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Successful Predictive Prophecy in Daniel – Its Role in Reinforcing Authority and Theological Viewpoint

Posted by NT Wrong on November 20, 2008

In a recent post entitled ‘Dating Sacred Texts on the Basis of Fulfilled Prophecy’, Mark Goodacre discusses “the literary function of successful prophecy in the narrative in which it appears.”

Referring to Jesus’ prediction that the Jerusalem Temple would be destroyed, Mark explains that — irrespective of the historicity or otherwise of any such prediction by Jesus — “the prediction only gains traction because the reader is saying, ‘Hey, yes! I know what that’s about!'” That is, when recorded by a Christian sometime after AD 70 in the Gospel of Mark, the recording of the ‘prediction’ serves to bolster the authority of his work as a whole, and enhances the prestige of his subject, Jesus.

“Successful predictions play a major role in the narrative, reinforcing the authority of the one making the prediction and confirming the accuracy of the text’s theological view.”
– Mark Goodacre, ‘Dating the Crucial Sources in Early Christianity’, 2008 SBL Paper

Mark goes on to give the example of Jeremiah’s prophecies of woe and restoration. I’ll continue the ongoing parallel-making with the Book of Daniel, by mentioning Daniel’s reinterpretation of Jeremiah in Daniel 9.

In Daniel 9, Daniel reinterprets Jeremiah’s prophecy that the exile would last only 70 years (Jer 25.11-13; 29.10) by reinterpreting the ’70 years’ of exile as 70 ‘sevens’ of years — or 490 years. Now, Daniel’s prophetic interpretation is set during the Babylonian exile, under the reign of a fictional ‘Darius the Mede’. But it is in fact written in ca. 165 BC.

By reinterpreting Jeremiah’s prophecy as referring to an extended exilic period of 490 years, I strongly suspect Daniel was attempting to heighten the significance of the Maccabean and Hasidim revolution against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. For, according to Daniel’s own calculations, the 490 years just happened to end in 164 BC.

How so? First, I’ll take the prophetic word that went out as Jeremiah’s word of restoration, perhaps referring to Jer 30-31, which is recorded right after his 70-week prophecy. There are a number of other possible interpretations, but the context of Dan 9, which centres on the interpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy, is the most relevant context for understanding a “word” (davar) that went out. Jeremiah is presented as being active immediately before and during 587/6 BC (the fall of Jerusalem). Therefore, some 49 years (seven sevens: Dan 9.25) expire with the arrival of the Cyrus the messiah. The author of Daniel calculated a further 62 sevens of years (434 years) from Cyrus (539 BC) to Antiochus (170 BC). Yes — there were only 369 years according to our more knowledgeable calculations, but broadly contemporary historians such as Josephus and Demetrius overestimated the number of years by similar amounts (Josephus estimated 33-42 years, Demetrius 73 years, so Daniel 9 falls within this range of calculations). When you add a final week onto 170 BC, you reach 164 BC — and the End of the Age.

But the reason that makes this understanding of Daniel’s reasoning so plausible, is that Daniel 9 is proclaiming the time of “everlasting righteousness” to his readers. He’s wanting to entice them, to seduce them with promises of future glory during their time of tribulation. So what does he give them? He gives them a reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy that will come true in their immediate future!

Daniel was using exact numbers, rather than merely symbolic associations of the numbers. Sure, the fact that his calculations ended up with the perfection of 70 x 7 was not accidental — when he arrived at this reinterpretation, the symbolic meaning of the 490-year period would have been apparent to him. It may even have encouraged him to make the ‘answer’ equal to 490 years — after all, the start-date is a little fuzzy, the multiplication by seven and extension of the ‘exile’ is entirely tendentious, and there was plenty more room for manipulation. But along with its role in reinforcing the authority of Daniel 9’s message, there are other reasons to conclude that Daniel 9 was using exact calculations:

    – If you subtract Jeremiah’s 70-year period from Cyrus’s ascent (539 BC), you get back to 609 BC. This is probably the author’s calculation of the third year of Jehoiakim (he’s only out by a year at most). So, the author’s attempt at an exact calculation of Jeremiah’s 70 years creates Daniel’s date for the beginning of the exile (Dan 1.1). This early date is otherwise unattested as a date for exile (597 and 586 are the correct dates), and appears to be Daniel’s own invention. He invented it due to his interest in reinterpreting Jeremiah.

