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Depression and the Divine: Was Jesus clinically depressed?, by David C. Wilson

by
24 January 2020

This book should lose one word from its title, suggests Anne Holmes

THE rather seductive title of this book belies the detailed complexity of its contents. The author combines microscopic textual analysis of Hebrew and Greek biblical sources with scientific sleep analysis and cross-cultural psychology to make a case for Jesus’s being “clinically depressed”.

While taking care not to apply modern Western psychology to the periods of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, the word “clinical” as applied to the rather obscure type of depression indicated by the author’s scholarly textual comparisons does confuse the issue for the modern Western reader. To benefit from this research, it is necessary to suspend prior understanding of depression as experienced and discussed widely in the 21st century.

After an introduction, the book is divided into seven chapters: “Genetics”, “Genesis”, “To sleep Perchance to Dream”, “Elijah — Dreamer of Dreams”, “Dreamtime in the Garden of Eden”, “The One Who Was To Come”, and “One Greater Than…”. The concluding chapter is followed by an appendix: “The Making Of A Divine Man — The Book of Jonah”. Having completed a doctoral thesis in selected passages of the Hebrew Bible, the author embarked on a ten-year detailed quest to produce a more definitive work on prophecy in both the Old and New Testaments from a psychophysiological perspective.

Wilson claims that “treatment of an alternate speech-action/sleep/speech-action sequence as a dream/sleep/dream sequence is valid on the basis that such an overall sleep pattern is a universal behavior pattern common to all cultures at all times”. While I am not qualified to comment on the textual analysis of the biblical texts describing prophetic visions and experiences which the author presents as dream sequences, I am a little concerned by his use of modern sleep research to support his case. Given that he is at pains to set aside a modern Western understanding of depression in favour of cross-cultural interpretations of shamanic experiences, I think it somewhat disingenuous to use the word “clinical” as a description of the type of depression hypothesised as the condition experienced by Adam, Elijah, Jonah, and thus Jesus.

This book is not for the general reader, as it demands patient and perhaps generous attention to the complex and detailed arguments involving ways of translating the original Hebrew and Greek. This is, however, an impressive work of scholarship, fully referenced.

As a psychotherapist, I routinely discuss the interpretation of dreams presented by and together with the dreamer. It is, therefore, impossible to confirm the author’s argument from the perspective of modern psychology, as none of the men involved in the dream experiences is able to confirm or challenge the case that is being made. This is retrospective detective work, and, while it is fascinating to consider the impact of altered states of consciousness on key events in the scriptures, I am not sure that it enhances the reader’s encounter with the Judaeo-Christian narrative accounts from a faith perspective.

Was Jesus clinically depressed? If he was fully human, then he must, indeed, have known the darkest of moods, but there is no evidence that he was disabled by those experiences. If the word “clinical” had not appeared in the text, then the author’s thesis would have been more persuasive, at least for this reader.

The Revd Dr Anne C. Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist and SSM in the diocese of Oxford.

Depression and the Divine: Was Jesus clinically depressed?
David C. Wilson
Wipf & Stock £24
(978-1-5326-6267-6)
Church Times Bookshop £21.60

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