Analyzing Biblical Psychoanalysis

A BHD-exclusive contribution by "Bible in the News" author Leonard J. Greenspoon

Leonard Greenspoon

Leonard Greenspoon

I don’t mind sharing the fact that over the years I have been a patient of one or more psychologists. They asked me questions I answered them to the best of my ability. It was, we might say, in the moment.

Although others may question the value of such procedures, I do not. But what about other circumstances when, for example, the questioner is alive (and presumably well) but the “patient” is long dead or a literary figure? When I first heard that researchers were subjecting Biblical figures to some forms of psychological analysis, I was skeptical. Having looked further into the matter, I am now more doubtful than ever that this is a serious enterprise. I say this as a Biblical scholar, not as a student of psychology.

In my most recent “Bible in the News Column” (BAR, March-April 2013), I briefly mention a spate of news reports on one such incident. These articles, from a variety of publications in February 2001, carry titles such as “Oh No Delilah, Samson Was a Psycho,” “Samson ‘Suffered Antisocial Disorder’” and “Strongman Samson Was a Head Case, Shrink Says.” All of these accounts report that, in the opinion of Dr. Eric Alschuler and his colleagues from the University of California Medical School at San Diego, Biblical Samson exhibited six of the seven clinically recognized behaviors for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder (also known as ASPD).

For a flesh-and-blood patient today, three out of seven would be enough to confirm this diagnosis, which would lead even casual readers of the newspaper to conclude that it must really have been all in Samson’s head (inside that is, rather than on top, where his hair either grew—or it didn’t). Specifically, he showed no remorse, was deceitful, impulsive, irritable and displayed reckless disregard for his own safety and the safety of others. Finally, his choice of weapon—the jawbone of an ass—fits the criterion of cruelty to animals. If I’m counting correctly, that’s indeed six out of seven. I’m sure that if I knew the seventh criterion for diagnosing ASPD, I could find some passage to indict Samson on that charge as well.

Samson does not have to shoulder all of the blame, we are assured. Since, as one medical researcher observes, a whole chapter in Judges is devoted to Samson’s mother being warned by angels not to drink while she is pregnant, we can surmise that recklessness and a disregard for others may have run in the family.

For more than a dozen years, Leonard J. Greenspoon’s “The Bible in the News” column has been one of the most popular sections of Bible Review and Biblical Archaeology Review. A new volume, developed exclusively for eReaders, this book brings together all of Greenspoon’s “The Bible in the News” articles and columns into a single collection, beginning with his August 2000 feature article “Extra! Extra! Philistines in the Newsroom!” until his recent column in the November/December 2012 issue of BAR.
Read more here >>

In my BAR article, I modestly suggest that this psychoanalysis-at-a-great-distance should be characterized, in large measure, as cruelty to serious readers of the Biblical text. To which I might add reckless disregard for millennia of careful textual exegesis on the part of literally hundreds of Biblical scholars applying approaches from the historical-critical to the synchronic. Perforce, these medical researches take the Biblical text just as it is and take no account of historical, literary or textual concerns. I only hope they are more fully prepared in their interpretation of medical data.

Although that “news” created quite a stir in the popular press, it was not, as I recall, based on a full-fledged article in a well-known medical journal. A much more recent article (September 1, 2012) has all of the credentials (medical ones, that is) that you could expect. It has a formal, somewhat forbidding title: “The Role of Psychotic Disorders in Religious History Considered.” It is published in what is certainly a major publication in its field, The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, and is written by three well-credentialed authors (three M.D.’s and one Ph.D.), all of whom are associated with Harvard Medical School (among other prestigious institutions).

The article runs more than sixteen pages, is lavishly illustrated (especially for a journal article) and is backed up by an even one hundred footnotes/references. They are nothing if not bold, analyzing as they do Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Paul (whom they refer to as St. Paul) “from a behavioral, neurologic and neuropsychiatric perspective.” To cut to the chase, they conclude that these individuals, whom they characterize as “some of civilization’s most significant religious figures,” “may have had psychotic symptoms that contributed inspiration for their revelations.”

