Recently, I began to look at the Gospels – books that should be regularly read, but in the right way. What I share here are my current views, which are as fallible and changeable as anyone else’s. My aim is not to convince you that I’m right, but to invite you to check out your own thinking. That understood, let me say that the Gospels were never intended to be histories or biographies, although elements of both are undoubtedly within them. Perhaps they’re better classified as extra-long religious tracts. They’re intended both to confirm believers in their faith, and persuade others to become believers. Their content was selected and shaped to meet those ends.
Having been ‘published’ in written form, they’re pieces of literature, and so it’s legitimate to explore them as such, ‘without prejudice’ to factuality or historicity. As with other authors, the writers use simile, metaphor, symbolism etc. They incorporate stories, parables, wisdom sayings and so on. At a deeper level, they take us into the realm of the human psyche, of which Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung were the 20th century’s most outstanding explorers. Each gave thought to the origin and nature of religion. Freud thought it a neurosis resulting from childhood failure to deal with sexual trauma arising from the oedipus complex. That may be valid in a small number of individuals, but Freud’s universalism is no longer credible.
C.G. Jung’s approach, to me, has more to offer. The world’s great myths and religions contain the same archetypal symbols, characters, and stories. Across the continents, and throughout time, we find the Great Father (God), the Great Mother (Mary), the Dark Shadow (Satan), the Hero (Jesus), not to mention demonic and angelic beings, celestial portents, virgin births, dying and rising gods and so on. These appear in different garbs, background details differ, the messages can be mixed, but the fundamental elements are the same. Unfortunately, people tend to regard as factual and historical in their own religion, what they dismiss as false and imaginary, and even ‘of the devil’, in the religions of others.
Returning to the Gospels, let’s consider the archetype of the Hero in relation to Jesus. The mythographer Joseph Campbell has written a book on this subject, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. He shows how there is the sudden appearance of a ‘herald’, with a ‘call to adventure’ that demands acceptance or rejection. If it’s accepted, there follows a withdrawal from ‘ordinary life’ for a time of ‘testing’, in which temptations, dangers and threatening figures are encountered, but also guidance and assistance from supportive observers. If the tests are passed, the hero returns to ‘ordinary life’, as a ‘presence’ with a message to pass on.
Jesus seems to live an ‘ordinary life’ in Nazareth. One day, however, his ‘call’ comes. The ‘herald’ is John the Baptist, with a call to prepare for the imminent arrival of the ‘Kingdom of God’. Jesus must accept or reject this. His acceptance is shown in submission to baptism by John. Immediate encouragement comes, in a voice from the skies, intimating God’s satisfaction with this turn of events. Jesus then withdraws from ‘ordinary life’, and spends 40 days alone “in the wilderness”.
The testing includes hunger (“he was famished”), the threat of “wild beasts”, and the appearance of the archetypal Dark Shadow, the Hero’s counterpart, in the person of “the Devil”. To counteract these threats, in addition to the heavenly voice, there are helpful visitors – “angels came and waited on him”. The Devil sets him three tests, which he successfully passes, and so is ready to return to ‘ordinary life”. He now has a ‘charismatic presence’ seen in the immediate readiness of others to drop everything and follow him. He also has ‘a message’ about the coming Kingdom of God, which will determine the eternal destiny of all its hearers.
Let’s remember that we’re dealing here with the Gospels as literature. Whether any, or all of this, was factual and historical, is not the point. These archetypal elements add to the intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual impact of the stories. They enrich them, in my view, and make them all the more essential and profitable reading. What you choose to take as fact is up to you. Bon chance !
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