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Visions of Mary

I wrote chapter five of How Jesus Became God today; there will be nine chapters altogether.  In this one I am talking about the visions of Jesus that the disciples had.  I think they really had visions.  Whether that’s because Jesus really appeared to them or because they were hallucinating is the difference between believers and unbelievers, and as a historian, I don’t feel particularly inclined to judge one way or the other.  As a non-believer, of course, I, well, don’t believe it.   In any event, I think it’s important to put visions of Jesus in the context of other kinds of visions, and here I have a short section on visions claimed (and documented) for the Blessed Virgin Mary.


Also of relevance to our reflections is that visions of revered religious figures from the past are one of the best documented kind of visionary experience.   Here I can speak just briefly about the “appearances” of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and visions in the modern world of Jesus himself.

The Blessed Virgin Mary

René Laurentin is a modern-day Catholic theologian and expert on modern apparitions, who has written many, many books on the topic.  He has a degree in philosophy from the Sarbonne in Paris, and two PhDs, one in theology and one in literature.  He is not your average intellect.   And he deeply and sincerely believes that Mary – the mother of Jesus who died 2000 years ago — has appeared to people in the modern world and continues to do so.  Here I give just two examples from his writings.

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Modern Visions of Jesus
Divine Wisdom



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 27, 2013

    Ya, I think many Christians forget or don’t really realize that “real” religious experiences of various sorts happen in all religions and in all countries. Many Christians write off anything that does not happen to them but appears real as “demonic.” There is a whole group that says they’ve seen or been in UFO’s also… I’m no expert, but my implication is they are purely psychological phenomenon…but that is a different debate altogether and for a different time and place!

    • Avatar
      Xeronimo74  March 28, 2013

      Exactly. According to Christians: Christians having ‘visions’ = totally legit. Non-Christians having ‘visions’ = obviously cuckoo …

  2. Avatar
    hwl  March 27, 2013

    As the saying goes, one man’s superstition is another man’s religion. One’s man hallucination is another man’s divine vision.

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    tawfiq  March 27, 2013

    I grew up in the Muslim, Arab, Middle East and would like to correct you on one point. The cult of the Virgin Mary is fairly popular among Muslim women and in the more secular countries it is not unusual to see Muslim women visiting particular shrines for the Virgin Mary on certain feast days. The intolerance of more recent times is brought about by political changes in the Arab and Muslim world but was not always there.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2013

      Ah, that’s very interesting! Tell me more. Why do they revere Mary? Do they consider her in any way divine? In the traditional Christian tradition she came to be venerated as “the mother of God.” Obviously that wouldn’t work for Muslims. So tell me about it.

      • Avatar
        tawfiq  March 30, 2013

        I think she is considered a holy woman and a saint rather than the mother of god, remember that Jesus is also considered a holy man and a prophet in those traditions.

        • Avatar
          tawfiq  April 10, 2013

          An anecdote…
          As a child growing up in Baghdad in the 1970s I was sent to St Joseph’s Primary School, a private school, which prior to the nationalisations of all private schools (in the mid=1970s) was run by the Catholic nuns. What is interesting was that many of the students (perhaps as many as 40%) came from Muslim families. The cultural environment in a city like Baghdad until very recently was not so polarised by religious affiliations and the figure of the Mary the mother of Jesus in many ways represented a feminine holy entity which was lacking in the very male dominated cultures (be it first century Judaism or 1970 Iraq). In many ways her virtues are the ideals for many people from these culture, maternity and perpetual virginity paradoxical as this may seem.

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    FrancisDunn  March 27, 2013

    I believe people have visions of what they want to see, especially during times of stress in their lives.. I believe people truly see a loved one who has passed. My mother said she saw my father who had been dead for many years. I believe she saw him; I knew full well he was buried in the cemetery at the end of our street.

