Christ: Myth or Reality?

I. Kryvelev


Christ the Man‑and‑God (the Church's View)  8
Champion of Inner Freedom (according to Fedor Dostoevsky)   15
An Ideal of Moral Perfection (according to Leo Tolstoi)  21
Revolutionary and Rebel (according to A. Vvedensky, K. Kautsky and others)  31
The Fascinating Hero‑Sufferer (according to Ernest Renan)  40
Mentally Ill (according to J. Meslier, A. Binet‑Sanglé and Ya. Mints)  [pp. 50-57] 50
One of the Prophets of Judaism (according to Leo Baech, Eduard Meyer, and Joel Carmichael)  57
Personified Heavenly Body (according to A . Niemoyewski, A. Drews and others)  64
Which Image Is the True One?   70
Unfounded Conclusions Based on Allegedly Ideological Considerations   75
Groundless Assertions Based on Religious and Theological Considerations   77
Is it Possible That He Did Not Exist?  80
Conjectures: the Possible and the Impossible   83
The Life of Christ As Told in the Gospels   89
Information From Non‑Evangelical Sources 102
A Possible Variant—“Someone Came By . . .”  124
The Most Probable Version 138
“The Collapse of an Image”  185
Keeping One's Faith by All Means!  191
"Suprahistory" Instead of History   200
Right and Left Trends in Christology   205
Hans Küng on the Problem of Christ   207
What Should We Do About Jesus' Biography?  212

Mentally Ill

(according to J. Meslier, A. Binet‑Sanglé and Ya. Mints)

It is hard to say who was the first to put forward such a disparaging view of Christ. The first clear statement of it is found in the book Testament by Jean Meslier, a French Catholic priest who lived at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. It became known only after his death that throughout his life he had been an uncompromising atheist.

Meslier's attitude towards all religions, including Christianity, was totally negative and hostile. The tone in which he spoke of religion and of Christianity and Christ is exceedingly critical, and the language he used on such occasions is almost abusive. But his attitude is an understandable one. That was the time of the Inquisition when the Church had complete sway over the lives and fate of people, if not over their minds. Anyone who openly voiced opposition, however mild, to the Christian dogmas risked being burned at the stake. All his life Meslier had to keep his beliefs to himself while carrying out his duties as a rural priest. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should be seething with anger and could find relief only when he was alone with his manuscript. It was also a time when the social atmosphere was highly charged, as the contradictions grew between the feudal aristocracy, which had the backing of the Church, and the broad masses who were striving for change. In short, it was the eve of the French Bourgeois Revolution.

But not only Meslier, but also ideologists of the French Enlightenment regarded Christianity with undisguised hostility and contempt. Voltaire, Holbach, Diderot and others treated the subject of Christianity and Christ with great scorn, subjecting it to angry and merciless denunciation. Meslier spoke of Christ in the same vein.

He called Jesus Christ "an insignificant person, who had neither talent, intelligence, knowledge, nor cleverness, and was completely despised in the world". [58] Jesus was not only a "pitiful fanatic and ill‑fated hanged man", but also "a madman". By "madman" Meslier had in mind not just another term of abuse, but mental disorder. Meslier thought Jesus was mad in the clinical sense of the word. He often used the word "fanatic" as a synonym for "insane". In particular, he undertook "to prove and to show that he [Christ‑‑I.K.] was really a madman, a fanatic". [59]

As proof Meslier cites "first, the opinion of Christ held by the people; second, Christ's own thoughts and sayings; and third, Christ's deeds and the manner in which he acted". [60]

Meslier thinks that he has found many passages in the Gospels showing that people around Jesus at times regarded him as mentally abnormal. Each time he said "something that is rude, foolish and nonsensical", the Pharisees and the scribers suspected him of being possessed by demons. When Christ "told the Jews that he was giving them his flesh to eat and his blood to drink", even some of his disciples left him, correctly concluding from this speech that he "is nothing but a madman!" [61] True, there were sometimes differences of opinion regarding his personality: “Some said he was kind, others said no, he was a seducer of people, while the majority thought he was insane and said he was possessed by the demon and raved like a madman . . . .” [62] Jesus' relatives also suspected him to have lost his mind. Once, it is said in the Gospels, they went looking for him "because people say he has gone mad".

