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Jesus’ Mental Health: Schweitzer’s Classic Work

February 17, 2018

I was sent recently a large manuscript giving what the author thought a novel view of Jesus:  a narcissist who organized a personality cult with a strong sectarian character.  I was reminded of the psychologizing portraits of Jesus from the 19th century, and especially some from the early 20th century.  The latter were influenced by the growing influence of Freud and psychiatry.

NT scholars (and many students) will know of Albert Schweitzer’s classic analysis of “lives of Jesus”:  The Quest of the Historical Jesus (German:  Von Reimarus zu Wrede, 1906).  But fewer (surprisingly fewer) scholars know of another of Schweitzer’s works:  The Psychiatric Study of Jesus:  Exposition and Criticism (German 1913; English translation 1948).  Schweitzer was, of course, a phenomenal intellect, with doctorates in theology, music, and medicine.  The Psychiatric Study of Jesus was his dissertation submitted as part of his medical degree requirements.  And Schweitzer became most widely known as a doctor, running a missionary hospital in Africa.

But his several works on NT studies make him also a historic contributor that field.  His particular emphasis in his approach to Jesus was to insist that he must be set in the context of a strong eschatological outlook and expectation of his time.  In Schweitzer’s view, Jesus lived within this “worldview” (to use a term of our time), and Jesus saw himself as particularly chosen by God to declare and help enact the eschatological drama that would bring the world’s redemption.

And Schweitzer set this eschatological emphasis over against the liberal Protestant views of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which presented Jesus as “the profoundly intelligent, wholly lovable exemplar of human possibilities” (from Charles Joy’s Introduction to The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, 25).  (Actually, this phrasing seems to me to apply also to some more recent “historical Jesus” portraits, perhaps especially J. D. Crossan’s.)  The fundamental error in this kind of “historical” Jesus portrait, Schweitzer insisted, was that it was anachronistic, that it failed to take adequate account of the religious context in which Jesus of Nazareth appeared and lived.

In dealing with attempts to categorize Jesus psychologically, Schweitzer argued that they all treated the evidence of Jesus’ actions and words by judging them against “modern” notions.  So, the scholars whom Schweitzer reviewed accused Jesus of “paranoia” and hallucinatory experiences, delusions of grandeur, megalomania, etc.[1]  Some (e.g., de Loosten) posited that Jesus had suffered from birth experiences and a family background that induced in him compensatory behaviour including an exaggerated self-consciousness, and a morbid sense of his future.  For William Hirsch, Jesus suffered from paranoia, and Schweitzer characterized Hirsch as claiming “no textbook on mental diseases could provide a more typical description of a gradually but ceaselessly mounting megalomania than that afforded by the life of Jesus.”[2]

Schweitzer subjected all such claims to more specific medical views of the conditions in question, pointing out that the reported behaviour of Jesus did not really fit these conditions.  For example, the forms of “chronic delirium,” Schweitzer noted, “are exactly the type which do not win supporters and disciples and found sects.”[3]

But Schweitzer’s more positive argument was this:

“We must consider here, first of all, that the ideas of religion which Jesus shares with his contemporaries and which he has accepted from tradition may not be considered as diseased, even when they appear to our modern view entirely strange and incomprehensible.  De Loosten, Hirsch and Binet-Sanglé repeatedly transgress this fundamental rule.”[4]

So, for example, Schweitzer urged that beliefs in angels, demons, resurrection, and an eschatological judgement, and expectations of a Messiah who would serve as God’s chosen vehicle of salvation cannot be considered “abnormal,” if properly judged by the time.  Likewise, that Jesus forewent marriage doesn’t readily evidence a morbid personality or someone with sexual hangups; for the extant evidence connects Jesus’ life-choices with an apparent conviction that God called him to a special mission that required his full attention.

As Schweitzer noted, Jesus’ reported rift with his family (Mark 3:21-35) is not indicative of some principled rejection of “family” as such, but, instead, was caused by Jesus’ family apparently seeking to seize him, and thereby obstruct his ministry.

