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A Final Word (I Think!) on Group Visions

I am getting some push-back on my discussions of visions.  One of the most informed and hard-hitting critiques was this.

I certainly agree that it is within your scope of expertise as a New Testament scholar to use the term “vision” to describe the beliefs of people in Antiquity who used this term to describe certain religious experiences.  It is within your scope of expertise to define this term as defined by those ancients.  However, with all due respect, as a physician I must point out that it is not within your scope of expertise to use this term to determine what was going on physiologically or psychologically during these experiences.  This determination belongs to experts in the field of medicine and psychiatry.  That is why I believe you should stop using the terms  “veridical vision” and “non-veridical”.  Medical experts and psychiatrists/psychologists believe that these ancients experienced one of three things in these “vision” experiences:  a dream (a nightdream or a daydream), an illusion, or an hallucination.  That’s it.  There are no other options.  For you to create other categories is to create confusion.

In response, let me first say something about terminology.  This reader is pointing out that psychologists use three terms for such experiences: dream, illusion, and hallucination.  Fair enough.  The question is whether we think these three things have something in common.  The answer, I think, is yes.  They all involve someone thinking she has seen something that in fact was not really there.   Should we have a category for such an experience broadly (encapsulating all three options)?  It seems to me that would be very useful indeed.  The category I use is …

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Does Jesus Claim to Be God in Mark? And My Former Converts. Mailbag March 19, 2017
What Really Happens With Group Visions



  1. Avatar
    wostraub  March 17, 2017

    Bart — perhaps the raised saints as recorded in Matthew 27:51-53, which many people “witnessed” following Jesus’ resurrection, is another example of what you’re talking about. Thanks for another great post!

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    godspell  March 17, 2017

    I am far from clear in my mind that Paul ‘saw’ Jesus–his descriptions of his experience in the epistles are not terribly specific. Acts says he saw a blinding light and heard a voice. It’s quite different from what we read about in Matthew and Luke, where he’s this warm human presence, presenting himself in the flesh to people who knew and loved him. Obviously those accounts were written by people who never knew Jesus at all, but most likely, neither did Paul.

    Today, when people ‘see’ Jesus, they’re influenced by generations of artistic portrayals of Jesus. There was nothing of the sort available in the decades following Jesus’ death. So a vision of Jesus experienced by somebody who never met him would be different from that experienced by someone who was an intimate friend and companion.

    As to the psychiatric profession, all due respect to their expertise, but it wasn’t so very long ago they were talking about penis envy and how homosexuality was a mental disorder brought on by poor parenting skills. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Sharon Friedman  March 19, 2017

      I agree (or dare I say, Amen!). Just because many people today believe that something couldn’t have happened, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

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    Wilusa  March 17, 2017

    Even though I incline to the belief that people *can* share a group hallucination (experiencing the exact same “vision”), I certainly don’t think that’s necessary to explain the supposed appearances of Jesus to his disciples and long-ago followers.

    I do think that for individual experiences, what we call “dreams” are the most likely to be remembered as significant.

  4. Avatar
    TBeard  March 17, 2017

    I have read where sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations and in some settings it happens to whole crowds at once.

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    UCCLMrh  March 17, 2017

    No “explanation” of the risen Christ is needed, just as no “explanation” is needed of Moses crossing the Red Sea (or whatever sea is might have been). Neither is an historical account in the modern sense, and neither needs to be “explained.” The whole project is futile.

  6. Avatar
    Gary  March 17, 2017

    If you intend to continue to use the term “group visions” I would strongly encourage you to REPEATEDLY emphasize to your readers that by this term you are not inferring that groups of people can have the same detailed hallucination—because this is what I fear many of your readers will assume you mean. As I have pointed out previously, medical professionals state that it is impossible for two people to have the same detailed dream or hallucination.

    If you do not make this point very clear, this is what I am afraid will happen: A former fundamentalist Christian who has become an agnostic or atheist due to the excellent work of people like yourself will misunderstand your position regarding “group visions” and get into a discussion with a knowledgeable Christian apologist regarding the detailed group appearances mentioned in the Gospels. He will tell the Christian, “Those group appearances can be explained by a group hallucination. Bart Ehrman, the famous New Testament scholar, says so.”

