Why We Know So Little About Moses and Jesus
The dearth of information about the formative influences on towering biblical figures such as Moses and Jesus has invited some skeptics to question whether they actually existed. Scriptures give sketchy incidents in the lives of Moses and Jesus, but why weren’t the descriptions more extensive? Indeed why so many blanks? Wouldn’t the details of their early lives explain how experiences shaped their personalities and the way in which their lives played out?
These questions reflect modern thinking about human development and personality but not the view through most of history. The sharp difference in perspective became clear to me when I conducted an informal experiment years ago with my developmental psychology students at Brooklyn College. I paired my young college students and asked them to construct a list of questions they would pose to their partners for writing a psychological profile: “What would you need to know to understand what makes your partner tick?”
I was amazed when time and again these teens and young adults came up with lists of questions that implicitly reinvented Freudian psychology, as well as notions from other prominent contemporary psychological thinkers. Later I did the same exercise with adults of all ages with the same results. Typically, they wanted to know about personal experiences, particularly in infancy and the early childhood years: “Where did you grow up? Were you rich or poor? How many siblings did you have? Where were you in the birth order — oldest, youngest, only child? Did you get along with your siblings? Were you a planned or wanted child? What was your relationship with your parents? Did you feel loved or rejected? What kind of emotional supports did you have? Did you feel deprived? Any personality conflicts at home or in school? Did you experience any emotional traumas? What did you worry about? What were your experiences of success, achievement, inspiration, failure, and disappointment? Did you have a life plan? What were your dreams and ambitions? Were you happy? What made you angry or frustrated? Any mentors or role models?” And the list of possible shaping experiences goes on and on.
To most of us these questions are obvious. We know that biology may tip us in a particular direction but that who we are is to a great extent the result of our experiences — what happens to us as we grow up. However, the idea that experience plays a large part in shaping our personalities is obvious only if you were born after 1900, when modern psychology and psychiatry began to flourish. The further back in history you go, the less likely that my students’ questions would have been asked at all — and some of the queries would have seemed strange or irrelevantly intrusive.
Childhood researcher and author Lloyd deMause discovered, much to his surprise, that virtually nothing was written about childhood through most of history, simply because those “obvious” questions were never asked or addressed. Historian Elizabeth Wirth Marvick notes that as late as the seventeenth century, when learned men engaged in extensive correspondence and commentary about their times, they “continued to overlook the lives of children around them.” Even French imaginative literature, she says, “ignored the infant and small child.”
The observations of deMause and Marvick are reflected in bible stories. The Torah (Old Testament) tells us about Moses’ birth after Pharaoh’s edict to kill all newborn Jewish male children. We learn that he is saved when his mother, Jochebed, places him in a basket and floats him down the Nile past the spot where she knows Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing. The princess rescues Moses and raises him as her own as a prince of Egypt. This vignette about the childhood of Moses is told in a few hundred words in the Book of Exodus. We next encounter Moses as an adult. The Bible then gives us a rapid-fire sequence of events: Moses kills a guard who is mistreating Jewish slaves. He goes into exile fearing for his own life. Then he marries Zipporah, who bears him a son, Gershom. Soon afterwards, God speaks to Moses, who then becomes Moses the prophet who God sends to Egypt to set the Israelites free.
We learn about the birth of Jesus in two of the Gospels (Matthew and Luke). After the manger scene and the escape to Egypt to avoid King Herod’s edict to kill all children age two and younger (Matthew 2:13-14), we hear nothing further about the early childhood of Jesus. He briefly appears at age twelve debating the sages at the temple in Jerusalem but promptly disappears from the Gospels for eighteen years. He resurfaces at about age thirty to begin his ministry.
These tidbits would be unsatisfying to my students for constructing psychological biographies of Moses and Jesus. Nothing about their early experiences that might provide clues to understanding how their personalities were shaped. The Bible leaps from the brief chronology of events, in the case of Moses, to Moses morphing into the adult prophet. Did anything in his youth or young adulthood prepare him for his monumental role? Did it matter if he was “toilet” trained early or late or how long he was breast-fed? What about the impact of adoption? Did he feel rejected by his parents? Children whose parents give them away often experience painful feelings of rejection, no matter what the circumstances. Did he experience other emotional traumas, or interpersonal influences that might forecast future traits and behaviors? Would any of that information, if available, shed light on Moses, man and prophet? If so, why don’t we know about it? We can ask similar questions about Jesus.
Is it possible that my students and others were smart enough to know what information is required to explain personality but that the authors of the Bibles — God, the Gospel writers, other sages, or whoever — weren’t? How can we explain the “obvious” omissions?
Throughout most of history the prevailing belief was that people are shaped not by experiences but by destiny — meaning who you are is pre-determined. In the Bhagavad-Gita — the Hindu Scripture dating back thousands of years — personality is attributed to a mix of the three inborn personality types called the gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas), plus the karmic traits carried over from previous lives. Today, we call that view the biological or nature explanation: You’re wired to be who you are, with inborn tendencies and characteristics that supersede personal experiences and direct you to particular experiences..
According to the destiny view, if you survive to adulthood — no small feat when we consider the huge child mortality rates through much of history — you will become the person of your inborn and predetermined destiny. If that’s the case, why even bother to examine life experiences? They would have little explanatory value. Moses was simply destined to be a prophet, and according to Christian Scripture Jesus was meant to be the Messiah.
That way of looking at personality changed with modern psychology, which placed its bets heavily on experience to explain how we become who we are. In 1913, behavioral psychologist John Watson took the classical conditioning principle of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov to an extreme, proclaiming: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up [his conditioning-laboratory world] and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
The experiential view offered hopeful strategies for change. Simply put, if experience caused your mental suffering and conflicts then changing experiences should bring relief. And who knows what subtle experiences from the past might be the culprit holding you back. Freud and his followers, also exponents of the experiential view, delved into memories of these subtle experiences, with the hope that re-imagining them from a different perspective might change their impact.
Author Mark Twain may have presaged modern psychological thinking. In his 1881 historical novel, The Prince and the Pauper, Twain captivated readers around the world with the notion that a prince becomes princely not by nature but by nurture.
Returning to Moses and Jesus, the quest continues among biblical scholars to find the missing pieces in the biographies of these sages. That search may prove futile given the prevailing view of human nature in biblical eras. At the same time the absence of this information does not inform the historicity of Moses, Jesus, and others who predate modern psychological understanding of human development.
Bernard Starr, PhD is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book is “Jesus, Jews, and Anti-Semitism in Art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity and How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.” He is also author of “Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology to be Truly Free.”