I won’t attempt here to report all of Schweitzer’s arguments.  Those interested should read the small book.  Whatever you think about resurrection of the dead, it’s apparent that old ideas that seemed, justifiably, to die or be killed off sometimes come back into life.  They are typically promoted as some new discovery by individuals inadequately informed in the history of scholarship.  (In an earlier posting here, I characterized this phenomenon as “zombie theories,” ideas that get killed off by facts, but then get re-asserted as if new, the Internet making it possible for them to circulate widely.)

Schweitzer himself can be criticized for some of his assumptions and positions; but in his emphasis on approaching Jesus of Nazareth in his own historical context, Schweitzer serves us well to this day.

[1] The scholars whom Schweitzer’s book addressed were George de Loosten (a.k.a. Dr. Georg Lomer), William Hirsch, and Charles Binet-Sanglé.

[2] Albert Schweitzer, A Psychiatric Study of Jesus:  Exposition and Criticism (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1948, 1958), 41.

[3] Schweitzer, A Psychiatric Study, 57.

[4] Schweitzer, A Psychiatric Study, 60.

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  1. Jack Dalby permalink

    Hello Professor Hurtado and thanks for the intro to the Schweitzer work. My question is this: how is it that so many speak with authority as to Jesus’ lifelong stance towards marriage? As you summarize Schweitzer, “Likewise, that Jesus forewent marriage doesn’t readily evidence a morbid personality or someone with sexual hangups; for the extant evidence connects Jesus’ life-choices with an apparent conviction that God called him to a special mission that required his full attention.” Certainly, it seems reasonable that Jesus was unmarried during his 1-3 year ministry (you’d think someone would have noticed a Mrs. Jesus), but what about the previous 27 years or so? The gospels are silent on the topic with the exception of a couple of vague, sidelong glances. For example, in Mark, Jesus’ neighbors are astounded by his actions. In so many words they say, “what happened to Jesus? Isn’t he the kid from down the street? And don’t we know his mother and siblings?” Not exactly a comment you’d expect if Jesus had been the celibate, neighborhood oddball. Then there’s Paul’s response to a question about virginity. He tells the Corinthians that he has no word of the Lord on that topic. Odd. One would think Jesus’ lifelong celibacy, if such was the case, would be known to Paul. Your thoughts? Thanks.

    • Jack: It’s the other way around–If Jesus had once been married,you’d think we’d have some reference to it. But also, there are reasons that he would have foregone marriage. If Joseph died early, as oldest son Jesus would have been responsible for the family. Also, though perhaps not the “neighborhood oddball,” it’s fully plausible that he felt some strong religious stirrings early in life (many experience strongest religious feelings in youth years). And I don’t get your point about the Nazareth crowd. How is their reference to Jesus’ mother & brothers evidence that he wasn’t celibate??
      And, as I wrote earlier, Jesus’ own celibacy was a personal mission-choice, not some lifestyle that he advocated for others. So, Paul had no word from Jesus about whether unmarried believers should marry or not. So??

  2. Tim Henderson permalink

    Thanks for noting this classic work. Indirectly related, Justin Meggitt’s upcoming book – “The Madness of King Jesus” – claims that the primary reason for Jesus’ execution was that the Romans *perceived* Jesus as crazy/delusional, and that they did not actually consider him to be a legitimate political threat. In his estimation, this also explains why there was apparently no effort by the Romans to round up the followers of Jesus for punishment or execution. On the surface, this seems plausible, but I’d like to see the entire argument before rendering a verdict.

  3. John Mitrosky permalink

    I think psychoanalyzing Jesus is useless, like it is useless to psychoanalyze M.K. Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. All three men belong to their special times and places and should be revered and above all, learned from, as hopeful and optimistic advocates for the persecuted, the oppressed, the poor and the powerless. In Jesus’ time, persecution, oppression, poverty and powerlessness was all the more extreme and brutal, making visionary, apocalyptic hope for an eschatological transformation of this world all the more understandable. It is about learning and a courageous faith to try and transform human nature, which all ways triumphs over despair. Some narcissism and personality cult is just the unavoidable side effect of having leadership-like influence over others.

  4. Deane permalink

    True. It bought to mind Nietzsche’s aphorism (from Beyond Good and Evil):
    “Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.”

    • Well, Nietzsche would certainly have known first-hand what it was to be a bit mad!

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