The Resurrection of Jesus as Mass Hallucination
Posted by NT Wrong on September 24, 2008
Ancient reports of dreams and visions* typically treated these experiences — not as merely occuring in one’s head but — as experiences of reality itself. Speaking generally, the ancients did not make a clear distinction between the imagined world of dreams and the real and existent world of everyday waking life.
The genres of ancient history and ancient biography are filled with records of dream and vision reports, which are placed, without embarassment, alongside the everyday reality of waking life. But the written dream or vision report did not necessarily, or even very often, correspond to the dream or vision as it was experienced. In the transition from dream or vision to dream or vision report, the experience would be slotted into the common form that the story of a dream or vision should follow. In writing down a typical dream or vision report, the ancient historiographer would include such stereotypical features as: a reference to sleep, a bed, or an unusual experience, the time or locality (especially if at an especially holy place), the startling shock in meeting the dream apparition or dream figure, an admonition such as, “be not afraid”, the appearance of a dream figure standing above (usually at the head of the sleeper, or confronting the visionary), the resulting surprise and bafflement of the dreamer/visionary, and reflections on the objectivity and vividness of the dream.
One typical feature of ancient vision reports was that they freely expanded their account of the recipients of visions from a single person, to more than a single person, to even a whole army or town of people. Such ‘doubling’ of dreams and visions, as Oppenheimer explains, functioned as a rhetorical demonstration of the ‘truth’ of the dreams and visions. That is, if more than one person had the same dream, it must be true.
As this is the case — and I provide some examples below — we would expect that any reports of ‘seeing’ the resurrected Jesus would easily have been expanded from individual visionaries to a group of visionaries. Not only would somebody’s individual vision report prompt other similar vision reports, but we would expect the accounts of individuals who claimed to see the resurrected Jesus to be written up as a sighting by an inflated number of people. And this expectation is exactly what we find in the two earliest sources:
- 1. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul reports that the resurrected Jesus was seen by one person (Cephas), and then by the Twelve, and then by “more than five hundred”, as well as by the early church leader and brother of Jesus, James, and by all the apostles (among whom Paul counts himself).
2. In Mark 16.1-8, three women are reported as ‘seeng’ a young man dressed in white (probably an angel), who informs them of Jesus’ resurrection. A later addition to Mark (16.9-20) exchanges this appearance to three women with a tradition of Jesus’ own appearance to Mary Magdalene alone, before his appearance to the eleven disciples.
In both of these cases, there is a movement between individual sightings of Jesus and group sightings. Paul’s ‘sighting’ of Jesus is explicable as his famous visionary experience of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. Mark does not himself present the story as a vision, but the story that had come to him has many of the typical features of a vision report — suggesting that a vision report form underlies the Gospel resurrection narratives! The sighting comes very early in the morning, in the liminal time which commonly produces hypnagogic visions. The narrative is filled with verbs of sight. The women would be lamenting and mourning — activities which commonly induce visionary experiences. The young man acts as the angelus interpres of visionary experiences. And the reaction of speechlessness is typical of visionaries. It is interesting that the additions to Mark in Mk 16.9-20 join a tradition about a visionary experience — experienced solely by Mary Magdalene — to the group visions. The tradition about Mary Magdalene’s vision already varied between her individual vision (of Jesus) and a mass vision (of the angel). Although the literary report with three women is used in Mark, the comparative evidence — together with the plethora of early traditions about Mary Magdalene as a visionary — makes it plausible that the vision report concerning Mary Magdalene alone was earlier.
The visions of individual visionaries were frequently written up in vision reports as the experiences of entire groups, armies, or even whole towns.
Example 1: In ca. 648 BC, Ashurbanipal’s vision of the Goddess Ishtar (Astartes) was said to be shared by his whole army. Ashurbanipal explains that when his army reached the river Idide, his soldiers were too afraid to cross it because of its strong current. “But the Goddess Ishtar who dwells in Arbela let my army have a dream in the middle of the night.” In this mass dream or vision Ishtar was heard to say, “I shall go in front of Ashurbanipal, the king whom I have myself made.” And so the army, Ashurbanipal added, “put their trust in this dream and crossed the river Idide safely.” (Luckenbill, Ancient records of Assyria and Babylonia, 1968: section 807). Ashurbanipal’s own record of his vision of Ishtar has been extended to become a vision experienced by an entire army on the march!