    – The first ‘week’ of sevens from Jeremiah’s prophecy of restoration, at the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC, to Cyrus in 539 BC, is exactly calculated as 49 years. Well, Daniel calculated it as exactly 49 years.

    – The authors of Daniel had a keen interest in wisdom, calendrical, and astronomical matters (Dan 12.3). They also display a reliance on Enochic literature, which itself has a keen interest in such matters (1 Enoch 72-82). Hence, the detailed, albeit fanciful, calculations.

So, by calculating the arrival of the eschaton from a creative reinterpretation of Jeremiah’s prophecy, and calculating it as coming to pass just seven years after Antiochus’ coming to power in 170 BC (164 BC), the authors of Daniel ensured authority and respect for their own writings and predictions.

The larger lesson: the method of Dispensationalists is far closer to what’s going on in the production of Daniel than that of modern biblical scholars.

Posted in Gospels, Prophets | 2 Comments »

Shanks: ‘Deuteronomy Vindicated as Authentic Words of Moses!’

Posted by NT Wrong on November 5, 2008

REUTERS, TEL AVIV – Proceedings in the ‘Second Biggest Forgery Trial of the Century’ ground to a halt yesterday. Judge Moshe Yadin refused to hear the case against ‘Ezra the Scribe’, who was alleged to to have forged the Book of Deuteronomy.

“After the best part of two-and-a-half thousand years, I don’t see how evidence can be produced that will create a prima facie case against Ezra,” stated Judge Yadin in a Tel Aviv Court.

“And besides, the defendant is dead,” added the Judge.

“This decision completely vindicates the authenticity of the Book of Deuteronomy,” exclaimed a jubilant Kesev Shanks.

“If a Criminal Court is not the appropriate forum in which to determine delicate archaeological, philological, redactional, and paleographic questions, then what is?” questioned Shanks.

The Israel Antiquities Authority is presently considering whether it will reprosecute the forgery case, but with a new group of defendants – the mysterious ‘D’ and ‘Dtr’, and their alleged accomplice-after-the-fact, ‘P’.

Shanks is currently planning a ‘Tour of The Land of Moab Across the Jordan According to the Authentic Book of Deuteronomy’. Ticket prices begin at $18,500, and will include some of the superstars of the paleographic world as guides.

In related news, the case of U.S. vs. Unnamed Parties Who Removed A Stone From an Unknown Jerusalem Tomb has been thrown out of a New York Court before it was allowed to reach trial – again, for lack of evidence. “Surely this Court decision vindicates the historical resurrection of Jesus,” exclaimed jubilant apologist Gerald R. Habermas.

Posted in Gospels, Historiography, Humour, Jesus & Christ, Pentateuch | 9 Comments »

Q Was a Woman

Posted by NT Wrong on October 18, 2008

There are many factors in Q, a source for both Matthew and Luke, which point in the same direction:

    Why such an interest in the female God, the divine Sophia?

    Why is woman’s domestic work accorded equality with a man’s work (Luke 13.20-21; 12.26-27; 17.25)?

    Why is there such an interest in the salvation of women (Luke 17.35)?

    Why is Q so interested in protecting women from remarriage and divorce (Luke 16.16-18; 17.27)?

    Why the interest in flowers and in heralding all that blooms (Luke 12.27-28; 6.43-45)?

    Why is Q interested in itinerant prophets, given the prominent role of women as prophetesses in the earliest church (Luke 10.2ff; Luise Schottroff, ‘Itinerant Prophetesses’)?

