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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  • 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.

  • 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.

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