THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PROPHETISM
The main part of this book is intended as an introduction to important findings in Bible research from the angle of psychology, with the emphasis on the work of the Flemish Bible scholar and psychologist Dr. Somers (parts of chapters 3.6 to 3.10 are little more than a re-wording of his original writings).
2.1. A Jesuit breaks free
Dr. Herman H. Somers, born in Antwerp on 3 October 1921, is an accomplished scholar with acclaimed contributions in many fields of learning. He studied in Leuven and Rome, and is an M.A. in Philosophy, Ph.D. in Classical Philology (i.e. Latin and Greek), Ph.D. in Theology, and Ph.D. in Psychology. For forty years he was in the Jesuit order. He had worked as a schoolteacher, journalist for the Jesuit-led paper De Linie, lecturer in Classical Philology and in Psychology, practising psychopathologist in a mental asylum, before he went on to devote 25 years to scientific research. He has been active in a variety of research projects, from noise ecology and experimental psychology to pioneering work in computer-aided mathematical text analysis of the Bible.
As he studied the Bible more closely, he developed doubts about its divine character. In the face of unexpected findings inconvenient to the faith, he refused to renounce scientific standards, and drew his conclusions. In what he describes as a painful process, he grew away from the Christian faith, and left the Jesuit order. Pro-Jesuit sources claim that it is only because of his unwillingness to comply with his vow of poverty (concretely: renouncing the family property in favour of the order after his mother died) that he has left the order.
In 1986, he published the book: Jezus de Messias: was het Christendom een Vergissing? (‘Jesus the Messiah: was Christianity a Mistake?’).1 Written in Dutch, it is an abridged version of a more technical study in French, which he sent to a number of experts and interested parties, among them the Vatican. It is a ground-breaking exploration of the psychopathological syndromes accurately described in the New Testament, especially of Jesus’ mental condition.
In June 1990, he published a more voluminous sequel, this time also dealing with the Old Testament prophets. It is called: Toen God sliep, schreef de mens de Bijbel. De Bilbet belicht door een psycholoog (Dutch: ‘When God slept, man wrote the Bible. The Bible explained by a psychologist’).2 We hope that it will soon be translated into all major languages, and meanwhile we will offer a summary of the book’s most striking points.
Since then, dr. Somers has also written a history of the Jesuit order, a psychological study of Mohammed, and a study of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A psychological investigation of the Bible starts from the premise that the Bible text is based on real events. Of course, in the centuries of writing and rewriting, distortions may have crept in (deliberately or by mistake), stories from other traditions may have been added, historical facts embellished, blown up to mythical proportions, or on the contrary, concealed. But nonetheless, the very tradition of which the text is a part, could not have existed if the founders of that tradition, whose life and times are described in the text, had not existed. The core of the actual texts must be function of real words and deeds by real people.
That this premises, evident though it seems, is not automatically accepted, may be seen from two trends in modern Bible studies. Firstly, there are people who flatly deny that Jesus ever existed. According to the Marxist-leaning scholar P. Krijbolder, Jesus was merely a character invented as a literary device in the presentation of a new ideology, and the four Gospels were designed to present four aspects of this ideology.3 In that case, if at all there is scope for psychological analysis, it is of the psychological motives and attitudes of the writers, not of the text’s characters, since these are fictional.
Secondly, there are a lot of theologians who follow the German theologian Bultmann in his Entmythologisierung (demythologization) of the Bible stories. This means that the stories are not to be taken literally, since they are in fact merely myths. They are stories made up by the community of believers in order to express their faith. If we want to read the Bible correctly, we have to relinquish the idea that it describes what really happened, and interpret it as a collection of expressions of the faith, moulded in literary genres developed for that very purpose. This approach does usually not imply that Jesus’ existence is doubted, merely that the miracle stories, the virgin birth, the resurrection are ‘not to be taken literally’.
The skepsis regarding the existence of Biblical characters may be more reasonable in the case of persons situated in the distant past, like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, but from Moses onward the stories start looking too much like they are essentially historical. However, the ‘demythologizing’ skepsis regarding the reality of Jesus’ divine vocation and miracles may well be extended to characters like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, and Solomon: while their life and times may have been real enough, the postulated divine intervention in them is considered, by the demythologizers, as just a figure of speech.
There are reasons for giving in only minimally to the extreme skepsis regarding the basis in reality of the Bible narrative, and for sticking to the essentially historical character of the Bible’s stories. Firstly, there is a logical contradiction in postulating that the core text of a religious tradition is unhistorical, ‘mere’ narrative. A religious tradition can only be created by people, in fact by people who have managed to attract the loyalty of a number of followers. If the first Christians made myths in order to ‘express their faith’, then someone must have generated or inspired this new faith among them. Saying that Jesus never existed, implies that the Gospel-writers did write about someone who did not exist and did not found their religion, but failed to write about the man who did create their religion and therefore must necessarily have existed. This is not strictly impossible, but it is also like saying that the Shakespeare to whom the famous plays and poems have been attributed, never existed, but that his plays and poems were written by someone else whose name may also have been Shakespeare.
Secondly, there is quite a bit of external evidence. There are several references to Jesus in non-Christian sources, just like there are external references to the Hebrew migration from Egypt. Of course, philologists have taken great pains to find forgeries and interpolations in these texts, but by now this explaining-away has been superseded by a willingness to take sources seriously as long as there are no solid independent grounds for suspecting forgery. For instance, the historical authenticity of the passage on Jesus in Flavius Josephus’ work (late first century AD) is now accepted by many scholars: though it has been tampered with, it was not inserted.
Thirdly, there is a lot of internal evidence in the Bible text. That is to say, there are passages that could not have been there except as references to reality or (often as polemical replies) to historical outside comments on Jesus. While theologians of the Entmythologisierung school say that many passages are edifying fables, a number of Gospel passages are not edifying at all. For instance, Jesus cursing an innocent fig tree when, out of season, it isn’t bearing fruit. Or Jesus not being able to do miracles in some places, and not being believed by his own townsfolk, even being considered insane by his own family. These things are mentioned because people in the audience of Christian preachers remembered them, and they had to be acknowledged and, if possible, explained in consonance with the preachers’ doctrines. If these things hadn’t really happened, there would not have been any reason for Christian writers to mention them. Other criteria of internal evidence, esp. to separate genuine testimony from made-up stories, are provided by modem methods of forensic psychology to evaluate courtroom testimonies.
