The mental health of biblical heroes

The Hidden Psychiatry of the Old Testament, Dr George Stein,Hamilton Books, £42.95


Given that Dr Stein, who trained at the Maudsley Hospital and has spent 30 years as a community psychiatrist in London, accepts in the introduction to this profusely documented and fantastical book — obviously a labour of love — that “strictly speaking there is no psychiatry in the Bible”, one might wonder how the author manages to spend another 600 pages detailing the 160 psychiatric topics he finds within the biblical text. 

Yet with his trusty DSM-5 in hand (the Bible of the psychiatrist’s craft, published by the American Psychiatric Association), Dr. Stein is able to trawl the Hebrew scriptures for descriptions of behaviours and mental conditions that a modern clinician can connect to current understandings, beliefs and hypotheses about the life of our minds in all their rich and strange complexity.  

King Saul’s “manic” episodes, Job’s “paranoid” feelings, Ezekiel’s “schizophrenic” hallucinations, the mental suffering (and elation) of the Psalmist, the author offers detailed, scholarly explorations of the biblical texts themselves and finds multiple opportunities for relating their language and themes to modern clinical diagnoses. (Fortunately, no medication is suggested). 

There is some passing interest (and humour) in illuminating these ancient texts by viewing them through the prism of the psychiatrist’s medicalised gaze; but one problem that underlies such an approach —however prodigiously and seriously the current author has researched the secondary literature around his chosen texts — is that such an approach fails to appreciate the diverse ways in which biblical poetry and prose uses metaphor, analogy, simile, hyperbole, figures of speech and other literary techniques to evoke both universal states of mind and feeling, and individual spiritual experiences. 

 If Wordsworth writes “I wandered lonely as a cloud…” does that mean he’s suffering from depression and psychotic delusion?

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