I will be dealing with two interesting questions on this week’s Readers’ Mailbag. The first has to do with whether hallucinations can explain why Jesus’ followers thought he had been raised from the dead; the second involves with me personally: if I no longer believe in Jesus, why do I keep studying, writing, and teaching about him?
To make sense of the first question I need to provide some background. In my book How Jesus Became God I argue that the followers of Jesus believed he was raised from the dead for one and only one reason, that some of them (I don’t think we know how many) had visions of him after his death, and they concluded that he must have been raised from the dead (I argue that the “empty tomb” did not lead anyone to believe; either did anything else). In my book I stress that this explanation works for everyone, whether a Christian believer or not. Christians would say that the disciples claimed to see Jesus after his death because he really did appear to him; non-Christians would say the disciples had non-veridical visions. That is, they saw things that weren’t there. They had hallucinations.
In the book I talk about what we know about non-veridical visions from extensive psychological research. This research makes it completely plausible that the disciples actually had visions of Jesus (hallucinations), even if in fact he had remained dead. With that background, comes this question.
If the hallucination hypothesis had a weakness would it be group appearances and a cultural lack of expectation of a middle-of-history resurrection?
Now I need to unpack the question a bit further. The questioner is pointing out that in the Gospels we have accounts of groups of people having visions: are group hallucinations even possible? Wouldn’t the fact that lots of people saw Jesus at once show these were not hallucinations? Moreover, Jews in the first century believed that the resurrection of the dead would come at the very end of time, but wasn’t belief in Jesus’ resurrection the belief that a resurrection had occurred somewhere in the middle of history, rather than at the end of it? They would not, then, have interpreted their visions of Jesus as a “resurrection,” no?
With respect to group visions, I want to make two points. The first is that I’m not sure there actually were group visions. I think we can say that some individuals had visions of Jesus – they are best attributed to Peter, Paul, and Mary, as it turns out – but I’m not sure if the group visions are historically probable.
But second, suppose they are probable. Can groups have non-veridical visions? In my book I argue that not only can groups have visions, such visions are extremely well documented. I give the evidence in the book.
This is a point that is often raised in my debates with conservative evangelical Christian apologists on whether historians can prove the resurrection. The argument these apologists make is that groups cannot have hallucinations. What is striking about my opponents in these debates is that they are always strongly Protestant evangelical and they personally do not support Roman Catholic views, at all — including views about Mary being the Mother of God, a special person in the heavenly realm. Why does that matter? Because to a person they absolutely do not think that the Blessed Virgin Mary actually appears to her followers today. BUT, it is extremely well documented that she does so. Not just to individuals, but to groups. Often large groups – hundreds of people at once. The documentation is overhwhelming.
Since these apologists do not think Mary really appears to these groups, they must (necessarily) think that these groups are “just seein’ things.” I.e., they are having some kind of false visionary experience. In other words, they are having a group hallucination. In other words, these evangelical apologists think not only that group visions are possible, but that they happen all the time. So much for the argument that there cannot be group hallucinations.
On the second point of the question: Jews did not expect a resurrection in the middle of history but only at the end of history, so wouldn’t that show they were not expecting something like Jesus’ resurrection and that therefore they did not make it up or conclude that it happened just on the basis of a vision?
This one is a bit easier to answer. The followers of Jesus who came to believe he was raised from the dead did not think this was a resurrection in the middle of history. They thought that since the resurrection was to happen at the end of time, and since Jesus had been raised, his resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection in which all people would be raised. They concluded they were indeed living at the end of time. That is why they thought the end was near. And Jesus’ death and resurrection had ushered it in.
This is the reason Paul talks about Jesus as “the first fruits of the resurrection” in 1 Corinthians 15. This is an agricultural image. On the first day of the harvest the farmer gathers in the “first fruits.” And when does he go out to harvest the rest? Does he wait 20 years or 2000 years? No, he goes out the next day. Paul thought the resurrection of Jesus came at the end of the age and that everyone else was to be raised very soon. The end had come. And it had been inaugurated by Jesus.
Your (agnostic) viewpoint raises a serious question – in my mind, anyway: Why do you find Jesus and his ministry so compelling that you have taught about him at the collegiate level, authored numerous books about him, and lectured about him as much as you have?
I get this question a lot. Why would I spend my life reading, thinking, studying, writing, and teaching about someone I don’t believe in? On one level the question makes a lot of sense. To be deeply interested in Jesus, shouldn’t you be a believing Christian?
At the same time, I think the question is easily answered. I teach in a major research university. In major research universities there are numerous historical and literary scholars who teach numerous things. Rarely do they “believe” in what they teach.
For example, professors of Political Science may teach and write about Karl Marx. That doesn’t mean they have to be Marxists. Professors of Philosophy may teach and write about Plato or Nietzsche. That doesn’t mean they have to be Platonists or Nietzscheans. Professors of European History may teach and write about the Third Reich. That doesn’t mean that they have to be Nazis. Professors of Criminology each about violent crime. That doesn’t mean they have to be axe murderers. And on and on and on.
Those of us who are professional scholars almost always gravitate to a topic that we are deeply interested in, passionate about, even obsessed with. Not because we believe in it but because we realize how important it is.
And who in the history of Western Civilization was more important than Jesus? I have no trouble at all understanding why I am obsessed with knowing about his life and teachings and about the religious movement that arose in his name after his death. For me this is the most important subject in our entire curriculum. Jesus’ followers ended up taking over their world (after about four centuries), and the Christian church became the most massive and influential institution of the West, whether considered politically, socially, culturally, economically, intellectually – or any other way. To me it makes perfect sense that I study, write, and teach about the Christian tradition, starting with Jesus; it would be weird if I were not interested!
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