Stevan Davies' "Jesus the Healer"

A Skeptics recommended Jesus the Healer to me as a sterling example of how it was reasonably possible to construct a "naturalistic" Jesus. Unfortunalety, Davies offers a naturalized Jesuses assembled via the standard method of selective use of sources and molding evidence to fit a preconceived thesis.

Davies' central thesis is that what we had in Jesus was one who was "possessed" by the Spirit of God, and that within Jesus we had two distinct personages: Jesus of Nazareth and the Spirit/Son of God, the latter of which "took over" when it was time to say something divine. From that Davies liberally applies insights from cultural anthropology to make Jesus out to be just a shaman or holy man.

And so, likewise, Christians later on. Among the texts indicative of possession experiences and altered states of consciousness among Christians are Gal. 2:20 ("I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me..."), Mark 13:11 ("But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost."), and Rom. 8:26 ("Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."), which is likened to the "powerful groans, shouts, barks and other inarticulate sounds" uttered by the possessed.

Apparently Davies missed that "cannot be uttered" part, and that "groanings" is the word meaning "sigh," not very powerful anyway. Even so, this is simply reading too much into these texts.

The well-read student will immediately recognize the problem in this equation: Jewish prophesying was typically not a matter of "possession" where the "real" person was shoved aside while the spirit spoke, but a matter of inspiration. Davies actually admits this point [164-5], but the incongruity does not stop him. To solve it, he quotes a similarly persuaded writer who reasons that, well, that's how other peoples and their shamans did it, so why should Israel have been any different? This is not evidence for the position but an attempt to explain why there is not any.

What of that Jesus showed no typical signs of one spirit-possessed (i.e., abnormal motor behaviors)? Again, there is more contrived explanation in place of evidence: There is a "high probability that if there ever were such reports, they would not have been transmitted to us by the evangelists." [102] They would not have engendered followers of Jesus, either, who would not have connected such abnormal behavior with the spirit of God, despite the previous begged question.

Beyond that Davies' only "direct" evidence for Jesus speaking via possession is Luke 10:21 ("In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth...") -- in that case, Matthew 5:12 says, "Rejoice, and be exceeding possessed: for great is your reward in heaven..." That there is no evidence that the church experienced such possession is explained by dating the relevant sources very late (Luke 60-100 years later) and begging the question ("The novelty wore off, the initial members grew older, the intracult social circumstances changed." [176]). Unfortunately for Davies, all the best evidence is missing in action.

But Davies will not concern himself with such incongruities, and is also not aware of others. A reviewer on Amazon makes the salient point that Davies misues modern Western psychology categories in this ancient Eastern setting. Those Jesus healed, to point to the major example, are said to be suffering psychological maladies; those demon-possessed in particular are taken to be people with problems relating to their families. As the reviewer rightly points out, such problems in a society where people were conditioned to defend their personal honor means that the sort of causes and effects Davies posits simply would not have happened that way in this day and age.

But it gets further off base as Jesus' parables are declared to have served a therapeutic function as "indirect suggestions," "devoid of specifiable content," which encouraged hearers to "discover buried potentials". What Davies sees here is actually the normal ancient teaching paradigm of "working it out yourself" -- for otherwise, everyone from the rabbis to Socrates was therefore a New Age psychologist.

Hermeneutical errors also pepper the text. We are told that Jesus "required mandatory hatred toward one's family" (presumably based on the standard misapprehension of Luke 14:26) which contradicts his "ethos...of unbounded love" elsewhere. This is not the Jesus one finds in works familiar with ancient eastern/Jewish thought, such as Rihbany's Syrian Christ and Wilson's Our Father Abraham.

One suspects that Davies would dismiss these problems with the same "maybe it means that, but it could mean a thousand other things [but I won't say what]" response he uses to de-Gnosticize the Gospel of Thomas. Matthew 18:3 is said to indicate "age regression" as yet another part of Jesus' psychotherapeutic program. And so on.

In sum, Davies' "Jesus the Channeler" thesis deserves little credence.