    The Christian apologist will eat this budding skeptic alive! The Christian apologist will point out that medical experts state that detailed group hallucinations are impossible and that Bart Ehrman is wrong!

    The poor skeptic will come out of this debate severely shaken. The point is: No skeptic should be given the impression that the detailed appearances stories in the Gospels can be explained by “group hallucinations”. Your use of “group visions”, if not carefully explained, could lead to that misunderstanding.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 20, 2017

      The skeptic can simply point out that all the accounts we have are from decades after whatever happened, written by people who were not there.

      I mean, if you’re that easily shaken, you’re not so much a skeptic as somebody who just believes whatever he was most recently told. Authorities are well and good, but people need to think things out for themselves sometimes. Think in terms of your own life and experiences, try not to think of it as deciding whether God exists, because there are no authorities on that, and never have been, and never will be.

      Does it make sense that people under a lot of stress, who deeply loved and revered their teacher who got fastened to a piece of wood until he died, and who had quite possibly been told by him that he’d return in some form, would have visions to that effect, and that over time, these differing and often confused stories of personal revelation would be crafted into a more coherent narrative?

    • Avatar
      jcutler79  April 26, 2017

      Gary, given that that you clearly think group hallucinations are impossible per scientific data, does that mean you think it is impossible that all of the reported Marian apparitions to multiple people were group hallucinations? I didn’t see in your comment anything addressing that. The only logical assumption your comments leave me with is that you must accept the validity of all the Marian apparitions involving more than one witness (e.g. the Our Lady of Knock appearance of 1879 reportedly seen by 15 people, including adults). Nothing necessarily wrong with that. I just thought I would see if you would confirm that.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  March 17, 2017

    I agree 100% with this post.

  8. Avatar
    Silver  March 17, 2017

    Re Paul’s vision and conversion experience:
    William Sargant, a psychiatrist who researched brainwashing and thought reform, comments on Paul’s experience:

    Battle for the mind William Sargant Pan Books 1957 Page 105
    The case of Saul on the road to Damascus confirms our finding that anger may be no less powerful an emotion than fear in bringing about sudden conversion to beliefs which exactly contradict the beliefs previously held. Acts chapter 9 tells us,
    “And Saul yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord went unto the high priest and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues that if he found any of this way whether they were men or women he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed he came near Damascus and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven and he fell to the earth and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul why persecutest thou me?” And he said, “Who art thou lord?” And the Lord said, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest; it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” And he trembling and astonished said, “Lord, what will thou have me to do?”

    A State of transmarginal inhibition seems to have followed his acute stage of nervous excitement. Total collapse, hallucinations and an increased state of suggestibility appear to have supervened. Other inhibitory hysterical manifestations are also reported:
    ‘And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened he saw no man: but they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus and he was three days without sight and neither did eat nor drink’.
    This period of physical debilitation by fasting, added to Saul’s other stresses, may well have increased his anxiety and suggestibility. Only after three days did brother Ananias come to relieve his nervous symptoms and his mental distress, at the same time implanting new beliefs.

    ‘Ananias went his way and entered into the house and putting his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me that thou mightest receive thy sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptised. And when he had received meat he was strengthened’.

    Then followed the necessary period of indoctrination imposed on Saul by the brethren at Damascus and of his full acceptance of all the new beliefs that they required of him.
    ‘Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus and straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the son of God. But all that heard him were amazed and said,”Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem and came thither for that intent that he might bring them bound unto the chief priest?”

  9. Avatar
    Judith  March 17, 2017

    Now you have me laughing before I even begin – A Final Word (I think!).

  10. Avatar
    Silver  March 17, 2017

    I realise that in the context of a discussion of group visions my comment about Paul’s conversion experience in a book by William Sargant is not relevant. Please ignore.

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    Tony  March 17, 2017

    I sure hope this is not the final word on visions, since “visions”, real, imagined or faked, are likely at the origin of the Christian religion.

    There are different, and often mixed up, sources of visions within the NT. The three obvious ones are Paul (notably 1 Cor 15), the Gospels, and Acts, (road to Damascus). There is no doubt that, for most of Christianity’s 2000 year history, those three sources were deemed interchangeable. Even today Christians and scholars alike appear to freely read Acts into Paul, the Gospels into Paul and any other combination of those three as deemed convenient.