Fourthly, the psychological investigation of the Bible comes up with a new internal criterion. We can safely assume that the Bible writers were not aware of the findings of modem psychopathology, i.e. the study of mental diseases. They did not know the psychopathological conditions that modem psychologists have studied and organized into categories of coherent syndromes. Yet, in some places they do give accurate descriptions of such psychopathological syndromes. The stamp of realness is that in these descriptions, no symptoms of different conditions get mixed up. Anyone can name a few acts and attitudes that he associates with the term ‘madness’. But realistically describing a condition of catatonic schizophrenia, or querulous paranoia, can only be done by someone who knows psychopathology - or by someone who merely describes what he sees in a particular real case of such a condition.
It is not out of place to look for psychopathological conditions in the Bible. After all, then as now, a certain category of mentally afflicted people would be attracted to religion, and become the most ardent students of Scripture. Certain mental conditions do not lead to a total personality disintegration, to a loss of intellectual capacities, or to an unbearably antisocial behaviour. In fact, highly talented and literate people can be afflicted by psychopathological conditions. In the old days, some of them could set themselves up as teachers and prophets, and their eccentric behaviour would only add to their aura of godmen. And though many religious madmen would be recognized for what they were, a few would not (at least not by the final editors of the Bible), and it is these few that interest us here.
For a first example of a pathological description, we can take a very clear and simple case from the Gospel. It does not concern Jesus or another prophet, but a ‘possessed’ child, cured by Jesus according to Luke 9:37-43, Mark 9:14-29, Mathew 17:14-21. The Gospel relates how a child is brought to Jesus, because it is possessed by a deaf-and-dumb demon which it has had since birth. When it sees Jesus, it gets a crisis, shakes and with foaming lips falls to the ground. Jesus raises it up and the crisis is over, ‘the demon has gone out’. Remark that the text doesn’t say that henceforth the child can hear and speak.
Even a layman can recognize this as an epileptic crisis which, as is normal, subsides after a few minutes. But the story gives two important details that complete the syndrome. Firstly, the child gets the crisis when it is confronted with Jesus. Typically, these crises erupt after sudden emotions, such as a child may feel when confronted with this strange man with his charismatic airs, probably accompanied by a number of followers. Here, the story does not say that the child was already having a crisis before Jesus came in. It was the other way round: apparently, Jesus’ entry was causally related to the crisis.
Secondly, the child has been deaf (and therefore it can also not speak) since birth. Now, one typical physiological cause of epilepsy can be a trombophlebitis occurring around the time of birth, which leaves a scar on the brain, thus indirectly causing epilepsy while directly causing deafness.
This simple story thus gives us important conclusions. Firstly, this ‘possessed child‘ must have existed. It is so completely improbable that a writer who knew nothing about these subtler points of the epileptic condition, would have invented this story. It could only be an account of a real case.
Secondly, from the fact that the story is told as a report of a miracle wrought by Jesus, it is clear that the writer did believe that a cure took place, and that Jesus’ extraordinary powers had been demonstrated. In fact, from the details of the story, it seems that Jesus himself believed this. Yet, both the writer and Jesus were wrong: epileptic crises always subside, and that is no indication of cure at all. This shows how easily people in those days could be made to believe in the miraculous power of anyone who had the guts to style himself a miracle-worker; and how some people, notably Jesus, could erroneously believe such a thing about themselves.
As Dr. Somers writes: ‘The features, found in the text, are all coherent with the syndrome of epilepsy and especially with an infantile form: perinatal infection of the ears with inflammatory complications, causing thrombo-phlebitis in the brain with the consequence of epileptic seizures and deaf muteness. In the text of Mark 9, all symptoms are described with precision: the child is mute, falls in the water and the fire (a loss of consciousness), utters a cry and is agitated, has foam on his mouth, becomes like dead and after a while is ‘cured’. Obviously, 2000 years ago nobody was aware of the true nature of epilepsy and the typical features of this illness in young children. If a witness describes so correctly the phenomena of an epileptic seizure in a child with all concomitant circumstances, this fact has precedence over all philological arguments and constitutes proof of authenticity and historicity. If moreover, the witness mentions all these features in order to prove his incorrect view on the facts (viz. that Jesus effected a miracle cure), it is clear that the testimony is beyond suspicion. If anything here depends on culture, it is the interpretation, in this case: that it is the devil who causes the seizure.’
Another example is the ‘exorcism’ related in Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20. A man was possessed by a host of demons, and dangerous. He had broken the chain in which people had put him, and now lived in caves and on burial-grounds, and the people were afraid of him. Jesus asked the ‘demon’ in this man for his name, as was customary in exorcisms. The name was ‘Legion’, since there were many demons at once. Then he drove the demons out, into a flock of pigs, who became mad, threw themselves into the lake, and drowned. The man became calm and asked to stay with Jesus, but was not allowed to. The people of the area asked Jesus to go away.
This man apparently suffered from schizophrenia with catatonic agitation. In a fit of rage, such people can develop an unbelievable strength, enough to break handcuffs. Even Jesus, after ‘curing’ him, is apprehensive about having him around, and consequently sends him away. Such people’s personalities totally disintegrate, they eat their own excrement and live worse than animals. Jesus speaks to the man, and the next thing we read is that the pigs become mad and run away, into the lake. Unless you believe in miracles, this seems to mean that the man went into a rage and didn’t take on Jesus but went after the pigs.4 Seeing the madman in his rage, the pigs naturally ran away, and afraid as pigs can be, some of them even ran into the lake. But then, as always, the rage subsides and the afflicted man becomes quiet. Jesus sends the man away, and a proof that this indeed was a lasting cure is not even attempted.
In this story we have a smaller number of elements, so the improbability of the writer just making it up is not as striking as in the first story. Still, the picture of the sick man here is realistic, as is the impression that mere passers-by, such as Jesus’ followers (who don’t get to see his regular crises followed by equally regular periods of calm), would think that after a fit of rage everything has come back to ‘normal’, and that a cure has been effected.
