Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait

Dorothy Jean Weaver

The Conrad Grebel Review 17, no. 2 (Spring 1999)

Jesus at Thirty: A Psychological and Historical Portrait. John W. Miller. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

     In Jesus at Thirty, John Miller opens a fascinating interdisciplinary window
onto the study of the historical Jesus. He offers a “psychohistorical” account which builds not only on the biblical evidence of the canonical gospels but also on the scientific insights of developmental psychology. In Miller’s view, “Just as it is no longer possible . . . to read the Gospels without an increasingly acute awareness of the historicity and humanity of Jesus, it is likewise no longer possible to read them without attention to the personal developmental dynamics of the one who meets us there” (7).

     In the Introduction Miller defines his interdisciplinary approach and identifies his methodological presuppositions. In succeeding chapters he
assesses what he views as primary contributing factors to the personal identity of the historical Jesus: his estrangement from his biological family (ch. 2, “The Starting Point”); the events surrounding his baptism (ch. 3, “The Turning Point”); his relationships with his parents (ch. 4, “Jesus and His Father”; ch. 5, “Jesus and his Mother”); his awareness of the power of evil (ch. 6, “Satan”) and his sexual orientation (ch. 7, “Sexuality”). In chapter 8 (“Generativity”) Miller analyzes Jesus’ public ministry in his search for a “more encompassing psychological perspective that might contribute to [an] understanding of Jesus’ vocational achievement as an evangelist among the disaffiliated” (79). Miller concludes his portrait in chapter 9 (“Jesus at Thirty”) with a summary assessment of “The Man Who Emerges.” In a seventeen-page appendix he offers a brief history of psychology of Jesus studies.

     The author’s conclusions prove as fascinating as fascinating as they are vulnerable,grounded as they are in an argument from silence. For Miller, “Jesus at thirty” is a man deeply shaped by the unique circumstances of his family of origin, circumstances which must be inferred from the otherwise unexplained silence of the New Testament records: (1) the premature death of Jesus’ “father” when Jesus was still young and unmarried, and (2) Jesus’ subsequent need to assume the role of primary provider for his mother and his siblings. This set of inferences assists Miller in making sense not only of Jesus’ apparent alienation from his mother (John. 2:1-11; 19:25-27) but also of his apparent and surprising status as a celibate heterosexual in a society where marriage was the definitive norm.

     Against this backdrop Miller portrays Jesus as a man who experiences
profound personal transformation through the discovery of God as “gracious Father” (31) at the time of his baptism. The Satanic temptations which Jesus encounters following his baptism are “the consequence of [this] gracious revelation of the ‘father’ that broke in upon Jesus at the Jordan” (55). For Miller these temptations are not, as commonly construed, Satanic attacks upon Jesus Messiah, whose messianic identity has just been confirmed by the voice from heaven. Rather, it is Jesus, beloved son of his father, who is “sorely tempted by Satan to think of himself as the long-awaited Messiah who by
signs and wonders would one day deliver his people and rule the world” (59, emphasis mine). But Jesus decisively rejects this “negative, dark side of [his] identity” (93), commits himself “to do only what God will[s] for his life” (64), and enters into “his own new-found ‘calling’ as ‘generative’ prophetevangelist of God’s love for the ‘lost’ (99).

     Miller’s work is delightfully insightful, judiciously argued, and solidly documented on both the exegetical and psychological levels. The author shows himself equally conversant in the fields of exegesis and developmental psychology. In an area where studies exhibit sharp divergences and tend toward vivid extremes, his conclusions are sober and non-spectacular. Yet Miller is not afraid to challenge scholarly consensus. Undoubtedly the most controversial elements of his argument are (1) his exegetical conclusions concerning the non-messianic character of Jesus’ mission, and (2) his overwhelming reliance on a Freudian paradigm for understanding personality development.

DOROTHY JEAN WEAVER, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA