The question of whether the historical Jesus was in good mental health has been explored by multiple psychologists, philosophers, historians, and writers. The first person, after several other attempts at tackling the subject, broadly and thoroughly questioned the mental health of Jesus was French psychologist Charles Binet-Sanglé, the chief physician of Paris and author of a four-volume work La Folie de Jésus (The Madness of Jesus). This view finds both supporters and opponents.
The assessment of the sanity of Jesus first occurs in the gospels. The Gospel of Mark reports the opinion of members of his family who believe that Jesus "is beside himself." Some psychiatrists, religious scholars and writers explain that Jesus' family, followers (John 7:20), and contemporaries seriously regarded him as delusional, possessed by demons, or insane.
And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, "He is beside himself". And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Be-el′zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons".
The accusation contained in the Gospel of John is more literal:
There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, "He has a demon, and he is mad; why listen to him?"— John 10:19–20, Revised Standard Version
Justin Meggitt, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, suggests in his article ″The Madness of King Jesus: Why was Jesus Put to Death, but his Followers were not?″ (2007) and in his book The Madness of King Jesus: The Real Reasons for His Execution (2010) that Pilate and the other Roman people regarded Jesus as an insane deceived lunatic. According to the Gospels, Jesus was presented to Pilate and sentenced to death as a royal pretender, but the standard Roman procedure was the prosecution and execution of would-be insurgents with their leaders. Therefore, to suggest that Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities as some kind of royal pretender does not explain sufficiently why he was killed, unlike his disciples.
Jean Meslier (1664–1729) had similar thoughts in the 18th century. In chapters 33 and 34 of his Testament, he provides evidence for his conclusion that Jesus ″was really a madman, a fanatic″ (étoit véritablement un fou, un insensé, un fanatique).
Challenging the sanity of Jesus continued in the 19th century with the first quest for the historical Jesus. David Friedrich Strauss (Das Leben Jesu, second edition, 1864) claimed that Jesus was a fanatic. Lemuel K. Washburn (Was Jesus insane?) concluded, "Jesus was not divine, but insane". Oskar Panizza introduced Jesus as a psychopathological and paranoid case. Oskar Holtzmann (1903) diagnosed Jesus to be "ecstatic", which he described to be a pathologically-strong excitability of the imagination and the power of will. Georg Lomer (as George de Loosten, 1905) attempted to retrospectively diagnose Jesus as generally mentally ill, similarly to Jean Meslier. Emil Rasmussen (1905) determined Jesus to be either epileptic or paranoid. Using a few examples, he developed a description of the typical pathological prophet ("Prophetentypus") and applied it to Jesus. Julius Baumann (1908) hypothesised that the abnormalities he found in Jesus' behaviour could be explained by a nerve overstimulation (Nervenüberreizung). However, it was not until the publication of Charles Binet-Sanglé's four-volume work La folie de Jésus from 1908 to 1915 that the topic was extensively and visibly discussed.
Binet-Sanglé diagnosed Jesus as suffering from religious paranoia:
In short, the nature of the hallucinations of Jesus, as they are described in the orthodox Gospels, permits us to conclude that the founder of Christian religion was afflicted with religious paranoia.— (vol. 2, p. 393)
His view was shared by the New York psychiatrist William Hirsch, who in 1912 published his study, Religion and Civilization: The Conclusions of a Psychiatrist, which enumerated a number of Jesus' mentally-aberrant behaviours. Hirsch agreed with Binet-Sanglé in that Jesus had been afflicted with hallucinations and pointed to his "megalomania, which mounted ceaselessly and immeasurably". Hirsch concluded that Jesus was just a "paranoid":
But Christ offers in every respect an absolutely typical picture of a wellknown mental disease. All that we know of him corresponds so exactly to the clinical aspect of paranoia, that it is hardly conceivable how anybody at all acquainted with mental disorders, can entertain the slightest doubt as to the correctness of the diagnosis.— (p. 103)
The Soviet psychiatrist Y. V. Mints (1927) also diagnosed Jesus as suffering from paranoia. The literature of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, following the tradition of the demythologization of Jesus in the works of Strauss, Renan, Nietzsche, and Binet-Sanglé, put forward two main themes: mental illness and deception. That was reflected in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita in which Jesus is depicted by Pontius Pilate as a harmless madman. It was only at the turn of the 1920s and the 1930s that the mythological option, the denial of the existence of Jesus, won the upper hand in Soviet propaganda.