From these examples a method can be derived:
- the search in the text for certain symptoms should precede any other consideration;
- if a well-known syndrome can be identified, all other elements should be coherent with this syndrome (if no syndrome can be identified, then psycho-pathology considers its job finished. it is nobody’s intention to force a psycho-pathological explanation where there is no solid ground for one);
- the fact that the witness is unaware of the scientific significance of the elements he mentions, will be considered as decisive.
Therefore, this psychopathological control of old texts can decide the questions about the historicity of the facts almost with certainty. As the syndrome described is culture-neutral and independent, all textual and philological criticism has to take this fact into account. Some methods of judicial expertise can subsidiarily be applied (such as the criteria of U. Undeutsch)5 in order to decide about the truthfulness of a testimony according to internal criteria.
As a consequence of this methodological solution some earlier philological conclusions are to be re-examined. It can be shown that a number of hypotheses intended to solve ununderstood texts of the Gospel and the Apocalypse, are defective. If one reads that in the story of the epileptic child two devils were mentioned: a mute one and an epileptic one, and that therefore one can suspect that two different stories were joined, it is clear that this clumsy construction is only rendered necessary by ignorance of the infantile epileptic syndrome.6
According to Somers: ‘Similarly, the attempts by some philologists to explain the story of the possessed man of Gerasa (Mark 5) as a synthesis of two or three others, mixed with folklore, is now superseded by a realistic understanding of the story through psychopathological examination. The possessed of Gerasa shows all symptoms of schizophrenia with catatonic agitation. The story is quite realistic, including the delusion that he was possessed by a legion of devils. Mark’s text is rather precise: the man was subject to a grandiose delusion; he was agitated esp. during the night, he roamed amidst the graves, howling, and he mortified himself with stones. Nobody could control him, he broke all chains. It is not very strange that such a lunatic chases a herd of pigs while uttering loud shrieks, sending his devils into them. All these elements confirm the diagnosis of catatonic schizophrenia.
‘The probability that such description could be put together by accident is infinitesimal. In practice, there can be no more doubt about the historicity of the facts. There is only one story, no folklore, nothing but a rather precise report of a real encounter of Jesus with a schizophrenic patient, written with the intention to show how Jesus had power over the devils. The witness intended to prove a very different thesis from what he actually did prove. Indeed, in our two examples: the epileptic child and the schizophrenic of Gerasa, Mark has shown that Jesus did not have power over the devils because there were none, but that he thought he did. From these two examples it is clear how the psychopathological examination of these texts is able to explain them and to show directly their historical truth.’
These were two examples of accurate descriptions of psychopathological conditions in the Gospel. Now, after many years of Bible analysis, dr. Somers realized that the descriptions of some prominent Bible characters also show coherent descriptions of psychopathological syndromes.
2.3. The Patriarchs
The first Old Testament character who deserves a closer psychological investigation, is Abraham. His story is that of a man who has no children, but hears a voice promising him a numerous progeny.
Dr. Somers takes the trouble of demonstrating that everything in the story of Abraham regarding marriage customs is authentic: the fact that children born by a slave girl were legitimate, that the official wife could adopt such a child (e.g. if she was sterile, as Sarah is said to be), that the nomads lent out or sold their sisters and daughters to visitors or in exchange for food supplies, and so on. Some of these customs were not in vogue anymore in the time the Bible was committed to writing, so if they figure in this story, this indicates its historical authenticity. The report of Abraham’s visit of Egypt completely fits the social facts that we know from Egyptian historiography. Modernist theologians are mistaken if they say that the patriarch’s story is just an edifying narrative concocted by priests in order to express the Israelites’ faith in their God.
The theological dimension of the story seems to be more recent, but the skeleton of actual events related is no doubt about real people, living in the 16th and 15th century BC. The personal data about Abraham also bear the stamp of authenticity. Dr. Somers lists the following remarkable data which the Bible narrative gives us about Abraham:
- He hears Yahweh’s voice, giving him orders, and claims Yahweh visits him.
- He thinks he is the progenitor of a numerous progeny, though at first he cannot have children with Sarah.
- He offers his wife for the pleasure of the Pharaoh and of chieftain Abimelek.
- He considers himself Yahweh’s chosen one, elevated above all other tribes.
- He institutes male circumcision, and gives it the symbolical meaning of the Covenant with Yahweh.
- He sends his eldest son Ismael, together with the latter’s mother, the slave girl Hagar, into the desert.
- He wants to kill his and Sarah’s son Isaac.
This is not a normal behaviour pattern. Yet, it is not entirely inconsistent. In fact, the psychopathologist recognizes a typical pattern: the syndrome called paranoia. In this mental disease, the patient suffers from persistent thoughts that are in conflict with reality. Typical delusions are: being persecuted by an enemy, being endowed with a special mission or special powers, belonging to a family of otherworldly descent. These delusions can be accompanied by hallucinations, usually the well-known phenomenon of ‘hearing voices’. Often these voices command him to commit very specific symbolical acts, sometimes specific crimes. The refusal of one’s own sexuality, as well as sexual impotence, often accompany this condition.
The limited mutilation called (male) circumcision, is not something invented by (or prescribed by God to) Abraham. The Egyptians and other peoples knew the practice. The rationale was that everyone has both a male and a female soul. In the male, the left-over female resides in the prepuce, the skin covering the top of the penis; in the female, the leftover male resides in the clitoris. Incidentally, this primitive insight corresponds with certain findings of modern embryology: the same tissue that becomes the glans (top of the penis) in a male embryo, becomes the clitoris in the female embryo; and the same tissue that becomes the labia, the visible part of the girl’s genitals, becomes the boy’s prepuce. So, in order to achieve full sexual differentiation, the part which corresponds to the outermost part of the opposite sex’s genitals is removed. In order to make real men, the left-over ‘labia’ is cut off, and in order to make real women, the left-over ‘glans’ is removed.
