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Jesus’ Mental Health: Schweitzer’s Classic Work

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.

A Splendid Study of P47: Papyrus Copy of Revelation

I’ve just finished an initial reading of a praiseworthy new study of P47 (P.Beatty III), an early papyrus copy of Revelation:  Peter Malik, P. Beatty III (P47): The Codex, Its Scribe, and Its Text, NTTSD 52 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).   It’s just the sort of thorough study that I hoped we will now see more of, one that addresses the manuscript as artifact, as well as analyzing its text.

Malik has done an admirably thorough and careful job (the book arises from his Cambridge PhD thesis), and his study should be noted and consulted on the textual transmission of Revelation, on copying habits and the physicality of ancient textual transmission, codicology of early papyri, and as a model for analogous future projects.

P47 (P.Beatty III) comprises ten papyrus leaves containing Revelation 9:10–17:2, approximately the central one-third of Revelation.  The manuscript is one of the remarkable collection of early Christian papyri housed in the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin). Malik proposes a date of sometime 250-325 CE (on palaeographical and codicological grounds), and his reasoning strikes me as well founded.

It was a “single gathering” (or “single quire”) manuscript.  That is, all the folded sheets were stitched together in one binding, reflecting a frequent method of codex construction in the earliest phases of serious use of this book form.  Malik concluded that (as with some other examples) the codex was probably first constructed and then the text was copied into the bound codex. (Which means that the copyist first had to estimate the likely number of sheets necessary.  And Malik judges that there were several blanks leaves at the end of the codex, indicating how difficult making such an estimate could be.)

The quality of the copyist’s “hand” is rather “informal” and not high-quality calligraphy by any means.  This adds to the impression that P47 is “a product of an informal, uncontrolled setting” and with “no pretension to being a product of high literary culture” (222).  Malik grants that the codex could have been intended for personal, individual usage, but also that it could have been prepared for group/church usage among a circle unable to afford or produce a higher-quality copy.

One of the major advantages over previous studies of P47 that Malik enjoyed in his work was direct access to the leaves (“autopsy” inspection), plus the recent high-quality color photos produced for the CBL by the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (  (I am pleased to have been instrumental in arranging for the CBL biblical papyri to be photographed.)  This afforded a major advance over previous studies that had to rely on the older photo-facsimile edition of Kenyon.

Malik also devotes considerable and detailed attention to the text and the copyist who produced it, and his analysis now supersedes prior studies of the copyist of P47, including James Royse’s widely appreciated analysis:  James R. Royse, Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri, NTTS 36 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).  After detailed analysis, Malik concludes that P47 was the product of “a scribe who attempts to copy his exemplar accurately, but frequently lacks adequate skill and/or discipline to do so” (172).

There is no evidence of any ecclesiastical control or coercion, nor is there any indication of any doctrinally-influenced attempt to alter the text.  Instead, the variants in the manuscript are almost entirely copyist mistakes, often through lapses in the visual and hand mechanics of copying.  One of the more innovative analyses is Malik’s study of the correlation of copyist errors with the “re-inking” of the copyist’s pen (these points often observable in the variations in ink intensity).

My book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) was intended to encourage greater attention to earliest manuscripts as physical artifacts, not only copies of texts.  I am all the more pleased, therefore, to see the impressive study now produced by Malik, and I hope that other (probably emergent) scholars will conduct similar projects.

Among my own students, the equally splendid study by Andy Smith reflects this approach: W. Andrew Smith, A Study of the Gospels in Codex Alexandrinus: Codicology, Palaeography, and Scribal Hands (Leiden: Brill, 2014).




Nero, Tacitus, the Fire, and Christians

A newly-published article addresses again the recently raised question about the reports of Nero’s pogrom against Roman Christians, blaming them for the fire of Rome:  Birgit Van der Lans and Jan N. Bremmer, “Tacitus and the Persecution of the Christians:  An Invention of Tradition?” Eirene.  Studia Graeca et Latina 53 (2017): 301-33.

A couple of years earlier, Brent Shaw had challenged the evidence, contending that the Neronian pogrom was likely a Christian invention, and that Tacitus (our primary source for the event) had unwittingly been influenced (somehow) by this tradition:  Brent D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution,” Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015): 73-100.

Christopher Jones then responded briefly to Shaw’s article, contending that Shaw’s argument was flawed and that the traditional view was still valid:  Christopher P. Jones, “The Historicity of the Neronian Persecution:  A Response to Brent Shaw,” New Testament Studies 63 (2017): 146-52.

Van der Lans and Bremmer go farther and offer a fresh contribution to the analysis of the sources, as well as an answer to the question of whether the report in Tacitus is reliable.  Van der Lans examines the “pagan” sources that report on Nero, the fire and his treatment of Christians, contending cogently that each source is shaped by the literary/rhetorical objectives of its author, and that this explains why there are the variations among the sources in how these matters are handled.

As well, the article includes a fresh analysis of the pre-150 CE Christian sources, showing that the tradition of a Rome-based persecution, and more specifically one connected to Nero, is very early, and so (contra Shaw) not likely a Christian invention of the second century CE.

