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Were Jesus’ Followers Crazy? Was He? Mailbag June 4, 2016

I’ll be dealing with two questions in this week’s Readers Mailbag, both dealing, as it turns out, with issues related to psychology and the early Christian movement: one has to do with why the followers of Jesus didn’t simply give up and disband when the end-of-the-world-apocalypse they had been anticipating didn’t happen (so that they were proven to be *wrong*) and the other about whether Jesus was, literally, crazy.   Interesting questions!  If you have one you would like me to address, just ask in a comment on any of my posts.



I get that when the Apocalypse didn’t happen as the apocalyptic Jesus had predicted that a kind of reinterpretation of events including the resurrection took place. But why? Why didn’t the fledgling fringe then Jesus-Jewish (my term) sect simply die out?



Ah, this is a meaty question that someone could write a book about.  In fact, people have written books about it!   I won’t give a definitive answer here, but will instead mention just one book – now a classic – that addresses the issue, and in a very interesting way.

John Gager was for many years a professor of Religious Studies at Princeton University.  He was there the whole time I was doing my graduate work across the street at Princeton Theological Seminary, but, idiot that I was, I never took any classes with him.  I did meet him though, and came to know him a bit later after I was at Chapel Hill

One of his most important books is called Kingdom and Community.  It deals with just this question.  Why didn’t Jesus’ followers disband when they realized that his predictions of the imminent appearance of the kingdom of God simply were not true?  Jesus said the “end” would come within his generation, before the disciples had died (e.g., Mark 9:1; 13:30).  But they died, and it didn’t come.  So why didn’t the earliest Christians just realize that he, and they, had been wrong and revert to their original religious views (whether Jewish or pagan)?

Gager takes a very interesting approach to the question, one that might not occur to you.  He appeals to an intriguing study of modern-day groups who expect the UFO’s to come.

There was a fascinating book, which everyone ought to read, written by Leon Festinger, called When Prophecy Fails.  In it Festinger develops a theory of social-psychology that is called “Cognitive Dissonance.”  Cognitive dissonance refers to a phenomenon that most of us have experienced:  when something we deeply think proves to be completely wrong, rather than admit it, we refuse to think we were completely wrong (for psychological reasons) and argue more strenuously for it to ease the conflict between our views and our reality.

Festinger established the theory by looking at “UFO cults,” that is, groups of people who expected the world to be invaded by UFO’s.   When the UFO’s didn’t appear as expected, what did members of the group do?    Rather than disband, people in these groups typically re-explained the non-event to themselves and then expected it with even *greater* fervor.   And they promoted their views even more vigorously.  The “dissonance” (that is, the fact that reality did not coincide with their expectations) in their “cognition” (their thinking) led them not to reject their views but to affirm them more vehemently by getting others into their movement.  This eased the discomfort of the dissonance because it showed them that others – even more people – shared their views

For cognitive dissonance to work, you need the following situation.  A group of persons has a very firm view about something.  The view is so concrete that reality can, in fact, disconfirm it (show that it’s wrong). Then the view is in fact disconfirmed.  And that’s when cognitive dissonance (the mental confusion that comes when a firmly held belief is disconfirmed) kicks in.  By becoming more evangelistic about the view, people in the group convince others to join them and adopt their views.  The more who join, the more moral support the people of the group receive:  Hey!  All these other people agree with us!  We must be right!

And so if the UFO’s don’t appear on February 3 the way you thought, you say that you made a slight miscalculation – they are supposed to appear on August 28.  And you convince more people.  And the support you get in the group allows you to believe it even more fervently the next time.

Gager applies this theory of cognitive dissonance to the early Christians.  They thought the Kingdom of God would arrive in a cosmic display of divine power within the first generation.  They really thought that.  But it didn’t happen.  Their belief was disconfirmed.  And so what did they do?  To resolve the psychological tension the non-appearance of the kingdom created, they became more fervently missionary, converting others to their cause.  They did so by insisting that the end was still to come “soon” – and they came up with excuses for why it had not happened yet:  for example, some of them might say: God had delayed the end to give people more of a chance to repent.  Or: Jesus hadn’t really meant it would come while his disciples were alive, he meant it would come while their memory was still alive.  Or: when God said it would come “soon” he meant by his divine calendar, not by a merely human calendar.  And so on.

The failure of the kingdom to come, thenk is what led to the growth of the Christian community.  It was all a matter of cognitive dissonance.

I’m not saying I completely agree with this theory.  But I think it is a brilliant take on the early Christian movement.



