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.