The Retconovation of Spider-Man, Heracles & Jesus

August 27, 2010

At first glance one might see a connection between the above 3 characters!

Peter Parker was an ordinary human – though a gifted student – who, when bitten by a spider developed extraordinary strength, agility, and ‘spider-sense’ to become NYC’s favourite super hero!

Heracles was a demi-god, blessed with incredible strength. He was a favourite among the Greek populace for his numerous heroics. In death his father made him a god.

Jesus was also human, though the basic framework for his life can be perceived as vastly different. Some consider Jesus to be a good person who was a self-appointed rabbi to a small group of followers. His revolutionary attitude sparked confrontation leading to his violent death.  Others believe that Jesus was born of a virgin – thus seeded by God. His life consisted of many miracles. He led a pure and spotless life, and his death redeemed humanity.  Raised to life, Jesus resides in Heaven with his original Divinity restored.
An essay, or even a sermon, could be created linking these 3 characters together, and then showing how Christ differs from them . . . that would certainly be the way I would have done it a few years ago!
Today, these 3 represent something else - the concept that is my basis for understanding Biblical Historicity - Retroactive Continuity.
Retroactive Continuity is actually an 80’s term which was used primarily in the Comic Book industry. Often shortened to ‘Retcon’, it is a term used to define the evolution of a comic book character: while the broad basis of the story remains true to the original, there is the freedom to renovate the story: to add details to the characters story, or alter the character’s history, and even to change significant details about the character. Since ‘retconed’ or ‘retconing’ sounds more like something akin to being hoodwinked, I have used poetic licence to coin my own term for the process: Retconovation -  a splice between ‘retcon’ and ‘renovation’, which seems to more adequately speak of the way that stories are changed with the basic structure remaining intact!
Stan Lee’s Spider-Man is a good example how Retroactive Continuity can affect a character. Throughout the years differing ideas have impacted the story of Peter Parker – some adding in details in previously blank areas, others changing some of the original parts of the story. For more info about this, check out the following sites:
The first Retcon cinematic version of Spider-Man also added an important radical change – unlike the original in which Peter Parker created his own web formula and attached the device to his wrists - the movie version had the spider bite alter Peter Parker’s genetics so that his body could physically create and shoot the web!
Spider-Man is just one of many examples of comic book characters (Superman, Hulk, X-men, Ironman, etc) that have undergone further Retcon  transformations within the realm of Cinema. Yet the silver screen does not limit Retconovations to comic book characters. Indeed, Hollywood has been guilty of many such reworkings as they retconovated historical stories, novels, and other films! Even films depicting real life stories or biographies add in the words “based on a true story”, to allow the script writer, director and producer the artistic freedom to ‘play’ with the story and add in other elements or change various scenarios to make the film more entertaining!
Although Retroactive Continuity is a relatively recent term, it is actually an ancient practice. This is true also of Heracles – differing stories surround Heracles, but not all the stories agreed about the details. Different storytellers brought out new aspects, or even reworked other details . . . Heracles also got a ‘makeover’ when he was Romanised. For more info about this see:
Thus Retconovation was present in the classical world of literature and art.
Indeed, it could be argued that in the pre-script era, most oral traditions would have been affected by the process of Retconovation.
In the Ancient world perhaps the earliest example of Retconovation are the creation myths of the Egyptians. In a simplified explanation, the basics of the Egyptian creation myths were the primeval waters from which the mound arose from. As the earlier gods fell from favour and other gods gained in popularity, the creation myths were retconovated with an emphasis on the role of the more popular god!
This is true also of the Canaanite religions: In the Abrahonic era El was the chief god.  Yet by the time of the Israelite influx El had diminished in significance and other gods and goddesses had come to prominence: Ba’al, Asherath, Dagon, Yahveh, etc.  The stories of these deities were retconovated in order to make each specific Deity more significant; given a greater role and power than in the previous El-controlled pantheon.
Not only were myths retconovated, but so was literal history. Nations, when recording their histories and recounts of warfare, retconovated the actual events often exaggerating them, and also adding in theological references offering praise to their god for victories!
In terms of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Tan’ch – there are many examples of retconovation, but perhaps the clearest comparison is that of Kings and Chronicles. It is widely accepted that both Kings and Chronicles were written in differing eras and to communicate differing ideas: The Book of Kings (1 and 2) were written within the Babylonian captivity, and one of their clear purposes was to show that Judah’s unfaithfulness was the cause of Judah’s exile from the Promised land.  The Book of Chronicles (1 and 2) were written after the restoration of Judea during the early part of the 2nd Temple period. Amongst its purposes was the desire to communicate the idea that God had not deserted his people, and that the blessing of God was still upon Judah!