The authors gracefully acknowledge that “the sources relied upon to derive information [namely the Biblical texts] about our subjects are not medical records.” Moreover, “retrospective diagnosis may also be asserted to be a transgression of medical principles, since a medical opinion is rendered on a patient who was never seen or examined.”

All well and good, I suppose. But how about the transgression of a basic rule of research? Those working in a field that is not their own take the time to learn from those in the field they are entering. Of references to Biblical interpretation, I count only three among the one hundred cited: James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? and Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (in its fifth edition).

Now, this is by no means a shabby trio of authorities, but when we actually look to see how each is used, the word “superficial” seems tailor-made just for this circumstance. Friedman and Ehrman appear in adjoining footnotes to the same sentence (not a citation style that I’m familiar with) in support of this general observation: “We [the article’s authors] recognize an important limitation inasmuch as we approach these source documents as most likely being composites of the perspectives and beliefs of authors, most of whom would not have personally known our subjects.” Not only do we not need to read Friedman and Ehrman to gain this insight, but it is not clear, at least to me, how, or if, this principle is actually applied by these medical practitioners.

The religion section of most bookstores includes an amazing array of Bibles. In our free eBook The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide, prominent Biblical scholars Leonard Greenspoon and Harvey Minkoff expertly guide you through 21 different Bible translations (or versions) and address their content, text, style and religious orientation.

The authors draw this supposedly edifying conclusion from Hoffmeier: “The story of Moses in the Bible is thought to have its setting sometime between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE.” These authors do not always read the text literally, since, for example, they consider the possibility that some accounts of blindness may be metaphorical, but even in these circumstances, they fail to avail themselves of historical or literary studies of antiquity that could buttress (or counter) their arguments. And they contend that prominent Biblical characters did not suffer from an ailment, physical or mental, unless it is explicitly mentioned in the text. So, Abraham’s “generally good state of health is indicated by a purported lifespan of 175 years without mentioned infirmity.”

Enough said! I am, as should be clear, unimpressed by this sort of intellectual imperialism on the part of medical doctors. At best, they are dabblers in Biblical studies. At worse, they can mislead the unwary. But instead of simply complaining, maybe I should take the offensive. Let’s see: How about my offering cures for various ailments of today based on variant readings in the Septuagint? Or suggesting novel ways of interpreting x-rays based on new approaches to the Targums? Or shall we go with an evaluative classification of medical professionals based on their ability to recite the Bible in accordance with the original (no second editions, please!) of the King James Version?

Leonard J. Greenspoon is the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization at Creighton University in Omaha. He is editor-in-chief of the Studies in Jewish Civilization series, which is publishing its 24th volume this fall. He also co-authored, with the late Harvey Minkoff, BAS’s free guide to modern Bible translations, The Holy Bible: A Buyer’s Guide.

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  1. Enopoletus says

    An excellent article, Mr. Greenspoon. The only part I did not like is the “offensive” at the end; science is necessarily primary over pre-scientific explanations.

  2. Zvi Henri says


  3. JAllan says

    Retrospective analysis, when used CAUTIOUSLY, may at least suggest other possibilities. The Samson case is one in which, unless the medical analysis is intended as a spoof (not entirely out of the realm of possibility), a mental illness by the criteria of OUR society is imposed upon behavior characterized as normal in THAT society; that is, the Israelites were at war, and all adult males in good health, on both sides, were considered soldiers. Today’s psychiatrists might thus characterize ALL men in a warrior society as having ASPD, if they did not account for the norms of those societies as shaped by political circumstances.

    As another example, the late Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong has considered the possibility that Paul was a self-closeted gay man, not only being celibate as to men (and women, for whom he would have felt no desire if Spong’s hypotheses is true), but hating his very being because he could not completely cut off those thoughts. To Spong, this explains the ultra-perfectionistic anxiety he felt before conversion about possibly being condemned for some minor forgotten transgression in his past, which was relieved for him by faith in Jesus. What centuries of Christian analysis has left unexplained is why Paul had such an extreme belief personally, when Pharasaic tradition always allowed for repentance and Divine forgiveness, even without a Messiah. But Spong never claimed to have any certainty, only to have suggested a (strong, to him) possibility.

