Mental Health of Jesus

The question of whether the historical Jesus was in good mental health has been explored by multiple psychologists, philosophers, historians, and writers. The first to openly question Jesus’ sanity was French psychologist Charles Binet-Sanglé, the chief physician of Paris and author of the book La Folie de Jésus. This view finds both supporters and opponents.
 

Opinions challenging the sanity of Jesus

The topic of the assessment of the psyche of Jesus first occurs in the gospels. The Gospel of Mark reports the opinion of members of Jesus’ family who believe that Jesus “is beside himself”. Some psychiatrists, religious scholars and writers explain that Jesus’ family, followers and contemporaries seriously regarded him as delusional, possessed by demons, or insane.

And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, “He is beside himself”. And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el′zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons”. — Mark 3:21-22 (RSV)

The accusation contained in the Gospel of John is more literal.

There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, “He has a demon, and he is mad; why listen to him?” — John 10:19-20 (RSV)

The topic was taken up again in the nineteenth century with the first quest for the historical Jesus. David Friedrich Strauss (Das Leben Jesu, second edition, 1864) claimed that Jesus was a fanatic. Friedrich Nietzsche (Thus Spoke ZarathustraThe Antichrist) suggested his mental immaturity. Oskar Panizza introduced Jesus as a psychopathological and paranoid case. Georg Lomer (as George de Loosten, Jesus Christus vom Standtpunkte des Psychiaters, 1905) described Jesus as a man with a “fixed delusional system”. However, it was not until Charles Binet-Sanglé, in his four-volume work La folie de Jésus, discussed the topic extensively and visibly.

Binet-Sanglé diagnosed Jesus as suffering from religious paranoia:

In short, the nature of the hallucinations of Jesus, as they are described in the orthodox Gospels, permits us to conclude that the founder of Christian religion was afflicted with religious paranoia. (vol. 2, p. 393)

His view was shared by the New York psychiatrist William Hirsch who, in 1912, published his study Religion and Civilization: The Conclusions of a Psychiatrist, enumerating a number of Jesus’ mentally aberrant behaviours. Hirsch agreed with Binet-Sanglé in that Jesus had been afflicted with hallucinations, and pointed to his “megalomania, which mounted ceaselessly and immeasurably”. Hirsch concluded that Jesus was “paranoid” – pure and simple, adding that:

But Christ offers in every respect an absolutely typical picture of a wellknown mental disease. All that we know of him corresponds so exactly to the clinical aspect of paranoia, that it is hardly conceivable how anybody at all acquainted with mental disorders, can entertain the slightest doubt as to the correctness of the diagnosis. (p. 103)

Soviet psychiatrist Y. V. Mints (1927) also diagnosed Jesus as suffering from paranoia. The literature of the USSR in the 1920s, following the tradition of the demythologization of Jesus, created in the works Strauss, Renan, Nietzsche and Binet-Sanglé, put forward two main themes – mental illness and deception. This was reflected in the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov The Master and Margarita, in which Jesus is depicted (articulated by Pilate) as a harmless madman. It was only at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s that in the Soviet Union’s propaganda won the mythological option, namely the denial of the existence of Jesus.

Jesus’ mental health was also questioned by the British psychiatrists William Sargant and Raj Persaud, a number of psychologists of the psychoanalytic orientation, e.g., Georges Berguer in his study “Quelques traits de la vie de Jésus au point de vue psychologique et psychanalytique”.

Władysław Witwicki, a rationalist philosopher and psychologist, in the comments to his own translation of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (Dobra Nowina według Mateusza i Marka [pl]) attributed to Jesus subjectivism, increased sense of his own power and superiority over others, egocentrism and the tendency to subjugate other people, as well as difficulties communicating with the outside world and multiple personality disorder, which made him a schizothymic or even schizophrenic type (according to the Ernst Kretschmer’s typology).

English psychiatrist Anthony Storr in his final book Feet of Clay; Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus (1996) suggests that there are psychological similarities between crazy “messiahs” such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, and respected religious leaders, including Jesus. Storr tracks typical patterns, often involving psychotic disorders that shape the development of the guru. His study is an attempt to look at Jesus as one of many gurus. Storr agrees with most scholars of historical Jesus who are inclined to the hypothesis of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet.

It seems inescapable that Jesus did share the apocalyptic view that God’s final conquest of evil was at hand and that God’s kingdom would be estabished upon earth in the near future.