    Why does Q remember so many words of Jesus containing domestic elements — salt that has lost its savour (Luke 14.34-35); children (10.21-24); lamps (11.33-35); washing cups (11.39-44); mixing flour until leavened (13.21)?

    Why does Q have such an interest in purses? eg “Make purses for yourselves” (Luke 12.33; cf. 10.4)?

Surely the answer must be: Q was a woman.

And if so, given the early date of Q (ca. AD 50), would we not expect a woman at the centre of Jesus’ circle of followers? Yes, Q was — in all probability — Mary Magdalene.

The earliest known Gospel was written by a woman. To those who protest that this is just a hypothesis, I ask: Why should we add to the centuries of suppression by male Evangelists of this Woman’s Gospel, penned by the foremost of the apostles who tradition records arrived first at the tomb? No, the Gospel of Mary, Q, must be given its rightful attribution — to the first of the Evangelists, a woman.

Posted in Gender, Gospels, Source & Redaction | 71 Comments »

Similitudes – Their Binitarian Nature – Visions and Cultural Context – Steven Richard Scott

Posted by NT Wrong on October 9, 2008

The Book of Similitudes, now found in 1 Enoch 37-71, was written in ca. 20 B.C. Various contributors to Boccaccini’s Enoch and the Messiah Son of Man (2007) provide about half a dozen reasons for this dating. This makes the work a very important one for understanding the influences on the early Jesus Movement, including Jesus’ self-understanding, and his followers’ understandings of Jesus.

Steven Richard Scott has written a good article entitled ‘The Binitarian Nature of the Book of Similitudes’ in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha (18: 55-78). He looks at the distinction made between the Lord of Spirits and the Name of the Lord of Spirits, and concludes that the Similitudes evidence binitarian — not monotheistic — worship of God. God is worshipped in two different persons, in Judaism, before Christianity. Moreover, the ‘other power in Heaven’ is to be identified with the Son of Man or Chosen One — the very figure that Jesus self-identifies with in the canonical Gospels.

The article is well worth reading. But I just want to draw attention to one comment he makes which, I think, is quite correct. In discussing the prominent role of visionary experiences of the heavenly exalted Jesus for his worship alongside the Most High God, Scott notes that it is not enough for there to be visions of Jesus alone. Visions don’t come out of nowhere. Visions come from people’s heads. And in order for the information to be in those heads, they must have already been a part of the person’s cultural beliefs. What is needed in order to make the argument of the origin of Jesus’ worship as God as derived from visions is both (1) proof of the belief in a second power in heaven, and (2) proof of visions. And in fact, there is significant proof for both.

“Hurtado is correct in pointing to the extensive literature on mystics and how their visions and experience lead to changes within religions, and the formation of new religions… However, the change is too great to be accounted for primarily by mystical experience, because of [the] inherently contextual nature of mystical experiences. The study of mystical experiences shows that almost all the content of mystical experience can be explained by the religious tradition that the mystic belongs to: by and large, the mystic experiences what his tradition says she or he should experience.”
– Steven Richard Scott, ‘The Binitarian Nature of the Book of Similitudes’ Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 18 (2008): 55-78, 58.

And did I note his firm disagreement with Crossley (2005)?

Posted in Apocalyptic, Divine Intermediaries, Early Jewish literature, Gospels, Jesus & Christ, Judeo-Christian Practices | 1 Comment »

Dreams of Ascent and Resurrection: New Book from Frances Flannery et al

Posted by NT Wrong on October 3, 2008

The SBL October 2008 Newsletter announces the publication of Experientia, Volume 1: Inquiry into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity, edited by Frances Flannery, Colleen Shantz, Rodney A. Werline. Frances Flannery (aka Flannery-Dailey) is author of the masterful guide to ancient Jewish vision reports, Dreamers, Scribes, and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (2004) and founding editor of GOLEM: Journal of Religion and Monsters. The new book looks a useful resource, especially in light of recent discussions on this blog of visionary experiences of Jesus’ resurrection.