Although these are clearly accepted ideas, some try to reconcile both accounts – to look for harmony within both narratives. Yet there are a number of stories that are too problematic. For instance:
In 1 Kings ch. 1 & 2 King David is bedridden, his health failing and needs a virgin to sleep beside him to provide him with body warmth. David is unaware of the trouble between his sons and has to be persuaded by Nathan and Bathsheba to announce his heir.  David’s final words are given privately to Solomon.
In 1 Chronicles ch. 28 & 29 there is no mention of an illness, and King David is strong and in clearly in control of his kingdom. David is shown with strength and awareness in making his own decisions, and his last words being communicated to large assemblies.
These two different versions cannot be reconciled – close to 100 yrs separated the writing of each piece
The above is just one of many inconsistencies between the historical accounts of Kings and Chronicles. It is naive to suggest that these stories can be interwoven together to create a fuller account.  Instead, this is simply an example of Retroactive Continuity at work! The framework of the reigns are the basis to both accounts, but in each the stories are reworked – retconovated – to say something different to the new generation and audience that they were directed towards!
Unfortunately – for us – much of the text of the OT was often reworked so unlike the books of Chronicles and Kings we don’t have an earlier work to compare narratives with.  However, often a text does give a clue that it has been retconovated. 
One such example is that of Moses. The text, in various places, neatly divides Moses life into 3 parts of 40 years each.  The text says that Moses died at the age of 120 and was still strong and of good sight. The problem with this text is the extra biblical evidence which shows that around the era when a Mosaic character may have existed, a typical man was regarded as ‘old’ by the age of 40.  An exception (there are always exceptions, lol) was the Pharaoh Ramesses II who lived an unusually long time reaching the ripe old age of around 90 – he outlived many of his sons and grandsons – but was very frail and arthritic at his death.  Additionally, scholars also acknowledge that the numbers 3 and 40 are both important symbolic numbers within both the Tan’ch and the NT.  The symbolism of the numerical figures and the testimony of outside texts would inform the astute person that whatever the original looked like, there is evidence that the text has been reworked! Thus is seems clear that the narrative concerning Moses’ age is a retconovation.
Another clearly retconovated text is that concerning Noah’s ark and the flood. Many ancient cultures had stories about large floods, and Israel was no exception.  But the story within Genesis is not a plain “this is how it happened” type narrative, but utilised the style of the chiasm. Chiasms are tools by which a story is told in mirror fashion – the first line (A) equals the last line (A1), the 2nd line (B) is comparative to the 2nd last line (B1), and so forth and so forth until the middle line of text reveals the central idea to the story. Chiasms were a favourite narrative style with Hebrew culture and can be seen very clearly in the following website which shows Gordon Wenham’s clear exposing of the chiasm of the ark story (Genesis 6.10 to 9.19)
And the middle section of the Chiasm? – “And God remembered Noah”.
So very clearly the basic story of the Noah and the flood was reworked – retconovated – to bring an important message to the audience.
The above 3 examples - Kings vs Chronicles, Moses’ age, and The Flood story – are important, because they illustrate that the ‘historical’ writings within the ANE were not ‘history’ in the contemporary sense of the word.  If, today, one was to write an historical account of an event, it would be expected that the writer would concentrate on the facts – when this or that happened, taking care to put the events in their correct order.
But the ancients did not express history in this way – much of ancient history had a religious intent.  And this is certainly what the OT was about – history written with a theological purpose.
It could be argued that the ancients would have approved of the saying “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”. The ancients were, after all, trained in the art of storytelling.  Yes, the bare bones of facts would exist, but the aim for pure historical accuracy was never the overriding consideration in ancient writing or oral narratives.
Perhaps my favourite example of this is Herodotus (5th century B.C.E) who was a Greek historian, and considered to be the Father of History.
In his historical accounts of Cyrus the Great, Herodotus could not work out why the larger, stronger and more experienced Medean army would join forces with Cyrus’ roughly assembled Persian army, making Cyrus the effective ruler of a joint Mede/Persian Empire.  Rather than just stick to the facts as he understood it (which would have been quite short), Herodotus created a long and intriguing narrative which is very briefly outlined below:
• Astyages had a dream that Cyrus would take his throne
• Religious advisers suggest that Cyrus must be disposed of, so Astyages ordered Harpagus to kill Cyrus
• Harpagus has compassion and gives Cyrus to a shepherd whose own child had died