Long ago, I read Albert Schweitzer’s 1911 classic book entitled “The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.” One of the weaknesses of the book is that psychiatry was in its infancy in 1911 and diagnoses have markedly changed in the past 100 years. My question: Do current scholars ever discuss whether or not Jesus was mentally ill and, if so, who can I read about this matter?


In a sense this question is along a similar line as the one preceding, but now the question is not about the psychological state of Jesus’ followers but of Jesus himself.   Here I’ll give just a very, very brief response:  To my knowledge there aren’t any serious scholars of the historical Jesus who have questioned his sanity.

I suppose one main reason for that is that the vast majority of historical Jesus experts (not quite all) are themselves Christian, and they simply are not going to go there.  But there’s actually a much better reason.  Everyone realizes that the historical Jesus cannot be understood unless you situate him fully within his own historical context, and understand his teachings in light of what people thought and believed in his day.   That makes the most enormous difference to how one evaluates his psychological state.

The reality is that a lot of people today who are predicting the imminent end of the world may have a few screws loose.   But the kinds of expectations that Jesus had about the coming kingdom of God in a cataclysmic display of divine force were not “weird” or “way out there” or “psycho” in his day.  They were fairly common.   Unless you want to say that all apocalyptic Jews were clinically crazy, I don’t think you can say that Jesus was.

But what if he really thought he was God?  Wouldn’t that be crazy?  Yeah, it might well be.  But I don’t think for a second that Jesus thought that about himself.  He did think he had a close relationship with God.  But so do billions of people today (many of them on a first-name basis with Jesus) – but they’re not all crazy.   And he may well have thought (I think he did think) that he would be made the messiah in the future kingdom.  That may have been a rather exalted view of himself, but I don’t think it makes Jesus crazy.  It makes him an unusually confident apocalyptic prophet.  There were others with visions of grandeur at the time.  I don’t think that makes him mentally ill.  It makes him a first-century apocalyptic Jew.

If you belonged to the blog, you could get meaty posts like this 5-6 times a week.  Why not join?  It doesn’t cost much and all the funds go to charity!


Paul’s Own (and Only) Gospel
The Core of Paul’s Gospel



  1. Rick
    Rick  June 5, 2016

    The mental health question is a good one I have often wondered about. The first century context with apocalyptic thinking so widespread in Judaism certainly places Jesus closer to the mainline than his modern equivalent on a soapbox at Times Square. But, while his self image may make him no nuttier than some in the newspaper today – I still wonder about the (apparent) fact that he held it to the cross. That was certainly a point when his belief became unhealthy.

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    gsillars  June 6, 2016

    This sketch from the classic show, Beyond the Fringe, is perhaps the best exposition of the workings of cognitive dissonance in apocalyptic cults. Or at least the funniest.


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    RonaldTaska  June 6, 2016

    Very good answers. Thanks

    With regard to answer # 1: I think there is no better illustration of “cognitive dissonance” than the way Trump supporters continue to reinterpret stuff and cling even harder to their beliefs about Trump no matter what evidence is presented.

    With regard to answer #2: Obviously, it is next to impossible to make a psychiatric diagnosis without doing a psychiatric interview. Sometimes, however, the diagnosis can be glaringly obvious fairly quickly. I think the two psychiatric issues with Jesus are did He have grandiose delusions and did He hallucinate at times? Obviously, Jesus seems much less grandiose in the synoptic Gospels, which are more likely to be historical, than He does in the Gospel of John. Psychiatrists define delusions as being “false beliefs that cannot be changed by logical persuasion and are not part of a subculture” and you have clearly outlined in your answer that the beliefs of Jesus were part of a subculture. The hallucination issue is more complicated. If you read the four Gospels listing what might be a hallucination, such as stuff being heard and seen at the time of the baptism of Jesus, it quickly becomes unclear what Jesus heard and saw as compared to what others, along with Jesus, heard and saw. I still guess that if someone like Jesus walked into a medical office office today bipolar disorder would certainly be considered, but the different cultural context, as you describe, would be a huge factor in making the person seem ill in our culture.

    With regard to Paul’s conversion, I still think a seizure of some type might explain his falling to the ground episode and subsequent confusion.

    Thanks again.