Publisher’s blurb:

This collection investigates the phenomenon of religious experience in early Judaism and early Christianity. The essays consider such diverse phenomena as scribal inspiration, possession, illness, ascent, theurgy, and spiritual transformation wrought by reading, and recognize that the texts are reflective of the lived experiences of ancient religious peoples, which they understood to be encounters with the divine. Contributors use a variety of methodologies, including medical anthropology, neurobiology, and ritual and performance studies, to move the investigation beyond traditional historical and literary methodologies and conclusions to illuminate the importance of experience in constructions of ancient religion.

Posted in Apocalyptic, Books, Early Christian literature, Early Jewish literature, Gospels, Jesus & Christ, Judeo-Christian Practices | Comments Off on Dreams of Ascent and Resurrection: New Book from Frances Flannery et al

Resurrection: From Visionary Ascent to Vision Of Ascent

Posted by NT Wrong on September 26, 2008

In many early Christian texts, there is a curiously close connection between the complex of Christ’s crucifixion, death, and heavenly exaltation on one hand and the visionary ascension experiences of the authors who describe this complex on the other. For example:

    In The Ascension of Isaiah 6, Isaiah induces a trance that results in the separation of his visionary soul from his stationary body. David Halperin describes the scene as a “vivid and realistic-sounding account of a shamanistic trance”, which most probably reflects the author’s actual visionary experience(s) (Faces of the Chariot, 1988:66). The requirement for passwords during descent, physical transformation of the visionary into angelic form, and angelic opposition to human ascent all suggest a visionary experience. The Ascension of Isaiah alternates between the ascensions and transformations of the visionary ‘Isaiah’, and the ascension of Christ – a strong indication of the influence of the author’s visionary experiences on his depiction of the ascension of Christ.

    A wide range of visionary ascent motifs is again present in the Odes of Solomon, where Christ’s descent to Hades and ascent to heaven is celebrated in hymns or odes. Likewise, the visionary or odist experiences transformation into a heavenly figure, mystical union, ascension in a merkavah, avoidance of evils and dangers in ascent, and engages with an angelus interpres figure. All of this strongly suggests that the description of Christ’s victory of evil and ascent to heaven were created from visionary experiences which themselves involved overcoming evil in an ascent to heaven.

    The Revelation of John provides yet another mixture of visionary heavenly ascent with an account of Christ’s own ascent. In Revelation 4.1, John sees a “door opened in heaven”, and for the remainder of the book is “in the spirit”, experiencing a series of visions. John’s vision of his ascent to heaven involves a vision of Christ’s descent, defeat of Satan and ascent into heaven and exaltation (Revelation 12.1-9). In Revelation 1.13-18, John’s initial vision of the One like the Son of Man makes reference to his death providing freedom from Death and Hades.

David Catchpole contends that the first Synoptic account of Christ’s ascension, in Mark 16.1-8, is itself in the genre of a vision or epiphany, suggesting its original source in a visionary experience (“The Fearful Silence of the Women at the Tomb”, 1977). I argued that this provides a sound historical-critical understanding of how Mark 16.1-8 came to be written. As Jane Schaberg points out, many of the elements of an apocalyptic vision are present: an early morning time conducive to induction of visions, report of amazement, angelic calming, angelic message, commission to tell others, and resulting terror and silence (Resurrection of Mary Magdalene, 2003: 359). In addition, Christopher Rowland argues that the baptism, temptation and transfiguration all bear the mark of autobiographical visionary reports – the last of which, the transfiguration, has often been read as a form of resurrection account (The Open Heaven, 1982: 359).