Meslier interpreted the meeting between Jesus and Herod Antipas in the same way. The tetrarch (a ruler of a fourth part of a kingdom) thought that a miracle‑worker had been brought to him who would show him something interesting and entertaining and eagerly awaited his arrival. But after speaking to Jesus Herod realised that he had been talking to a madman and sent Jesus away. The Jews accompanying him mocked him as a lunatic who imagined himself a king, put a cane into his hand instead of a scepter and played other jokes on him. "All this is clear evidence," writes Meslier, “that people regarded him as a madman, a lunatic and a fanatic.” [63]

Meslier then referred to Jesus' thoughts and sayings as set forth in the Gospels to back up his thesis.

He cited Christ's statement which shows that Christ thought of himself as someone who was destined to accomplish what had never been accomplished before: he was to become king of the Jews and rule over them forever and at the same time save the whole world; he was to create a new heaven and earth where he would reign together with his apostles who, seated on twelve thrones, would judge all mankind; he intended to come down from heaven at the head of a crowd of his angels; he thought he had the power to resurrect all the dead and protect those who believed in him from death. In short, "he imagined himself to be the omnipotent and eternal Son of an omnipotent and eternal God". Meslier compares these fantasies with those of Don Quixote and says that the latter, "with all their unbalanced character and falsity have never been so exceedingly absurd". [64] The method used by Christ in interpreting Old Testament prophesies, in particular, the texts of the Book of the prophet Isaiah, is also, in Meslier's opinion, evidence of mental illness.

Another proof of Jesus' madness is said to lie in the contradictions between his sermons and his teachings. "One would have to be mad and insane," writes Meslier, "to utter such sayings and preach such sermons which contradict one another and cancel out one another." [65] Christ said that his mission was to teach people wisdom and give them the light of truth, and yet he preferred to speak not straightforwardly, but in parables and allegories and attributed this manner of teaching to a desire not to be understood by the people. He preached love, and yet at the same time he called on people who followed him to turn against their parents, brothers and sisters and all relations generally.

The arguments adduced by Jesus in his debates with his adversaries, in the opinion of Meslier, were so lacking in logic and substance that they in themselves are sufficient indication of mental disorder. For instance, in answer to the Pharisees who said that Jesus gave testimony about himself and therefore his testimony was not true, Jesus said that his testimony was true because he knew whence he came and where he was going and that his adversaries did not. Could any sensible person accept such argument as testimony, asks Meslier.

As for Jesus' behaviour, it was so inconsistent and lacking in purpose that it also suggests that he was mentally ill. Many of Jesus' actions and experiences can only be explained as being due to hallucination and "visionariness". From the mountain to which Satan led him Jesus saw "all the kingdoms of the world". But, says Meslier, "there are no such mountains on earth from where he could see even one kingdom all at once". This means that he saw them only in his imagination, and "such hallucinations are characteristic only of the abnormal, the visionary and the fanatic". [66]

On the whole Meslier's argument is not a very convincing one. What he is saying is that if someone should appear on earth now and begin to speak and act as Christ did as described in the Gospels he would no doubt be regarded as mad. Meslier repeated this point many times but he failed to consider the fact that his time was not the time in which Christ lived or might have lived. Philosophers of the French Enlightenment lacked precisely a historical approach to the events they studied, applying the yardstick of their own time and the social customs familiar to them to everything they analysed. But what appeared to be insanity and madness on the eve of the French Revolution could very well correspond to the accepted standards of behaviour and consciousness one thousand eight hundred years ago.

