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Archive for September, 2008

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).

See also:
Part Two: Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus
Part Three: Resurrection: From Visionary Ascent to Vision Of Ascent

Posted in Gospels, Jesus & Christ | 24 Comments »

Judaism as Fissiparous Heteropraxis in the First Century BC

Posted by NT Wrong on September 23, 2008

‘Fissiparous Heteropraxis’ is Matthew Black’s mellifluous description of the ‘sectarian’ nature of Judaism in the first century BC. Nice phrase. I like it (although, less so, his judgment of it as ‘dangerous’).

Here’s the sentence in which it appears:

“The actual situation in Judaism in the first century B.C. appears, in fact, to have been one of a widespread and dangerously proliferating and fissiparous heteropraxis, a kind of baptizing nonconformity, with many splinter groups, extending from Judea to Samaria and beyond into the Diaspara itself.”
– Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins: Studies in the Jewish Background of the New Testament. 1961: 8.

Posted in Apocalyptic, Early Jewish literature, Judeo-Christian Practices | Comments Off on Judaism as Fissiparous Heteropraxis in the First Century BC

The Book of Numbers / במדבר: Nothing Helpful for the Soul

Posted by NT Wrong on September 23, 2008

I am enjoying reading through the book of Numbers at the moment. It has a rather unfortunate and boring name, though — which only goes to prove that you can’t judge a book by its cover. ‘Numbers’ goes back to the Latin Numeri and the earlier Greek arithmoi, and probably the earlier Hebrew title Chamesh haPekudim.

The modern Hebrew title, Bemidbar, named after the fifth word of Num 1.1, translates to “In the Wilderness”. Now, that’s a much more exciting title for the book. Wouldn’t that sex it up?

And just in case you’re thinking that this adverse reaction to Numbers is a recent problem, here’s Origen reporting on its reception:

“When the Gospels or the Apostle [Paul] or the Psalms are read, another person joyfully receives them, gladly embraces them. . . . But if the book of Numbers is read to him, and especially those passages we have now in hand, he will judge that there is nothing helpful, nothing as a remedy for his weakness or a benefit for the salvation of his soul. He will constantly spit them out as heavy and burdensome food.”
– Origen

Posted in Early Christian literature, Pentateuch | Comments Off on The Book of Numbers / במדבר: Nothing Helpful for the Soul

Science versus Religion – Tension if not Incompatibility

Posted by NT Wrong on September 22, 2008

Stephen Weinberg’s essay on the relationship between science and Christianity, ‘Without God’, appears in the September 25, 2008 New York Review of Books. It’s a fine read. Weinberg argues that while science and Christianity are not strictly incompatible, they are in tension at many points. These tensions have led to the weakening of this particular institutional form of religion.

“The first source of tension arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. Explaining this or that about the natural world does not of course rule out religious belief. But if people believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically, then a certain weakening of belief can be expected. It is no accident that the advent of widespread atheism and agnosticism among the educated in the eighteenth century followed hard upon the birth of modern science in the previous century.”
– Stephen Weinberg, ‘Without God’

Towards the end of his essay, Weinberg offers a few words of guidance “for those who have already lost their religious beliefs, or who may be losing them, or fear that they will lose their beliefs, about how it is possible to live without God.”

“We who are not zealots can rejoice that when bread and wine are no longer sacraments, they will still be bread and wine.”

(Spotted on Santi Tafarella’s magical blog, which also offers this juxtaposition.)

Posted in God, Politics | Comments Off on Science versus Religion – Tension if not Incompatibility

There Aren’t Enough Orthodox Jewish Reggae Singers in the World Today

Posted by NT Wrong on September 22, 2008

But Matisyahu is an exception. Here’s one of his finest: ‘King Without a Crown’.

“Born in West Chester, PA and raised in White Plains, NY, the young man formerly known as Matthew Miller would undertake a monumental odyssey before discovering his path – and voice – as Matisyahu (the Hebrew equivalent of “Matthew,” and the name he became known by when he became observant). Via adventures in Colorado, Israel, Oregon, and New York City, he not only heard a profound spiritual calling, but also discerned a revolutionary way to share his discoveries and reflections, via the reggae and hip-hop sounds that had long been an integral part of his day-to-day soundtrack.”
The Matisyahu Webpage

He’s beatboxing on this one:

Posted in Music | Comments Off on There Aren’t Enough Orthodox Jewish Reggae Singers in the World Today

Israel? Palestine? Canaan? Syria-Palestine? Levant? Cisjordan?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 20, 2008

Hmmmmmm… what’s the best answer for this ol’ curly question?