    My view is that both the Gospels and Luke-Acts derive their visions/appearances ideas from Paul – who was the primary (and only) source of the resurrected Jesus. That specifically makes 1 Corinthians 15 a worthwhile subject of analysis. Here is one such an analysis by Earl Doherty:


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    kentvw  March 17, 2017

    BUT! I’m Dr. Bart! I need to use really big words!! For Heavens sakes!! Why don’t folks get that??

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    seahawk41  March 17, 2017

    OK, this comment is not to the point of what to call these kinds of experiences, but to emphasize how very real they can seem. I was in a serious accident in 1992, and in the first week or so in the hospital I was receiving multiple pain killers: morphine and demerol at one point and morphine and percocet later. As you might guess, I experienced many hallucinations during that time. I can think of four right now for which I still recall the details, and probably more if I were to think about it a while. At least three of these were so “real” and vivid that I was surprised to find that reality contradicted them, or I asked relevant people to verify details (wrong–it didn’t happen) or insisted that something in one of them had to occur in order for a real world thing to happen. These things were *real* in the sense that I believed them. If I had a suggestible personality, I probably would have gone on believing them in spite of massive evidence to the contrary.

  14. Rick
    Rick  March 17, 2017

    George Carlin no doubt would have called your “non-veridical visions” something less erudite than that or dreams, illusions or hallucinations. The good Doctors comments not withstanding, Carlin would not have been wrong either.

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    dragonfly  March 18, 2017

    Speaking of visions, Paul really doesn’t give us much to go by about his conversion experience. Acts gives us three slightly different accounts. Do scholars think these accounts are from three different sources, or did Luke accidentally write the account a bit different each time? Given the lack of alternative sources, do we just assume the gist of it is pretty much what actually happened?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2017

      I have a discussion of this in my forthcoming book. I’m not sure if Luke just modified stories he heard or if he heard different stories. But parts of what he says line up with what Paul says in Galatians, and other parts not so much.

  16. Avatar
    SergioRW  March 18, 2017

    Or maybe he just did not die on the cross and, very hurt and sick lived for some weeks (and was seen) and then died.

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    RonaldTaska  March 18, 2017

    This series of posts reminds me of all the fake or false political claims being raised these days and how millions of people believe these claims even though these claims are very likely false claims. Moreover, due to factors like confirmation bias, these claims are not usually changed by evidence, even overwhelming evidence. For me, a retired psychiatrist, part of the problem is, that outside of your writing, I was just not familiar with the term “non-veridical.” I am, however, especially reading the daily political news, convinced that humans, whatever you want to call it, just plain embellish, distort, and make stuff up and then other humans believe this made-up stuff. It happens every day.

    Eventually, I am afraid that many of us figure out that there just are no answers to the big questions of life (did Jesus really rise from the dead in this case) and stop searching.

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    John  March 18, 2017

    I am not sure why focusing on group hallucinations is so important in this context. Surely it is more relevant to show that the text referring to these , like 1Cor 15 or group meals etc.are problematic from a historical POV and leave it at that. You won’t then get dragged down rabbit holes attempting to explain away something that probably never happened in the first place.

  19. tompicard
    tompicard  March 18, 2017

    this may be nit-picking but since on the subject

    you claim you want to provide
    an “explanation [that] ‘works’ whether you are a Christian believer or not.”

    then why use ‘veridical’ rather than ‘corporeal’ ?

    Christians will usually accept that all the visions you are describing are non-corporeal, but may object when you say they are non-veridical.

    Does your argument lose any of its force if ‘non-corporeal’ is used instead?

    Secondly, sorry if you have answered before but . .
    Did Paul believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2017

      Corporeal would refer to the body itself raising. If Jesus arose in, say, just spirit, once could still have a veridical vision of him.

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    Jason  March 18, 2017

    Isn’t it just as decontextualizing to apply modern psychology to a(n alleged) group of first century Jews as it is to try to make Jesus out as a communist, feminist, Republican or hippie? How would other first century peoples have reacted to reports of such a vision-with a groan and a nod, like we talk of the tin-foil hat crowd today, or with exhuberance and/or envy, like a friend who gets to see the next “Star Wars” film early?

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