Since womanhood is more taken for granted, whereas a ‘real man’ is something one has to become, the practice of female circumcision is fortunately not that widespread. Today, it is confined to North and East Africa, where its defendants often invoke Islamic sanction for the practice. In fact, Mohammed never prescribed it, but according to a tradition, when seeing a girl’s circumcision, he told the people to ‘diminish but not destroy’, which is generally understood as an acceptance of the minor circumcision (removal of the clitoris), but a rejection of the major circumcision (removal of the labia, followed by sewing up the vaginal opening until the day of defloration). The practice is extremely painful and destructive, and the World Health Organization and many social activists are trying to eradicate it. Male circumcision, on the other hand, is fairly harmless and is found among many peoples in different continents. The Bible only mentions circumcision as applicable to males.
The fact that circumcision is so widespread, invalidates the Bible’s claim that it was the token of the exclusive covenant between Yahweh and His chosen people. If Abraham perforce wanted to circumcise his son, there must have been a different reason: perhaps the paranoia syndrome. Attempts at mutilation of one’s own or a child’s genitals are not uncommon among paranoid patients. They are a violent expression of their refusal of their own sexuality.
But probably the story of Abraham instituting circumcision does not warrant any inferences about the historical Abraham’s personality. It is quite possible that the priestly Bible editors during the Babylonian exile (6th century BC) retroactively made circumcision into the sign of the Covenant. In Palestine and Egypt, it could not have been a distinctive custom, because it was widespread, but in Babylon the Hebrews distinguished themselves from the Babylonians by this custom, so it got emphasized and sanctified as a factor of the Hebrews’ identity. To give the practice full sanction, it was attributed to God’s own will as expressed in the Covenant with Abraham.
On the other hand, while circumcision may not originally have been introduced as a sign of the Covenant, it may well have been started, as far as Abraham’s own clan was concerned, by Abraham himself. At least, if we accept that Abraham was an immigrant to Kanaan from ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ in Mesopotamia, it is logical that he was the first in his clan to have his son circumcised, as a matter of cultural adaptation to his new environment. All in all, it is safer to subtract the introduction of circumcision from the list of peculiar behaviour traits in the historical Abraham. The aforementioned six facts that remain are still peculiar enough.
It is possible that Abraham at first had a healthy sex life, and that he got no children due to purely physical causes (impotentia generandi rather than impotentia coeundi). The frustration and inferiority feeling that would naturally follow from being a married man without children, might then have been a typical starting-point for the progressive development of a paranoid delusion. The inferiority feeling gets transformed into delusions of greatness and divine favour. The typical construction you find among many paranoid patients is: my present misfortune (including the fact that people consider me mad and put me in a mental hospital) is merely a stage of testing, after which my true mission will become clear to all and I will be glorified.
Abraham lent Sarah to other men (Genesis 12:10-20, 20:118). Doing this with your own wife (rather than with your sister or daughter) was very unusual, because the laws against adultery were very strict. In fact, both the pharoah and Abimelek were very unhappy and indignant when they found out this woman they had hired was already someone’s wife. Is this practice of making a childless wife available to the inseminative potential of other men not an indication that her ultimate pregnancy was brought about by one of those other men?
In Genesis 18:1-15 it is related that a visitor, called Yahweh (but otherwise a perfectly human fellow who washes his feet and eats flour cakes), wants to see Sarah, and afterwards tells Abraham that next year he will have a son. Although the story may have been censored a bit in the final editing, there can be no doubt about what had happened in between. It would explain the oral tradition mentioned in the Talmud, that Isaac didn’t resemble Abraham at all. Similarly, the son that Hagar is said to have given Abraham, may well have been another man’s offspring: nobody keeps check on what exactly a simple maid is doing at night.
At any rate, Abraham does not behave like a man who, after years of fruitless trying, has been blessed with two sons. He sends the eldest, Ismael, together with his mother Hagar, away into the desert. The youngest, Isaac, will be sacrificed at Yahweh’s command. Did Abraham suffer at the thought that these children, who had restored his manhood in the eyes of his tribesmen, were in fact not his children at all? Did he suffer from a conflict between his delusion of a God-given promise of numerous progeny, of which the sons were the fulfillment, and the sneaking realization that they were not his own sons? At any rate, in a completely pathological development, he hears a voice telling him to sacrifice his son.
This is one of the great religious founding moments of the Judeo-Christian tradition: Abraham obeying Yahweh all the way, even past the limits of absurdity. But in the Bible narrative (Genesis 22:1-19), this great and profound act is conducted without any religious pomp, even secretively. He doesn’t tell his family he is going to obey Yahweh’s glorious command. He makes his son believe they are going for an ordinary animal slaughter, until Isaac himself notices that they have everything for a proper slaughter except an animal. He expressly tells his servants that he and his son will both come back soon. He knows his family will prevent him from obeying Yahweh’s command, and rightly so.
The narrative goes on to relate that Abraham is prevented from striking and killing his son. it says that an angel of the Lord intervened. If we discount the hypothesis that angels exist and intervene in human actions, we simply read that someone stopped him. Perhaps the voice (‘Yahweh’) has changed its mind, and now tells him not to go all the way. It tells him that he has already passed the test of obedience, and resumes the older tune that he will be the ancestor of a numerous people. But more probably, it is the people in his surroundings who stop him, and the explanation that they have really been Yahwah’s agents ripens later in Abraham’s brain.
We may suppose that his family was kind enough not to start arguing when he gave his own paranoid explanations for his behaviour. In fact, it is not uncommon that the patient’s surroundings, after they have come to know the line of his delusion, start playing along. Perhaps, when Sarah gave her favours to the visitor, hoping he might get her pregnant after all, she and the other family members told Abraham, in consonance with the things he himself usually said, that this man was Yahweh, who had come to fulfill his promise. And when Abraham had been prevented by the servants from killing Isaac, they joined him in ascribing it to divine intervention. This way, a family tradition was started that interpreted the family saga in the terms of Abraham’s delusion. And because it was such an unusual story, it was preserved and came down to the time of the Bible’s codification, to become the well-known foundation narrative of prophetic monotheism.
In handing down the story, it is the unusual, not the ordinary, that gets most attention. That is why the faithful report of Abraham’s strange behaviour has reached us. It is also why any report of a normal religious man, who does his daily devotions but doesn’t pretend anything weird like being Yahweh’s chosen one, would never have become so well-known and influential (for better or for worse).