The opinion that Jesus Christ was mentally ill has its supporters in our own time, and they are not philosophers or historians, but psychiatrists and psychologists. A major attempt to substantiate this conception was made by the prominent French psychiatrist A. Binet‑Sanglé in his two‑volume work The Insanity of Jesus. [67] And following in his footsteps and drawing heavily on his findings was Ya. Mints, a Soviet physician, who in 1927 published an article with the title "Jesus Christ as a Type of the Mentally Ill". Both authors base their diagnosis on Jesus' behaviour, origin, physical build and state of health as reported in the Gospels. Binet‑Sanglé also uses material relating to this question which he finds in the works of early Christian authors. His general conclusion, which Mints fully accepts, is that Jesus Christ suffered from paranoia.

The definition of this illness given by Mints is taken from the famous German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin: "In a person suffering from this disease there is a peculiar psychopathetic predisposition owing to which he is in a constant state of delirium while retaining a capacity for reasoning and thinking correctly." [68] A distinctive feature of paranoia, as compared to other psychiatric diseases, is that the patient suffering from paranoia retains for a long time following the onset of the illness a capacity for mental work; in all other areas of activity except that affected by the illness, he thinks and acts logically and on the whole reasonably. Therefore, unlike those who suffer from other psychiatric diseases, a paranoiac may, for a prolonged period or even to the end of his life, remain unrecognised as a psychopath. His mania can take the form of "a harmonious, logical and brilliant system bearing the marks of creativity". [69]

The paranoiac usually has a fixed idea connected with his own person. To him, his own person is the centre of almost everything that happens in the world, and depending on the type of his mania he either thinks he is an object of persecution and evil designs on the part of almost the whole of mankind, or he considers himself to be the bearer of a great and lofty mission that is of decisive importance for world history. According to Kraepelin, a paranoiac may suffer from persecution mania, megalomania, mania of jealousy, eroticism, noble birth and so on. As for Jesus Christ, Binet-Sanglé and Mints consider it proved or at any rate highly probable that he was suffering from a paranoiac syndrome: he had delusions of grandeur, as may be seen in his self-deification and his belief that he, as the Messiah, was destined to save mankind by sacrificing himself.

On what basis did they arrive at such a conclusion?

According to the Gospels, Jesus thought of himself as the Son of God and the Messiah. He constantly spoke of his mission to save the world. All preceding history was to him a kind of prelude to his appearance on earth, and all that was said by the prophets related to him personally. This is just the kind of situation that is usual for a paranoiac: the whole world is filled with symbols that have to do with him only. In Jesus an egocentric megalomania was combined with a persecution mania and a feeling of doom; he was always speaking of his inevitable martyrdom. And this is reflected in his moods and his neuropsychological state which show a characteristic oscillation between elation and excitement and despair and dejection. For instance, Jesus was seized by a feeling of melancholy in the Garden of Gethsemane. In paranoiacs such fits of melancholy not infrequently alternate with feelings of exultation.

The miracles that surrounded Jesus and those which Jesus himself performed are regarded as hallucinations by Binet-Sanglé and Mints. When Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, according to the Gospels, "the heavens were opened" and "the Spirit of God" appeared in the form of a dove, and there was "a voice from heaven". All this was a result of visual and auditory hallucinations. Jesus' relations with Satan during his forty‑day stay in the desert (where Jesus was tempted by Satan, etc.) were also the outcome of hallucinations. The intensity of the hallucinations was also due to the state of exhaustion Jesus was in after his long fast.

There are many events and phenomena described in the Gospels which can be attributed to hallucinations, and Binet‑Sanglé and Mints readily refer to them in support of their hypothesis. It should be noted, however, that according to the findings of psychiatry hallucination is not a characteristic symptom of paranoia. When defining the illness some specialists emphasise that it is related to "delirium without hallucinations" or that it is "usually unaccompanied by hallucinations". So, here is a weak point in the clinical description of Jesus' "illness" as presented by Binet-Sanglé and Mints.

