Harold J Wilson


Archetypal Images in the Christian Gospels                            Jay Wilson                   

In this brief essay I would like to look at the figure of Jesus of Nazareth as it is presented in the Christian scriptures, partly in terms of the three-fold ascetic path of Negation of the ego, Illumination of the mind, and Union with the deity. But I would like to consider this spiritual path principally in the light of C.G. Jung’s criticism of the overemphasis in Christianity on the first of these, the negation of the ego.

Jung believed that the European development of a rational operational mode of  thinking and being which we might call the ‘ego’ needed to be strengthened in order to survive its overwhelming by the contents of the personal and the collective unconscious. He partnered this concern with a primary emphasis on delving into and making friends with our greater unconscious selves. He also thought that Christianity had shifted the burden of guilt over the ‘Shadow’ of our repressed thoughts and feelings to the individual believer rather than seeing them as a natural polarity of the divided self which needs to be brought to the light of full consciousness and thereby rendered less destructive.

Because of the Christian emphasis on individual sinfulness which is reparable only by suppression, sacraments and grace, there has always been, both in the church and in other monotheisms like Islam, a tendency to project ‘sinfulness’ onto other groups within one’s own communion or outside it which has engendered religious persecution, the Inquisition, and currently, various forms of  Islamic extremism. Later on, after the Enlightenment, the reaction against what was seen as Christian ‘guilt-mongering’ led to secular humanisms such as Marxism, and, indeed, the whole Psychoanalytic movement. The development of the Catholic Penitential system may have done much to civilize the German barbarians in the ninth century, but its corruption and use in aid of papal authority seems to have weakened much of its further function as an aid to spiritual growth.

While one may have some sympathy with the thought that the Western ascetic, especially in its organized exoteric form (sacraments, laws, hierarchical bodies)
devalues the individual ego and thus, in some ways, limits emotional growth and maturity, it is worthwhile to observe the tension in the gospel narrative between the demands of ‘God’s will’ upon Jesus and his natural concerns as a particular human prophetic rabbi, seeking to organize and perpetuate his own community.

Jesus seems to have been strongly affected by his sense that the Kingdom of God had ‘drawn near’ during his lifetime, but he was not merely preoccupied with moulding an ‘apocalyptic’ community to await the end of the world. He wanted a leadership that understood its role as serving the community of his followers. (One of the pope’s titles is ‘Servus Servorum.’) He also taught about divorce and forgiveness and developing an inward conscience somewhat after Jeremiah’s prayer, “Lord, write thy laws upon our hearts that we may seek and know thee.”

In some senses, I find that this gospel narrative speaks to Jung’s concern about the necessary tension which must be maintained between the partial, limited, ego-self and the higher ‘theandric’ Self and its numinous nature. The term ‘theandric’ refers to a kind of ‘potential divinity’ in man, but I want to bracket out the question of Jesus’ ‘divinity’ for the moment since that term seems to suggest a supernatural origin rather than a prophetic human possibility. And perhaps, as the Jesuit Father Teilhard de Chardin believed, and no doubt Origen of Alexandria as well, we are still in the process of evolution – from the one to the other.

The Jesus Story begins, particularly in Matthew and Luke, with what is called ‘the Infancy Narrative.’ This, as is well-known, concerns the parentage, birth and early circumstances of Jesus as ‘the wondrous child.’ His humble Galilean origins are here played off against the worship of the Magi, the shepherds and the angels, the jealousy of Herod, and the improbable ‘slaughter of the innocents.’ It is an entirely mythological tale, which, along with a sojourn in Egypt, continues to be as charming as it is historically unlikely. The Child archetype is however well to the fore and indeed foreshadows later comments in the gospels about entering the Kingdom of Heaven only ‘as a little child’ and ‘Suffer the little ones to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Jesus as the ‘wise child’ putting questions to the learned rabbis in the temple at Jerusalem is a part of this emphasis.