Readers who fear that we are going to declare all the prominent Bible characters madmen, need not worry. The next two patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, were not crazy at all. There are some interesting non-pathological psychological aspects to their adventures, but we will not go into that here. It will suffice to remark that Jacob was a very sly and unscrupulous man. He and his sons shared an amazing harshness and lack of fellow-feeling. But in this world, that may be an advantage: Jacob, also called Israel, is one of the few people (next to Bolivar, Columbus, and Bharata) who have a country named after them. When his sons went to Egypt, they remembered Kanaan as ‘the land of Israel’ (in Hebrew: Eretz Ishrael). This expression was later understood as ‘the land Israel’, so that Jacob’s new name got eternalized as the name of the land which is also known, after the inhabitants from whom the Israelites wrested it, as Kanaan or Philistine/Palestine.
The Bible report about Moses is spread over no less than four Bible books: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. In these books, exegetes distinguish four layers. The first is the Yahwist tradition, written in the time of Israel’s kings, in the early first millennium BC, and in which ‘Yahweh’ is consistently used as God’s name. The second is the Elohist tradition, written in the time of the great prophets, and in which ‘Elohim’ is used as God’s name. The third is the Priestly tradition, from the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, and immediately after. The fourth is the Deuteronomist tradition, the codification of the ‘Mosaic’ law, which was largely created in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, and attributed to Moses for the sake of sanctity. So, the original narrative has gone through many hands, and the historical Moses lies buried under many layers.
Yet, in tradition-oriented cultures, stories were often preserved in full detail for many centuries. Especially typical and unusual facts about people and their remarkable feats were accurately preserved. To test the reliability of the Moses narrative, we dispose of two types of criteria: external criteria, viz. some few possible references in Egyptian sources; and internal criteria. These latter comprise the coherence between the different stages in the story: is the Moses of the time before the Exodus depicted as having the same personality as the Moses of the wanderings in the desert? This is the so-called split-half reliability. The other important internal criterion is whether the narrative gives us an unambiguous and typical character description, or a mere collection of commonplaces and stereotypes. Moreover, does such a character description reveal negative traits which were certainly not concocted for glorifying the ‘founder of monotheism’, or perhaps even pathological traits which the writers couldn’t have thought up even if they had wanted to?
Moses in Egypt is depict d as a man of violent temper, who did not shy away from terrorism. When a Hebrew worker is whipped by an Egyptian officer, which was a rather common practice in those days, Moses goes as far as killing the Egyptian. If historical, the ‘tenth plague of Egypt’, the killing of the first-born son of every house, was clearly brought about by a terrorist campaign. Why else were the Hebrews ordered to make a sign on their doors? Surely God didn’t need such a sign to avoid killing the wrong people: but the terrorists did. The other plagues of Egypt (locusts, mosquitoes, hail storms, the colouring of the Nile water) were all natural phenomena, which Moses or the narrators may have played up as divine signs. Moses was a panic monger, who knew how to impress and fool the crowds. He was very cunning and even beat the court magicians at snake tricks. Considering the Biblical information on his court education, he may have been trained by one of the fabled magicians of Egypt, and had shown himself a gifted and creative pupil.
The Moses of the desert years is definitely the same impulsive man. According to Ex. 32:19-25, when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the golden calf, he was enraged and destroyed the idol; he gathered a band of Levites and ordered them to go around the camp and make a slaughter; they killed 3000 people. Trespassers of Moses’ Law are punished with death, the one and only penalty Moses knows: ‘Someone who had cursed Yahweh’s name was stoned to death, as Yahweh had ordered Moses to do’ (Lev. 24:23). A man who was caught in the act of chopping wood on a Sabbath day was brought before Moses, who ordered the people to stone him (Num. 15:32-36).
And Moses still played his magic tricks. Once when the people uttered their discontent, Yahweh sent snakes to bite the people (Num. 21:4-9): if we remember Moses’ dexterity with snakes displayed before the pharaoh, we can guess who was behind this act of Yahweh’s. Several times, Moses asserts his authority by invoking miracles from Yahweh. Thus, he plants his brother Aaron’s staff in the ground, and it starts to blossom (Num. 17:16-28). The most famous occasion is of course his stay on top of Mount Sinai, where he receives the Ten Commandments: the hilltop gets covered with a cloud of smoke, and mighty trumpet calls are heard. It was a simple kind of show, enough to impress the credulous people. Like any juggler, he never allowed people to peep behind the curtain: in Ex. 19:21-24, Yahweh orders Moses not to allow the people to come near the mountain, ‘for many would die’, and Moses assures Him that the mountain has been sealed off safely.
Like in Egypt, but on a far larger scale, he practised terrorism against other peoples who came in the way of his own people’s expansion. Yahweh ordered him to destroy the altars and sacred symbols of the peoples of Kanaan (Ex. 34:12-13). ‘Thus ye shall do unto them: ye shall strike down their altars, smash their sacred stones to pieces, fell their sacred trees and bum their idols. Nobody will resist you until ye have exterminated them’ (Deut. 7:2-24). Indeed, Yahweh is not satisfied with idol-breaking, he wants skulls to be broken as well, many thousands of them: ‘[of the peoples who are remote neighbours] ye shall slaughter all the males. But in the cities that Yahweh puts in your possession, ye shall not let anyone survive’ (Deut. 20:13-16). Perhaps killing the males and abducting the females can be somewhat excused as a common practice in every kind of war. But even by those standards, Yahweh goes too far when he orders all living beings killed.
Moses put these divine orders into practice. He flew into a rage when his men had killed all the adult males of the Midianite people (which, incidentally, had given Moses shelter years before, see Ex. 2:11-18) but had left the females and children alive. He had all the boys and non-virgin women also killed, but the virgins they could keep for their pleasure (Num. 31:7-18). After Moses’ death, his successor Joshua followed in his footsteps. The gruesome treatment of the 31 cities he conquered, is described in detail in Joshua 8-12: ‘He destroyed all the living beings in the city and did not let anyone escape’ (10:28). Joshua merely carried out the commandments inherent in Moses’ deal with Yahweh.
