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Jerusalem Syndrome: A Scientific Explanation for Miracles Like Fatima and Lourdes


An early Christian anchorite or hermit who lived on top of a pillar instead of in a cave

First identified in the 1930s by an Israeli psychiatrist, Jerusalem Syndrome describes a cluster of psychotic symptoms that afflicts some visitors to the Holy Land .

The syndrome has various manifestations. Tourists in Jesus’ hometown believe they hear the voice of God. Other victims think they are God or the reincarnation of saints and archangels. The onset of these delusions often occurs soon after pilgrims arrive in the city that gives the syndrome its name.

A 1998 Israeli documentary about Jerusalem Syndrome featured a particularly disturbing patient who thought he was the Archangel Michael and wore a long beard, a white robe, and feathered wings. He resembled the forbidding title character in director Luis Bunuel’s 1965 classic, Simon of the Desert.

The title character, based on a real-life figure who lived in the fifth century, is an anchorite, an early Christian holy man who lives on top of a tall pillar to distance himself from sinners and the temptations of the world. The pillar serves as Simon’s outdoor pulpit, and his sermons condemn spectators at ground-level for their sins. Trickle-down guilt.

During the Great Depression, desperate, unemployed daredevils engaged in similar stunts, perching on flagpoles, to earn a few bucks from passersby. Flagpole squatters were high-flying panhandlers who kept a hat at the base of the pole to collect money from gawkers.

Early Christian anchorites like the protagonist of Simon of the Desert, also hurled curses down on sinful spectators with the usual millenarian warning that the end of the world was nigh. Their earthbound counterparts today sometimes wear sandwich boards that express the same warning: Repent before it’s too late.

Jerusalem Syndrome made it to the screen in the 1998 Israeli documentary of the same name, but the pathology has yet to crack the DSM-IV, the encyclopedia of mental illnesses. Some psychologists, however, believe that Jerusalem Syndrome reflects a problem that is in the DSM as a “Delusional Disorder - Grandiose Type.”

Grandiosity in the clinical rather than popular sense of the term plagues people who believe they can accomplish or have accomplished feats for which they have neither the training or natural talent. The type is endemic in Hollywood, where pathological liars from all over the world gather with dreams of becoming movie stars.

You Don’t Have to be in Jerusalem to Suffer Jerusalem Syndrome

Because Jerusalem Syndrome is not limited to its namesake city, the phenomenon may explain the actual cause of miracles at Lourdes and Fatima and other venerated locations. Forensic psychologists speculate that psychotic children were hallucinating when the Mother of God appeared to them in Portugal and France.

None of the thousands of worshipers at either shrines ever shared the children's hallucination, but gift shops at both shrines still do a brisk business, especially Lourdes. The faithful believe the spring at Lourdes contains curative water which is sold in miniature bottles for tourists who take them home for later medical emergencies.

Children of Fatima

The Children of Fatima

In fact, Lives of the Saints and other hagiographical works describe mystics who chat with God. These saints may have been psychotics whose divine visitors would have disappeared had antipsychotic medications been available in the Medieval era, the heyday of thaumaturges, Medieval Latin for miracle-workers.

Many thaumaturges and others who had God on speed dial did not knowingly defraud the faithful. They may have had schizophrenia, a particularly debilitating form of psychosis that causes hallucinations and delusions. Schizophrenics have abnormally high levels of the neurochemical dopamine, which can be regulated with an antipsychotic drug like Risperdal or an antidepressant like Zoloft, America’s bestselling drug for beating the blues.

Unlike Lourdes' bottled water, these medications have truly miraculous healing powers. The agitation and hallucinations associated with schizophrenia disappear within days, while delusions vanish after a few weeks of drug therapy.

Seventy-percent of schizophrenics and other psychotics respond to drug therapy and regain sanity until they feel "cured" and stop taking their meds, which plunges them back into their personal hell on earth.

Joan of Arc – Saint or Psychotic?

Who can say? The judicious use of antipsychotic medications, had they been available in the 15th century, would have silenced Joan of Arc’s imaginary visitors - God, Saints Catherine and Margaret, and the Archangel Michael.