• 10 years later Astyages hears a commotion about a pauper acting regally and discovers that Cyrus is alive
• Religious advisers suggest that all is now fine and the throne is not at stake
• Astyages cooks Harpagus’ son – makes him eat his own son. In the king’s presence Harpagus must sit on a seat covered with his own son’s skin
• Cyrus inherits the leadership of his tribe (fact)
• Cyrus unites all the Persian tribes under his leadership (fact)
• Cyrus and Persian Army meet the Medes in battle (fact)
• Harpagus gives his allegiance to Cyrus and together they march on the city
A fairly elaborate story, and often spoken of as fact, yet it was a pure invention by Herodotus to explain an event that seemed illogical – Herodotus retconovated history.
In the 1st Century (C.E.) the Jewish Historian Josephus also attempted to write various histories.  Certainly, like the account of Kings, Chronicles, and the stories by Herodotus, there were kernels of facts within Josephus’ work.  Yet his work is often considered as simply apologetics, and included a vast array of exaggerations, that it would not be considered today as a pure history. Josephus retconovated history – he used the facts as he knew them and inserted his own views, ideas, and other sources with liberal amounts of hyperbole. See also:
Thus all ancient histories would not be considered ‘pure’ history in the contemporary world. Just as the OT historical writings were influenced by the retconovation that was prevalent throughout the Ancient Near East, so too did the NT writers use the same process that was used by their forebears and also used by the contemporary Greco-Roman writers of their day. Furthermore, the Rabbis also used retconovation liberally within their stories!
Although some Christians may be willing to accept the process of retconovation within the OT historical books, many are fairly protective regarding the literalness of the gospels.  The gospels are seen as sacred scripture and many attempts are made to utilise all the gospel accounts to view a more complete idea of the life and ministry of Christ.  These attempts at harmonisation clearly show that the gospels are viewed as literal memories.
Naturally there may be some who may have a “knee-jerk reaction” and simply reject any consideration of retconovation within the gospels/NT
Therefore, let me begin gently to reveal just a couple of the various instances where retconovation is used.
In the New Testament there are 4 forms of Retroactive Continuity:
A). NT text as a retnovation of an OT text.
B). NT text as a retnovation of another NT text.
C). OT prophecy retconovated into a NT fulfilment.
D). NT text as a Retconovation of an historical situation.
A). NT text as a retnovation of an OT text
1. Perhaps my favourite example of retnovation within the NT is the Speech of Stephen found in Acts (regarded as the second volume to the Lukan Gospel). In Stephen’s long speech Acts 7:2 – 53 the history of Israel was revisited from Abraham to David. Most of the history followed tradition, including the years of Moses! But the one exception was in regard to the temple – Kings states the when the temple was consecrated, the Shekinah Glory of God descended upon the temple and existed within the Holy of Holies – Stephen claimed that God never moved in, also a clear poke at the 2nd Temple as well!
2. The second example I want to use comes not from a gospel but from one of the Epistles dealing with an OT story. It comes from Paul in 1 Cor 10.4 where Paul retconovates the story of the Exodus incorporating Jesus:
“They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink: for they drank from the same spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ”.
B). NT text as a retnovation of another NT text
1. The Beatitudes are a wonderful example!  There are two versions: Matt. 5:1-12 and Luke 6:17-23
In the Matthew version Jesus went up the mountainside, in the Lukan version Jesus went down to a plain! But the real differences are in the text: Matthew’s version is a real spiritual text – “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, while Luke’s gospel is very physical – “Blessed are you who are poor”.  The poor and rejected were one of the focus’ of the Lukan gospel, but to alter the beatitudes in this way changes the text entirely.  Thus the Lukan account does something interesting – it changes Jesus’ ‘original’ words.
2. A very interesting example is that of the parable of the wineskins.  In this part of the gospel narrative Jesus was asked why his disciples did not fast. Jesus replied “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them . . .” (Mk 2:19). This is followed up by two parables about what one does not do: one did not sew a new piece of unshrunk cloth on an old coat, and one did not put new wine in an old wineskin.
This passage is also repeated in Matt. 9:14-17 and in Luke 5:33-39
Mark’s version occurs after the calling of Levi, but the question about fasting is asked of Jesus by other people because both John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.
In Matthew, the fasting question occurs after the calling of Matthew, and it is asked by John’s disciples!
The Lukan account reverts to the Markan version with the incident occurring after the calling of Levi. However in this version the incident occurs at a meal that Levi is hosting; at the meal the Pharisees (co-guests) ask Jesus about the fasting issue.
These 3 examples show the very different ways that the NT writers could retconovate the same story. It is quite clear that any attempt to reconcile these 3 versions is futile.
But there are deeper differences.
The end of the Markan text says: “No, he pours new wine into new wineskins”.
