Jesus’s family didn’t think he was crazy

The only place in the canonical New Testament where you might be told otherwise is Mark 3:21, which the popular New International Version translates: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.'” Many other English translations of this verse are similar (link).

The popularity of this unflattering glimpse of the holy family is a mystery. Mark‘s original Greek is thoroughly vague. The verb translated as to take charge of (kratesai) covers both welcome and unwelcome touching, whether for healing (as at verse 1:31), or to make an arrest (as in Gethsemane, 14:46). The verb translated as he is out of his mind (exeste) similarly applies equally well to a variety of mental states, from the positive astonishment at Jesus’s teaching and miracles (for example, verse 2:12) to something negative that contrasts with sobriety or calm demeanor (2 Corinthians 5:13).

It’s even vague whether Jesus’s family is involved at all. The Greek phrase is no more specific than something like those who are close to him (hoi par’ autou). In context, Jesus’s family is one reasonable inference about Mark’s meaning, but many English translations follow the 1611 King James Version here and say his friends instead. James McGrath recently offered discussion of still other reasonable views about who might be close to Jesus (link). Regardless, whether they are friends or family or somebody else, some of those who know Jesus well are often portrayed in translated Christian literature as having prepared a physical intervention based on their appraisal that Jesus’s mental state was dodgy.

This posting puzzles out what Mark intended this verse to convey, and why a master craftsman wrote it so opaquely. Something important is at stake. Christians promoting an unflattering “factoid” about Jesus without support from the source text undercuts a widely cited heuristic used for discerning supposed facts about Jesus’s life, including whether or not Jesus was a real person who actually lived.

What anybody close to Jesus would know, might think, and want to do

It has been a long sabbath day for Jesus. First, he healed a man’s hand, thereby offending some sabbath-observant Pharisees who plot Jesus’s destruction. Then he went to the lakeside where a crowd gathered. Jesus asked his disciples to keep a boat just offshore in case the press of people became too much. When Jesus finished with the crowd, he climbed a mountain and appointed twelve trusted assistants.

Now finally he enters a house, apparently alone, perhaps looking forward to supper. The house fills up with people. There will be no meal there tonight. Jesus has been in a jam-packed house before, not long ago. That crowd included his enemies. Friendly people outside dismantled the roof to get inside (verses 2:1-6).

Anybody “close to Jesus” would know about that incident. Disciples would also know about his taking crowd-control precautions earlier in the day, as would everybody else who happened to be there. Some folks might be worried that Jesus’s enemies would infiltrate the crowd again, like last time. They have.

Thus, those close to him could be anybody concerned with Jesus’s well-being. And what might such a concerned sympathizer do? Perhaps set out to rescue him.

What mental state might a well-wisher ascribe to a mobbed Jesus? The etymology of the Greek word exeste suggests physical displacement, something like “beside himself.” Some English translators use that very phrase here. That may be as vague in English as the original is in Greek, although the 16th century Geneva Bible, which uses the phrase, explains in a marginal note that ancient families looked after their mad kinfolk. (link)

Your obedient correspondent is partial to overwhelmed. The word derives from a physical situation, being flooded, as Jesus is now caught in a figurative “flood” of people. Overwhelmment is a temporary mental state of helplessness and being trapped; that is, being open to receiving friendly help to escape..The verse then becomes:

When they heard this, those who were close to him set forth to get him out of there, because they said, “he is overwhelmed.”

If Mark meant anything different from that, then he didn’t say so.

Family, friends, or …? Why didn’t Mark simply say which?

Jesus’s family isn’t mentioned in Mark’s gospel until well after verse 3:21. In contrast, the disciples have been mentioned just before and in other recent verses. As for Jesus’s enemies, we soon learn that they are inside the overcrowded house, “close to him” in an ironic sense. Mark loves irony. The enemies are there to accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed. Maybe that’s what “beside himself” meant, and maybe the bad guys have come hoping to arrest Jesus, or to inspire others to turn on him.