In 2 Corinthians 12.2-4, Paul claims he could receive ecstatic visions that allowed him to travel even to the highest heaven, to uncover the secrets and mysteries that laid within that realm. The account refers to visions and revelations received from the Lord on his ascension to the third heaven or “Paradise”. In that place Paul heard heavenly secrets and mysteries, or αρρητα ρήματα (with assonance, “words that cannot be spoken”) or words ουκ εξоν ανθρώπω λαλησαι (“not permitted for a person to speak”). Paul believed that the visionary appearance of the post-resurrection Christ to him vindicated his equal status as apostle. Paul claims to “see” the resurrected Christ just as Jesus’ companions had seen him. Paul uses the same word (“see”) to describe resurrection appearances to himself that he does for the appearances to Jesus’ companions (Galatians 1.1; 1 Corinthians 9.1; 15.8-9). Given that the earliest understanding was the Jesus had appeared to apostles from heaven, the use of the same vocabulary is completely understandable. Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul claims that his direct acquisition of knowledge by way of his personal visionary experiences provide a defence of his apostolic status (Galatians 1.1). Just as Jesus appeared from heaven to the other disciples, calling them to apostleship, now Paul believes that Jesus has appeared to him in the same way.

“Paul therefore does not distinguish between the kind of appearance made known to him and those made known to his forebears” (Alan Segal, Paul the Convert, 1990: 15).

Visionary experiences of ascent and descent constantly coincidence with the narrative descriptions of the ascended, victorious and exalted Christ in earliest Christianity. It is therefore very probable that such experiences greatly influenced the earliest conceptualisations of Christ’s own ascent and victory over the powers of evil.

From his examination of New Testament and other early Christian works, Timo Eskola finds that “[t]he writings of Jewish mysticism were exploited in the construction of early Christology” (Messiah and the Throne, 2001: 289). Early Jewish mysticism centred on ascension to the throne of God, that is, the merkavah. The Jewish mystical experiences can be traced back to the merkavah visions narrated in Ezekiel. For example, in the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran, an unidentified person relates how he ascended to heaven in order to receive instruction, boasts of his exalted position above the angels, sits down on the heavenly throne, and believes he will be vindicated against his enemies. Philip Alexander concludes that the text, which was used hymnically to induce visionary experiences, demonstrates an active and ongoing practice of ascent and heavenly transformation in Qumran (Mystical Texts, 2006: 85-90). Given the Christian theme of exaltation by heavenly enthronement at the right hand of God, which was inseparably a part of resurrection and ascension to heaven in earliest Christianity, Eskola concludes, “Merkabah speculation is a most suitable environment for the description of Christ’s heavenly enthronement”. For example, the very vision of ‘Isaiah’ in which Ascension of Isaiah 6-11 is set provides “the context to which [exaltation Christology] originally belonged” (Messiah and the Throne, 286, 288). That is, these writings about heavenly exaltation and vindication of enemies were created by visionaries who had experienced very similar mystical experiences. The first visions were of an exalted Christ who had ascended to the throne of God. It follows that there is no real ’empty tomb’ or ‘stone in front of the tomb’ at this stage. Such details were only added when the visionary story of a heavenly ascended Christ was developed into a story of an earthly resurrected Christ.

So arguably, therefore, the development of Christian traditions about Christ’s resurrection and exaltation are most explicable as developing from the imaginative visionary ascent practices of Christians who wrote about Christ’s own ascent. Beginning with passages such as Daniel 12.1-2, Jewish ascent traditions made strong links between martyrdom/suffering, resurrection, ascent, and exaltation, astral and otherwise (Segal, “Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism”, 1980: 1369). The popular Christian apologetic — that the idea of an human ascending to heaven before the end-times is a ‘new idea’ which could only be conceived through a physical post-resurrection appearance — is therefore soundly refuted. Jesus’ claim to be the Enochic Son of Man, combined with his followers’ celebration of his death as victory over evil, and their visions of his ascension into glory all combined to produce a variant of Enochic Judaism now centred on Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian use of the martyrdom-ascension-visionary tradition involved a “real interplay” between the inherited Jewish pattern and the particular Christian visions and reflections concerning Jesus’ death and the particular claim he was the exalted Son of Man. In this way, traditional Jewish visionary practices of ascent and descent produced the Christian tradition of Christ’s own incarnational descent and ascent.

