Jesus the Mythical Archetype?

In my latest reading of No Other Name? A Critical Survey of Christian Attitudes Toward the World Religions, Paul Knitter discussed psychological explanations for religion, particularly those of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, William James, Abraham Maslow, and Robert Assagioli.

One point that stood out to me was Jung’s view that the unconscious (which appears to be both personal and collective) has certain archetypes that are evident in a number of religions: “the divine mother, the wise old man, the dying god, the young virgin, the hero-savior, the cunning evil one, [and] the hidden treasure” (Knitter’s words on page 57).  My impression from Knitter’s discussion is that Jung thought that these archetypes were symbolic.  For example, on page 61, Knitter refers to Jung’s view that Jesus’ incarnation was a model for “individuation”—-as the self is realized, the ego is left behind, and the person is integrated “into the mystery of the self-in-God” (Knitter’s words).

This reminded me a lot of Joseph Campbell.  I have not read most of Campbell’s works, but I did watch Bill Moyers’ interviews with him.  I rolled my eyes at some of what Campbell was saying, for it appeared to me that he was reading pop psychology into myths and religions—-such as the notion that we should find our “bliss”.  I don’t want to dismiss the idea that the archetypes that appear in various world religions are getting at something psychological—-needs that we have as human beings.  But I also want to listen to what the religions, myths, and cultures themselves are saying, without reading stuff into them that they do not explicitly say.

One question that Jung inspired Knitter to address was whether or not Jesus’ historicity is important for Christian theology.  Jung focused on Jesus as a mythical archetype.  I’m not sure if Jung dismissed the notion that Jesus historically existed, but his focus was on myth and story.  I know people who affirm that the historicity of Christian claims about Jesus (i.e., the incarnation, the virgin birth, miracles, Jesus’ death for our sins, and the resurrection), and even Jesus himself, are not important for Jesus to have a place in one’s spiritual and religious life.  After all, can’t we draw inspiration from the story of Jesus—-the values that he exemplified as a character—-whether or not he actually existed?

That may work for some people.  It just doesn’t work for me.  I need to see a story about a hero-savior as grounded in history for it to do anything for me, spiritually.  To use another example, I can draw inspiration from Luke Skywalker, but I can’t form a religion out of Luke Skywalker that is meaningful to me personally, unless the story actually happened and literally had an impact on me—-as does Jesus’ death for my sins, according to Christianity.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Jesus the Mythical Archetype?

  1. Thanks for the points about Knitter’s book… it looks like one I’ll want to read.

    The historicity issues re. Christian foundations, including details about Jesus himself are complex, as you probably know. A couple thoughts: 1) The Gospel writers, including Luke with Acts in only a slightly different way, seem clearly to be following a mix of “standard” Jewish ways of re-working stories (generally NOT from historical events) for purposes of meaning or “proof-of-messiahship” and Greco-Roman literary forms (the “life of..” and invented speeches, e.g.)

    2) They seemed to realize their audiences would be swayed by stories without major regard (or perhaps any regard) to them being grounded in real events (beyond a basic core of Jesus’ existence, basic teachings and death at the hands of the Romans). E.g., Matthew and Luke rework Mark’s outline in significant ways without concern for historical accuracy or consistency… drawing also on some now-lost other written source(s). This is esp. striking if Luke had Matthew’s gospel. And John goes way afield again, and adds lots of things that don’t even fit the same picture of Jesus… somewhat the way Paul does, theologically (i.e. inventing stuff the Jerusalem Jesus-followers before 70 had no conception of, or if so, rejected by Act’s own evidences).


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thank you for your comment, Howard. It was helpful, especially after I had listened to Ben Witherington on the radio show Unbelievable debating a pastor about the historicity of the birth narratives. One of his arguments seemed to have been that, because Jews and Christians valued history, the stories in the Bible about Jesus’ birth are historical. (He offered more arguments than that, though, such as using the criterion of embarrassment to argue that the virgin birth happened.) At the same time, he acknowledged that Greco-Roman historiography was not like current historiography—-but I wish he had provided more details on that.


  3. I’m not sure in what way Witherington meant they “valued history”, which in some senses they did. The Bible contains a lot of history, to be sure, but even there it often has matters which are more than irrelevant details different in different places. On top of that is the fairly obvious “device” of story lines being replicated, in Jewish tradition, with new characters who had similar roles and purposes to earlier famous characters, in times contemporary to the speaker/audience (oral history) or writer.

    One example I’d not noted until fairly recently is the uncanny number of parallels between the Acts account of Stephen’s trial and death and that of Jesus. Historically quite close in time, in that Stephen probably WAS executed, and just a few years after Jesus, but only written up around 60-80 years later, and with numerous tip-offs that the details are almost certainly pure fabrications, for identifiable theological/polemical reasons. (One good source on this is the treatment on it in “The Mythmaker” by Hyam Maccoby.)

    If one does analytical and comparative reading (including Paul), one finds this kind of phenomenon in many places in the Gospels and Acts. The instances are attempts to impress, persuade, or bolster faith that now are quite apparent as just that… not historical accounts. The contradictory and often unfeasible (logic-wise) aspects of circumstances around the Resurrection are a key example…. See esp. those in Matthew.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I think that some of what you mention, though, can be consistent with the idea that biblical writers believed they were writing what happened. For example, maybe they thought that there actually were patterns in history. I’m hesitant to make this an absolute, however. One book that I liked on this topic was Marc Brettler’s The Creation of History in Ancient Israel.


  5. I agree, a “believer” (whether still an observant Jewish Jesus-follower or a “grafted in” Gentile Christian) of both then and now, will not only accept but perhaps LOOK for the “miraculous” or “signs”. (The latter supposedly too much the focus of Pharisees/scribes per some Gospel statements.) So maybe Matthew actually did believe that “saints” were raised via a massive earthquake that split rocks and opened graves so that they later would walk around Jerusalem (not a large area at the time); that the THICK temple veil, of great religious importance, was actually torn top to bottom (along with similar “reports” by the other Gospel writers on this one… because of the symbolism conveyed).

    Such stories, if factual, don’t even fit the “historical record” of the early chapters of Acts (by a Gospel writer himself) but they were spread and either believed or looked past as far as accepting what they pointed to. So maybe Matthew (or other Gospel writers) believed them themselves. But “eyewitness accounts” they certainly don’t seem to possibly be, nor the various (conflicting) stories of an empty tomb and associated contact with Jesus in at least a quasi-physical body.

    However, in Luke’s case, he seems clearly to knowingly slant things as far as will retain credibility (having to respect wide-spread knowledge on some points) while also taking care with certain historical and geographical data and such… his work is such a mix that various scholars have come down all over the spectrum as to his reliability…. almost like with his and the other Gospels, the reader is able to focus on the parts of Luke’s Acts that he/she likes or fits pre-conceived beliefs and set aside what is puzzling or doesn’t fit. BTW, much as it frustrates we who think Luke confused and misled as much as he enlightened, we have little else, other than bits from Paul, to go on for earliest church history… AND Luke was successful in his propaganda mission… guess he knew what he was doing 🙂


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