Was Jesus Crazy?
When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion, it is called Religion.
--Robert M Pirsig
Jesus' mental state
Jesus was one of the most controversial and charismatic figures of his time. His teachings were iconoclastic. His personality and demeanor were disruptive and shocking to the social order. Jesus claimed to be the son of God, an outrageous assertion for any person in any time or place, but especially in the extremely religious world of first century Palestine.
His claim to divinity and omnipotence is also typical of certain mental disorders. There are other indications in Jesus' behavior that he may have been deranged.
Assuming the stories of Jesus' life represent real experiences of the man, a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia is probably the most likely if Jesus was mentally unstable. Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia include:
- Auditory hallucinations, such as hearing voices
- Delusions, such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you
- Emotional distance
- Self-important or condescending manner
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
Delusions can include the belief that an authority or institution is "out to get you" or monitoring one's every move. They can also include delusions of grandeur, in which one believes they can do amazing or impossible things. Auditory hallucinations are sounds or voices that no one else can hear. Paranoid schizophrenics are usually able to function more or less normally in day-to-day life. This is relatively unique among sufferers of schizophrenia.
Jesus' willing acceptance of execution by Roman authorities is arguably an indication of suicidal behavior. This passiveness in the face of death has been understood by Christian tradition as Jesus "having a plan" all along. His belief that he had miraculous powers of healing and other powers may indicate delusions of grandeur. Another potential example of delusional behavior is Jesus' reference to bread and wine as his "body" and "blood" for the Apostles to eat and drink, during the Last Supper (Matthew 26: 26-28).
Jesus had conversations with what he considered to be Satan (Matthew 4: 1-11), and claimed to be in communication with God the Father. Jesus exhibited other symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia: anxiety, anger, emotional distance, argumentativeness and condescension.
Biblical indications of mental disturbance
Jesus believed he was sent by God on a special mission:
Jesus answered them and said, "My doctrine is not Mine, but His who sent Me." (John 7:16)
Then Jesus cried out, as He taught in the temple, saying, "You both know Me, and you know where I am from; and I have not come of Myself, but He who sent Me is true, whom you do not know. But I know Him, for I am from Him, and He sent Me." (John 7: 28-29)
A common belief in paranoid schizophrenics is that they have been "sent" on a "mission," and that they are "chosen" above others for some special purpose.
Paranoid schizophrenics often borrow from the cultural context to construct their delusions. For instance, John Nash, the genius American mathematician who went through this disorder in the 1950s, believed that communists were plotting against him. If Jesus was a paranoid schizophrenic, it makes sense that he would understand his delusions in the context of the beliefs and motifs of his culture: miracles, the God of the Hebrews, the Jewish messiah and the prophecies of the Old Testament all played a role in his claims.
Jesus exhibited delusional and erratic behavior. One example is his chastising of Peter, one of his followers, seeming to refer to him as Satan:
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." (Mark 8: 31-33)
Perhaps Jesus thought Peter was Satan in this moment, or that he was possessed by Satan. This passage also demonstrates a belief that the power structure (the elders, chief priests and scribes) is aligned against him.
Jesus often refers to himself in the third person, perhaps indicating delusions of self-importance:
Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it. For He taught His disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day." But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him. (Mark 9: 30-32)
His followers may have been "afraid to ask him" to clarify this statement because they were intimidated by his erratic behavior or unpredictable temper. This passage again demonstrates conspiratorial paranoia on the part of Jesus.
Jesus also made contradictory statements and claims. He says:
Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Mark 10: 15)
So only children are eligible. Yet later in Mark 10 he says, also assuredly:
So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time... and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mark 10: 29-30)
Jesus displayed physically violent behavior once during the Gospels:
Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" (Matthew 21: 12-13)
Mental disturbances often have their roots in childhood. A difficult family life or alienation from parents can contribute to mental problems later in life. In Jesus' case, the myth of his virgin birth points to a potentially troubled childhood. His mother Mary was already pregnant by the time of her engagement to Joseph, a shocking and outrageous occurrence in a culture where female virginity held paramount importance.
Thus it is quite plausible that Mary's extramarital relations, whether a one-time occurrence or an ongoing feature of the marriage, sowed the seeds of mistrust and animosity between Mary and Joseph. It is not hard to imagine a very difficult childhood, or father Joseph as a potential emotional or physical abuser of Mary and Jesus.
The death of Jesus
A major piece of evidence that Jesus was mentally disturbed is the fact that he went to the grave for his beliefs. Rather than simply relinquish his fantastic claims to avoid pain, torture and death, he held onto them until the very end. It is very hard to imagine a sane person behaving this way. A sane person may concoct an unbelievable story, but when push comes to shove and his life is in danger, he will usually relent. Even pride or the desire for a "legacy" or to save face is rarely enough to overcome the basic survival impulse in a normal person.
Jesus' genius, insanity and legacy
Needless to say, it is impossible to know for sure what Jesus' mental state was, and these lines of evidence are certainly not conclusive. It is just as possible that Jesus himself was a sane teacher, but many of his followers were mentally unbalanced. This would help to explain why many had visions of Jesus after he was dead. Gospel writers and others may have experienced delusions or false memories, in addition to fabrications, exaggerations and white lies. It is not hard to imagine that, as the years went by after Jesus' death, such exaggerations and fantasies multiplied as the myth of Jesus snowballed.
There is a very low incidence of major religious leaders and prophets through history. If many of them were mentally deranged in one way or another, this would be consistent with the low occurrence of mental disorders in the general population.
If Jesus was insane, it doesn't negate his contributions to ethics or philosophy, any more than John Nash's insanity diminishes his contributions in mathematics, economics and other fields. There is an established connection between mental disturbance and extreme intelligence. While not characteristic of all geniuses or all insane people, an overlap between genius and insanity has been observed. Sometimes it takes someone of mental disturbance to provide the kind of bold and iconoclastic thinking that disrupts existing norms and assumptions, but also opens the path to new human potential.