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    flshrP  June 6, 2016

    “Gager applies this theory of cognitive dissonance to the early Christians. They thought the Kingdom of God would arrive in a cosmic display of divine power within the first generation. They really thought that. But it didn’t happen. Their belief was disconfirmed. And so what did they do? To resolve the psychological tension the non-appearance of the kingdom created, they became more fervently missionary, converting others to their cause. They did so by insisting that the end was still to come “soon” – and they came up with excuses for why it had not happened yet:”

    I think there may be a step missing here. Before the disciples began proselytizing, they very likely resolved their cognitive dissonance confusion by starting stories of individuals in their group experiencing visions of Jesus and claiming that these apparitions are proof of his resurrection.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 7, 2016

      Yes indeed: Gager argues that as well!

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        Scott  June 8, 2016

        Is it possible that the resolution of Cognitive Dissonance can be helped along by genuine claims of Jesus appearances, veridical or otherwise? Wouldn’t Jesus’ followers have latched on to the first person who claimed that Jesus had been seen alive and set the ball rolling to reinterpret events based on that visionary experience?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 8, 2016

          Absolutely. I assume that most people right off the bat who came to believe that Jesus was raised thought so because someone *else* said they had seen him alive.

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    JSTMaria  June 6, 2016

    Yikes! I hope you didn’t take my comment as implying you were a “parable-only” type of guy. 🙂 Definitely NOT what I was getting at, but I think you probably know that! Thanks again for your feedback.

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    bbcamerican  June 7, 2016

    When I was an undergrad years ago, the whole Waco/Branch Davidian fiasco took place. One night before we fell asleep, my college roommate remarked how much of a nutjob David Koresh was, to which, from my place on the top bunk, I agreed. He then rhetorically asked how the Jesus movement was different from the Branch Davidians, which was definitely the deepest religious waters he and I ever walked into by a long shot. I never answered, and he didn’t say anything else. But that was probably the first moment when I really began to question the Jesus story.

    Now, I completely agree that it is vitally important to understand the “life and times” of turn of the millennium Palestine to even try to get a grip on who Jesus was and what his mental state was. But in that moment with my roommate’s “innocent” question, I was forced to look at Jesus through the same lens as I looked at David Koresh. And what I saw, fortunately or unfortunately, was that there was little to recommend that, one the one hand Jesus was Lord and Savior, but on the other hand David Koresh was a nutjob. Of course, there are notable differences between the two. But just as you can’t put the proverbial genie back in the bottle, I was never afterward able to shake the idea that Christianity made just about as much sense as the Branch Davidians. I clung to my (afterwards more liberalized!) Christian belief many years afterwards, until the cognitive dissonance described in the post just proved too much for me to maintain a belief that my rational mind simply could not believe anymore.

    But it is funny how such singular moments of clarity can really change your perspective!

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    cmdenton47  June 8, 2016

    Your answer to the first question and the succeeding comments on it have been very informative for me. I grew up in small-town Oklahoma, then moved to a Chicago suburb to finish high school. When I left Oklahoma, although most of my childhood friends went to church regularly, I would never have described them as “highly religious.” Attending Reunions the last twenty years I have found them to be off-the-scale. My life experiences eventually made me a non-believer; they’ve gone the other way. Now I understand why. My favorite thing is how they post pictures of blond Hollywood actors and say, “Share if you love Jesus.”

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    Kazibwe Edris  June 12, 2016

    “The reality is that a lot of people today who are predicting the imminent end of the world may have a few screws loose. But the kinds of expectations that Jesus had about the coming kingdom of God in a cataclysmic display of divine force were not “weird” or “way out there” or “psycho” in his day. They were fairly common. Unless you want to say that all apocalyptic Jews were clinically crazy, I don’t think you can say that Jesus was.”

    i heard that other people in jesus’ time also predict their return in their generation. is there any truth to this?

  9. Jeff
    Jeff  June 12, 2016

    As a general rule, rational people who come across data that flatly and convincingly contradicts their opinions, change their opinions. However, there is a special class or type of opinion that is immune. Let’s call it “deeply held world view” or “core animating belief”. Examples would include the inerrantist Christian and the doctrinaire Marxist. You can explain–and cite–thousands of internal contradictions, historical impossibilities and blindingly clear examples of textual corruption to the former; and point out a hundred million corpses and the wreckages of countries and economies (with nothing on the plus side) to the latter–and neither one will budge an inch.

    Book idea: A study of how this special type of opinion develops, its characteristics (in addition to the above) and how and why it differs so profoundly from ordinary opinion. Whataya think?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 12, 2016

      There are some professionally trained psychologists on the blog, and they can tell us for sure. I’m pretty certain there is an extensive literature on this and related topics (e.g., “confirmation bias”).

