How to study the psychology of Jesus. Don’t.
It’s both impossible and undesirable to study the psychology of Jesus. I say this in full awareness of some of the interesting work that has been done on this topic by Albert Schweitzer (1913), and John Miller (1997), among others (Darroch, 1947; Lee, 1948; Besdine, 1969). As the dates suggest, the psychoanalysis of Jesus is not currently a hot topic. However, the question of whether it can and should be attempted remains important.
The primary sources for the life of Jesus, the Gospels were written between 40 and 90 years after the death of Jesus. They were written with an agenda: to show that Jesus is the Messiah referred to in the Hebrew Testament (Tanakh).
Knowing this gives us a criterion for deciding how much to rely on particular statements by and about Jesus. If they further this particular agenda, they are less likely to be genuine Jesus. But only “less likely,” for we do not know the degree to which the historical Jesus (in contrast to the Jesus of the Gospels) regarded himself as the son of God. Aside from a brief mention by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, we know almost nothing about the man outside of the New Testament.
Scholars reconstructing a historical Jesus rely primarily on the synoptic Gospels, as they are called: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Mark seems to have been written first, and there are passages in Matthew and Luke that are virtually identical to Mark. Other passages in Matthew and Luke are virtually identical to each other. About one hundred twenty years ago, scholars decided that there must have been a document, now lost, that contained the material relied upon by Matthew and Luke not found in Mark. It is called Q, German for Quelle, the source document. It seems to have consisted almost entirely of the sayings of Jesus. Whether the sayings are genuine the document does not resolve.
Is Jesus sane? Does the question even make sense?
Consider the question of the sanity of Jesus. The most famous work in this genre remains Albert Schweitzer’s The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, originally published in 1913.* Schweitzer argues, as does Miller, that Jesus was sane because many of his otherwise psychotic beliefs were widely held at the time, above all that a Messiah was coming who would descend from heaven with an army of angels and establish a new order among men and women, in which the last would be first.
Neither author adequately distinguishes between believing in such an order, and believing that one is the Messiah who will usher in this order. It’s the difference between believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, which millions of presumably sane people believe today, and believing that I am Jesus Christ. To believe this is to be mad, though it’s worth noting that dozens of men were running around at this time claiming to be the Messiah. It’s one of history’s mysteries why Jesus won out over the others. Much of the credit must go to the indefatigable Paul, but that’s a story for another day.
Shared madness and the charm of Jesus
The genius of Jesus is found in the way his madness fit the needs of his followers. Most madness is expressed in a private language, one generally not shared with the world, such as the “influencing machine” as it is called. My thoughts are being controlled by the CIA, Antifa, or whomever. While not entirely unreasonable (the media are an influencing machine), the mad hold that the degree and extent of this influence is total.
Some mad men become leaders, and Jesus was one according to this theory. His madness was expressed in a language his followers could share: the Messiah is coming, and Jesus is it. Jesus’ distant nearness, the way he drew people to him while resisting their embrace, charmed the poor who desperately wanted to be saved from their suffering. Evidently a man of enormous charisma, a term that was later seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus shared his belief in his divinity with those who wanted to participate in it. He was the creation of oppressed peasants in desperate need of salvation from their greedy landlords.
Evidence for this claim is that Jesus lost his powers when he went home to Nazareth, where people knew him from childhood, and thought him simply mad. They didn’t share Jesus’ belief in his Messianic powers, and so he no longer possessed them.
He could not do any miracles there . . . . (Mark 6:5)
Jesus left Nazareth and never came back.
While the study of the psychology of Jesus frequently focuses on the fit between suffering peasants awaiting a messiah and Jesus’ claim to be that messiah (John 4:26), there is another dimension of Jesus’ teachings that receives less attention by the psychologically minded, The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5).
Thomas Jefferson rewrote the New Testament, removing the miracles, the resurrection, and any reference to the supernatural. It’s a denuded document, but it makes a point. At the core of Jesus’ teachings is instruction in the morality of everyday living. The Sermon on the Mount is the concise expression of this morality. While there are references to the kingdom of heaven, it is a teaching concerned with life in this world.