The Initiation phase of Jesus’ life begins with his ritual submission to baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptizer ‘for thus it was fitting that all things should be fulfilled.’ When the spirit of God descends upon Jesus like a dove, this is followed in shamanic style by his solitary retreat into the desert for ‘forty days’ and his eventual confrontation with an unclean spirit who tempts him to inflation as ‘the Son of God.’ This episode points to Jesus as a Second Moses and represents the recurrent temptation which assaults those who lay any sort of claim to knowledge of higher things of the spirit. But Jesus clothes himself in the scriptures and recognizes the three temptations for what they are – an inflated form of self-idolatry. Although the narrative relates this initiation as a sort of mythological story it is certainly built upon a psychological insight which might well have its roots in actual history, and indicates the authentically human nature of Jesus as a young prophet.

The actual Ministry of Jesus begins at this point and he proceeds to call his little group of unlikely and unlettered disciples and to set out to find ‘the lost sheep of the House of Israel.’ According to the gospels, he found them in some surprising places, among people who were ‘of faith’, even if not always Jews or even respectable. Jesus may have been aware of the Noachian Covenant which was more universal than the Mosaic tradition would allow, God’s compassion for Noah being understood as also for all mankind until the final days In any event, during his preaching, teaching and healing there are constant tensions which run throughout his ministry. He is, for one thing, inclined toward confrontation with those who will not recognize his prophetic authority and who try to distort his utterances. No elevated savant, Jesus speaks harshly to the different representatives of the Pharisees with whose party he would have had most in common, with the Sadducees of the privileged temple party, and with the nationalist Zealots who were waiting for a ‘Son of David’ to help their lost kingdom rise up again. He is even rather unpleasant to the followers of John the Baptist who must have compared him (one infers) unfavourably to their own lost prophet.

So there is a constant tension between Jesus and those who came to hear or to dispute with him – and also with his own disciples who, according to the gospels are a rather rough and unsubtle lot who cannot fully understand Jesus’ attitude towards his own calling and eventual passion and death. They knew little, it would seem, of Isaiah II’s righteous man who dies ‘for the many’, or Jeremiah’s notion of the ‘Holy Remnant.’ These are they who make atonement or reconciliation for the many who cannot yet enter into the Kingdom by the ‘strait gate.’ This is also a high priestly function which restores the creation on the Day of Atonement as Margaret Barker’s studies have emphasized.

Even within Jesus’ idea of God, there are tensions, most importantly between God as King (the Transcendent One) and God as Father, the compassionate Shepherd of Israel. These two polarities were held together in the prophetic teachings of Amos with his concern about Justice for the poor, and Hosea ‘s thought of God’s love –Chesed – for his errant ‘wife’ Israel, as also in Isaiah and Jeremiah. These prophets are all probable influences upon Jesus’ own thought as indeed the lost Book of Enoch may have been. In any event, analysis of the gospels indicates that the principal burden of his parables was the gathering of the Kingdom. But because of the problematic nature of his message for his own people and particularly those in authority (whose authority he did not recognize), his preaching led eventually to the Passion. I must say that there had always been a tradition among the Hebrews that God was their only true king, and I think that this must have been the ironic meaning behind Jesus’ saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The Passion commences with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, amidst palms and the ironic acclamation of ‘Hosannas to the Son of David.’ But the betrayals of both Judas and Peter underline and dramatize Jesus’ essential isolation. The Last Supper with its anamnesis of the bread and wine as his body and blood are a powerful symbolic statement regarding the sharing of his life and vocation. The arrest and scourging and sentencing before Pilate, the crucifixion between two thieves and anointment for burial all follow as from a predestined script. It is a ritualized mythological drama.

