Imagine you are an educated Roman aristocrat during the mid-second century CE. You know about the growing number of Christians, followers of that strange new religion that has broken away from Judaism. They have worked hard to convert you, but you have heard their story before: a dying and rising Savior is nothing new. Many “messiahs” have claimed to work miracles, but the world marches on and nothing changes.
But suddenly, for you, everything changes. One day in the marketplace, you are drawn to a crowd listening to Justin Martyr, the brilliant defender of Christianity. He has a novel proof that the Gospel narratives about Jesus must be true: Justin claims that almost every event reported in them was prophesied centuries earlier in the Hebrew Bible! Systematically, detail by detail, Justin proves his claim. You are dumbfounded and on the spot decide to convert.
Finding Jesus in the Hebrew Bible became an early Christian industry, known today as “typology,” to which even so brilliant a scholar as Augustine devoted much of his life and writings. Typology provides a mirroring form of proof: we can use it to show that the Gospels must be true since they were anticipated by the Hebrew Bible, and we know the Hebrew Bible is true because it anticipates the Gospels. Moreover, typology embodies a primitive theory of history based on reverse causality: God first decides the future and then designs a past that will lead to it. History is thus endowed with a purpose, but that will only become intelligible after we experience the future. Christians argue that if we look only to the Hebrew Bible, we will not understand history. Only with the New Testament does God’s real plan come into focus.
In the modern world, typological proof remains alive and well. As stated in the current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1:1:107), “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” If you have ever heard the Messiah, Handel’s sublime oratorio, you may not have realized it, but you were exposed to this kind of proselytizing logic. Much of the lyrics are not from the Gospels but from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, written five centuries before Jesus was born. Do you remember these borrowed verses?
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son. . . . The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . . For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. . . . Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. . . . He is despised and rejected of men. . . . Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows . . . But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our inequities . . . and with his stripes we are healed. . . . And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. (Isaiah 7:14; 9:2, 6; 35:5; 53:3–5; 60:3)
There is no more influential passage from the Hebrew Bible favored by Christians to show that the coming of Christ, their true Messiah, had been anticipated for several centuries. Based on this authoritative testimony, Christians could argue that the Messiah was to be rejected and suffer and die for the sins of others. Of course, Jesus is never mentioned by name in the Hebrew Bible; but, nonetheless, Christian theologians have found him in every story and in every psalm.
To take a famous example among hundreds, Christians found in Isaac an early Jesus and in Abraham a stand-in for God. Like Abraham, God is willing to sacrifice his only son. Just as Isaac carries wood to his pyre for his own sacrifice (Genesis 22:6), so too Jesus was forced to carry the crossbeam to the place of his crucifixion (John 19:17). And just as the ram or lamb was “caught in a [thorny] thicket by its horns” (Genesis 22:13), Jesus was mockingly crowned with a wreath of thorns just before his death (Mark 27:29).
The source of the error is failure to appreciate the Astonishing Law of Coincidences: they happen far more easily than you think. If you have a big enough pile of stuff (the Hebrew Bible), and if you sift through all of it, you can find whatever you are looking for (a detail from the life of Jesus). The Astonishing Law of Coincidences has an even more astonishing corollary: if things are rigged, they happen even more frequently. Could many details of the life of Jesus recounted in the Gospels have simply been copied from the Hebrew Bible playbook? To show that any sufficiently rich literary source can seem to anticipate another, I will now “prove” that the real reason the Gospels were written (drum roll, please) . . . was in preparation for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written 1,500 years later!
Jesus and Hamlet
I have read perhaps fifty books about Shakespeare’s plays, and not one of them mentions this connection. Yet, the evidence for this contention is even stronger than the evidence supporting the idea that the Old Testament was written with Jesus in mind.* To get us started: I have long wondered about the uncertain identities of the authors of each of the four biblical Gospels; but, of course, the purpose of this mystery was to prepare the way for the controversial attribution of Hamlet to an Elizabethan actor, about whom little is also known, called William Shakespeare.
Who is Jesus? is the central question of the Gospels. The first verse of Mark states that Jesus is the son of God, but it takes the entire Gospel to tell us what that could mean. What kind of young man is Hamlet? That is a central question of the play. The very first line of the play, which so often in Shakespeare laconically summarizes the drama, asks who Hamlet is: “Who’s there?” (1:1:1). In each case, as readers, we are kept in suspense: in the Gospels, will Jesus defeat Satan and his demons or die trying, and in Shakespeare’s play, will Hamlet avenge the murder of his father or die trying? Ironically, both figures emerge victorious and will be recognized as kings, Jesus as “King of the Jews” and Hamlet as King of the Danes. But both will die moments later, each wounded, Jesus by a spear and Hamlet by a sword.