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    pgeorge  June 14, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,
    In regard to the question of the insanity of Jesus there is the character in Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 6 who was proclaimed insane by the Roman Procurator, Albinus. This Jesus predicted (correctly) the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Have you ever considered that this is the Jesus that Paul preached? The gospel of Mark was later written to add flesh to a rather bare “life”. The sayings of Jesus were also cobbled together from various sources and the passion narrative an elaboration.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2016

      I’ve written about that Jesus. He can’t be the same one: this episode in Josephus happened about five years after Paul had died.

  11. gmdave449
    gmdave449  June 21, 2016

    I very much agree with making a distinction between clinically insane and “crazy” in the colloquial sense, where we might call someone crazy if they say something we find outlandish, farfetched, or just plain silly. When someone makes an end of the world prediction we might be quick to label them loony but simply saying the world will end soon is not nearly enough to make a diagnosis of insanity. We might think of Harold Camping as a nut job but in all seriousness what diagnosis could you give him on the basis of his false predictions? Bipolar disorder? Psychosis? Schizo? None of those apply. Even in our own time where proclamations that “the end is near” are met with scoffing, many perfectly sane people have made end times predictions or said more generally that the signs indicate that the end is approaching including John Hagee and Billy Graham’s daughter.

    I also agree very much agree with looking at the prevalent beliefs at the time to see if such apocalyptic teachings were commonplace. I’ve often wondered if there was such apocalyptic fever among Jews at the time because the seventieth week in Daniel was coming to a close. There are different ways to reckon the famous prophecy but in my layman’s opinion the best starting date is when Artaxerxes I granted permission to Nehemiah to begin rebuilding the walls in Jerusalem (about 444 BC). This has the Seventy Weeks prophecy coming to a close about 29 AD to 46 AD, depending on which exact date the decree was granted and if you use the lunar calendar to reckon the dates. Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings are rife with allusions to the book of Daniel, especially in the Olivet Discourse and his use of the phrase “son of man.” He even mentions the “abomination of desolation” in the Seventy Weeks prophecy even though he doesn’t directly reference the time frame. The book of Revelation parallels the book of Daniel so closely that it is considered a sister book. I have long suspected Jesus’ belief in the imminent destruction of the temple and final judgement stemmed from a belief that the Seventieth week in Daniel was about to draw to a close and now I wonder if widespread apocalyptic beliefs in the larger Jewish community were also due to the prophecy.

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    KathleenM  June 21, 2016

    I’m not sure how scientifically religious experiences can be quantified, but going to that level, I think all the people around Yeshua shared ideas and thoughts in very refined ways that resulted in some healings and Paul’s conversion, etc. This is an interesting idea about sanity, which I will collect some ideas on.

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    KathleenM  June 22, 2016

    There are a lot of topics in this thread. All interesting to me…thanks for posting…a few brief additional ideas. (I am working on some “translation” type NT issues, addressing the Aramaic idioms, also I have studied the 5th Gospel-the archeological aspect of the Near East in college, plus studied psychiatry.
    1) Some people have “complexes” (?most people) of which they are more or less conscious. You (me, anyone) by some theories can get submerged in a complex if it gets triggered by an event or a world view and that person or people are little conscious of. We have personal myths and societal myths – some folks are die hard Republicans or Democrats and refuse to see the forest for the trees. There were some myths around both Jerusalem and the Near East during the Yeshua years. I think people are correct to say that the early Jesus movement would both fall prey and also get clear of some of the mythical ideas/dreams of the day.
    2) Science has corroborated that extreme fear can cause humans to sweat blood; there is a state scientifically validated that looks like death including almost no breathing as I remember; people have been observed to levitate off the floor over the ages (reputedly fly thru the air as well and lift stones to build walls); I have personally seen faith healings where folks cough up tumors, throw down their canes and walk, hear for the first time in ages, etc. There is some actuality going on around 30 CE in my opinion.
    3) We’ve got some idiomatic issues – examples are the word translated as “Resurrection” actually meant to be born in the spirit in the time of Yeshua’s generation. There is another term “in 3 days” that meant what we say today as “in a short while” “in a few days time. Double of one day is 2, but then there is 3 if you observe 2, etc., these old math issues. There was a technique in the Jewish tradition of “raising someone up on the 3rd day.” It might be hebrew or Aramaic – if someone got sick they were to stay in bed for 2 or 3 days (a short while) until someone “raised them up,” which meant a priest holy woman or Mom or Dad came by the bed and said “OK, you are back to the synagog or back to the fields.” Get up and walk!! Shalom – May peace rest with you.

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