Jesus' mental health was also questioned by the British psychiatrists William Sargant and Raj Persaud, a number of psychologists of the psychoanalytic orientation, like Georges BerguerQuelques traits de la vie de Jésus au point de vue psychologique et psychanalytique.in his study
Władysław Witwicki, a rationalist philosopher and psychologist, in the comments to his own translation of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Dobra Nowina według Mateusza i Marka (The Good News according to Matthew and Mark ), which is in fact a psychobiography of Jesus, attributed that Jesus had subjectivism, an increased sense of his own power and superiority over others, egocentrism and the tendency to subjugate other people. He also had difficulties communicating with the outside world and dissociative identity disorder, which made him a schizothymic or even schizophrenic type (according to Ernst Kretschmer's typology).
The American theologian and psychologist of religion Donald Capps in his book Jesus: A Psychological Biography (1989, 2000) diagnosed Jesus as a utopian-melancholic personality (he looked forward to a coming kingdom of God) with suicidal tendencies.
New Testament scholar Andrew Jacob Mattill Jr.in his article in The Book Your Church Doesn't Want You To Read (1993), he draws attention to the ever-increasing megalomania of "John's Jesus" (described in the Gospel of John 6:29, 35, 38, 40, 47-58; 7:38; 8:12; 11:25-26; 14:6, 13-14) and concludes:
The more trust one puts in the Fourth Gospel's portrait of Jesus the more difficult it is to defend the sanity of Jesus.
The English psychiatrist Anthony Storr in his final book Feet of Clay; Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus (1996) suggested that there are psychological similarities between crazy "messiahs" such as Jim Jones and David Koresh and respected religious leaders including Jesus.[a] Storr tracks typical patterns, often involving psychotic disorders that shape the development of the guru. His study is an attempt to look at Jesus as one of many gurus. Storr agrees with most scholars of historical Jesus, who are inclined to the hypothesis of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet:
It seems inescapable that Jesus did share the apocalyptic view that God's final conquest of evil was at hand and that God's kingdom would be established upon earth in the near future.
Storr recognises Jesus' many similarities to other gurus. It was, for example, going through a period of internal conflict during his fasting in the desert. According to Storr, if Jesus really considered himself a deputy for God and believed that one day he would come down from heaven to rule, he was very similar to the gurus whom he had previously described as preachers of delusions possessed by mania of greatness. He notes that Jesus was not ideal in family life (Mark 3:31–35, Mark 13:12–13). Gurus often remain indifferent to family ties. Other similarities, according to Storr, include Jesus' faith in receiving a special revelation from God and a tendency to elitism, in the sense that Jesus believed that he had been specially marked by God.
American neuroendocrinology researcher Robert Sapolsky in his essay included in the book The Trouble with Testosterone: and Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament (1997, 1998) suggests the occurrence of schizotypal ("half-crazy", p. 248) behavior and metamagical thinking in Jesus and other charismatic religious leaders:
Oh, sure, one can overdo it, and our history is darkly stained with abortive religious movements inspired by messianic crackpots. (...) However, if you get the metamagical thoughts and behaviors to the right extent and at the right time and place, then people might just get the day off from work on your birthday for a long time to come.— (p. 256)
Then Sapolsky notes that "plausible links can to made among schizotypal behaviour, metamagical thought, and the founding of certain religious beliefs in both non-Western and Western societies." (p. 256)
In 1998–2000, Leszek Nowak (born 1962) from Poznań, Poland[b] authored a study in which, based on his own history of religious delusion of mission and overvalued ideas and information communicated in the Gospels, made an attempt at reconstructing Jesus' psyche, with the view of Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, taking into account the hypothesis of indirect suicide. He does so in chapters containing, in sequence, an analysis of character traits of the "savior of mankind", a description of the possible course of events from the period of Jesus' public activity, and a naturalistic explanation of his miracles.
In 2012, a team of psychiatrists, behavioral psychologists, neurologists and neuropsychiatrists from the Harvard Medical School published a research that suggested the development of a new diagnostic category of psychiatric disorders related to religious delusion and hyperreligiosity. They compared the thoughts and behaviors of the most important figures in the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul) with patients affected by mental disorders related to the psychotic spectrum using different clusters of disorders and diagnostic criteria (DSM-IV-TR), and concluded that these Biblical figures "may have had psychotic symptoms that contributed inspiration for their revelations", such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, delusional disorder, delusions of grandeur, auditory-visual hallucinations, paranoia, Geschwind syndrome (especially Paul) and abnormal experiences associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). According to the authors, in the case of Jesus, it could have been: paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar and schizoaffective disorders. They hypothesized that Jesus may have sought death through "suicide-by-proxy" (indirect suicide).