See also:
Part One: The Resurrection of Jesus as Mass Hallucination
Part Two: Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus

Posted in Early Christian literature, Early Jewish literature, Gospels, Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 1 Comment »

Women Witnesses – Visions of The Resurrection of Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on September 25, 2008

The canonical Gospels all include stories of women who see the resurrected Jesus. Why women? In a world in which the opinions of men were much more greatly esteemed than those of women, why all these stories about women seeing the resurrected Jesus?

The simple explanation must be that it was in fact women who had the earliest visions of Jesus. Women followers of Jesus, not men, were the first to experience visions of Jesus after his death. And it is these stories which became central to the vision reports of the resurrected Jesus which were later incorporated into the gospels.

In the first century AD, women had limited roles to play in preaching and public speaking. But when it came to visions, vision reports, and prophecy, women had a special position. In fact, visionary experiences are, across many cultures, one of the limited number of ways that a woman can express herself religiously with authority. In her study of medieval visionary experiences (Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism), Grace Jantzen considers this is the major explanatory factor for the high proportion of women visionaries. Any authority women claimed for themselves would require a very special validation in the face of male hegemony — and a prime validation was a vision of the glorified heavenly Jesus.

“Given all the other restrictions on women, along with the expectations of the time, it is not at all surprising that women might be more open than men to visionary experiences in the first place, make more of them when they occurred, and use them as the basis for their authority as teachers of authority and spirituality.”
– Grace Jantzen, 169

A study by Jerome Kroll and Bernard Bachrach, of 134 vision reports from the 8th-12th centuries, demonstrates how visionary experiences were an opportunity for the downtrodden, oppressed, poor, and women to express themselves. Some 49% of visionaries, in their large survey, were either men without rank or women, despite the literature being read by a small elite of the population. Similarly, the majority of leaders in the Nineteenth Century Spiritualist Movement were women.

Female visionaries thrived in the earliest Church. The fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2.17-18 stresses both men and women as recipients. Philip’s four daughters prophesy (Acts 21.9). In Luke 2.36-37, the prophet Anna lives in the Temple and is the first to preach about Jesus — to all in Jerusalem. In addition, the Corinthian women prophesied (1 Cor 11.5). Furthermore, a number of Gnostic sources testify that Mary Magdalene was a significant visionary in earliest Christianity (Epiphanius, Pan 26.8.1-3; Pistis Sophia; Gospel of Mary). Also, Juvenal attests to a ‘priestess’ in Jerusalem in the first century AD who acted as a dream interpreter (Satires 6.542).

So, while it was rare for women to write religious works in the first century AD, women were well represented as visionaries. The religious pattern across many cultures, as well as the particularities of the earliest Christian Church point in the same direction: if a vision report existed, there was a fair probability that women would be behind it.

What does this mean for the Gospel accounts? As the resurrection accounts are likely derived from vision reports, it was not unexpected, and in fact was quite likely that the vision reports should derive from women.

So, we should turn the popular apologetic on its head. Some popular Christian apologists have claimed that the stories of sightings of the resurrected Jesus by women must be factual:

“Given the second-class status of women in first-century Palestine and their inability to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court, it is amazing they should appear here as the discoverers and chief witnesses to the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb, for so unreliable a witness was an embarassment to the Christian proclamation.”
– William Lane Craig, Jesus’ Resurrection, 177.

The contrary conclusion should now be made. Due to the fact that visionary experiences comprised one of the few ways for women to express themselves religiously in the first century AD — they were restricted from public leadership and even giving witness in a public court — these stories probably derive from women’s visionary experiences. Paul might have been successful in removing the first, female vision accounts of the resurrection from his list of ‘post-resurrection appearances’. But the Gospel writers have preserved these accounts — even as they have attempted to make them secondary to other accounts attributed to various men in the gospels. So we see that the explanation of the gospels’ resurrection accounts in terms of vision reports has the greater historical evidence and greater explanatory power.