Jesus of generativity
How are we to reconcile the messianic Jesus and the Jesus of practical morality? One way is to argue that the messianic Jesus is the creation of the Gospel writers as propagandists, showing Jesus to be the Messiah spoken of in the Hebrew Testament. The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount comes closer to reportage, a more or less accurate retelling of the teachings of Jesus. From this perspective, the real Jesus is the Jesus Miller refers to in the language of Erik Erikson, the Jesus of generativity.
Generativity is the term Erikson employs to refer to the stage of development in which one moves from concern with personal achievement to a concern with the development of others. Miller uses the term to capture “Jesus at thirty,” that stage of his life in which he engages with the larger world, challenging the Jewish authorities. In Miller’s account, Jesus at thirty is the supremely well-adjusted man, ready to take on the next step of his life: the salvation of mankind.
Actually, Miller doesn’t say this. It would be ludicrous to compare Jesus’ developmental preparation for his life’s task with that of others. Which shows just what’s wrong with psychological studies of Jesus. Jesus is not the mature man who is able to care for the development of others, what generativity means. Jesus is the son of God, whose task is to save the world from the arms of Satan. I’m not claiming this. This is what the Gospels say, our only source.
One sees the limits of this source in Miller’s argument that “after an essentially normal, happy childhood, Jesus’ father died, leaving him heir to his father’s role in the family left behind.” (loc 620) This experience of both closeness and loss accounts for Jesus’ ability to act as generative father to all men and women. As eldest son he rehearsed this role many times with his family.
Trouble is, we know nothing about the relationship between Jesus and his father. The Gospel of Luke (2:41-50) tells the story that at twelve, Jesus was accidentally left behind at the Jerusalem temple where the family had gone for Passover. After a couple of days, the family went back, where they found Jesus in educated conversation with the teachers. That is all we know of Jesus’ father: that he was alive when Jesus was twelve. Jesus’ father is never mentioned again.
This doesn’t mean that his father died when Jesus was a teenager. He might have survived to see Jesus crucified. Ancient authors were remarkably uninterested in the private lives of their subjects. The years between twelve and thirty are absent in Biblical accounts because they are not important to the story of Jesus as savior. Many speculate the Jesus married during this time, as would have been expected of a Jewish man.
Miller has based an important part of his argument on nothing: that the source of Jesus’ generativity stemmed from his good relationship with his father who died young. Miller just makes it up. If anything is implied by Luke’s mention of Jesus and his family, it’s that they had no idea who he was or what he was up to (2:48-50). He’s not a father-figure; he’s an alien. This is corroborated by Jesus’ unwelcome return to Nazareth.
The psychological Jesus and the Jesus of Christian doctrine are incompatible. Not just contradictory, but incommensurable. To analyze the psychology of Jesus requires that we transform him into the Jesus of Jefferson’s Bible, a wise man who offers guidance to those struggling with the moral problems of everyday life. More is lost than gained by this approach. Jesus becomes a familiar character, rather than a man who is both more and less than a man.
More because he is the son of God, whatever that term means. For Mark, it seems to mean obedience to God, as though God were his father. For Matthew (3:17) it means more, though exactly what is unclear. And Jesus is less than a man, in the sense that he is without sin, a view that Miller rejects (loc 332), but almost all sources accept.**
Better that Jesus remain a stranger, irreconcilable with our psychological categories, than some paradigm of mature development. We do ourselves no favors when we take the strange and unfamiliar and make him safely ours.
* Albert Schweitzer’s The Psychiatric Study of Jesus was originally published in 1913. It is less well known, but more relevant, than his earlier The Search for the Historical Jesus.
** Because Jesus had a heavenly father, in whatever sense one understands the term, he was without sin. He was, however, tempted to sin (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2; 22:28). In this way he understands what it is to be human.
Matthew Besdine, “Mrs. Oedipus,” Psychology Today, January 1969.
Darroch, Jane. “An Interpretation of the Personality of Jesus.” British Journal of Medical Psychology 21 (1947): 75-79.
Erik Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle. Norton, 1994.
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (Jewish Antiquities). Franklin Classics, 2018.
Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s Abridgement of the Words of Jesus of Nazareth. Mark Beliles, 1993.
R. S. Lee, Freud and Christianity. Penguin, 1948.
John Miller, Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait. Fortress Press, 1997.
Albert Schweitzer, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. Barakaldo Books, 2020 (original 1913).