    Neither Bishop Spong’s hypothesis nor that of the psychiatrists cited by Mr. Greenspoon is valid for medical purposes, nor are they intended to be. After all, barring “time travel” it is too late to help or harm the “patient” in this life. They both belong in the same area as the speculations that Edgar Allan Poe may have been bitten by a rabid animal before his fatal visit to Baltimore, that Mozart contracted trichinosis from an undercooked pork cutlet on his last tour, that Napoleon was slowly poisoned by arsenic on St. Helena, etc. At least the last one can be tested by testing the “relics” of his hair that were distributed by collectors after his death; the others cannot.

    I would assume the “offensive” at the end of Mr. Greenspoon’s article is a gentle spoof or satire. After all, even in a layman’s mind, some hint of the thought processes of Biblical authors and figures helps us understand what their approach was. Just don’t take either the literal words of the Biblical account, or the details of what doctors and “shrinks” say about its authors, without a few grains of the salt of the earth.

  4. Perry says

    Generalized traits scattered across scripture may be of value. Raising two sons, I became very much aware of the rivalry between the two, which is also repeatedly reflected in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, the conflicts of succession between sons of kings ( usually of different mothers), the disciples of Jesus. Then there is repeatedly seen the power of sex: Delilah, Bathsheba, the entire book of The Song of Songs. You can also see the struggles of nationalism and provincialism in the divided kingdom, forcing us to read that history through the eyes of first Judah, then the survivors of captivity. I’d not put my weight down on any individual shrink job, but it’s fascinating to see life styles we are cery familiar with reflected among the ancients. Oh – note the battle between tradition and the new dynamics in the Pharisees. No new wine and no need for new wineskins, a battle that often still rages.

  5. JAllan says

    One commentator (Isaac Asimov; not a professional Biblical scholar, but a great polymath, and related to the authors, LOL) drew a parallel between the herder-farmer rivalry in the Bible (also seen in extra-Biblical history of that era) and the cowboy-homesteader rivalry in the Old West, during the time between extending the railroad to Kansas and extending it to Texas, when cowboys had to drive their herds several hundred miles every year. Herding societies tend to be nomadic, which causes conflicts with settled farmers when they herd their animals across farm properties (this is exactly what caused the “range wars” in the West). The Bible was written by descendants of nomadic herders who settled in cities, but retained the older tradition of “nomad good, farmer bad” in their stories. As an example, Abel was a herder and had animals to sacrifice, but Cain was a farmer and could only sacrifice grain, and God favored the herder. In Genesis, the trouble always comes from cities (e.g. Sodom). At later stages, there was always a moral disapproval of city life, whereas the prophets came from the wilderness, and often lived alone there.

    So we’ve now involved sociology and agriculture!

  6. Dixon says

    Good article! There are always those who want to discredit the Bible. It is all part of the plan.

  7. Matthew says

    There are two very prominent reasons why this type of analysis works and should be welcome. First and the simplest is that psychological profilers compile similar data on people that have not only never been seen but aren’t even known, and we know this works pretty well. Second, is the fact that having someone from outside the field study something, is of great importance, mainly because they are not saddled with all the pre-conceived notions and biases that those in the field are encumbered with. In other words they can look at it with a fresh outlook and ideas. As a Biblical Archaeologist I often look outside my field for relevant scholars and information to help me determine the best hypothesis and argument I can. It is only with a joining of multiple fields that we will come to the truth of history of any sort, and this elitist idea that Greenspoon has, that only historians can and should determine the past, is not only stupid but detrimental to the profession and academia.

  8. Sunni says

    8. Sunni says
    Good discussion! You didn’t mention the conflict that develops when the boys marry. Each wife says “your parents favor” the other son and it grows exponentially when grandchildren arrive.