Opinions and publications questioning the sanity of Jesus, especially Charles Binet-Sanglé and William Hirsch, triggered polemical reactions. They were first challenged by Albert Schweitzer in his doctoral thesis, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism, (Die psychiatrische Beurteilung Jesu: Darstellung und Kritik, 1913) and by the American theologian Walter E. Bundy in his 1922 book, The psychic health of Jesus. Bundy summarized his defense of Jesus′ sanity:
A pathography of Jesus is possible only upon the basis of a lack of acquaintance with the course and conclusions of New Testament criticism and an amateur application of the principles of the science of psychiatry.— (p. 268)
Earlier (1908) the mental health of Jesus was defended by: the German Catholic theologian, professor of apologetics at the University of Würzburg, Philipp Kneib (Moderne Leben-Jesu-Forschung unter dem Einflusse der Psychiatrie) – against the arguments of Holtzmann, Lomer, Rasmussen and Baumann; the German evangelical theologian and pastor Hermann Werner (Die psychische Gesundheit Jesu) – against the arguments of Holtzmann, Lomer and Rasmussen; and also (1910) by the German psychiatrist, chief physician of the Friedrichsberg Mental Asylum in Hamburg, Heinrich Schaefer (Jesus in psychiatrischer Beleuchtung: eine Kontroverse) – against the arguments of Lomer and Rasmussen.
The mental health of Jesus is also defended by psychiatrists Olivier Quentin Hyder, also by Pablo Martinez and Andrew Sims in their book Mad or God? Jesus: The healthiest mind of all (2018). Christian apologists, such as Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel, also take up the subject of Jesus' sanity defense.
The defense of Jesus' mental health was devoted to an editorial in the magazine of Italian Jesuits La Civiltà Cattolica, published November 5, 1994. To the title question E se Gesù si fosse ingannato? ("What if Jesus was deceived?") the editors replied in the negative by arguing that Jesus was not a fanatic or megalomaniac but a mentally-healthy and very realistic person. Therefore, he did not deceive himself by saying that he was the messiah and the Son of God.
American biblical scholar James H. Charlesworth, in his essay Jesus Research and the Appearance of Psychobiography (2002), discusses previous attempts to write a psychobiography of Jesus. In the final reflection, he suggests that earlier (created at the beginning of the 20th century) images of a mentally disturbed, paranoid Jesus with hallucinations resulted from comparing him to paranoids in the clinics of their creators and applying Freudian psychology to ancient sources. According to the author, Jesus' intentions should be examined in the context of his place and era, using historical research.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his book Jesus of Nazareth:
A broad current of liberal scholarship has interpreted Jesus′ Baptism as a vocational experience. After having led a perfectly normal life in the province of Galilee, at the moment of his Baptism he is said to have had an earth-shattering experience. It was then, we are told, that he became aware of his special relationship to God and his religious mission. This mission, moreover, supposedly originated from the expectation motif then dominant in Israel, creatively reshaped by John, and from the emotional upheaval that the event of his Baptism brought about in Jesus′ life. But none of this can be found in the texts. However much scholarly erudition goes into the presentation of this reading, it has to be seen as more akin to a ″Jesus novel″ than as an actual interpretation of the texts. The texts give us no window into Jesus′ inner life – Jesus stands above our psychologizing (Guardini, Das Wesen des Christentums).
C. S. Lewis famously considered Jesus' mental health in what is known as Lewis's trilemma (the formulation quoted here is by John Duncan):
Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable.
The agnostic atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman wrote on his own blog:
And he may well have thought (I think he did think) that he would be made the messiah in the future kingdom. That may have been a rather exalted view of himself, but I don't think it makes Jesus crazy. It makes him an unusually confident apocalyptic prophet. There were others with visions of grandeur at the time. I don't think that makes him mentally ill. It makes him a first-century apocalyptic Jew.
That the other members of his own family considered him insane, is said quite plainly, for they openly declare, "He is beside himself."
He was thought to be insane by his own family and neighbors in 'when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself... (Mark 3:21–22 – The Greek existemi, translated as "beside himself", actually means insane and witless). The Greek 'ho para, translated as "friends", also means family.
Perhaps, even earlier, Jesus Christ might simply have returned to his carpentry following the use of modern [psychiatric] treatments.
Two thousand years ago Jesus received a crown of thorns. Today the Messianic have electro-convulsive therapy.
You can only do post-hoc forensic psychiatry on Koresh and Jones, but Charles Manson is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. But get it just right, and people are gonna get the day off from work on your birthday for millennia to come.