Matthew adds to Mark’s version by saying, “. . . and both are preserved”.
Luke adds, “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’”
In Mark’s gospel Jesus simply presents one metaphor and two illustrations as to why the disciples do not fast:
• Guests do not mourn at weddings
• New cloths are not sew on old clothes
• New wine is not poured into old wineskins
All of the above 3 practices are examples of things not done in society, and therefore it is also inappropriate for Jesus’ disciples to fast!
But the addition of Luke’s words into Jesus’ mouth have changed the meaning of the text itself, with 90% of scholars believing that the text is symbolic for the differences between Judaism and Christianity or between Christianity and the old way of life!
Thus a retconovated text – Jesus’ words reworked – can have an enormous effect on the understanding of a particular text.
C). OT prophecy retconovated into a NT fulfilment
Before examining OT prophecy and its fulfilment in the NT, it would be instructive to understand Judaism.  Judaism has always understood that a scripture can have multiple and differing meanings; in Judaism there has never been only ‘one’ way to understand or interpret the Torah. Rabbincal Judaism also followed this practice and so did Paul! Paul often used OT scripture to ‘prove’ an idea, often taking an OT line or phrase totally out of its original context.
Consider Eph 4.7-8:
“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.  This is why it says:
‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men’,
The text then goes on to connect the quote (from Psalms 68.18) with Christ’s birth, resurrection, ascension  (descended and ascended) and connects the ‘gifts’ to the appointment of apostleship.
Yet the Psalm passage does not, in any way at all, mean to speak of Christ’s humanity and exaltation, nor about apostleship . . . but the Rabbi in Paul can take a small part of the psalm and retconovate it to suit his own purposes.
Let me suggest that this retconovation of OT texts to support one’s theology in the NT is the same process that is used by the NT writers when speaking of ‘fulfilment’ prophecies. 
Of course not everyone will appreciate this position.  Most Christian conservatives will suggest that OT prophesy has a two-pronged focus: the OT situation that it is directed toward, and an over-arching future dimension directed towards to Christ.
and for a slightly different perspective:
One problem with these views is that there is a nagging issue over whether those doing the OT ‘prophesying’ viewed their own ‘prophecies’ as having two separate meanings. Consider the following:
1.   The gospels suggest that Christ’s virgin birth is the fulfilment of an Isaiah passage (Is. 7:14). “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son a son, and will call his name Immanuel.” Yet the problem is that in this passage the word translated as “virgin” is more literally “young woman.” and has to do with the coming Assyrian invasion.  For ‘some’ reason, the NT does not refer to the rest of the passage: “He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste”.
It’s one thing to suggest that the passage has a direct prophecy to Jesus’ birth . . . but what does one do with the rest of the passage?
2.   Genesis 3.15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
This text was retconovated in Roman 16.20 as the struggle between God and Satan.  Again most study Bibles view this Genesis text as a Christological prophesy. Christianity often sets up the spiritual world as a big battle between God and his holy angels and Lucifer and his fallen angels – almost as if Satan is the evil equivalent of God. Yet for much of Judaism’s history Satan was never view as the arch enemy of God. Indeed, Satan was simply viewed as a being that God used to tempt humans in order to give them opportunity to be righteous.  This view of Satan is expressed as a “lying spirit” in the narrative concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 22.19-22), but the classic story of Satan in his god-given role of deceiver is Job (see Job 1.6-12).  It was only in the latter part of the Second-Temple period that the shift in Satan’s ‘role’ towards a more menacing persona started gaining in momentum. 
The early church fathers did not view the creation and Eden accounts of Genesis as literal, but symbolic, including the serpent as a symbol of Satan. Although, from a Jewish perspective, the role of deceiver does appear to fit the serpent in Eden quite nicely, Judaistic writings seem to suggest that the snake was never thought of as Satan! 
It is interesting that conservative Christianity can view the Genesis creation/Eden texts as both literal and symbolic!
It must be said that both the writer of Isaiah and Genesis would have had no expectations that their words would be intended for prophecies about Jesus so far into the future. One could argue for a ‘god-inspired prophetic intention’ that the writers were unaware of. Yet it is interesting that this form of ‘take and twist’ was very rabbinical in style, while retconovation of an older text was quite common in both the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman World! Of course there are many, many cases throughout the NT where the writers have selected specific OT lines or passages and given them a ‘fulfilment’ spin – but the question lingers – is it god-inspired or simply great retconovation?
D). NT text as a Retconovation of an historical situation