  9. Paul says

    Many years ago when I taught at Bethel University, a Baptist college, I had a psychology major whose mother was a recreation therapist at a state psychiatirc hospital. I doubt the woman had as much as a 4 year college degree, but she would periodically get a request from a psychiatrist to examine a patient on an inpatient ward. The referral question would be, “Is this person psychotic or are they just talking Bapist?” The psychiatric staff showed their wisdom in recognizing that there were differences between religious experiences and psychosis, and that someone with personal knowlege of the patient’s subculture was needed to make this type of differential diagnosis. Baptists are probably not delusional when they say,” The Lord told me to go visit sister Smith and give her a word of encouragement.” Now if sister Smith passed away in 1983 or is a Guernsey cow they could be! My student’s mother would have had no problem of making a distinction in this case. Harvard MDs and PhDs might.

  10. Leonard says

    Even at this relatively late date (especially in the fast-paced world of the Internet), I did want to write a note in response to those who responded to my blog. My first response is a sincere “Thank you,” to those who took the time to read my post and made the effort to respond. Maybe I’m old-fashioned (in certain respects, I am certainly old-fashioned!), but I continue to feel that a reasoned and responsible response to something I write is a high compliment.

    In terms of the substance of the comments, let me say a few things. I have no doubt that the biblical writers were astute observers of the interactions between people, so that we can indeed see ourselves and others we know in many biblical narratives–and this for better and for worse. However, the biblical writers were, as a group, uninterested in–or at least uninterested in conveying–the inner thoughts or motivations for actions (or inactions) on the part of biblical characters.

    This has led to a long, and often productive, history of reader interpretation of the “whys” of biblical characters. This is found in, for example, the midrashic traditions of Judaism. There is no reason why we, as modern readers, can’t join in this enterprise–and psychiatrists are not excluded. However, it is also the right, and I would say responsibility, of a modern reader to find some interpretations more appealing than others. In that light, I have exercised my right to be critical of the views espoused in the articles I cited.

    It is not the case that I believe that the interpretation of the Bible is uniquely and solely for biblical scholars only. Nor is it the case, as suggested, that biblical scholars have a set of principles or methods, agreed upon by all, that dominate or dictate the way in which biblical scholarship is carried out. Quite the contrary! But, to repeat what I wrote, serious research on the Bible must be based on an acknowledged and demonstrated acquaintance with what others in the field, in this case biblical studies, have said and or saying–not because we are forced to accept their proposals or arguments, but because we should always build upon the foundations our predecessors have constructed (even–or perhaps especially–f we want to demolish those foundations!). I did not find that the authors of the articles I looked at demonstrated such sensitivity, and I criticized them for it.

    Finally, I do not know whether or not it is appropriate to designate “religion” as the cause for certain psychological features, when elsewhere there would be a “scientific” explanation. “Religion” is certainly a strong motivating factor, again for better or worse. But is it a unique and definable factor?
    I don’t know.

    The very fact that both those who read my blog and I are discussing this should be counted as a positive development. In that sense, I again thank those who responded AND those who wrote the articles that ignited my interest in this topic.

  11. Lou says

    The Song of Songs is a message that several scribs took back and forth between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, to record their messages to each other.

  12. Jess says

    I actually read the whole article before stumbling across your blog.
    You wrote: “Finally, I do not know whether or not it is appropriate to designate “religion” as the cause for certain psychological features, when elsewhere there would be a “scientific” explanation. “Religion” is certainly a strong motivating factor, again for better or worse. But is it a unique and definable factor?”
    When I read the journal article it in no way denounced scientific explanations for psychoses. Religious delusions merely being a dominating theme in delusions over other areas. The article was trying to engender more compassion to people with mental illness, I’m more intrigued by the article when it became evident that there was no sure way to know if a person that was schizophrenic was a mouthpiece of God or was suffering from psychoses. I do believe their is value in studying both sides, but in approaching any study you need to be objective, having biases created by long term study in either area would ultimately detract from the viability of the research. In neither area should the past studies and understanding dictate the findings of the research. The study showed the correlations that religious historical figures had with the current DSM, they acknowledged their limitations, like either psychological or biblical should do, my main question is this: why would it be wrong if they had suffered from a mental illness, it doesn’t detract from their accomplishments or their religious foundations, each person’s beliefs will always be grounded, whose to say that God didn’t use psychoses to achieve his end.

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