What is the name that I should use to refer to the historical culture of the area south of Syria, north of the Sinai, and west of the Jordan, in the general time period 1200 – 600 BC? Sure, this has been endlessly debated before. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve still got to use one term or another in order to refer to it. Although, maybe I’m already assuming some level of cultural discreteness in the area which did not exist? Passing over that disturbing thought for the moment (while keeping it in mind), here’s the options:

‘Canaan’? Either anachronistic or too literary-ideological.

‘Israel’? Too literary-ideological, and way too ambiguous.

‘Palestine’? A bit anachronistic, and confusing given its predominant twenty-first century meaning.

‘Syria-Palestine’? I probably don’t want to get that far north – or is there not such a difference in historical culture and politics (eg Damascus and Samaria were allied against Judah)?

‘The Levant’? That’s a bit big (Egypt to Anatolia), although some of the more recent usage seems to exclude Egypt and Anatolia, thus making it equivalent to Syria-Palestine (still too big), yet oddly making the term ‘Levantine’ less applicable to the area. It’s too Western-orientated, too.

‘South-central Levant’? That probably fixes it geographically, more or less. It’s still loaded with an Occidental viewpoint, however. And lets face it, it’s an ugly term.

‘The Cisjordan’? This is probably the same area, geographically, as the ‘South-central Levant’. And we’ve got rid of the Occidental bias. By defining things solely in geographically terms, the politics is largely excluded (although, never completely eradicated, because the boundaries are still political). This may be a problem if the political entity or cultural ties are closer to the Transjordan (was Judah closer to Moab than Samaria?), or extend northwards or southwards. One problem is that it doesn’t have very much common usage. But that shouldn’t stop academic usage.

I think ‘the Cisjordan’ wins.

But please suggest others for my consideration!

Posted in Historiography | 9 Comments »

James McGrath on the Historical Study of the Burial of Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on September 19, 2008

“Historical study is a different sort of approach from the one that many religious believers adopt when they encounter different accounts in the Bible. For instance, when the Gospels tell the same story, but in different ways, what a historian does is not simply blend the details together, from these various accounts, but compare them, look for signs of development, of change. And often historians will conclude that one is more reliable than the others. And if we think about the instance of the burial of Jesus, one example of this, a place where the Gospels seem to differ, and provide different information that one cannot simply harmonize – a good example is found in the differences between Mark’s gospel (which most scholars think is the earliest) and John’s gospel (which is often dated as one of the latest, if not the latest of the gospels in the New Testament) … ”
– James McGrath, author of The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (2008)

See James McGrath’s full explanation on the YouTube video (5:17). He also has a blog on his new book here.

Posted in Gospels, Historiography, Jesus & Christ, Video | Comments Off on James McGrath on the Historical Study of the Burial of Jesus

NEWS IN BRIEF: Severe Lisp Saves Life of Ephraimite Man

Posted by NT Wrong on September 19, 2008

Ephraimite manREUTERS, GILEAD – Ephraimite man Elishama ben Ammahud says he has never been “sho thankful” that he was born with a severe lisp as he was yesterday afternoon.

His lisp may have resulted in years of torment at school, but it was all worth it when he attempted to cross the Jordan into Gilead yesterday.

“I have never been sho thankful for my shevere shpeech impediment as I wash yeshterday,” commented Mr Ammahud to reporters. “It shaved my life,” he added.

– Reuters, September 19, 2675

Posted in Historical Books | Comments Off on NEWS IN BRIEF: Severe Lisp Saves Life of Ephraimite Man

What Would You Do if Somebody Came Up to you One Day at the Office and said he was Going to Kill his Son Because of Voices in his Head?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 17, 2008


Posted in Justice, Pentateuch, Video | 3 Comments »

Saudi Cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid Declares Micky Mouse Must Die!

Posted by NT Wrong on September 17, 2008

Posted in Fundamentalism, Islam, Video | 2 Comments »