In all this slaughter, Moses styled himself as merely the hand of Yahweh. It was not he but Yahweh who did the killing, as is clear from Deut. 19:1: ‘When Yahweh your God hath exterminated all the people of the land that He hath given you ’ From the theological viewpoint, the importance of this is that he introduced the concept of Holy War, which in principle meant that God engaged in warfare for (actually also through) His people. From the viewpoint of the inquiry into the historicity of the Moses narrative, the importance is that Holy War talk is perfectly consistent with Moses’ style of action in Egypt (where he also portrayed the killing of the first-born Egyptians as God’s intervention).
It is remotely possible that this consistency (the split-half reliability) is due to a systematic imposing of this Holy War doctrine on the entire Moses narrative by the editors. The tirade against other gods and the repeated induction to kill apostates, in Deut.13, may be such a later priestly interpolation. Perhaps Moses was much too busy with actual warfare to carry out religious inquisition and purification campaigns, which was more a task for. the later scribes and prophets. But the Holy War doctrine is probably not a later addition, for it does fit the military situation well. Even if it were a later addition, this would only weaken but still not contradict the case for the historicity of Moses’ personality description as the Bible has preserved it.
External evidence has been claimed to exist, confirming Moses’ historicity and the essentials of his religious outlook.7 Egyptian sources give a lot of information on a character whose career is contemporary with and entirely similar to that of Moses: the Egyptian dignitary Beya. The name already points to the Semitic Yahwist tradition: Be-Yah means ‘on/by/in Yah’, as in ‘by Yah (I swear)’ or ‘in Yah (I trust)’. He also had a long Egyptian name of which ‘moses’ (child of) was a part, as was very common in Egyptian names. So, it is possible that Moshe/Moses was a Hebraized abbreviation of the Egyptian name of this Beya.
This dignitary Beya was a very powerful man at the Egyptian court, and several depictions of him have been preserved. It is striking that he apparently refused to be depicted as bowing before any of the Egyptian gods. He disappears from the Egyptian sources after the unsuccessful palace revolution of the regent princess Tausret against the legitimate young king Siptah. Probably he was part of the conspiracy, and had to flee after its failure. As he is called ‘the Syrian’ in one source, he may have joined hands with the numerous Semitic immigrant community (which may have been held guilty, rightly or wrongly, for the political trouble, just like the Hyksos earlier), and led it into exodus.
Without using those sources, and merely relying on the (not obviously interpolated) data in the Bible narrative, dr. Somers claims to discern some not exactly pathological but still rather extreme traits in Moses. Thus, the ‘burning bush’ need not be understood as a hallucination, but can be explained by natural causes: certain plants in the desert secrete etheric oils which can inflame spontaneously under the sun’s heat. This might have made a big impression on someone not familiar with it, and the desert heat may have helped in making Moses sense a divine presence.
Moses may have suffered from what is called a ‘reactive psychosis’, caused by guilt feelings about the murder of an Egyptian in anger against his punishing a Hebrew slave (or about other, unrecorded crimes). That is also the line followed by Freud in his analysis of Moses. What sometimes happens in such cases, is that a murderer afterwards develops the conviction that God had wanted this murder, that it was God’s will overruling human morality, so that the murder was justified. This would then have led to Moses’ remarkable and self-righteous proneness to murder, terror and the death penalty.
Dr. Somers rejects the thesis put forward by Hirsch that Moses suffered from paranoia. Contrary to the objections of some religious people, the psychological interpretation of the Bible narrative is not an arbitrary projection of modem prejudices, with ‘paranoia’ as a catch-all for everything that does not live up to our standards of irreligious conventionalism. It is a precise scientific analysis, in which a precise syndrome has to be discerned and checked against all the reliable data in the narrative.
Of course, not everyone who has committed a crime develops this same psychosis. A certain temperamental disposition should be present. Psychology knows of a specific condition called the ixoid (= viscous, sticky) personality, with these characteristics:
- domineering and vindictive behaviour;
- impulsive, inclined to violence;
- intolerant of disagreement;
- waves of bad temper, explosions;
- yet, over-social, wants to serve, has a sense of fairness (so that their angry explosions are occasioned by perceived injustice);
- meticulous, order-loving, pedantic;
- persistent and tough;
- speech disturbances may occur (certain similarity, on a less physical level, with epilepsy).
While this syndrome may perhaps lack in precision, so that a firm conclusion about its application to Moses may seem like overstretching the method a bit, it is correct that this ‘syndrome’ is in evidence in Moses’ behaviour. It is indeed in reaction to a perceived injustice against the Hebrew labourer that Moses kills the Egyptian. And it is mentioned explicitly that he complains of not being a good speaker, so that Yahweh allows his brother Aaron to speak for him.
Since man makes God after his own image and likeness, it is legitimate to trace some of Moses’ personal character traits in the God-image which Moses has impressed upon scores of generations of Jewish, Christian and Muslim monotheists. The sometimes morbid character of revealed monotheism is partly traceable to Moses’ personal psychological condition.
2.5. The great prophets
For some really pathological cases, we should read the stories of the prophets. Let us briefly relate dr. Somers’ diagnosis of the greatest of them.
Of course, not all prophets were mentally disturbed people, many just practised a kind of clairvoyance but remained balanced people, some even with a healthy critical intellect. Others are fanatics, but are not described as personalities which we would now recognize as mentally disturbed.
The prophet Elijah was not at all crazy, just clever. When he engages in a competition with the Baal priests, the poor fellows try to get a fire burning on their alter by singing invocations of Baal, while he has sprinkled ‘water’ on his altar and claims the honour for Yahweh once it catches fire (1 Kings 18:20-40). The story smacks of propaganda, but may nonetheless be a true report of a Yahwist prophet’s unscrupulous deceitfulness. The nature of the ‘water’ sprinkled by Elijah becomes clear when we read of a similar feat in the book of the maccabees (2 Macc. 1:20): the Levites have to get fire in a cave, they only find drab water, they bring it nonetheless, and yes, it brings forth fire. A subsequent verse calls the water ‘nephtai’: petroleum was already known to some insiders, and priests used it as a trick to impress people. The Romans also used it, as is clear from the allegation by the writer of the Apocalypse (who appears not to have known the trick) that they had the power to ‘make fire come down from heaven’ (Ap.13:13).