For much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching as we now have it, there were good precedents in the Jewish religious tradition. We can also see that his ministry was mainly concerned with bringing people closer to God rather than merely to himself. From this point of view at least, there is an urgent and intense prophetic humility operating in Jesus which drew many to him but which was also highly demanding of those who were attracted to his vision - perhaps frighteningly so: “Let the dead bury the dead.” “Go and sell all that thou hast and come and follow me.”

I am not sure that Jung ever saw how different Jesus was from much of the witness of those who claim the authority to represent the Christian gospel. If he recognized this,  he must have seen the original and contrary nature of Jesus so much in human tension with his higher calling, how isolated Jesus was, how unlike the various stereotypes of Protestant theology, how ‘unmessianic’, how dissimilar from‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’, how different both from the imperial Pantocrator and also the pathetic Crucifixus. Perhaps Jung might even have concluded, at length, that Jesus was not – in any historical sense – an entirely appropriate model for the ‘universal Self.’
Still and all, one would think that there were enough tensions and oppositions in Jesus’ life and ministry so that the enantiodromia or conversion of polarities into what Garrison calls ‘complementary antinomies’ should have been enough even to satisfy Jung’s enormous appetite for opposites which somehow reconcile.

And also it may be that Jesus was not following any rigid template for what he was meant to be, or what was to be demanded of him. Maybe there was more freedom than that in his approach – and more perversity; you might almost say, the perversity of the divinely possessed prophet. In any event, his particular illumination was partly through teaching a doctrine of love, the ethics of the Kingdom, which were perverse enough if taken literally to apall anyone. ‘Turn the other cheek?’ ‘Write off all your debtors?’ Tear your cloak in half?’ Sheer madness. And it was partly through living out this ethic prophetically that he came to influence, in time, so many people, not by gathering a sympathetic group of literate souls about him who would adopt his wisdom sayings or his Gnostic visions of redemption through knowledge. But to teach that the suffering of the pain of the world was the way to God which would redeem time and creation and man would make the ultimate At-one-ment with the deity. This was a hard gospel to receive, and we Christians are still trying to rewrite it!

But let us consider, from a somewhat Jungian point of view what archetypal contents may be found in the gospels: A partial list might include.

1.   The Divine Child who is born in a wintry stable.

  1. The Pilgrim Youth who seeks wisdom in the wilderness (the Initiate)
  2. The Prophet who calls you out of this world.
  3. The Healer who restores your humanity.

5.   The Royal High Priest who enters Jerusalem
6.    The Marys who anoint Jesus and witness his suffering and resurrection,
7.    The Triumphal Victim of the world’s pain.

We have a kind of precession of archetypal images here which runs from the Child through the questing Youth to the Hero as Prophet, Healer, Teacher, Priest to Anima images of the Mary’s who attend his suffering, death and burial, and discover his resurrection. And then at the end we have a kind of Coniunctio image of  an Anima/Hero who has overcome death, even while suffering it. It may be argued that ‘official’ religions function to police their various orthodoxies and to keep people from getting too close to spiritual wisdom on their own, but I think that the humanity which Jesus is a model for is a rather different sort of humanity from that which the Western Church envisioned.

And so it may be that what we have here in the gospels is not so much the ‘negation’ of the ego as the transfiguration of normal human consciousness and moral awareness through a sort of  ‘metanoia’ which takes us well beyond our normal depth and changes our lives ‘from the inside’ as it were. I think it may be similar to Jung’s descent into the underworld of the unconscious. Perhaps because Jung ‘s thinking is still so oriented within the reaches of the Sophia Perennis that he desires a redemption-through-knowledge which resembles his own journey more than that of Jesus, Jung still seems a little ‘gnostic’ to me. But since also he himself kept on his path of exploration until the end, who knows what we will find in his latter writings?

But indeed, whatever his conclusions, it seems to me that Jung’s efforts and insights have been essential in helping to provide, indeed, to forge, a vocabulary by which we may acquire a better understanding of Jesus as a living symbol of our species’ penetration/redemption of the human to something higher, other, and more complete.