As a further contribution, Bremmer gives a fresh discussion of the origins and earliest usage of the term “Christians,” concluding (rightly, I think) that it was initiated among outsiders (non-Christians) and was only across time adopted as a group self-designation.  The range of evidence surveyed by Bremmer is impressive, and I think must now be consulted by anyone on the question.

The journal may not be held in some libraries, which is unfortunate.  But Van der Lans has put a copy up on her pages in  Highly recommended.

Appreciation and Critique: Engaging with Others on early Jesus-Devotion

I have now uploaded to this site a pre-publication version of what became the Epilogue to the 3rd edition of my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).  The upload is under the “Selected Essays” tab here.

In the essay, I sketch some of the circumstances and influences that helped to shape my early investigations into the origins of Jesus-devotion.  These include Bousset, Hengel, Bauckham, Segal and others.  But the bulk of the essay (“Ongoing Debate”) is an engagement with many scholars who contributed to the discussion subsequently to the 2nd edition of the book (1988).  These include Adela Yarbro Collins, Crispin Fletcher-Louis, Paula Fredriksen, Bauckham, N.T. Wright, Maurice Casey, James McGrath, J.D.G. Dunn, Chris Tilling, Andrew Chester, Christopher Kaiser, and others.

This version also has a few updates, however, specifically references to my essay in the volume honoring Richard Bauckham, and my essay-critique of N.T. Wright’s “embodied return of YHWH” claims.

Scholars and students who want/need to cite my discussion will have to acquire or otherwise get access to the published 3rd edition of the book.  But those who simply want to check out what I’ve written can consult this pre-publication version.

Video on Methods in NT Studies

Our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins has just released another of the short videos featuring “yours truly,” this one responding to questions about fashions and methods in NT studies.  The link is here.

Engaging Bauckham on Early Christology

I have uploaded the pre-publication version of my essay engaging the work of Richard Bauckham on early christology, under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this site here.  The published form of the essay appeared in a volume in honor of Bauckham:  In the Fullness of Time: Essays on Christology, Creation, and Eschatology in Honor of Richard Bauckham, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner, Grant Macaskill, Jonathan T. Pennington
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

As the publication is now two years old, and in the interest of making my discussion more widely available, I have uploaded the typescript.  Also, I hope that this will alert scholars and students to the volume, which has a number of other fine essays.

“The Law” in the NT: Word Stats

Tools such as BibleWorks (and I am the grateful recipient of a copy of version 9) allow one to perform some quick analysis of word-usage and comparative frequency.  Here are some raw numbers, with little by way of comment.

Greek forms of the word for “law” (νομος, νομον, νομου, νομῳ) appear some 191 times in the Greek NT.  Of this total, the distribution is interesting:  Romans (74x), Galatians (32x), Acts (16x), John (15x), Hebrews (12x), James (10x), 1 Corinthians (9x, 6 of these in chapter 9 ), Luke (9), Matthew (8x), Philippians (3x), 1 Timothy (2x), Ephesians (1x).  No uses at all in Mark, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, Jude, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, or Revelation.

It’s particularly interesting to me to note the figures for the Pauline Corpus:  In the undisputed epistles, the word appears 118x, in four epistles.  The 74x in Romans accounts for 62% of this total, and uses in Romans and Galatians comprise 90% of the total.  Clearly, Paul’s focus on “the law” was not characteristic of most of his letters.  So, was the “law/gospel” theme quite so central for Paul as it became for Luther??

Of the Gospels, GJohn has the largest usage (15x), followed by GLuke (9x) and then GMatthew (8x).  Interesting:  that very “Judaic” looking GMatthew has a comparatively modest number of uses of “law”.  But the combative tone of GJohn (featuring conflicts between Jesus and Jewish authorities and crowds) is reflected in the greater number of uses of “law”.

Code-Switching in the Gospel of Mark

I have just finished reading a valuable study of the use of various languages in the Gospel of Mark: Alfredo Delgado Gómez, “¡Levántate! ¡Ábrete! El Idiolecto de Marcos a la Luz de la Sociolingüística,” Estudios Eclesiásticos 93 (2018), 29-86.

Delgado Gómez first introduces some key concepts from linguistics, including particularly language “code-switching,” the deliberate use/incorporation of foreign words.  Then, in the main part of the article, he analyses this phenomenon in Mark.  But he also analyses the nature of Mark’s Greek, seeking to place it in the social register of the late first century CE.

In Mark, a narrative written in Koine Greek, we have the use of Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin terms.  Why?  Delgado Gómez offers what seem to me sound, balanced, and considered answers that contribute to our understanding of the historical and social situation reflected in Mark.

Essentially, Delgado Gómez argues that the use of words/expressions from these various other languages was deliberate, not “linguistic interference” where a writer’s use of one language is affected by prior exposure to another.  The net effects include dramatic realism in the narrative (e.g., as in the instances where we have Semitic expressions on Jesus’ lips).

For readers able to handle Spanish sufficiently, I strong recommend this article.  And I wish that the author might make a translation available for a wider readership!

