Understanding the Bible: does psychopathology help?

Can you better understand the Bible, if you know psychopathology ? This seems a quite uncommon question. Ordinarily understanding the Bible is thought to be a matter of inspiration, of devotion or for some more learned people a question of knowledge of theology. And so in most commentaries, learned or devotional, seldom you find an allusion to psychology, almost never to psychopathology. If somebody wants to know exactly the signification of a story in the Bible, why should he ignore that those who have written these books, those who are painted in the Bible, are men with a psychic life ?

Could we not better understand e.g.. the history of the Jewish people, if we see that Moses, as he is painted, had a choleric dominating temperament, that he was impulsive (he killed an Egyptian) and had even a tendency to terrorism (the plagues of Egypt, the killing of 3000 men of his own people). If we find moreover that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is a jealous, vindictive God without mercy for those who did not obey to the Law, we cannot deny that this God had exactly the same choleric temperament as Moses. It is obvious that the God of the Old Testament is a God who is to be feared. Therefore for the faithful Jews the whole religious atmosphere is one of strict and anxious observation of the Law. But consider that the explanation of this fact may be this choleric and dominating temperament of Moses himself. So anybody can see that the whole history of Israel as it is ruled by a meticulously formulated Law and in a spirit of merciless domination, should be a history of war and aggressive politics against those who do not belong to the elected people in the Promised Land. This fact could explain in part the tragedy of the Jewish people: as this people wants to be faithful to his own identity and to the tradition in the Law of Moses, it is engaged in a process, which should end in dominating and conflicting behaviour in Israel and finally in its isolation.

This is what a very superficial study of the temperament of Moses, as it is described in the Bible, can suggest.

This simple example could encourage the students of the Bible not to neglect, as they did up to now, the study of psychology and psychopathology, if we want to see a new dimension; even when it becomes difficult to interpret the choleric temperament of Moses as an image of the Holy. But it helps to discover the Bible in a new light, and to begin to understand it as a human adventure. Sickness and mental disease are also part of the human condition. Could it be possible that in the Bible those features are absent? This is a priori impossible in so far the Bible is a story about human people. There is a great chance that there will be some rests of mental illness. Just as we dig to find rests of antiquity, stones with inscriptions, graves, coins, etc. , so we can dig in the Bible to find symptoms of mental illness.

In many parts of the Bible there are stories, which are little understood, e.g.. the Apocalypse of John. And the trouble theologians have to explain them gives way to fantastic and uncontrolled interpretations. Is it not because we not yet found the key? The question is, if psychopathology could not help to solve a number of mysteries, which were closed up to now. Did you ever remark how many times it is repeated in the Apocalypse that there is loud crying? If you know that the impression of hearing loud noise is a very well known pathological symptom, could it not be that the testimony comes from a pathological background? Why should this hypothesis necessarily and a priori be excluded?

When one considers that in the primitive church the Apocalypse was somewhat distrusted as a Gnostic document, the reason probably was, that even in the primitive church the feeling was ambivalent. Notwithstanding the impression of authenticity, there remained a suspicion of an unknown and unidentified pathological background.

An other example: hearing a voice, hearing the voice of God has been interpreted by theologians as a mental vocation, devoid of course of any sensory perception, more a way of saying that somebody is elected by God, a purely semantic phenomenon. But, if one considers that hearing voices is one of the most common symptoms of mental disease, it would be scientifically irresponsible to exclude the possibility that in those who are said to have heard a voice or the voice of God, no such symptom could be present.

So e.g.. it has sense to investigate what could have been the sensation Moses had in the desert at the burning bush, because the nature of this perception is a clue to the understanding of his total behaviour. Here are a number of possibilities: first: the story is a literary composition and has no relation whatsoever to reality, secondly the story is a report about some real facts. Suppose it is the latter.

It could be that Moses had a true sensory hallucination. In that case it was a symptom of some mental disorder, and each time it is said later that Moses heard the voice of God, this is to be related to this primary hallucination, even when these later hallucinations were not true sensory, but merely psychic ones. In this case we have to reconsider our judgment about Moses and one could see the history of Israel as the narration of the fate of a people, which was a victim of a mental patient.

There is another possibility however. Suppose Moses heard some real sound, such as the thunder (the thunder is often interpreted as the voice of God), and the content of the words Moses heard were the product of his subconscious and the expression of his need of a true God (a Father) as he was an adopted child with an ambiguous father-image, and his need to be the elected one.

In this case his feelings were profoundly religious, and these have laid the base for the theocracy of Israel. Here one can see how a difference in interpretation of the pathological nature of a story can change the total perspective.

When one wants to understand truly the Bible, psychopathology is important. As it was neglected up to this day, the Bible remained a mysterious book, where devotion or private inspiration can find whatever was wished, but where the true content passed unnoticed. In the state of the art the psychopathological investigation of the Bible is a matter for specialists, who can according to very rigorously applied methods eliminate all wishful thinking and examine the text with plain objectivity.

This text may have a complex history; he may partly be a purely literary composition, written for edification with little relationship to true facts. If, and only if, we can find the mention of true symptoms, mostly unnoticed as such by the authors themselves, and these symptoms order themselves in known syndromes, one can consider that it is demonstrated that the story or reports historical facts or is the expression of a mental patient. Because it is impossible that authors in Hebrew antiquity had such notions of psychopathology that they could produce imaginatively a coherent syndrome, as we know it. So psychopathology becomes an instrument of historical investigation and demonstration, and therefore cannot be missed in true scientific work.


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