After this episode, Elijah also manages to do what other prophets only rant about and promise to make Yahweh do: some large-scale killing. After cunningly assembling them, he has hundreds of Baal priests massacred. On the whole, Elijah too believed he had a private telephone line with God, but he had retained a firm grip on social and strategic realities, and acquired a much more honourable positions than some of his colleagues.
For a more tragic example, we turn to Isaiah, the ‘man of sorrow’. He had a schizophreniform accident, a vision with schizophrenic contents, which deeply influenced his further thought, but did not form a chronic condition of schizophrenia. In this vision, he has sensory hallucinations, catastrophic revelations, and a strong delusion of being chosen by God to serve a mission. This will condition his self-image and his ‘prophetic’ style of logorrhea, emotional exaggeration, and making predictions.
Taking into account that some of Isaiah’s successful ‘predictions’ are in fact later interpolations, we find that the remaining authentic predictions are little more than expressions of the prophet’s own vengefulness and wishful thinking. Liberation theologians get a kick out of Isaiah’s tirades against the mighty and the successful (who will be wiped away when the Lord cometh), thinking that he was a kind of social revolutionary; in fact, he was just another typical unhappy man who developed both an intense vengefulness against the successful and a, delusion of being special in a supernatural way. Unhappy and vengeful people are keen observers and critics of others’ faults. And who will believe that Isaiah’s walking barefoot and naked for three years (Is.12) is not abnormal behaviour but a deliberate sign of warning?
Isaiah’s hymn on the newborn son (‘For a child is born unto us, a son is given ’, 9:5-6), interpreted as referring to Christ by Christians and probably by Christ himself, is more realistically about the prince Manasse, born in 699 BC. Of course, some of the imagery in Isaiah is of great and lasting beauty (especially when put to music by Haendel in his Messiah), in spite of the morbid element in the prophet. We should realize that the man, and more so his final editors, integrated his delusion into a genuine religious vision. A mere copy of his authentic tirades and ‘predictions’ would not have enthused many followers, but a suitably enlarged and edited version endowed with a literate religious doctrine and style became genuinely powerful.
Jeremiah, the prophet of doom par excellence, is a clear case of paranoia querulans. Israel has fallen and will be punished. The king of Babylon who subdues Israel is merely God’s punishing arm; which will not save him, the idolater, from equally being punished in the end. Jeremiah is against everyone, including rivalling godmen and prophets, and God’s revenge will be total. His immense hatred for everyone who disagrees and his hammering on always the same allegations and promises of doom, and a secondary delusion of being persecuted, are typical signs of querulous paranoia.
As Dr. Somers writes: ‘The book Jeremiah teaches us nothing about God, it illustrates how a sick mind pictures God in terms of his own delusion Jeremiah shows a characteristic trait of the paranoia patient: a deadly hatred against everyone who disagrees with him, a totally disproportionate reaction to the ‘other opinion’, inspired by hurt narcissism. The inflated ego is invested with divine dignity and power. Whoever speaks up against God, must die.’ In a sense, this is a diagnosis of not only Jeremiah, but of prophethood itself.
Ezekiel, who lived in the Babylonian exile, reiterated the condemnation of unfaithful Jerusalem by his contemporary Jeremiah. But he is of a different psychological type: he is not aggressive towards his audience, rather he is indifferent. The evil has been done, the catastrophe is sure to follow, whether people listen or not. Ezekiel is an unmistakable case of schizophrenia. In the 22 years (592-570) covered by the book Ezekiel, we see a typical development of this condition: he gets hallucinatory visions, develops an increasingly bizarre behaviour, isolates himself. In moments of calm, he relates his visions to others and gives detailed descriptions.
Not every schizophrenia patient makes it to the status of prophethood. Ezekiel was not an extreme case, and he was a literate man who could somehow make his visions relevant through religion, which made them interesting for the Bible editors. It was also his initial deep religiosity that made him vulnerable to emotional collapse when Jerusalem fell, its temple usurped by Baal priests, and the people (at least, the elite) forced into exile in Babel. Unlike many fellow Hebrews, he could not adapt to this Pagan city full of opportunity, and his emotional collapse developed into a permanent mental affliction.
The last Old Testament prophet we must mention in this brief survey, is Henoch. His book (mid-second century BC) is classed as apocryphal, but it is an integral part of the prophetic tradition. Henoch was a staunch pharisee8 and leader of the Essene sect. Probably he was the sect’s ‘teacher of righteousness’, mentioned in the so-called Death Sea Scrolls unearthed at Qumran. It is he who first applied the notion of the ‘Son of Man’ (developed by Daniel as pertaining to the Israelite nation as a whole) to himself, which personalized notion Jesus in turn was to interpret as applying to himself. There can be no doubt that Jesus borrowed from Henoch: the New Testament contains 64 almost literal quotes from Henoch, plus other types of, references.
The book Henoch contains the writings of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia (with all the typical features of schizophrenia as Karl Jaspers described them).9 And it is these Henochian visions which constitute an essential component of the belief system of Jesus and his disciples.
Once more, it should not surprise us that someone with such an affliction could be the recognized leader of a sect. Among other factors, people with a distorted consciousness are often capable of feats of asceticism which require tremendous will-power in ordinary mortals. And the common people of those days would naturally associate the abnormal with the supernatural, especially if it came clothed in the language of religion. But remarkably, in the case of Henoch at least the guardians of the official religious tradition were suspicious of the divine character of Henoch’s book, mostly because of its very open self-centredness. The typical thing with all people suffering from delusions, is that these delusions are very self-centred and allot special importance to the sufferer. But in the case of Henoch, it was conspicuous even to not very discriminating people that Henoch was glorifying more himself than Yahweh.
Henoch claims that he had been given a divine job by God Himself, to reprimand the angels who, sometime before the Flood, had fallen in love with human females and begotten, on them the giants (remark the element of jealousy). Then, he is taken on a trip through heaven: ‘And I, Henoch, I alone have seen the vision, the end of everything, and no man will see the way I have seen’ (19:3). In heaven, he sees someone called the ‘Head of Days’, who comes to him and says: ‘You, you are the Son of Man, who was born for righteousness and righteousness remains with you and the righteousness of the Head of Days will not abandon you’ (71:17). In a vision of a terrible Day of Judgment, he refers to himself as the Chosen One.