Group-Identity Expressions in Earliest Christian Circles

My paper, “Earliest Expressions of a Discrete Group-Formation among Jesus-Believers,” appeared in the most recent issue of the journal, Estudios Biblicos 75.3 (2017): 451-70.  I have now placed a PDF of the pre-publication version on this blog site under the “Selected published essays” tab.  But those who cite the essay should make use of the published article.

One of the highlights of 2017 was the invitation to address the annual meeting of the Asociación Bíblica Española (which met in Málaga in late August), and the invitation included the request to address the topic of the published essay.

Here is the gist of the essay expressed in the opening paragraph:

Already, in the earliest extant evidence (undisputed letters of Paul), we have various expressions of what amounts to a discrete group-formation and group-identity among circles of believers in Jesus.  These expressions include (1) a number of verbal group “self-designations,” (2) key rituals of initiation, worship and fellowship, and (3) distinguishing core beliefs and convictions.  First-century Christian groups were not uniform in these matters, and as historical circumstances changed across the first and second centuries, there were undeniably changes in the Jesus-movement, and a growing sense of being a new religion, “Christianity,” more fully distinct from the Jewish matrix in which the Jesus-movement arose.  But the point I shall argue here is that apart from, and well before, any such “parting of the ways” between “Judaism” and “Christianity,” the dynamics and expressions of a discrete group-consciousness seem to have characterized the Jesus-movement, indeed, from its earliest years


Semitic Language in Mark

It is interesting that Mark has more Semitic words/expressions (mainly Aramaic) than any of the other Gospels.  What are we to make of this?  Some might suggest that these are the residue of an Aramaic original.  But there is nothing that corroborates this, and a good deal that makes it improbable.

In preparing a conference paper on the ritual use of Jesus’ name in earliest Christian exorcism and healing, two instances of Mark’s “Semitisms” came up again for consideration:  the expression “talitha koum” in the raising of the girl in Mark 5:41, and the expression “ephphatha” in the healing of the deaf and mute man in 7:34, both expressions unique to Mark.  Scholars such as Adela Yarbro Collins (in her large and richly resourced commentary on Mark in the Hermeneia series) rightly judge that these are not spells or incantations.[1]  Other scholars, however, have proposed that they are magical terms, that they are examples of a magical device involving the pronunciation of foreign/exotic words or phrases.   There are many examples of this in the magical texts from the ancient world.[2]  But I tend to think that this reading of the Markan examples is incorrect.

My first reason is this:  If the author intended to depict Jesus using this device, why only in these two instances?  In particular, given the prominent place of exorcism in Mark’s account of Jesus, why is the supposed device not used at all in these narratives?

Second, it’s worth noting again my opening statement, that the author uses Semitic words/phrases a number of times, not just in these miracle texts.  Mark alone tells us that Jesus named the Zebedee brothers “boanerges” (3:17).  Mark alone has Jesus accusing the scribes of the practice of “corban.” And also Mark alone places “Abba” on Jesus’ lips in Gethsemane (14:36).

But, in addition, there are still other Semitic terms in Mark, that are also used by one or both of the other Synoptic Gospels: “Beelzebul” 3:22, echoed in Matthew & Luke); “Gehenna” (9:43-47, echoed in Matthew); “Hosanna” (11:9-10, echoed in Matthew); Golgotha (15:22, also in Matthew); and, of course, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34, a variant form in Matthew).

In these other instances, it looks more like the literary or story-telling device of what we might call “language color.”  That is, inserting something of the language of the historical characters and events for dramatic effect.  It’s like what we have sometimes in English-language movies, in which scenes of foreigners speaking to one another will have them using their authentic language, to give a note of added realism.  So, I think that the two Semitic expressions in the two miracle narratives should be seen in light of this wider usage of Semitic terms in Mark, apparently for dramatic effect.[3]

My third reason for doubting that “talitha koum” and “ephphatha” were intended as quasi-magical devices is that, just as usually his practice in the use of the other Semitic terms, the author translated them for his readers.  But in ancient magical practice, you don’t translate the exotic words!  For it’s their sounds that make them magical, not their translation.  Indeed, to translate them is practically to strip them of their magical power.

Moreover, in these two instances, note the translations.  In the one, Mark renders “talitha koum” as “little girl, arise,” which is pretty much what the expression means.  And in the other instance, Mark also rightly translates “ephphatha” as “be open”.  In other words, these sonorous-sounding expressions simply convey the typically simple commands by which Jesus performs his various miracles, according to the Gospel narratives.  Translated, they are almost banal!

So, my final suggestion about these particular instances is this:  Not only are they not really instances of the magical use of foreign/exotic expressions, Mark may actually have intended to counter any such idea!  It is as if he “sends up” the practice, taking what at first might appear to be the magical device of exotic words, and then translates them, thereby voiding any magical power.  Perhaps the intention was, if there is any allusion to magical practice, in short, to distinguish Jesus’ miracles from it.


[1] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark:  A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007)

[2] Hans Dieter Betz, ed., The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

[3] I made this basic suggestion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003), 265-66, and still earlier in my commentary, Mark (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1989; republished Grand Rapids:  BakerBooks, 2011), 87.

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