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    Mikail78  March 28, 2013

    Bart, you said, “I think they really had visions. Whether that’s because Jesus really appeared to them or because they were hallucinating is the difference between believers and unbelievers, and as a historian, I don’t feel particularly inclined to judge one way or the other. ”

    Surely, there are tons of other options than merely these two possibilities….aren’t there? As implausible as these other options are, they’re more plausible than a man physically rising from the dead and appearing to them, don’t you think?

    Also, how come you are so sure the actual disciples of history had visions? What are your sources for your view? The Gospels? As I’ve learned from you and other scholars, the gospels are not eyewitness accounts and are not 100% historically reliable. Is one of your sources the Pauline letters, specifically 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul says Jesus appeared to over 500? I’m not sure this is a reliable source of alleged apparitions of the alleged resurrected Jesus. Is this recorded in other sources? Do we have documents written by the 500? Do we even have anything from the original disciples who supposedly had these visions? As I’ve also learned from you, first and second Peter in the New Testament were almost certainly NOT written by the historical Peter.

    Anyway, these are questions out of genuine curiosity. I’m not arguing with you, but I’m genuinely curious as to how you are so certain the actual historical disciples had visions of the resurrected Jesus. Perhaps there is something obvious that I’m missing here and if so, please point it out, even if it makes me look like an idiot. Please clear this up for me as I’m kind of baffled. Of course, I’m not saying the disciples definitely did NOT have visions, but I don’t see how anyone can be sure that they did nor not.

    Concerning more important matters, out of the 16 teams left, who is your pick to win the NCAA tournament? 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2013

      Yes, you’ll definitely read my book! (One main point: *something* made the disciples think Jesus was raised from the dead. All the sources indicate it was their visions. Is there another option?)

      But with visions, normally there are two options given: veridical (caused by an external stimulus — you see what is really there) or non-veridical (not caused by an external stimulus — you only think there is something there but there’s not). Of course there’s an optin that you see one thing and mistake it for something else, but what other options are you imagining?

      • Avatar
        Mikail78  March 29, 2013

        Bart, you asked, “Of course there’s an optin that you see one thing and mistake it for something else, but what other options are you imagining?”

        Concerning other options, oh hell, I don’t know. 🙂 I definitely believe that Paul thought he had a real vision of the allegedly resurrected Christ. After all, we actually have his writings in which he says he had a vision. Obviously, both you and I know that this doesn’t mean he really saw Jesus. It just means that he thought he saw Jesus. I don’t mean to sound unkind to ol’ Paul, but I think he was deluded.

        As for the historical disciples who weren known to be associates of Jesus before his death, again, I’m not saying that they definitely did NOT have visions of the allegedly resurrected Jesus. I’m just saying that I’m agnostic about what their experiences of Jesus were after his death. As far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, we don’t have a single document written by one of the original historical disciples (apostles), right?. Thanks to your scholarship and that of others, I’ve learned that letters attributed to these people are most likely forgeries, and I don’t think that Paul saying Jesus appeared to over 500 people means that for sure, Jesus really appeared to over 500 people. We just have Paul saying this. We don’t have any documents from any of the 500, as far as I know.

        Then of course, the classic Christian apologetic argument is that these dudes MUST have seen the risen Jesus or thought they had seen the risen Jesus because why would they knowingly die for a lie. Well, thanks again to your scholarship and that of others, I’ve learned that the martyrdom traditions are less than historically reliable and we really don’t know how many to all of these guys died. Your scholarship has also taught me that the martyrdom narrative offered by contemporary evangelical Christians is not accurate….and even if these guys were martyred for sure, we don’t know the circumstances behind the martyrdoms. That’s why it’s fallacious of evangelicals to say these people died because of their belief in the resurrection. How the hell do they know why these people died? 🙂

        OK, sorry, I’m kind of departing from the topic at hand. Here’s my question. Apart from Paul (who as far as we know was NOT an associate of Jesus when he was alive), I’m agnostic about what the other historical disciples (apostles) experienced after Jesus’s death. Is my agnosticism justified? Seriously, is it? If it’s not, please let me know. Could I be wrong in that there really are historically reliable documents that claim for sure that the historical original disciples of Jesus had visions of him after his death? I’ll gladly be corrected on this if I’m wrong. After all, I don’t want to be like many jesus mythicists who refuse to be corrected even after they are shown to be in error. So, once again, is my agnosticism in this area justified?