Why is the family such a favorite among translators, despite these competing possibilities and with nothing in the verse requiring any specific relationship between Jesus and those “close” to him? Because Jesus’s mother, brothers and sisters appear outside the house later that evening. There’s no mention of the disciples again until the next day, when Jesus boards that rescue boat before addressing another lakeside crowd. The enemies never try anything physical against Jesus; they simply lose a debate with him. The family doesn’t do anything physical, either, but they are stranded outside by the impenetrable crowd. Jesus is plainly in control by then and doesn’t need their help after all.

By chapter’s end, therefore, the family is a reasonably strong candidate for having been “those close to Jesus” all along. Why didn’t Mark just say so, instead of leaving it to translators to say it for him?

One possible answer depends on the assumption that Mark was written to be read or heard in its entirety, start to finish, in the order written. Like other competent storytellers, Mark might manipulate the flow of information to hold the audience’s interest throughout the recitation.

The sudden appearance of Jesus’s family is a surprise. That surprise is enhanced by knowing that somebody has been coming, not knowing who they are or what will happen when they arrive, but anticipating that there will be action. “Something’s going to happen soon, I wonder what” is a state of mind that any storyteller loves to elicit from their audience.

Many of the same translators who resolve the ambiguity of verse 3:21 about who’s close to Jesus preserve another comparable suspenseful ambiguity nearby. Some unspecified “they” watch Jesus heal the man on the sabbath, hoping to catch Jesus violating the rules. Only later do we learn that “they” are (probably) Pharisees (link). What works for the audience in that story can work in this one, too.

Another possibility is that there isn’t any unique right answer. Suppose that Mark was written to be performed by somebody other than the author, at least sometimes. In that case, Mark might deliberately leave room for these other performers to make some independent choices about how to “play” the text.

There surely are several ways to play the vague verse 3:21. Regardless of who set out, was it the enemies who called Jesus crazy? No problem. Mark was long gone when his word stream was broken into separate verses and given numbers. Maybe the remark about Jesus’s unsober state of mind is an integral part of the enemies’ demonic accusation that immediately follows it. It can be played so. Or not, and maybe Mark was content to let his reader choose what goes with what.

Who among those close to him would have thought Jesus was crazy?

Even if the speakers in 3:21 were his enemies, we’ve seen that Jesus is remarkably composed during his exorcisms, not one bit out of his wits, but maybe not himself, either, if the Prince of Demons were in charge. As for his family, we haven’t heard anything at all about them. We can have no idea why they’d think Jesus was insane. The disciples think their teacher is crazy? That’s a non-starter.

And yet many translators do find insanity in the verse, and many of them place that diagnosis in the mouths of the people who aren’t just close, but closest to Jesus. Nor is the accusation solely something modern. Saint Jerome presents Jesus’s perceived madness in the fourth century Latin-language Vulgate version (in furorem versus est, the saint writes of Jesus’s condition, link).

That Christian writers including an ancient saint would portray Jesus as seemingly crazy, many of them attributing that view to the best informed witnesses, conflicts with a heuristic called the criterion of embarrassment. Sometimes it’s called the criterion of dissimilarity, although that term refers to the inapplicability of some frequently used explanations of story elements, rather than to an explanation whose force is based upon and proportioned to an emotional reluctance to disclose inconvenient truths.

For example, “Nobody would teach that Jesus’s mother thought he was insane, unless many early Christians were already confident that she actually did think so.” Thus, the heuristic urges acceptance of a factual finding about a historical Jesus who really lived, because nobody would invent such a thing, and wouldn’t have mentioned it if they could have honestly avoided the matter.

However, many translators do teach just that, without evidence that the New Testament authors, including Mark, believed any such thing. Not only did somebody friendly to Jesus come up with the reading, but the reading was embraced by others, and is still popular today. And yet, honestly avoiding the teaching is the easiest thing in the world: insanity is nowhere on the page being translated. Simply don’t put it there. Embarrassment is avoided while honesty is unblemished.

The criterion is therefore poorly motivated and starkly at odds with how real-life Christian writers are observed to behave. Their willing embrace of unnecessary awkwardness argues against accepting the truth of Jesus’s story because it contains “embarrassing” elements, such as his family thinking that he was crazy.

Illustration: Detail from Christ Mocked by Cimabue, ca. 1280

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Filed under Knowable historical Jesus

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