The concept of the ‘Son of Man’ had already been introduced in the book of Daniel, written at most a few decades earlier. But there, it explicitly refers to the Chosen People, the nation of Israel which will inherit the rule over the earth after four successive great empires have gone down. But Henoch and later Jesus mistakenly identify the ‘Son of Man’ with their own individual selves.
The common trait in ‘prophets’ is that they give themselves a very central place in history. Being the spokesman of the omnipresent Creator is not a very modest claim. it belongs to the realm of psychopathology.
2.7. The first century
The next important god-sent is none other than Jesus, whose case will be presented in the ch.3. He lived in an age when prophets or at least messianic and millennarist characters flourished. One of his younger contemporaries was the real founder of Christianity, Saint Paul, who taught and believed that the Second Coming of Christ, inaugurating the final days of the world before the judgment, was just around the corner.
The big turn in Paul’s life came when, on the road to Damascus, he fell from his horse and had an experience which he later understood as Jesus calling him. But this experience was completely different in nature from the prophetic revelations and conversations with God which we have mentioned above (except for Moses’ awe before the burning bush, which is a close parallel). The event on the road to Damascus, which triggered Paul’s conversion, was not a crisis in a developing mental disease, but a simple and typical sunstroke. Paul (then still called Saul) hears a voice but doesn’t recognize the speaker: this confusion is the opposite of the intense clarity typical of a hallucination.
Paul suffers a natural blindness for a few days, and under the care of a Christian convert, he gets well again. His inner stress because of his frustrated desire for perfection in the observance of the Law, and more acutely his guilt about the killing of Stephanus, the first Christian martyr, would invest this otherwise ordinary breakdown with a religious significance that was to have world-wide and millennia-long consequences.
Paul’s sect was just one among a number of first-century Jewish sects who expected the end of the world, the coming of the messiah, or a similar cosmic event.
The Apocalypse of Baruch is a prophecy of the impending struggle for Jerusalem, written in the revolutionary fervour of ca. 68 AD. It has remained apocryphal, either because the Jews saw too much inspiration from the Christian Apocalypse in it, or because its predictions had failed in a much too obvious and much too dramatic way. Indeed, it had predicted that the Romans would not be able to take the Temple Mount or to bum down Jerusalem. It is because the text was not canonized that its failed prediction survives in cold print. By contrast, Mark’s Gospel, edited just after the fall of Jerusalem, has the correct ‘prediction’ that of the Temple of Jerusalem, ‘not one stone will be left upon the other’ (13:2).
Baruch’s Apocalypse is not at all the product of visions and hallucinations, but an intellectual construction modelled on the extant prophetic literature, adding some newer literary techniques such as the Socratic dialogue. It constructs imagery to evoke the shocking developments of the final days, before Jerusalem shall defeat her enemies and reign in glory. While we will not further deal with it here, we note that the book is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it is a kind of missing link between Judaism and fledgling Christianity, at a time when both were expecting the ultimate catastrophe and glorification. Secondly, it illustrates how sane and intelligent people subscribing to an established belief system can integrate the prophetic outlook in their worldview. The entire edifices of Jewish, Christian and Islamic theology are similar intellectual elaborations of a basic literary material with an important irrational ‘visionary’ component.
The last Jewish prophet was called Ezra. In ca. 100 AD, he wrote a book relating a dialogue with an angel, who is asked why God could let the recent catastrophes happen to his chosen people, and what He has in store for them now. The visions described are very coherent, are followed by an explanation, and give systematic answers to the questions which Jews are asking. Short, it is an intellectual construction, not the report of real ‘prophetic visions’. It is not the result of pathological experiences, but merely a kind of theological manifesto.
The apocryphal book of Ezra contributed to the enduring revolutionary fervour among Jewish die-hards. It employs images from the earlier apocalyptic literature including the Christian Apocalypse, and in more cautious wording it retains essentially the same message: God has not abandoned His people, He has been testing them, and the final crisis is approaching. In some details, its predictions were even enacted in the last Jewish insurrection, that of the self-styled Messiah Bar Kochba in 132-135. Ezra had predicted (13:9-10) that the saviour will have a flaming mouth, and so Bar Kochba took burning hay in his mouth to prove his credentials.
With the collective suicide of the last Jewish insurrectionists in Masada, the period of Messianic expectation came to an end. Reality had outlasted and defeated all the prophetic Doomsday scenarios. By that time, the Christian sect had already accepted that Jesus’ second coming was not around the corner after all. For Doomsday prophets, the glorious days were over.
Published by the leftist publishing-house EPO in Antwerp, Belgium (in spite of many priests’ leftist leanings, hard-core leftists remain strongly anti-clerical, and they were glad to publish a book that undermines Christian claims). ↩
Published by Facet Publishers, Antwerp 1990. ↩
E.g. P. Krijbolder: Jezus de Nazareeer. Een studie over de historiciteit ven Jezus en de oorsprong van het Christendom, Amsterdam 1976, The same thing had earlier been said about Socrates, who would have been merely a literary creation by Plato, but that theory has been discarded. ↩
These patients are not dangerous because of aggressiveness. Their rage is not directed at someone specific, as is the case with paranoia patients. ↩
U. Undeutsch: ‘Courtroom evaluation of eyewitness testimony’, International Review of Applied Psychology, 33(1), 1984, p.51-67. ↩
e.g. in P. Benoit & M.E. Boismard: Synopse des quatre evangiles, II, Paris, 1972. ↩
See Johannes C. De Moor: The Rise of Yahwism, ch.4.6. ↩
The pharisees were a reform movement that moved the centre of religion away from the priesthood and the temple worship, towards the reading of Scripture and the observance of the Law. Decentralized and separate from the national symbol which the temple was, they led Judaism through the Roman crackdown on the Jews after the rebellions of 70 and 134 AD, and shaped the rabbinical tradition which has since been virtually synonymous with Judaism. The anti-pharisaism in the Gospel text is therefore actively anti-Judaism and one of the sources of Christian anti-Semitism. ↩
K. Jaspers: Allgemeine Psychopathologie, Berlin, 1948. ↩