        • Avatar
          Mikail78  March 29, 2013

          Bart, I gotta correct a typo that might be a source of confusion to you. In my previous post, I said, As for the historical disciples who weren known to be associates of Jesus before his death,”

          What I meant to say, was “As for the historical disciples who WERE known to be associates of Jesus before his death,”

          Sorry if this caused any confusion.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 29, 2013

          Well, I’ll be arguing taht even though we don’t have writings from these others, they almost certainly had visions of jesus. For reasons I’ll explain. So you’ll definitely need to read the book!

          • Avatar
            Mikail78  March 29, 2013

            I am looking forward to your book coming out! I will definitely read it.

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    hwl  March 28, 2013

    Nowadays, we even have “miracles” captured on video and posted on YouTube, for example, by the Canadian charismatic Christian healer, Todd Bentley (of the Lakeland Revival, 2008). There are many charismatic evangelical churches in Britain and America that report miraculous healings from their Healing Room Ministries. I mean, how much more evidence do those diehard sceptics need to be convinced miracles are real 😉

  7. Avatar
    toddfrederick  March 28, 2013

    I am having a discussion as I write with a gentleman who is in a Baptist Bible college in Tennessee simply about the issue of the inerrant nature of the Bible. We’re not past that yet. He simply can not see the variations and the contradictions even when I write them out for him. I have a Facebook ministry to discuss such things but if I can’t get passed this, there is no way we can ever have a meaningful discussion.

    I say this because I think the same is true of visions, whether those of the disciples seeing and touching the risen Jesus, or of Paul’s visions of the resurrected Christ, or of any visions including those of Mary or other characters in history.

    In my opinion, these are barriers that can not be broken down, and any intelligent discussion is impossible.

    I do not disbelieve in the supernatural…the infinite breaking into finite history…but I can not say that any person’s vision is true or just a psychotic hallucination. All we can ever say is that so and so had a vision…nothing more.

    Interesting post.

  8. Avatar
    haoleboy26  March 28, 2013

    I’ve been enjoying this entire series of posts, but I really appreciated today’s post. I went to Amazon.com and was able to read several pages from one of Fr. Laurentin’s books entitled “The Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary Today.” It is obvious that Laurentin is biased in favor of the topic. But it is also obvious that there is at least as much documentation for several apparitions occurring in relatively modern times as there is for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Yet proponents of the historicity of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances like William Lane Craig and Mike Licona don’t champion the historicity of Marian apparitions. I’ve enjoyed watching the YouTube videos of your debates with both of these gentlemen, as well as Dale Martin’s recent debate with Mike Licona on the topic at the 2012 Religion Soup debates. And since I’m mentioning both Dale Martin and YouTube videos, I really enjoyed watching your series of Schaffer lectures. Thanks.

  9. Avatar
    timber84  March 28, 2013

    Does the Coptic church have a similar view of Mary like the Catholic church? Have you looked at any of the photographs Laurentin says he has?

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    Dennis  March 28, 2013

    Have you decided on including/lending scientific research or historical references to these examples?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2013

      I don’t think so, since my interest is not in what “really” happens when people have visions, but on the fact that people genuinely think they have seen things when they have visions. Of course, sometimes they do. (when you see someone in your bedroom at night, sometimes it’s because there is someone in your bedroom at night!)