Example 2: A famous example of a vision report of mass hallucination concerns the famous Christian convert, the Emperor Constantine. Eusebius writes a biography of Constantine, which is ‘historical’ by the standards of his day, yet reports that when Constantine “was praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1.28). The famous sign in the sky was a cross of light, with the inscription, “Conquer by this”. Eusebius goes on: “At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.” Eusebius expressly claims that his ‘historical record’ of the event was derived from no less a person than the Emperor Constantine himself, with whom Eusebius had spoken about the miracle. Most interestingly, Lactantius writes a near-contemporary account of Constantine’s same experience. But it is significantly different. Lactantius’ early account places the vision of the cross in Constantine’s dream, and on the night before. So, Constantine’s vision is not shared by his army and it is a nighttime dream rather than a vision. Even though Eusebius had spoken directly to the central eyewitness, Constantine himself, the Emperor and/or Eusebius had managed to transform the earlier individual dream report into a mass vision report!
Example 3: And here’s another example. According to Plutarch’s historiographic Lives, when Alexander was besieging Tyre, “many of the Tyrians dreamed” a dream “that Apollo declared he would go over to Alexander, because he was displeased with their behaviour in the town”. Not coincidentally, Plutarch also records a dream that Alexander personally experienced, which ‘prophesied’ the same outcome. Again, in dream reports such as these, we can identify a tendency for individual dream reports to seep over into mass dream reports!
Example 4: As a last example, Sefer Chasidim records a dream dreamt by “all the townspeople” of a certain town. A saintly sage complained to all the (Jewish) townspeople — making his complaint within the townspeople’s dreams — that he had been buried next to an evildoer. So the townspeople placed stones between the two graves to get him out of their dreams.
Often, popular Christian apologists like to make the naive argument that a hallucination or vision or dream can only be experienced by one person at a time, and therefore the biblical reports of mass sightings of the resurrected Jesus (such as those in Mark 16 and 1 Corinthians 15) must be true:
“Hallucinations happen to individuals. Only one person can see a hallucination at a time; a group of people, whether there are 10, 12, or 500 of them, would not have the same hallucination at the same time.”
- Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: 105
But the evidence demonstrates this claim is either quite false or misses the point. Individual vision reports could and did develop into mass vision reports and could and did get assimilated into ancient histories and bibliographies as though they were factual and true. As a result, ancient histories and bibliographies contained accounts of mass visions which, in fact, were entirely fictional.
The pop-apologetic argument against mass hallucinations and visions should therefore be turned on its head. When we are confronted with miraculous stories in ancient histories and bibliographies which have plausibly been derived from vision reports, there is an expectation that the vision reports have a tendency to mutate from individual vision reports to mass vision reports. There is an expectation that vision reports would change, get more exaggerated, or be altered to fit the requirements of the author. And this expectation holds, even when (as in the case of Constantine), the vision report was derived from an eyewitness.
The most plausible explanation for the accounts of the sightings of Jesus, therefore, is that they derive from individual vision reports, which over time have been transformed into reports of mass sightings of Jesus. Such an explanation has the support of comparative historiographical evidence, and persuasively accounts for the evidence we find in the New Testament.
* In religious experiences, anthropologists and biblical scholars agree that “dreams” and “visions” are largely interchangeable. That is, there is no significant distinction to be made between them. Says biblical scholar Francis Flannery-Dailey: “terms for visions and dreams are used interchangeably in Hellenistic Jewish texts” (2004: 129). Says anthropologist Ekira Bourguignon: dreams and visions are “interchangeable in serving as authority for religious innovation” (2003: 136). Says Stroumsa on the early Church: “In early Christian discourse, there is no way of distinguishing clearly between dreams and visions” (1999: 189). Say Kroll and Bachrach on medieval dreams and visions: “dream visions clearly have the same status as all other types of visions” (1982: 46).
Part Two: Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus
Part Three: Resurrection: From Visionary Ascent to Vision Of Ascent