Storr recognizes Jesus’ many similarities to other gurus. It is, for example, going through a period of internal conflict during his fasting in the desert. According to him, if Jesus really considered himself a deputy for God and believed that one day he would come down from heaven to rule, he was very similar to the gurus whom he had previously described as preachers of delusions possessed by mania of greatness. He notes that Jesus was not ideal in family life (Mark 3:31–35Mark 13:12–13). Gurus often remain indifferent to family ties. Other similarities, according to Storr, include Jesus’ faith in receiving a special revelation from God and a tendency to elitism, in the sense that Jesus believed that he had been specially marked by God.

In 1998–2000 Pole Leszek Nowak (born 1962) from Poznań authored a study in which, based on his own history of religious delusion of mission and overvalued ideas, and information communicated in the Gospels, made an attempt at reconstructing Jesus’ psyche, with the view of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, taking into account the hypothesis of “suicide by proxy”. He does so in chapters containing, in sequence, an analysis of character traits of the “savior of mankind”, a description of the possible course of events from the period of Jesus’ public activity, and a naturalistic explanation of his miracles.

Religious Studies scholar Justin Meggitt suggests in his article ″The Madness of King Jesus: Why was Jesus Put to Dead, but his Followers were not?″ (2007) and in his book The Madness of King Jesus: The Real Reasons for His Execution (2010) that Pilate and the other Romans regarded Jesus as an insane, deceived lunatic. Therefore, only Jesus was sentenced to death, while his disciples were not. Jesus was to be presented to Pilate and sentenced to death as a royal pretender, while the standard Roman procedure was the prosecution and execution of would-be insurgents with their leaders. Jesus’ disciples not only did not meet such a fate, but even later they did not experience any harassment from the Roman authorities while preaching about Jesus.

In 2012 a team of psychiatrists, behavioral psychologists, neurologists, and neuropsychiatrists from the Harvard Medical School published a research which suggested the development of a new diagnostic category of psychiatric disorders related to religious delusion and hyperreligiosity. They compared the thoughts and behaviors of the most important figures in the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul) with patients affected by mental disorders related to the psychotic spectrum using different clusters of disorders and diagnostic criteria (DSM-IV-TR), and concluded that these Biblical figures “may have had psychotic symptoms that contributed inspiration for their revelations”, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, manic depression, delusional disorder, delusions of grandeur, auditory-visual hallucinations, paranoia, Geschwind syndrome (Paul especially), and abnormal experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). The authors suggest that Jesus sought to condemn himself to death (“suicide by proxy”).

Opinions defending the sanity of Jesus

Opinions and publications questioning the sanity of Jesus, especially Charles Binet-Sanglé and William Hirsch, triggered polemical reactions. They were first challenged by Albert Schweitzer in his doctoral thesis entitled The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism (Die psychiatrische Beurteilung Jesu: Darstellung und Kritik, 1913) and by psychiatrist Walter Bundy in his 1922 book The psychic health of Jesus.

The mental health of Jesus is defended by psychiatrists Olivier Quentin Hyder, also by Pablo Martinez and Andrew Sims in their book Mad or God? Jesus: The healthiest mind of all (2018).

Also, Christian apologists, such as Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel, take up the subject of Jesus’ sanity defense.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Jesus of Nazareth:

Pope Benedict XVI

A broad current of liberal scholarship has interpreted Jesus′ Baptism as a vocational experience. After having led a perfectly normal life in the province of Galilee, at the moment of his Baptism he is said to have had an earth-shattering experience. It was then, we are told, that he became aware of his special relationship to God and his religious mission. This mission, moreover, supposedly originated from the expectation motif then dominant in Israel, creatively reshaped by John, and from the emotional upheaval that the event of his Baptism brought about in Jesus′ life. But none of this can be found in the texts. However much scholarly erudition goes into the presentation of this reading, it has to be seen as more akin to a ″Jesus novel″ than as an actual interpretation of the texts. The texts give us no window into Jesus′ inner life – Jesus stands above our psychologizing (Guardini, Das Wesen des Christentums).

The agnostic atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote on his own blog:

And he may well have thought (I think he did think) that he would be made the messiah in the future kingdom. That may have been a rather exalted view of himself, but I don’t think it makes Jesus crazy. It makes him an unusually confident apocalyptic prophet. There were others with visions of grandeur at the time. I don’t think that makes him mentally ill. It makes him a first-century apocalyptic Jew.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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