  11. talitakum
    talitakum  March 28, 2013

    “Do such miracles happen? Believers say yes, unbelievers say no”. In fact a miracle presupposes God at work, therefore only a believer can interpret some events as miracles while unbelievers will either deny them or search for different kind of explanations..
    “it is striking and worth noting that typically believers in one religious tradition often insist on the “evidence” for the miracles that support their views, and completely discount the “evidence” for the miracles attested in some other religious tradition”
    It is correct for believers to say that miracles support (or confirm) their faith, because only if there is God there can be miracles.. This is true for all religions. However, it is important for believers to understand what specific miracles mean in their context: in general they are signs to confirm that God is at work, and then anyone can interpret them according to his sensibility (and his belief !).
    So, your provocative approach to “religious intolerance” based on a particular interpretation of miracles, honestly seems to me a bit superficial: you may want to make clear in your book that miracles “happened” well before Christ also in classic world, and explain that Church fathers already wrote on this subject hundreds years ago, without denying such “foreign miracles” and still keeping their orthodox Christian view (e.g. Tertullian, “Against Marcion”, III,3; ) by putting Jesus’ miracles in context with OT prophecies. In this way your provocation would still be valid, but at least you would educate some of your readers to a more mature historical approach to such theological problem 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 28, 2013

    I hope you’re open to the possibility that in some cases (for example, where an apparition has been photographed), human minds *may* – possibly without realizing it – have created “thought-forms” that have a certain degree of reality. I think Buddhists call them “tulpas.” As I understand it, these thought-forms may possess a rudimentary intelligence – be able to speak. They may even be dangerous. I think that if they exist, they properly exist in another dimensional realm where matter can be shaped by ideas. But they may drift into our dimension.

    BTW, I have to say this. My understanding (perhaps incorrect) has been that “secular humanists” flatly *deny the possibility* of *any* of the phenomema that can be described as “paranormal.” Am I right about that? And is that your position?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2013

      I don’t really know about secular humanists in general; I suppose they are a varied lot. But off hand I don’t know any who think paranormal events are actually caused by something that enters into the natural realm from outside.

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  March 29, 2013

        James Randi investigates all sorts of paranormal claims or “abilities” scientifically and offers 1,000,000 if they can be proven scientifically. Very interesting. But nobody yet has been able to prove anyone has supernatural abilities or supernatural realities exist. http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge.html

    • Avatar
      Ron  March 29, 2013

      These “thought-forms” ( I prefer to use the term “projections”, which applies to the unconscious mechanism by which they’re created) do have a subtle form with intelligence, motive, etc., and may appear in waking or dream states. They may be feminine, masculine or androgynous, and they may be good, evil or a mixture. There are literally thousands of these entities who have interactions with us. Rarely, do most of us know who they are, what they’re up to, or how to interpret their words. Some are here to instruct and benefit us, some are there for recompense, some are here and there to throw us off track, and so on. Sometimes, they get very personal with us and even contribute to blogs.

      As to how they “drift into our dimension,” I would say to really understand this requires a study of our Cosmos, all the objects in it, especially the most important ones, starting with the Sun, the giver of Life, then the classical Planets, the asteroids, the Centaurs, TNOs, SDOs, comets, fixed stars, black holes, etc. This is more a study of how they interact with us, and it requires obviously more time, effort and persistence than most people would spend. So, it’s really not a question of believing or denying their existence. One can start by clicking here (http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi#top) for the JPL Small-Body Database Browser to find their existence. How we come to validate these objects and to associate them with sentient beings, however, depends on what the study reveals. Most important of all – we are composite beings made at birth in the image of the Cosmos, of the Lord and His hosts, and that kingdom is inside of us all – Pharisees included.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 28, 2013

    John Loftus describes this as “The Outsider Test for Faith.”

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    wisemenwatch  March 28, 2013

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,
    I think these examples of mass vision sound like mass hysteria to me. I have read articles on this phenomena, they are out there for those interested in the mass hysteria that goes on during revivals such as those of Todd Bentley. Geraldo did a newstory on him, and not one person listed as having received a healing could be documented. One person listed as healed was a person that was an acquaintance of a relative of mine, and he had actually died.

    I’ve had phosphene visions myself during trance posturing. Trance posturing is a technique based on the postures found in ancient figurines found in Egypt, India, ancient America, etc, The postures resemble yoga postures. Usually a suggestion is made on what to expect to see, or a thought is concentrated. It is a form of hynosis and was developed by Dr. Felicitas Goodman in her book, Ecstatic Trance Posturing


    Visions are easily induced under other circumstances, too; lack of food (fasting in prayer) and total lack of light being two things that will induce visions. These methods are achievable totally without any hallucinatory drug, but that would be another method also.