Like Jesus, Hamlet is a superior human being in a number of ways, a nearly perfect man ethically and intellectually and possessing great verbal skill. At age thirty, like Jesus, he discovers that he lives in a corrupted world and then within months is unjustly cut down in his youth at the hands of his adversaries and rivals. His words (or perhaps Shakespeare’s), pregnant with a transcendent wisdom like those of Jesus, have become the most widely quoted of any person, real or fictional, in Western history.
Both the Gospels and Shakespeare’s play are much concerned with death and the afterlife: Jesus preaches the doctrine of heaven and hell, while Hamlet’s dead father complains he must soon render himself up “to sulph’rous and tormenting flames” (1:5:4–5), and Hamlet later wonders about “the dread of something after death—the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (3:1:86–88). Reminiscent of the Trinity and the baptism of Jesus, at the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet’s dead father, the previous king (= God-the-Father-like figure), comes to Earth as an apparition (= Holy-Ghost-like figure) to charge Hamlet (= Jesus-the-Son-like figure) with his responsibility to restore the moral balance of Denmark (= Judea): “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1:5:100). Both the Gospels and the play are concerned with iniquity and perversion. For Jes
us, it is demons and the current religious authorities. Similarly, the play is full of images of corruption: rottenness, maggots, cankers, unweeded gardens, incestuous sheets, compost, leprous distilments, the vicious moles of nature, pestilent vapors, and worms feasting on corpses. Hamlet is enjoined to root out the evil (= Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, chief priests, scribes, Satan, demons), even, as it turns out in the end, at the cost of his life. He is forced to hide his true intentions (= messianic secret) except from his great friend of a lower social rank, Horatio (= disciple), in order to gain time to carry out his mission.
The Gospels have spawned a two-thousand-year-old confusion between reality and appearance. Is Jesus an invention of their authors, or is he really God’s son? Is the Ghost, Hamlet wonders, an invention of the Devil sent to seduce him into evil, or does he really represent his father? Is Hamlet mad or merely feigning madness? At one point (Mark 3:21), Jesus’s neighbors and family mistake his behavior for madness. Is the new king a murderer or merely a fortunate and clever statesman? Is Satan the source of all evil, or is he merely God’s advisor, as he appears in the Hebrew Bible book of Job? Was Hamlet’s mother an adulteress? Was Jesus’ mother a virgin? Is Polonius a wise advisor and loving father or a conceited fool? Is Jesus a great moral teacher or another failed pretend messiah? Just as Jesus frequently upbraids those who physically see but do not intellectually see and praises those who can see intellectually without first seeing physically, Shakespeare’s play is saturated with images of seeing, seeming, and assuming a false shape or appearance. The state has been thrown out of kilter. Claudius (= Satan) has usurped the throne rightfully belonging to Hamlet by murdering his brother (Hamlet’s father) and marrying his queen (Hamlet’s mother). Similarly, in Genesis, the first real proof that Adam had brought sin into the world is his son Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. As a result, “the time is out of joint” and, like Jesus, Hamlet must “set it right” (1:5:210–211). For Hamlet, even the smallest detail of the world is pregnant with meaning. So he says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5:2:210). But Jesus’s similar interest in sparrows has long ago prepared us for this insight: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father” (Matthew 10:29).
Immediately following his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness where he is tempted by the Devil: “The devil taketh him up into an exceedingly high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:8–9). Similarly, at the beginning of the play, Hamlet is tempted by Claudius to set aside the mission that will be assigned to him by his true father. Claudius slimily tries to bribe Hamlet with promises of worldly status and encourages him to think of him as his new father: “Think of us as a father; for let the world take note, you are the most immediate to our throne, and with no less nobility of love than that which dearest father bears his son do I impart toward you” (Hamlet 1:2:96–99). In Hamlet’s baptism/transfiguration scene, he is accompanied by Horatio and others who witness Hamlet meeting his father’s apparition. The Ghost will speak only to Hamlet, while God in the Gospels speaks only to Jesus. Afterward, Hamlet instructs them to “never make known what you have seen” (1:5:160), while Jesus instructs the disciples who have witnessed his Transfiguration that “they should tell no man what things they had seen” (Mark 9:9).
Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount prefigures Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes: “My blessing with thee. And these few precepts in thy memory look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any unproportioned act his thought. . . . Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. Take each mans censure, but reserve thy judgment. . . . Neither a borrower nor a lender be. . . . This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” (Hamlet 1:3:62–86).
