Psychologizing Jesus

  • If I may so express it, I was steeped in Dora. I was not merely over head and ears in love with her, but I was saturated through and through. Enough love might have been wrung out of me, metaphorically speaking, to drown anybody in; and yet there would have remained enough within me, and all over me, to pervade my entire existence… I was sensible of a mist of love and beauty about Dora, but of nothing else. He stood up sometimes, and asked me what I thought of the prospect. I said it was delightful, and I dare say it was; but it was all Dora to me. The sun shone Dora, and the birds sang Dora. The south wind blew Dora, and the wild flowers in the hedges were all Doras, to a bud. (Dickens, David Copperfield, Blissful, 33)

One general rule of thumb of inquiry is that we don’t want arguments that depend on imputing emotional states on people,  because we have no real access to those.  As I said, this is a general rule, although the ancients viewed things differently. 

One important background piece of philosophical information is that the ancients didn’t have the modern Enlightenment notion of the hermetically sealed subject set off against the world.  Rather, in the world, we truly find ourselves.  And so for instance, in finding boringness to be a characteristic of the book, we experience boringness as a trait like plot and characters, even though we understand the next person need not experience the book as boring at all.  Similarly, we might experience the exemplary houseness of the mansion, “Now that’s a house!,” while the next person may experience it to be Shawdy.  Homer expressed this by saying “the Gods don’t appear to everyone enargeis (in their fulness).” Aristotle thought of Being as phusis in this way as “movement or presencing:” eg “Now that is Art!,” as though divine Art itself was “presencing incarnate” through the painting. Or, the beautiful woman as Beauty incarnate. This isn’t making any existential theological claims, just using the language of theology to phenomenologically describe the experience.

So, our inquiry rule of thumb mentioned above is a little less useful with the ancient pagans because for them the inner manifested in the outer, such as the personification of the gods in Art.  And so, for instance, Platt comments:

  • It is important to remember that in a language without capitalisation, eros and psuche were referred to as both personified representations of abstract concepts, and the concepts ‘desire’ and ‘soul’ themselves (Stafford 2000, pp.4-5). As well as expressing complex ideas about the separation of body and soul, notions of subjectivity and the relationship between man and god, Eros and Psyche gave form to intimate emotions, externalising and objectivising difficult or powerful experiences in such a way as to make them instantly communicable. They were thus part of a common visual and symbolic language which found effective expression in easily-reproduced iconographical types, replicated and referred to in both artistic and literary contexts. The ‘psychologising’ of Eros’ power is found in a wide variety of texts that play upon the allegorical potential of the psuche. A late Hellenistic epigram by Maccius, addressed to an image of Eros bound, subtly implies the cause of the god’s imprisonment by claiming ‘Weep your fi ll, shedding soul-wasting tears, … winged fi re, the soul’s invisible lesion, Love  (Greek Anthology 16.198; Gow and Page 1968, vol.2, p.317). That the viewer/reader is expected to be familiar with images of Eros torturing Psyche with fire is suggested by his concluding couplet: ‘Look at that torch which you, irresistible to mortals, have kindled in their hearts, now by your tears being quenched’ (lines 5-6). By withholding a direct reference to Psyche’s personification, the poet allows the word psuche its full symbolic range; like the reader’s most private response to desire, the psuche’s wounds may be aoraton, ‘unseen’, yet the ekphrastic technique of the epigram also brings the visual tradition before the knowledgeable reader’s eyes with a particularly Hellenistic enargeia. Such a combination of intimacy and cultural sophistication is typical of the literary epigram, with its blend of miniaturism and self-conscious artistry; yet it applies with equal force to the intaglio. Whether set in jewellery for decorative purposes or worn and used as seal-rings, engraved gems were carried upon the self, viewed at close-quarters, and regarded as holding particular significance for their owners. Seals were presented as gifts, often specially commissioned (or at least chosen with great care), and passed down through the generations. That they provided a powerful metaphor for the security, and intimacy, of communication between individuals is demonstrated by a reference we find to an intaglio ring in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. In order to illustrate the close relationship between the Macedonian king and his lover Hephaistion, Plutarch recounts how, when reading private letters from his mother Olympias, Alexander allowed Hephaistion to read over his shoulder: ‘But then as soon as he had done, he took off his ring, and set the seal upon Hephaestion’s lips’ (39). Such a passage expresses both the seal’s authority, as a guarantor of the security and authenticity of written documents, and the intimate, very physical bond which could exist between the object and its owner, for when employed as a seal, the device the intaglio bears is meant to ‘stand for’ its owner in his or her absence. Most strikingly, however, the passage emphasises the way in which the seal could be expressive of the relationship between two individuals; it both guarantees and symbolises the honesty, trust and confidence that characterise mutual bonds between lovers, relatives, friends or colleagues.

I have argued this high art of the pagans is expressed in the New Testament in the pagan soldiers of Mark and Luke whose outward expression of language (truly this is God’s Son / An innocent man) personify Paul’s exemplary conversion, the persecutor coming to see Jesus for who he really was, not a blasphemer (for the Jews) or political insurrectionist (for the Romans), but the specially chosen one of God who died to make conspicuous the sinful nature of the world and hence give humanity a chance to repent before the imminent final judgment, which would otherwise convict most of humanity because of their sinfulness.  Ehrman comments regarding Luke:

  • It is easy to see Luke’s own distinctive view by considering what he has to say in the book of Acts, where the apostles give a number of speeches in order to convert others to the faith.  What is striking is that in none of these instances (look, e.g., in chapters 3, 4, 13), do the apostles indicate that Jesus’ death brings atonement for sins.  It is not that Jesus’ death is unimportant.  It’s extremely important for Luke.  But not as an atonement.  Instead, Jesus death is what makes people realize their guilt before God (since he died even though he was innocent).  Once people recognize their guilt, they turn to God in repentance, and then he forgives their sins. Jesus’ death for Luke, in other words, drives people to repentance, and it is this repentance that brings salvation. 

My analysis was to take Ehrman’s Lukan model and shine it through the rest of the New Testament.My background is in Philosophy, Psychology, and English Literature, and as we really saw with the development of psychoanalytic and later deconstructionist schools of hermeneutics, the psychological dimension of the text needs to be bracketed only if we assume a subjectivity model of the rigid Enlightenment that ignores what came before it in antiquity or what came later with the Romantic period. With New Testament studies, we are doing hermeneutics just as much as we are doing history and so to say we need to exclude the less certain inferential dimension would mean we couldn’t interpret the Barabbas theme in terms of scapegoat mythology or the withering off the fig tree in terms of the temple cult.