The previous section on OT prophecy and fulfilment is closely linked to this section. The various details regarding Jesus’ life and death are considered as literal and also often deemed as fulfilment of OT texts.  A popular slogan is “If the Bible said it, then I believe it!” Yet such perspectives rarely take the time to properly evaluate the text.
Rather look at all the different aspects of Jesus’ life, the following will just concentrate on his early years:
1.   The first of the gospel’s retconovation of history is actually the genealogical account of Matthew. Here the list of Jesus’ ancestors were clearly reworked to make 3 sets of 14 ancestors in each. Clearly this was impossible, showing that the NT writers were rarely concerned the absolute facts. Luke has a different genealogical list (more forefathers added in), and prefaces the list by saying “he was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph . . .” The big problem is that the part of the list is so different that it is thought that it is actually Mary’s genealogy which, if this is the case, meant that Luke retconovated Joseph’s line!
2.   Many books give an outline of the early life of Christ created by interweaving all the different gospel accounts.  It is interesting that NIV gives the 2 paragraphs at the end of Matt. 2 the title “The Return to Nazareth”.  This is because ‘timelines’ put Mary and Joseph as living in Nazareth prior to the journey to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth.  Yet Matthew actually implies that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem: there is no journey to Bethlehem, and after the return from Egypt the small family – about to go back to Judea – are warned in a dream, and decide to settle in Nazareth, Galilee – far North from the threat! In the Lukan account Joseph and his family ‘return’ to Nazareth after Jesus’ 8th day circumcision and fulfilled all their religious obligations.
3.  With all the OT warnings about astrology and witchcraft it is a little confusing that the Magi – a group of Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia - were placed into the Matthew text.  Many have studied cosmological history to try and find which constellations could have matched the time of Christ's birth.  There are also conjectures regarding whether it was a star/constellation or a comet that mysteriously broke all the laws of physics!  This is another example of a story was added in - a retconovation - a nice little touch to speak of Jesus’ universality and kingship – but no basis in reality.
4.   The escape to Egypt is again a creative piece put into the story – it is about the symbolism of Jesus ‘re-enacting’ the exodus story – not real historicity.
5. Mark does not speak of the Nativity – this gospel starts with an intro to John the Baptist and moving straight to Jesus’ baptism.  This gospel is different in that it is also a “chiasm.” For a view on this see:           Thus while it is does contain history, it is not an historical account as contemporary society would perceive history, for the chiasm is proof that the account has been created with a theological purpose.
The basic idea of Retroactive Continuity is that the central framework remains constant, but any other details can be changed or altered.  This is true of the Gospel stories. As has been repeated throughout this piece, the historians of the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman empire never, ever, created purely historical accounts.  History was always mixed with myth, exaggeration – they were storytellers and the Gospel writers were no different – they abided by the rules and writing conventions of their day.  For these writers, it was not wrong to add words into someone’s mouth, or to change the particulars of a situation. It was not considered lying or ‘non-truth’, instead it was simply considered good written skills to be able to write creatively to bring effectively communicate something to the audience.
If the writers of the Bible were willing to retconovate OT texts to give them a new meaning; if they were willing to add words into Jesus’ mouth; if they were comfortable in changing the context of events in Jesus’ life . . . would they also retconovate Jesus himself? 
Certainly most would agree that the Gospels were written with a theological intent.  They did not need to prove that Jesus was human – everybody knew that! According to the Gospels, Jesus’ humanness was part of the reason that he was rejected. So the Gospels are attempts to prove the deity of Christ.
This leads, of course, to the ‘search for the historical Jesus’. You can see some of the developments here:
This is not actually the full history, for the debates over Jesus’ humanity and deity are millennia old, and such questions have caused dissensions and splits within the church long before the modern age.
So the question I offer today is:
“How much did the gospel writers retconovate the story of Jesus?”

“Are you brave enough to re-evaluate the gospel stories in the light of 1st Century historiographical practices?”
Tony Kemp


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Tony Kemp was born in the UK in 1970 to a father who was an uncommitted Anglican and a m...

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Michael Jackson - the ultimate artist

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Michael Jackson died today.

Yet, he will live on through his music.

Much has been said about Michael's various off-field dramas.  The only thing that I think can be said about these, is that as a child, Michael had no childhood.  Entering into manhood, Michael probably lacked guidance, self-acceptance, and always seemed to live a life that yearned for the childhood that he never had. 

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