by Robert Conner
It’s clearly impolitic, to say nothing of impolite and impertinent, to ask if Jesus of Nazareth was as barking mad as, say, Pat Robertson, the Baptist Nosferatu, or Jim Bakker with his End Times food buckets, but before you cast the first stone or speed dial the local office of the Inquisition, just hear me out.
Jesus, which is basically Latin for Joshua, was a popular name in Roman occupied Palestine. As you’ll recall from all those wasted hours in Sunday school, Joshua was the Jewish general who led the conquest of the Promised Land, overseeing the slaughter of all the men, women and children in one Canaanite city after another, so naming children Joshua naturally reminded the Romans that the Jews could kick ass as well as kiss ass.
By 66 CE, the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War, the situation in the province of Judea had gotten so completely out of hand that the Roman general Vespasian invaded Galilee to restore the Roman order. When it became apparent to some that the Romans were going to eventually roll the rebel forces up like a rug, a Jewish general by the name of Josephus wisely decamped to the Roman side and eventually produced a history, The Wars of the Jews, our primary source of information about events up to and following the life of Jesus. Vespasian became the Roman emperor after the death of Nero and built the Flavian Amphitheatre, aka the Colosseum, the largest such structure ever raised, to commemorate his reign. His son Titus, who continued the war and destroyed Jerusalem in CE 70 before mopping up the last resistance at Masada, became emperor after his father died and to celebrate his victories built the Arch of Titus, an impressive piece of Roman propaganda that portrayed the Roman legions returning in triumph with sacred items from the Jewish Temple.
In Book Six of his Wars of the Jews, Josephus briefly relates the story of a certain Jesus son of Ananias, a rustic from the hinterlands, who began incessantly proclaiming a series of woes upon Jerusalem several years before the Romans attacked. Regarded by the Jewish leaders as demon possessed, this Jesus was hauled before the Roman governor Albinus and flogged to the bone with whips. Albinus eventually pronounced the wretched man insane and released him. During the siege of Jerusalem, while still preaching judgment on the city, a stone from a Roman catapult struck the unlucky Jesus, killing him instantly but confirming his predictions.
Jesus son of Ananias bears a striking similarity to Jesus of Nazareth, another rustic from the hinterlands—“No prophet comes from Galilee!” (John 7:52)—who likewise pronounced a series of woes on Jerusalem: “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2) Jesus was considered insane by his family and also regarded by the Jewish leaders as demon-possessed:
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons. (Mark 3:20-22)
The religious authorities also handed Jesus of Nazareth over to a Roman governor, Pilate, who had him flogged, but this Jesus was crucified rather than released. The similarities between the two Jesuses is anything but coincidental; Jerusalem “was the eschatological centre of the world, the destination of the homecoming Diaspora and of the pilgrimages of the nations, the place of the coming of the messiah…the place of judgment in Gehinnom and the metropolis of his coming kingdom” and as Martin Hengel noted, Jerusalem was also the focus of “eschatologically motivated attempts at rebellion.” (The Pre-Christian Paul, 55-56) Jerusalem, in short, was a well-established crazy magnet.
Recently a group of Israeli shrinks described the “Jerusalem Syndrome” in the British Journal of Psychiatry after “1200 tourists with severe, Jerusalem-generated mental problems” required emergency medical intervention over a period of 13 years. Jerusalem Syndrome is an obsessive-compulsive brand of batshittery that typically presents after the subject arrives in the city. In many cases the delusional self-identify with biblical characters and it may be less than a coincidence that when Jesus asked who the mysterious “Son of Man” might be, his disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matthew 16:14)
In one recent case, reported in Transcultural Psychiatry, a male subject made multiple attempts at self-mutilation. “Two years before his arrival in Israel, he had experienced a religious revelation after watching an evangelical TV program” and resolved to castrate himself based on Jesus’ admonition: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:12) Of course there’s nothing remotely abnormal about wanting to castrate someone after watching a few minutes of evangelical TV programming, but it is a bit odd for those impulses to be directed toward oneself.
Significantly, the question of Jesus’ sanity as well as the mental balance of his followers is raised within the founding documents of Christianity. Besides Jesus’ family declaring, “He’s out of his mind!” and the religious authorities claiming he was possessed, in his hometown, where people knew him best, he could perform no miracles (Mark 6:1-5). Jesus’ preaching—or at least the words attributed to him—often sound like something plagiarized from Anne Rice: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6:53-54) Not surprisingly at that point many of his erstwhile disciples switched to a more vegetarian belief (John 6:66) and his own brothers bailed on him. (John 7:5)
When Paul described his conversion to Festus, the Roman procurator of Judea, “Festus cried out, ‘Paul, you’re raving! Too much learning (ta polla…grammata) is driving you out of your mind!” (Acts 26:24) The implication, elided by Luke, was that Paul’s obsession with scripture—ta iera grammata, “the sacred writings” (as at 2 Timothy 3:15)—had unbalanced him mentally. In the pagan Greco-Roman world, as is the case today, thinking about religion often made people less religious, but among the Jews the possession of scripture often resulted in possession by scripture. In addition to their bibliolatry, the early Christians had a well-known fascination with “gifts of the spirit” which led Paul to caution his house churches, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23)
Before dismissing out of hand the possibility that Jesus was simply off his rocker, we might compare the findings in subjects with Jerusalem Syndrome with Jesus’ reported behavior. One such individual “felt it imperative to bring [his] message to the people of Jerusalem” and during a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre “succumbed to an attack of psychomotor agitation and started shouting at the priests…the confrontation developed into a violent struggle.” (British Journal of Psychiatry 176 (2000), 88) Immediately after his baptism according to Mark, “the spirit drives [Jesus] out into the desert”—the verb ekballō is used of driving out demons in its next occurrence (Mark 1:12, 39)—and soon Jesus declares, “The appointed time has come to an end and the kingdom of God has arrived!” (Mark 1:15). Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:51) convinced that “everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.” (Luke 18:31) As his entourage approached the city, “the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once,” (Luke 19:11) and after reaching Jerusalem at Passover, Jesus precipitated a violent confrontation, causing the Temple authorities to fear his effect on the crowds and look for a way to permanently silence him. (Mark 11:15-18) Were Jesus to appear next Easter in Jerusalem, accompanied by a raving crowd of evangelical End Timers, the event would barely merit inclusion in the psychiatric literature.
Robert studied Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic at Western Kentucky University in 70’s, then decided to do something worthwhile with his life and changed majors. He has co-authored three books on cardiac arrhythmias, four books on ancient Christianity, one novel, and too many essays.
Listen/download Robert’s interviews on Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio:
Aeon Byte #279 Aeon Byte #279: Magic in Christianity with Robert Conner, author of Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics