhat entertaining.

But once begun, the deed now done,

My interest started waning.

The seed thus sown

The twig now grown

I left them there


Those are stanzas from Lee’s 1970 poem “God Woke” (first published in Jeff McLaughlin’s collection of Lee interviews in 2007). Lee never assigned the 8-page text to any of his artists, so The Lee Bible, unlike The Children’s Bible, isn’t illustrated. It describes our Creator waking up from a cosmic nap with a nagging half-memory of Earth and so returning to see how humanity has been faring without Him. He doesn’t much like “the man sounds everywhere,” but the one that sends him into despair is “The haunting, hollow sound of Prayer.”As Thomas Jefferson or any other good deist would tell you, God doesn’t answer them. Lee’s God laughs at all the “ranting” and then frowns and sighs with boredom. He doesn’t like all the hypocrisy, but its people’s yearning for Him that’s most baffling. Finally, the “carnage, the slaughter” in His name brings Him to tears as “He looked His last at man,” once again leaving us on our own.

Stan Lee might not be the most skilled poet in creation, but he is a bit of deistic God. Like Jefferson’s Grand Architect, Lee set the Marvel pantheon into motion, then stepped back and watched his bullpen spin the wheels of his multiverse. In addition to all those other miraculous godmen who self-sacrificingly save humanity once a month, he and Kirby crafted the perfect human being (via a group of sketchy scientists) in 1967. Known only as “Him,” the God-like super being destroys the evil scientists and abandons Earth. That is until Lee abandoned his Editor post and first apostle Roy Thomas resurrected “Him” as a Counter-Earth Jesus rechristened Adam Warlock. The super savior battles the anti-Christ-like Man-Beast, while beseeching Counter-Earth Creator, High Evolutionary, to spare the flawed world from his disappointed wrath. Adam Warlock became one of my favorite characters, though my pre-adolescent self never could interpret those subtle biblical allusions.


The Roy Thomas Bible is probably no more heretical than The Jefferson Bible, though Jefferson would still object to the superstitious miracle-working. Gil Kane drew Adam Warlock as a homage the Golden Age Captain Marvel, but he later acquired force fields, teleportation, and lightspeed too. Marvel recently collected all of the multi-authored adventures into a single bible (the word just means “books”). It would take a Thomas Jefferson to edit Essential Warlock into coherence, but I’m still fond of all the nostalgically jumbled plots and missteps. I should give it to my son for Christmas.

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Who was the historical Jesus? Recent studies have razored the verifiable facts down to a skeleton so thin I made the mistake of suggesting at a dinner party that there’s not enough evidence to assume a real Jesus ever existed. Isn’t it just a question of faith?

This did not make me popular with the religion professor across the table. She cited the usual witnesses, Josephus, Tactus, Pliny, all nice guys but a bit flimsy on cross-examination. It’s tricky when you see just how many Christs (it’s not a name but a title, “the messiah”) were wandering Roman-occupied Israel during the first century. Add the even longer tradition of pagan godmen born of virgins who die for us and are reborn, and Jesus may be the most rebooted superhero in history.

But if Jesus wasn’t the first self-sacrificing demigod to save the world, he’s by far the most influential. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to recognize other family resemblances: a Jew found by Egyptians, a Kryptonian by humans; a human reared by apes, fairies, or elves, a wizard by muggles, a king by backwater nobles, the son of God by Jews. The boy is always fated to grow up extraordinary: prophet, Man of Steel, jungle lord, Santa Claus, Voldemort-slayer, King of England, God. Movie directors also love to shoot their spandex godmen in crucifix-evoking poses, Superman especially (Smallville, Superman Returns, Man of Steel), and a Last Temptation motif runs through the screen genre too (Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Fantastic Four, The Dark Knight Rises, The Wolverine).


There’s enough written on the historical Jesus to crash a Kindle, but the New and Improved Testament of Superman would be simpler. Did a historical Clark Kent ever walk the Earth? Interpretations fall into three camps:

1) Literalists accept the claims of the canonical Media as absolute: Clark was an extraterrestrial with supernatural powers dedicated to humankind.

2) Historicists analyze both canonical and non-canonical Media in search of the so-called authentic Clark, a human being of purely naturalistic ability around whom followers later developed legendary tales.

3) Mythicists reject that any Clark, human or extraterrestrial, existed, arguing that early Superman worship was actually an adaptation of pre-existing practices common to the era.