The delusional doppelgänger of the archangel appeared in the Israeli documentary about Jerusalem Syndrome. Suspiciously, the message of Joan's visitors was political, not spiritual. The apparitions ordered her to expel the English army from France. Medications would have spared the life of history’s most famous burn victim by banishing the holy troublemakers’ dangerous military advice.

Jerusalem Syndrome may seem like an impious joke, but the disease is no laughing matter to those who experience its more pathological form. An average of 100 tourists in Jerusalem require hospitalization every year. A survey conducted between 1980 and 1993 by the Kfar Shaud Mental Health Centre in the capital of Israel reported that 1,200 severely ill victims of the syndrome turned up at the clinic during the 13-year study.

Skeptics dismiss the virulence of the epidemic, noting that two million tourists flock to the Holy Land annually. The 100 patients who require hospitalization each year are statistically insignificant, researchers say, but the syndrome is not insignificant if you are one of the unlucky psychotics who comes to believe he is Jesus or His Mother reincarnate.

Martin Luther, Victim of an Ungodly Variant of Jerusalem Syndrome

There’s an ugly, evil twin of God and other earthly visitors from heaven. Martin Luther, a reformer who condemned the superstitions of Roman Catholicism, nevertheless endured a horrific version of Jerusalem Syndrome.

But instead of divine apparitions and conversations, Luther believed the devil appeared to him on several occasions. Like most hallucinations, Luther’s sighting seemed real enough that he hurled an inkpot at the satanic intruder, according to a psychoanalytical biography, Young Man Luther, by the late Harvard child psychologist Erik Erikson.

The devil or Luther's hallucination of him pursued Luther to his deathbed. "A few days before his death, Luther saw the devil sitting on a rainpipe outside his window, exposing his behind to him," Erikson wrote. Devout Protestants condemn Erikson's depiction of Luther as blasphemous, even though hermit saints, like St. Anthony in fifth century Egypt, also played unwilling host to houseguests from hell. So many demons converged on St. Anthony’s refuge in a cave, the venue was SRO.

The Son of God Had Second Thoughts About the Deal He Had Made With His Father

Possibly the most famous victim of Jerusalem Syndrome was Jesus Christ, who talked to his Father on at least two occasions, as recorded in all four Gospels. In the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, Jesus had second thoughts about his impending death and asked his father to reconsider:

"If it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it. If this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, your will be done!" (Matthew 26:42).

On the cross, a ghastly form of execution reserved for slaves and rebels who opposed Roman rule, Jesus seemed to repudiate his earthly mission when he asked his father rhetorically, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

According to the propagandists who created the New Testament, God the Father and God the Son had made a deal that the Son would die to atone for the sins of mankind, in particular, the questionable sin of Adam and Eve eating forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

The guilt for this Original Sin was inherited by all descendants of Adam and Eve, except the Virgin Mary. Jesus’ death on the cross somehow absolved baptized Christians from a sin they never committed, unless you believe in generational guilt.

How Can Jews be Guilty of a Crime Authorized Two Millennia Ago by a Roman Bureaucrat?

Until the mid-20th century, Catholic theologians referred to contemporary Jews as  deicides, Latin for “God-killers. Vatican dogma moves at glacial speed. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that Pope Paul VI finally absolved the Jews of killing Christ.

During the Third Reich, Pius XII justified Hitler’s genocide as punishment for the crime allegedly committed by ancestors of the Jews. Morality aside, history is on the side of the angels, but not the papal inhabitants of heaven who have been canonized.

In ancient Judaea, Jewish leaders were not allowed to impose the death penalty, a power reserved for the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. If any people share collective guilt for a 2,000-year-old crime, Romans, as Pilate’s heirs, are the real Christ-killers. Pius XII, who blamed all Jews for Jesus' execution, was born, raised, and educated in Rome.

Generational guilt was the philosophy used by Christianity to justify two millennia of persecuting Jews because their distant ancestors voted to free the bandit Barabbas instead of a gentle, proto-socialist Jeshua ben Joseph, Jesus’ name in Hebrew, “ben” meaning “son of.”

If Hitler had been a Bible scholar and an antiquarian, the people of Rome, not the descendants of King David, would have filled cattle cars bound for the killing fields of Eastern Europe.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints (1883). Kila, MT: Kessinger, 2008 reissue.

Erikson, Erik. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1958.