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Letters of C. G. Jung: Volume 2, 1951-1961

To Upton Sinclair

Dear Mr. Sinclair, 3 November 1952

I have read your book A Personal Jesus carefully and with great interest.

It is certainly of great merit and will help your public to appreciate a religious figure from a new angle.

I was curious to see in which way you would tackle such a difficult task as the reconstruction of a Jesus biography.

Being the son of a parson, and having grown up in an atmosphere steeped in theology, I learnt about a number of attempts such as those of Strauss, Renan, Moore etc., and in later years I was an ardent reader of A. Schweitzer’s work.

I have repeatedly, i.e., at different phases of my life, tried to realize what kind of personality-explaining the whole effect of its existence could be reconstructed from the scanty historical evidence offered by the New Testament.

Having had a good deal of psychological experience, I should have been sufficiently equipped for such a task, but in the end I came to the conclusion that, owing on the one hand to the paucity of historical data, and on the other to the abundance of mythological admixtures, I was unable to reconstruct a personal character free from rather fatal contradictions.

You have certainly succeeded in presenting an acceptable picture of a certain Jesus.

I should venture to say that it is even a likely portrait of such a presumably unique character.

It may even be convincing to a modern American mind, but seen from the standpoint of a European scientist, your modus procedendi seems to be a bit too selective; that is, you exclude too many authentic statements for no other reason than that they do not fit in with your premises, for instance, predestination and esoterism, which cannot be excluded for textual reasons.

They cannot be dismissed as mere interpolations.

There is also incontestable textual evidence for the fact that Jesus foresaw his tragic end.

Moreover, you exclude practically the whole overwhelming amount of eschatology, the authenticity of which is undeniable whether it offends our reason or not.

Then you paint a portrait; though of the highest literary quality, it is subject to the same critique you apply to John the Evangelist (p. 15 5 seq.): “We are going to learn what this Hellenized intellectual thinks about Jesus.”

We learn from your book what a modern American writer “thinks about Jesus.”

This is not meant to be derogatory; on the contrary, it merely shows my perplexity.

Surely we can draw a portrait of Jesus that does not offend our rationalism, but it is done at the expense of our loyalty to the textual authority.

As a matter of fact, we can omit nothing from the authentic text.

We cannot create a true picture of Hermetic philosophy in the IVth century if we dismiss half of the libelli contained in the Corpus Hermeticum.

The New Testament as it stands is the “Corpus Christianum,” which is to be accepted as a whole or not at all.

We can dismiss nothing that stands up to a reasonable philological critique.

We cannot suppress any single contradiction because we have no anterior or better or more reliable evidence.

We have to take the whole and make the best of it.

The “Corpus Christianum” tells the story of a God-Man and of the various ways in which His life and teaching were understood.

If Jesus was, as you portray Him, a rationally understandable teacher of fine morals and a devout believer in a good Father-God, why should the Gospels be stuffed with miracle stories and He Himself saddled with esoteric and eschatological statements, showing Him in the role of a Son-God and cosmological saviour?

If Jesus had indeed been nothing but a great teacher hopelessly mistaken in His messianic expectations, we should be at a complete loss in understanding His historical effect, which is so clearly visible in the New Testament.

If, on the other hand, we cannot understand by rational means what a God-Man is, then we don’t know what the New Testament is all about.

But it would be just our task to understand what they meant by a “God-Man.”

You give an excellent picture of a possible religious teacher, but you give us no understanding of what the New Testament tries to tell, namely the life, fate, and effect of a God-Man, whom we are asked to believe to be a divine revelation.

These are the reasons why I should propose to deal with the Christian Urphiinomen in a somewhat different way.

I think we ought to admit that we don’t understand the riddle of the New Testament.

With our present means we cannot unravel a rational story from it unless we interfere with the texts.

If we take this risk we can read various stories into the texts and we can even give them a certain amount of probability:

  1. Jesus is an idealistic, religious teacher of great wisdom, who knows that His teaching would make the necessary impression only if He were willing to sacrifice His life for it.

Thus He forces the issue in complete foreknowledge of the facts which He intends to happen.

  1. Jesus is a highly strung, forceful personality, forever at variance with His surroundings, and possessed of a terrific will to power.

Yet being of superior intelligence, He perceives that it would not do to assert it on the worldly plane of political sedition as so many similar zealots in His days had done.

He rather prefers the role of the old prophet and reformer of His people, and He institutes a spiritual kingdom instead of an unsuccessful political rebellion.

For this purpose He adopts not only the messianic Old Testament expectations, but also the then popular “Son of Man” figure in the Book of Enoch.

But meddling with the political whirlpool in Jerusalem, He gets Himself caught in its intrigues and meets a tragic end with a full recognition of His failure.

  1. Jesus is an incarnation of the Father-God. As a God-Man He walks the earth drawing to Himself the iKA£KroF of His Father,
    Announcing the message of universal salvation and being mostly misunderstood. As the crowning of His short career, He performs the supreme sacrifice in offering Himself up as the perfect host, and thus redeems mankind from eternal perdition.

You can make out a pretty good case from the texts for each of these three highly different variants, with the necessary omissions and violations of scriptural authority.

The first and second variants are “rational,” i.e., they happen to be within the frame of our contemporary understanding, while the third is definitely outside it; although up to about zoo years ago nobody thought so.

If we avoid violations of the authentic texts, we have to take into consideration the three possibilities, and perhaps some more, and then we must try to find out which theory would fit the complete picture.

Since the Gospels do not give, and do not even intend to give, a biography of the Lord, the mere reconstruction of a life of Jesus could never explain the picture given by the texts.

The little we know of His biography must needs be supplemented by a very careful study of the peculiar mental and spiritual atmosphere of the time and place of the gospel writers.

People at that time were highly Hellenized . Jesus Himself was under the influence of eschatological literature, as v1C.., lw8pw7rov8 bears out. (Cf. also the synagogue of the Dura Europos, which throws a new light on Jewish syncretism.)

That we call “Jesus Christ” is-I am afraid-much less a biographical problem than a social, i.e., collective, phenomenon, created by the coincidence of an ill-defined yet remarkable personality with a highly peculiar Zeitgeist that has its own no less remarkable psychology.

I must, dear Sir, apologize for the length of my letter.

Having myself given a great deal of thought to the problem of Jesus, and having also done some spadework in this field, I felt I had to give you an account of how and where I slipped up in trying to cope with the challenge of the Christian enigma.

Sure enough, we must believe in Reason.

But it should not prevent us from recognizing a mystery when we meet one.

It seems to me that no rational biography could explain one of the most “irrational” effects ever observed in the history of man.

I believe that this problem can only be approached through his history and comparative psychology of symbols.

Attempts in this direction have already yielded some interesting results. (Unfortunately there are no English publications yet to which I could refer.)

I am deeply obliged to you for your kind attention and I remain,

Yours sincerely,

C.G. Jung ~Carl Jung, Letters Vol. II, Pages 87-91.