In the opinion of these two authors, the behaviour of Jesus as described in the Gospels corresponds precisely to the classic symptoms of paranoia. So precisely, says Mints, that only modern psychiatrists and neuropathologists could have composed such a picture.

The conclusion is thus made that the Evangelists drew the portrait of Jesus from nature since they could not have been such qualified psychiatrists as to be able to describe the illness so accurately.

To back up their hypothesis about Jesus' mental deficiency Binet‑Sanglé and Mints refer to his weak constitution. Judging from the image of Jesus in icons and crucifixes Jesus was physically weak, which is evidence of his poor health. According to the Gospels he could hardly carry the cross to Golgotha. When he was excited or emotionally disturbed he sweated profusely so that drops of blood fell from him to the ground. His poor health was also due to heredity. He lived all his life in Galilee where the inhabitants were mostly engaged in wine‑making; the Galileans, including Jesus' parents, probably drank much wine. There are grounds for thinking that Jesus suffered from alcoholism inherited from his parents.

Both these arguments cannot of course be taken seriously. All portraits of Jesus were drawn after his death, and none of them can lay any claim to authenticity. As is noted in one of the following chapters, in the centuries‑old Christian tradition there are two different conceptions of Jesus' constitution: according to one conception Jesus was physically weak and sickly, and according to the other, he had a strong, athletic build as may be expected from someone who is both man and God. As for alcoholism, one can equally attribute that to the inhabitants of any country where wine-making is practised.

Binet‑Sanglé and Mints also think it probable that Jesus was impotent, and this, in their view, shows that Jesus was physically and therefore also mentally deficient. They find evidence of this not only in the fact that the Gospels make no mention of Jesus' sexuality but also in that Jesus remained a bachelor all his life. He lived with his parents at least till he was thirty years old and his parents apparently did not try to find a wife for him. This would be a grave sin in the eyes of Judaic laws.

Like Meslier, Binet‑Sanglé and Mints also point to the fact that Jesus' contemporaries suspected him of insanity. Thus, according to Mark's Gospel: "And when his friends heard of it [the gathering of crowds of people around Jesus], they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself" (3: 21). And Mints uses as the epigraph for his article this line from John's Gospel: "And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad . . ." (10: 20). In the opinion of Binet‑Sanglé and Mints, Jesus' contemporaries were quite justified in thinking Jesus was mad. And if a person should now appear on earth and behave as Jesus did, he “would be handed over . . . to a psychiatrist and put in a psychiatric ward . . . “ [70]

Binet‑Sanglé and Mints think that not only Jesus but nearly all founders of religions, prophets and leaders of religious movements are paranoiacs. They include Buddha, Zarathustra, Mohammed, Krishna and so on. From this point of view the history of religion is the history of the seduction of millions of healthy people by insane individuals, of the psychiatric infection of the broad masses by paranoiacs. There is hardly any need to refute this "crazy" idea about the history of religions. As regards the personality of Jesus, the superficiality and groundlessness of the "psychiatric" theory is quite obvious.

[Notes, p. 74]

58  J. Meslier, Le testament, Amsterdam, 1864, Vol. 2, p. 41.

59  Ibid., p. 42.

60  Ibidem.

61  Ibid., p. 44.

62  Ibidem.

63  Ibid., p. 46.

64  Ibid., p. 48.

65  Ibid., p. 55.

66  Ibid., p. 63.

67  A. Binet‑Sanglé, La folie de Jésus Christ, Paris, 1910.

68  Clinical Archive of Cases of Supreme Ability and Endowments, Vol. 3, issue 3, Leningrad, 1927, p. 244 (in Russian).

69  Ibidem.

70  Ibidem.

SOURCE: Kryvelev, I[osif Aronovich]. Christ: Myth or Reality? Moscow: "Social Sciences Today" Editorial Board, 1987. 222 pp. (USSR Academy of Sciences; Religious Studies in the USSR; ser. 2)

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