Jesus begins his ministry declaring, “Repent ye, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), and Hamlet advises, “Confess yourself to heaven, repent what’s past, avoid what is to come” (3:4:170–171). Like Mark’s demons and like Satan, Claudius, who has committed both fratricide and regicide, in part so he could marry his brother’s wife, laments, “Try what repentance can: what can it not? Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?” (3:3:66–67).
Shortly before his death, Jesus predicts an end of days: “But in those days . . . the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light. And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven and earth shall be shaken” (Mark 13:24–25). A similar prediction appears in Shakespeare’s play: “As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood, disasters in the sun; and the moist star [the moon] . . . was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse. And even the like precurse of feared events, as harbingers proceeding still the fates and prologue to the omen coming on have heaven and earth together demonstrated” (Hamlet 1:1:129–136; also 1:1:257).
Although Judas was Jesus’s trusted disciple, he ended up betraying his master and dying for it. Similarly Hamlet’s good friends from childhood, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or is it Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?) (= Judas), are condemned to death by their own act of betrayal. It seems the Gospels had Shakespeare’s drama in mind when they invented the character of Judas, since we find in Hamlet: “So oft it chances in particular men that for some vicious mole of nature in them as in their birth . . . that these men, carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect . . . shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault. The dram of evil doth all the noble substance of a doubt to his own scandal” (Hamlet 1:4:26–40).
Jesus is rejected, denied, or abandoned by almost everyone including his disciples, his family, and the two criminals crucified with him. Similarly, Hamlet is betrayed by Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, and, of course, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—every significant living character apart from his alter ego, Horatio. Jesus and Hamlet are forced to confront the evils of their worlds alone.
Peter tempts Jesus to turn aside from his mission, and Jesus rebukes him saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Mark 8:33). This clearly prefigures Hamlet’s remark, “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil and the devil hath the power t’ assume a pleasing shape” (2:2:627–629) and Polonius’s warning, “with devotion’s visage and pious action we do sugar o’er the devil himself” (3:1:53–55).
As Jesus contemplates his death in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says to his disciples: “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful unto death . . . and he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:34–36). This theme also is important in Shakespeare’s play when Hamlet, because of his birth, must consider the larger polity over his own needs: “His greatness weighe
d, his will is not his own, for he himself is subject to his birth. He may not, as unvalued persons do, carve for himself for on his choice depends the safety and the health of the whole state” (Hamlet 1:3:20–24).
And in the most famous soliloquy in literature, Hamlet, like Jesus, must choose between living a normal life or taking responsibility, fighting back, and risking his own death: “To be or not to be—that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them” (Hamlet 3:1:64–68).
In Mark, the last words of Jesus are: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (15:34), while Hamlet says, “O God, God, how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world!” (1:2:136–137). In John, Jesus’s last words before his death are “It is finished” (19:30), while Hamlet’s dying words are “The rest is silence” (5:2:395).
Immediately after Jesus dies, “graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city” (Matthew 27:52–53), while in Hamlet we hear that immediately after the death of Julius Caesar, “The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets” (1:1:127–128).
Just as Jesus, in his final request, charges his disciples to take his message to “all nations,” as he is dying, Hamlet enjoins Horatio: “Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart . . . in this harsh world draw thy breath . . . to tell my story” (5:2:379–384).
I know that Christians see the resurrection of Jesus as the cornerstone of their faith, but actually its main purpose was preparation for Shakespeare’s lines: “Why the sepulcher, wherein we saw thee quietly interred, hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws to cast thee up again” (1:4:53–56).
I could point to many other anticipatory verses, such as how John 20:25 anticipates Hamlet 1:1:66, Mark 10:19 anticipates Hamlet 1:2:135–136, Matthew 7:3 anticipates Hamlet 1:1:124, Mark 12:17 anticipates Hamlet 2:2:47–48, and Matthew 23:28 anticipates Hamlet 3:1:155–156. And here are some verses the Gospel evangelists missed that Jesus must have said: Hamlet 1:2:67, 86–87; 2:2:99; 4:3:9–11; and 3:2:356–357. Verily, our cup runneth over. How better for God to explain the crucifixion to Jesus than to use Hamlet’s words to his mother: “I must be cruel only to be kind” 3:4:199.
*Comparative word counts: about 32,000 words are in Hamlet; 86,000 words are in the Gospels (KJV, which contains four versions of the same story); 602,000 words are in the thirtynine books of the Old Testament (KJV). So it is far more likely that by chance something in the Gospels will have an “anticipatory” story or verse in the Old Testament compared to the odds of finding similar connections between Hamlet and the Gospels.
Mark Rubinstein is a columnist for Free Inquiry and a retired professor of finance at the University of California at Berkeley.