University of Oxford

Was Jesus A Megalomaniac?

This is an important subject. What we think of Jesus and his self-identity is the biggest single issue in today’s arena of thought. Oscar Wilde expressed a view, quoted in an interesting book by Rivkah Zim, that Jesus was a deluded mystic, whose creative imagination was the source of all his ideas. So, was Jesus merely a mystic Jewish peasant teacher, who conjured up fabulous visions of himself as the I AM, of his God, and of heaven and hell, or is he who he claimed to be? Are we able to distinguish between megalomania; a person with a vast deluded sense of self-importance and true deity?

• GREAT DIVIDE

This is where no one stays on the fence. Jesus is the great divider of humanity. Like Oscar Wilde with his, ‘Out of his own imagination entirely did Jesus of Nazareth create himself’ [1] you form a judgement based on whatever views you have gathered about Jesus, and are ready to condemn him as a deluded mystic. Or to use Stephen Fry’s view of Jesus, he was ‘twee'[2] – quaint or sentimental. But each must form their own conclusion.

Here is a cluster of subjects that may help in any evaluation.

• WITNESS

The first is the issue of the historical and factual nature of the Scriptural information about Jesus. This includes the quality of eye-witness reports, the nature of the relationship to Jesus of the people who knew him, and their eye-witness claims. Here, we ask, were these people prone to exaggerate, perhaps for spiritual favours or material self-advancement, and if so what motivations were there, for unschooled Jewish men, to transform a peasant teacher into God-incarnate? Was this merely a common trait of Jewish messianic extremism, of which Jesus’ followers were conspicuous examples?

• BALANCE

A second subject might concern the psychological balance of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament. Are their elements of grandiosity, a serious delusional disorder, which, if part of a person’s psyche today, would require treatment? Or was Jesus well-integrated, and how would we assess that?

Allied with this, a third question might ask if Jesus was subject to mood swings. Was he a prime case of a manic-depressive, whose genius fired a brilliant moral and ethical splendour, but which then quickly sank to depths, when he washed the feet of others and taught them he was destined for a sacrificial death?

• CLAIMS

A fourth investigation might check the truthfulness of Jesus. This would help to see if he was prone to make claims to impress, but then used doubtful means to try to fulfil those claims. If we could see through a façade, beneath which was a complex psyche absorbed in intrigue or spinning webs of deceit or conspiracy to advance his high popularity, this might be illuminating.

A fifth and final area might look at the emotional maturity of Jesus. How well-adjusted was he in coping with change? Was he outgoing, were his responses to others appropriate, or did he tend to demand his own way, and was angered when events went against his wishes? Was he well-integrated in his various relationships? Or did he make himself the centre of attention by exploiting the weaknesses of others in a way that betrayed an obsessive or insecure temperament?

• PERSONAL

My own assessment is not unique to me. I have read many authors, both non-Christian and Christian, on this subject. And if the Apostle Paul was ‘the very least of all the saints’ (Ephesians 3:8), very ordinary, unremarkable Christians like myself are not claiming to be expert witnesses. But I do wholly concur that the biblical witness to Jesus is transparent, objective, not flattering or insincere, but is wholly trustworthy – not relying on unwarranted prejudice, or relativistic insights, it is the inspired record, in which human writers were moved by God himself. Remarkably I see a deep unity of purpose with the Jewish Old Testament Scriptures, of promise and detailed fulfilment, which has the hallmarks in parts of being eyewitness testimony. And it also includes a lot of what Jesus’ opponents thought of him. All is offered to your own scrutiny and assessment.

• GOD-MAN

When I look at Jesus’ life I see a man asleep in a small boat, who when roused, quells the fury of the storm as God, with a word, ‘Peace! Be still!’ (Mark 4:37-41). I see a man who has ‘nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20), but who as deity, says of God ‘the Father who dwells in me’ (John 14:10). I see a man anguished in the face of death, yet who, as the Lord of life, calls Lazarus from his tomb with, ‘Lazarus, come out’ (John 11:33 &43). I see a man, who spoke as God, the final source of abundant life for all, ‘If anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink’ so that even his enemies said ‘No one ever spoke like this man!'(John 7:37 & 46). I see a man, who as the ever-living God says, ‘before Abraham was I AM’ (John 8:58). I see a man who, as the compassionate Son of God, blesses little children (Matthew 19:13), but who rages as the God of wrath against the racketeers in the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 21:12-13).

• LORD

I see a man, bleeding and broken with a crown of jagged thorns pushed on his brow, standing as if crushed and powerless before Pilate, the authorised agent of Rome, supreme world power, but I also see Jesus as supreme Lord, come to die, willingly bearing the curse for others as the Lamb of God, teaching Pilate there is a higher throne, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above’ (John 19:11).

• GLORY

Well, who is judging who – was Jesus a megalomaniac? Oscar Wilde and Stephen Fry have merely created a ‘Jesus’ entirely out of their own imaginations. But when we weigh up Jesus, we find he is doing the same to us, and we discover, with millions down the ages, that we are the ones for whom the tide goes out, leaving us high and dry, empty shells in need of life everlasting, and Jesus high and lifted up, the lowly Christ of the cross, the exalted resurrected Lord, glorious in his eternal divine majesty, before whom every knee shall bow and ‘every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:11).

1. De Profundis, Oscar Wilde, ed Ian Small (Oxford University Press, 2005), p117.

2. Stephen Fry interviewed by Gabriel Byrne on Radio Telefis Eireann (Irish Television), ‘The Meaning of Life, 1st Feb. 2015.

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