Literalism dominates popular culture. A 2012 Rasmussen poll found that 86% of Americans believe Clark Kent walked among us, and 77% believe he was resurrected after his battle with Doomsday. While vaguely aware of the academic controversies surrounding the historical Clark, the average comic book reader would never question Superman’s extraterrestrial origins and powers. Literalists prefer the traditional assumption that Superman Media were created through infallible inspiration and that dissecting long-cherished productions is an offense to followers. But no belief system, no matter how deeply ingrained in a cultural psyche, is exempt from intellectual examination. Believers should be willing to combine the faith of their convictions with the rigor of impartial analysis.

Looking first at canonical Media, both Historicists and Mythicists make much of the fact that Superman Adventures contain a lot of internal contradictions. Was, for instance, the infant Clark ever placed in an orphanage? The Adventures According to Max show that he was, but Adventures According to George include no orphanage and depict only the Kent foster parents finding and raising the Superman child. Max never even mentions the Kents. Some Literalists explain the inconsistency by citing Jerome & Joe, arguably the oldest of the Media, when the Kents deliver the foundling to an orphanage and then return to adopt him. Reliance on Jerome & Joe, however, points out other contradictions. Superman’s adoptive mother—Martha in the other Media and in most Literalist ceremonies—is Mary here.

The Media is also inconsistent regarding superpowers. Although tradition maintains that Superman always had the ability to fly, Jerome & Joe list no such power, and Clark’s propensity to “hurdle skyscrapers” and “leap an eighth of a mile”—from the earliest version of the Superman creed still repeated by followers today—implies the opposite. The creed itself has undergone multiple changes, and even DC Entertainment, that bastion of superhero fundamentalism, acknowledges that the addition of “and the American way” to Superman’s pledge to fight for “truth and justice” is an interpolation into George, as demonstrated by the phrase’s absence in the otherwise identical Max edition (Max is assumed to be older because later media tend to expand rather than condense earlier sources).

A study of non-canonical Media, or Apocrypha, raises further issues. While The Lost Episodes of Psuedomax can be dismissed, more has been made of the largely forgotten Adventures According to Christopher. The assertion that George and Christopher are the same creator (based mostly on the misreading of “Reeve[s]” as a surname rather than a title) is rejected by most scholars, but the video still challenges many elements of the tradition. Literalists cite it as an independent source supporting the general narrative of the canonical Adventures, but the Christopher depiction of Krypton varies radically with George and lends support to the growing consensus that all accounts of Superman’s planet of origin are conjectural.

Despite annual re-enactments of the baby Superman’s escape from doomed Krypton in his father’s rocket and the tearful farewell of his self-sacrificing biological parents, there’s little support for the tale’s authenticity. Only George in the Superman Media dramatizes it. Jerome & Joe and Max mention only the fact of the planet’s destruction and the arrival of the rocket on earth. Not only may Superman’s biological parents be inventions, but even the name of the planet is suspect (Krypton, or “Crypt-on,” translates “on or from the unknown”).

The most famous Apocrypha are the much maligned Infancy Adventures. These psuedographics, many attributed to the heretical Super Friends cult, feature a pre-adolescent Clark, or “Superboy,” engaging in acts clearly derivative of the canonical Adventures. Literalist tradition maintains that Clark Kent’s powers manifested with puberty. The Infancy Apocrypha pose no direct threat to Literalism, or even Historicism, but Mythicists use the tales to highlight temporal gaps in the biography. Neither Literalists nor Historicists can say much about Clark until the age of thirty when he dons his ceremonial costume and his followers dub him Superman (a title, Literalist point out, Clark never claimed for himself). It’s hardly surprising no records remain of Clark before the age twelve, but the dearth of information after the initial development of his powers and before his dedication to humankind is odd. It doesn’t, however, lead to the Mythicist conclusion that no historical Clark ever existed.

Mythicists also point to elements in the Superman Media that pre-date the composition of the earliest Adventures and so, they argue, disprove a historical basis for Clark Kent. They trace the name “Superman” to an obscure, German prophet and say the Clark/Superman duality is prefigured by the cult of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Mythicists also spend a great deal of time analyzing pre-Superman superhero prototypes in attempt to show that all portrayals of battles between good and evil must be fictional. Many Mythicists view the Superman Media as allegories showing how to realize you “inner Superman” by destroying your “home planet”(the lowly physical world ) and dedicating yourself to “truth and liberty.” Krytonite represents material distractions that prevent initiates from maintaining their spiritual powers.

Although the Mythicist approach is easy to lampoon, a purely Literalist approach is equally problematic. Historicists may unjustifiably dismiss the extraterrestrial nature of Clark Kent, but their scholarship can peel away inauthentic elements from the historical Adventures to reveal the true Superman. Followers owe it to the memory of Clark Kent to bring Superman worship into the 21st century. How can we dismiss other religion’s superstitious beliefs—with their magic cosmic rays and radioactive spiders bites—without fully examining our own?

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