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What Really Happens With Group Visions

Several people on the blog have pushed back on my claim that group hallucinations (what I’ve called non-veridical visions) can occur.  Psychologically, is that really possible?  How is it actually possible that a group of, say, twelve people could have the same mental breakdown leading them to see exactly the same thing at the same time?

First, some people have objected to my term “vision” since psychologists don’t use that term.  They talk instead about “hallucinations.”   OK, I’ll concede the point.  Religious studies scholars, though, use the term visions, since visionary experiences are very much a part of what it is scholars of religion study (visionaries are stock and trade of the religious studies scholar), and when it comes to the study of the Bible – my own field of expertise – it is common to talk about visions of heaven, or visions of God, or … visions of Jesus after his death.  No one talks about the hallucinations of Jesus, since that prejudices the issue of whether Jesus really appeared to people or if they were just having a strange brain phenomenon.

But could multiple people have the same vision all at once?  Can the very same internal mental activity caused by the firing of certain neurons (or however it happens) occur independently in numerous people all at the same time?  OK, in case anyone hasn’t figured it out, no, of course I don’t think that’s possible.  Then why do I keep saying that group visions are possible?  I’ve actually tried to word what I’ve wanted to say carefully, even though I’m sure someone can go back and find places where I haven’t been careful.  What I usually try to say  are thing such as the following (I’m lifting these quotations from my earlier blog post):

That something led people to think they saw Jesus when in fact they were seeing something else

How is it people thought they saw Jesus alive again after his death if in fact Jesus did not really appear to them?

That’s actually what I mean.  Groups of people do indeed claim to have had visions of Jesus and probably actually think they saw Jesus.  I’m calling that a group vision.  But I do not think personally that they saw Jesus.  You can call those hallucinations.  But I think it’s even a bit more nuanced than that, since I don’t think everyone had the same vision all at once.

What I think is this: groups of people often *claim* to have seen the same thing at once, even though none of them actually saw that thing.  I’ll explain how it works by giving a psychological study in which – in a realm outside of religion – this kind of thing happens.  I’ve taken the example from my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

On October 4, 1992, an El Al Boeing 707 that had just taken off from Schipfol Airport in Amsterdam lost power in two engines.  The pilot tried to return to the airport but couldn’t make it.  The plane crashed into an eleven-story apartment building in the Amsterdam suburb of Bijlmermeer.   The four crew members and thirty-nine people in the building were killed.   The crash was, understandably, the leading news story in the Netherlands for days.

Ten months later, in August 1993, Dutch psychology professor Hans Crombag and two colleagues gave a survey to 193 university professors, staff, and students in the country.  Among the questions was the following:  “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?”    In their responses 107 of those surveyed (55%) said Yes, they had seen the film.   Sometime later the researchers gave a similar survey with the same question to 93 law school students.  In this instance, 62 (66%) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film.   There was just one problem.  There was no film.

These striking results obviously puzzled the researchers, in part because basic common sense should have told anyone that there could not have been a film.   Remember, this is 1992, before cell phone cameras.   The only way to have a film of the event would have been for a television camera crew to have trained a camera on this particular apartment building in a suburb of Amsterdam at this exact time, in expectation of an imminent crash.   And yet, between half and two-thirds of the people surveyed – most of them graduate students and professors – indicated they had seen the non-existent film.    Why would they think they had seen something that didn’t exist?

Even more puzzling were the detailed answers that some of those interviewed said about what they actually saw on the film, for example, whether the plane crashed into the building horizontally or at vertical and whether the fire caused by the plane started at impact or only later.   None of that information could have been known from a film, because there was no film.  So why did these people remember, not only seeing the crash but also details about how it happened and what happened immediately afterward?

Obviously they were imagining it, based on logical inferences (the fire must have started right away) and on what they had been told by others (the plane crashed into the building as it was heading straight down).  The psychologists argued that these people’s imaginations became so vivid, and were repeated so many times, that they eventually did not realize they were imagining something.  They thought they were remembering it.  They really thought that.   In fact they did remember it.  But it was a false memory.   Not just a false memory one of them had.   A false memory most of them had.

The researchers concluded:  “It is difficult for us to distinguish between what we have actually witnessed, and what common sense inference tells us that must also have been the case.”   In fact, commonsense inference, along with information we get by hearsay from others, together “conspire in distorting an eyewitness’s memory.”   Indeed “this is particularly easy when, as in our studies, the event is of a highly dramatic nature, which almost by necessity evokes strong and detailed visual imagery.”

This was a memory of a large group of people who all remember seeing the same thing (or nearly the same thing) at the same time, even though none of them saw it.  If you don’t want to call that a group vision, that’s absolutely fine with me.  What I’m saying is that a group of people thought they saw something they didn’t see.  (The difference in this example, of course, is that the people in this study were not all standing together at the time when they had the vision – but we have records of that sort of thing happening as well.)

As I said in my earlier post, I don’t actually think groups of people all at one and the same time saw Jesus after his death, any more than I think groups of people actually see the Blessed Virgin Mary at one time today.  What I think does happen is that someone has a vision (non-veridical – that is, a hallucination or, as one reader of the blog has suggested, possibly an illusion).   He tells someone else who tells someone else (e.g., someone else who was there at the time) who tells someone else, and soon they all remember seeing it.  Only one of them saw it.  But the entire group remembers seeing it.  Vividly remembers it.