See also:
Part One: The Resurrection of Jesus as Mass Hallucination
Part Three: Resurrection: From Visionary Ascent to Vision Of Ascent

Posted in Early Christian literature, Gospels, Jesus & Christ | 7 Comments »

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 »

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

Is the Secular Exclusion of Divine Explanations for History as Biased as Supernaturalistic Historiography?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 13, 2008

Sometimes Christians object that it is just as biased to reject ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations for the life of Jesus as it is to allow such explanations in one’s historiography.

A recent example comes from Jim West — that is, the prolific biblioblogger of that name, not the author of a recent travel-book on queer underground culture in Beijing. We understand they are different people.

Anyway, Jim West, the biblioblogger, recently said this:

“Is not the a priori exclusion of the possibility of divine activity in the human sphere just as prejudiced a viewpoint as that of the evangelical who insists that there is only one explanation for the Church; ie, divine activity?”

The context of Jim West’s rhetorical question is a response to James Crossley’s portion of a soon-to-be-released co-authored book on Jesus, the resurrection, and the origins of the early church, How Did Christianity Begin?

As phrased, Jim West’s point is undoubtedly true. If one excludes certain historical reconstructions from consideration on a priori grounds, then, that is undoubtedly as biased as any other a priori exclusion of possible explanations. It would be like a historian of Haitian colonisation consciously refusing to consider local Haitian viewpoints, but only considering the viewpoints of the colonisers. Such an approach would be obviously prejudiced and untrustworthy. And that’s why no good historian proceeds in such a fashion. In fact, what Jim West has described is not a credible scholarly method of historiography.

But those historians who reject supernaturalistic explanations don’t simply apply a priori reasoning. This is why Jim West’s criticism — a criticism, the tu quoque criticism, which is a very common apologetic criticism — is simply inapplicable. The basis for rejecting ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations is not in fact out-of-court and a priori — it is an attempt to arrive at the best explanation of the available facts. Having reviewed a large body of historical data from many places and many times, historians have consistently concluded that the better explanations involve a complex of social-historical factors. The best explanation of the victory of the Britons over the Romans involves the declining power of the Romans, not the supernatural powers of ‘Arthur’ or ‘Merlin’. The best explanation of the rise of Hitler involves certain social and political reasons between the two World Wars together with certain ideological developments of the time — and such an explanation is sufficient, so that any talk of an ‘evil power’ is nonsense. Time and again, historical investigations provide sufficient explanations in terms of mundane quotidian explanations, making otiose any additional ‘supernaturalistic’ explanations.

So, the old chestnut, ‘you’re biased too, because you reject supernaturalistic explanations out of court, on a priori grounds’ is demonstrably untrue. The rejection of supernaturalistic explanations in historiography is the result of a long build-up of explanations for the human and natural world that have rendered supernaturalistic explanations redundant. In other words, there is nothing ‘a priori’ (deductive) in the method at all. The method is abductive; establishing which types of explanations best and most economically fit the facts.

Ordinary mundane socio-political factors provide sufficient historical explanations for British history (without positing a magical Merlin), for Judean history (without positing a god who directs history), for the origin of the early Islamic empire (without positing an Allah who directs history), for the rise of the United States (without positing some ‘Manifest Destiny’), etc, etc. Sure, true believers will always be able to claim that the history in which they have a vested interest is unique in a way that fundamentally distinguishes it from all other reality. But in doing so, they have to counter the weight of historical and scientific explanation. Now, that is real ‘bias’.

Update: I just spotted James Crossley’s reply to Scot McKnight, which is on a similar parallel to this post, but is much more entertaining.

Posted in Early Christian literature, Gospels, Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 7 Comments »