Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait

  • John W. Miller
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

John W. Miller. Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait. 1997. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. ISBN 0-8006-3107-2. Hardback. $18.00.

John W. Miller (Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Conrad Grebel College, University of Waterloo, Ontario) has written a fascinating study that examines the psychological life of Jesus. Initially we often recoil at any attempts to analyze the emotional makeup of Jesus, perhaps because we assume that such an exploration will reveal or uncover imperfection, inadequacy, and weakness. We affirm the full humanity of Jesus during His incarnation here on earth, and we regard His humanity as complete, perfect, and sinless. We pull back from any and all attempts to tarnish or sully the psyche of the Savior. Yet with a little reflection we can surely understand that the perfect, sinless psychology of Jesus consisted of individual characteristics and traits. He was not a generic, formless human person. He was a specific, unique, and traited man who theoretically can be studied and understood psychologically.

Miller has given us just such a study. While not all readers will agree with his reconstruction of the personality makeup of Jesus or with his approach to textual and critical gospel studies, all readers will surely be challenged to re-examine familiar passages with in view an improved understanding of just who Jesus was. Miller selects as the central piece of his analysis, an important text in Mark 3:19b-21. Miller translates this passage thusly: “Then he (Jesus) went home (to Capernaum); and the crowd came together again, so that they (Jesus and his disciples) could not even eat. And when those close to him (his immediate family) heard it, they went out (from Nazareth) to seize him, for they said, `He is beside himself.'” (p. 13). Miller notes that this passage normally receives sparse treatment by Protestant commentators (including Bornkamm, Dodd, Trocme, and Jeremias) but extensive treatment by Jewish commentators such as Klausner, Flusser, and Vermes. The alienation Jesus experienced from his biological family may represent enigmatic material that is difficult for us to assimilate and is “symptomatic rather of a still widespread and largely unconscious resistance to a full recognition of Jesus' humanity and the more obvious emotional factors at work within it” (p. 14).

Miller finds other evidence of estrangement between Jesus and His biological family. The single recorded visit to his home in Nazareth during His three years of public ministry turned out to be abortive (Mark 6:1-6a); his biological brothers did not believe in Him (John 7:5); Jesus made a very crisp reply to those who told Him that His mother and brothers were outside asking for Him (Mark 3:32); Jesus taught that His followers must that leave home and family for the sake of the kingdom (Luke 18:29b-30); the hyperbolic statement of Jesus regarding hatred toward family (Luke 14:26); and the deflecting reply Jesus gave to the anonymous woman who spoke a blessing on His mother Mary (Luke 11:27) likewise point to estrangement; even the famous saying of Jesus regarding His mother from the cross is remarkably cool and distant, says Miller. “Only too obviously, Jesus saw life's ultimate loyalties as potentially discordant with the claims of biological family” (p. 16). Miller suggests that this estrangement may have occurred very suddenly, catching those who knew Jesus off guard (Mark 6:2-3).

What caused this alleged disruption of familial ties? According to Miller, the cause as indicated by canonical sources was clear. “They point with one accord to his encounter with one of the `great men' of his generation, John the Baptist” (p. 19). The affiliation Jesus made with John, the mentoring that John may have performed for Jesus, the seamless transfer of Messianic-like ministry from John to Jesus, the baptism Jesus received from John after the temptations in the wilderness, and the voice from heaven affirming Jesus as the beloved Son of God all point to a profound set of events that launched Jesus into His public ministry. Miller suggests that the biological family of Jesus did not respond at all well to what happened to Jesus in the wilderness and in the Jordan River.

The author adds other suggestive material from the gospel accounts to round out his reconstruction of the personality of Jesus. Miller, for example, points out that fathers or fatherly types predominate in the stories of Jesus but women appear in only four parables (the widow in the unjust judge parable, the woman baking bread in the leaven parable, the ten maidens waiting for the bridegroom, and the woman searching for a lost coin). None of these women are portrayed as mothers. “These parables stand in contrast to some thirty parables in which men are the dominant figures” (p. 49). Miller suggests that the step father of Jesus, Joseph, may have died during His late adolescent years thus leaving a large, emotional scar that was only fully healed through the mentoring of John and in the full hearing of the affirming voice from heaven at His baptism. Meanwhile, the mother of Jesus may have come to rely on Jesus when He fulfilled a surrogate husband-father role in His family after Joseph died. When Jesus leaves this responsibility around the age of 30, Mary may have been very upset with Him leading to the clashes recorded by Mark.

Miller is fascinated by the suggestion of Daniel Levinson (The Seasons of a Man's Life, 1978) that males often experience a developmental crisis around the age of 30. Miller feels that the major events surrounding the wilderness temptation and the baptism of Jesus by John (around the age of 30, Luke 3:23) may well have been the culmination of a psychological crisis that was related to the trauma of leaving His obligations to His mother, brothers, and sisters and assuming a new and very different public ministry. Mentors are often instrumental for males who are navigating through this age 30 crisis (cf. the role of John with Jesus) and males who successfully navigate this developmental crisis subsequently display new generativity and compassion (cf. the male figures in the teachings of Jesus who are known for their compassion and understanding).

A major feature of the book is its appendix (16 pages) that summarizes previous psychological/psychiatric studies of Jesus from early nineteenth century studies that diagnosed Jesus as insane to Albert Schweitzer at the beginning of this century who attempted to portray a much kinder view of Jesus. Miller also reviews the work of Anton Boisen and psychoanalytic thinkers who have explored the data of the gospels regarding Oedipal Complex and Jocasta Complex themes.

Readers will be disappointed that Miller does not more fully discuss the temple scene when Jesus was 12 years of age. In view of the paucity of gospel material regarding the relationship of Jesus to His parents, one would assume that the material surrounding the boyhood temple event looms rather large in the total scheme of things and needs fair and complete treatment by those attempting to draw a psychological portrait of Jesus. We also wonder how the age 30 thesis which is predicated on a modern life span can be applied to a first century life span that was considerably shorter in length. We also question whether John the Baptist was truly a parental surrogate for Jesus given their close proximity in age. In summary, Miller's work greatly adds to the available material on the psychological makeup of Jesus of Nazareth.

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