    I think early childhood indoctrination, in combination with phosphene-type visions is the most probable explanation for visions of Mary and Jesus.


  15. Avatar
    Alfred  March 30, 2013

    Bart I don’t know if apparitions are widely accepted in Islam, but Mary is much revered. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Quran, and is mentioned more often than in the New Testament. I was raised as a Catholic and the practice of prayer to Mary asking her to intercede on our behalf is such that believers are very ready to accept the possibility of her appearance. After all, they speak to her sometimes many times a day, and accept her ubiquitous presence. It seems odd, though, that she appears only to believers. Jesus sent his followers out to speak to non-believers, and Mary’s messages always involve conversion. If real, is it not more likely that she would, say, appear to you and sort out some of your views on scripture and provide with a few corrections demonstrating her reality? That would seem likely to have more impact than the indistinct statements she is reported to have made. Kim Jong Un could do with a visit also, I think. I enjoy your books, and am looking forward to your latest.

  16. Avatar
    Pofarmer  March 30, 2013

    Was having a discussion with my wife a couple days ago, who, unfortnately, is a very strong beleive r in the Marian apparitions. She has gone to a few “marian conferences” put on by the Catholics. There, they are feeding them stuff about “eucharistic miracles” as we were talking about transubstantiation, and she brought up the one at Lanciano Italy, without remembering it by name. There seems to he no end to the hoaxes that the “one true church” will peddle. She even realizes that the bible contradicts herself, and realizes that certain churches take certain tacks on certain passages, hut can’t being herself to think about the implications of just why these contradicting passages exist. Interesting times in my household. I wouldn’t call myself an atheist at this point, but, I am certainly coming around to the Deist viewpoint.

  17. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  March 31, 2013

    By the way, how comes only Catholics and Orthodox have ‘visions’ of Mary but not the Evangelical? Theological bias much? 😉

  18. Avatar
    Pofarmer  March 31, 2013

    Ya know, one other thing. The catholic church gets info the accension of Mary because we don’t have ber bones. It actually makes more sense to not have her bones if a) she simply wasn’t that important to the early church or b) she never existed.

  19. Avatar
    natashka  April 1, 2013

    I was reading about that 1917 “sun spinning miracle” last year and afterwards, dug up a local newspaper story written days after it purportedly happened. The reporter was quite skeptical and interviewed many people in the group that day who saw nothing. And I recall there was major discrepancy about the 50,000 witnesses number (perhaps…just like the number of people who “saw” Jesus after he died?)

    But, just as you say…in the same way many believers don’t embrace a miracle of another religion, I find that if presented with evidence that might prove their own miracle false, they don’t want to hear it.

    For example, there is a “Eucharist miracle” currently all over the internet that occurred at a church in Poland a few years ago: A bit of “the host” fell in a tub of water and was retrieved weeks later…and…it had turned into human flesh (!). It was reportedly taken to research scientists at the local University who studied it under a microscope and confirmed it was human heart tissue, DNA and all.
    Since then, this one-inch square has become a shrine and hundreds of people go per day to pray in front of it, hauling their sick loved ones with them.
    I could not help myself.
    It only took an hour to find emails for the doctors in question. I emailed them in Poland and one emailed back to say that the stories out there about their data were NOT accurate. She said she was not allowed to elaborate, but had been instructed to forward me to the publicist at a diocese in Warsaw.
    I’m still investigating….but here’s the point: When I described the doctor’s response and questioned the veracity of the miracle on a site that promoted it, my info was shot down and my post–deleted.

    Don’t people care if what they believe is true or not?

  20. Avatar
    Pofarmer  April 2, 2013

    “Don’t people care if what they believe is true or not?”

    The case with the Catholics I deal with is largely, no.

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