The thing about false memories is that they are just as firmly implanted in our brains as real memories – sometimes even more firmly implanted.  There is no way to differentiate between true and false memories.  Our brains can’t do it.  Once you remember seeing Mary, you really remember it.  When numerous individuals report having seen her at the time, even if they didn’t see her, that’s what I mean by a group vision.   In their heads, that’s what they all saw.

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A Final Word (I Think!) on Group Visions
Pastor Goranson, the Son of God, and I: A Blast From the Past

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  March 16, 2017

    In his book “Consciousness Explained” the philosopher Daniel Dennet put forth his so-called “Multiple Drafts” model of consciousness. What the model basically says is that by the time we become “conscious” or aware of what it is we are experiencing, it has already gone through “multiple drafts,” where each revision is our mind’s attempt at separating salient features from noise. We can compare this, somewhat, to how a paleontologist separates a fossil from its matrix. The fossil is what concerns the paleontologist, so she chips away at the surrounding sediment until the fossil becomes clear and distinct. Our mind does the same thing. We are continually deluged with sensations, both external and internal (including memories), and our brain desparately tries to sift the important input (e.g. a tiger is charging at you) from the unimportant input (e.g. your left index finger is itchy). Sometimes (oftentimes?) as our mind is finding the signal in the noise, it has a tendency to reconstruct sensations in such a way as to create an inaccurate picture of what we are experiencing (i.e. hallucinations, illusions, etc.) or what we have experienced (i.e. false memories, delusions, etc.). In other words, our actual conscious mind can be contaminated, so-to-speak, but false signals, creating a false picture of reality. (Think of it like the paleontologist uncovering the wrong “fossil” from the matrix.) It’s this imperfect process — a result of our ad hoc biology and evolution — that results in such misperceptions, misrememberings, misconceptions, etc.

  2. jhague  March 16, 2017

    Would you say that Paul is in this category? He did not see what he thought he saw (risen Christ) but because he knew that other people had said that they had seen Jesus risen, then his brain convinced him that he had seen it too?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Yes, that’s my personal opinion.

      • mbetanzos  March 16, 2017

        Any personal opinions about how Paul (a persecutor at the time) could have had his visionary experience – relative to Jesus’ followers, who may have had a tendency to have such a visionary experience since they must have been grief-stricken?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 17, 2017

          I just don’t think we can know enough to provide a plausible psychological explanation.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  March 17, 2017

          I think there are clues within the NT as to what happened to Paul. I should stress that this is just my hypothesis, because, clearly, there isn’t enough conclusive evidence.

          -Paul says that he was a “zealous” member of the Jewish community (Gal. 1:14). To me that suggests that Paul was already a follower of some extreme form of Judaism. At one point the author of Acts has Paul claim that he “studied under Gamaliel,” (Acts 22:3) who was a Pharisaic leader in Jerusalem. If this is true, that would link Paul to the Pharisees, which would, indeed, support the assumption that Paul was an “extreme” Jew.

          -Paul was a “persecutor” of the early Christians (Gal. 1:13; Acts 8:3; 9:1-2) If Paul was, in fact, a Pharisee at the time, this suggests that the Pharisaic leaders somehow saw the early Christian movement as enough of a threat to “persecute” it.

          -Now, here’s the thing. The major difference between the Pharisees and the first Christians is this: The Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah; the Pharisees did not. Pretty much every other belief each group had was common between the two. Both the Pharisees and the Christians believed in the “World-to-come” (‘Olam ha-Ba; or the Kingdom-to-come, in the case of Christians), with a Day of Judgment, a coming Messiah, the mass resurrection of the dead, the restoration of Israel and the twelve tribes, the salvation of the “the Righteous” (ha-Tzaddiqim) and the damnation of “the Wicked” (ha-Rasha’im), the transformation of the land of Israel into a paradise for the saved (where every tree will have a thousand branches with a thousand pieces of fruit), the hegenomy of the restored Israel over all “the Nations” (ha-Goyyim), and so on and so forth. The ONLY belief they appeared to NOT share is the belief that the Messiah already came in the guise of Jesus, who was executed for Israel’s sins.

          -So, if we connect all the dots, we can somewhat reconstruct Paul’s conversion. Paul starts out as a pharisaic student sympathetic to most of the beliefs of the Christians, save for their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. But as Paul is persecuting the Christians, he is repeatedly exposed to their ideas about Jesus. Then Paul has his episode on the road to Damascus (which, in my personal opinion, was the result of Paul’s combination of fasting and being exposed to the elements during the long journey), where he experiences “visions” and such. Paul is taken to the Christians in Damascus, where he is cared for until he gets his senses back. In the meantime, Paul is getting more and more exposed to Christian ideas, until he becomes convinced that his episode on the road was a vision from the risen Jesus (We get a somewhat fanciful recounting of this in Acts 9:10-22). So, essentially, the only major belief Paul had to switch was about the nature of Jesus, and that’s it. He already had all the other requisite beliefs for a Christian. In that sense, Paul’s conversion wasn’t as dramatic a 180 degree turn as most people seem to think. He simply went from believing “Jesus wasn’t the Messiah” to “Jesus must have been the Messiah”, and that’s it.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 19, 2017

            I don’t think being a “zealous” member of the Jewish community (Gal. 1:14) “suggests that Paul was already a follower of some extreme form of Judaism.” A rabbi once told me that he saw Paul’s personality as one that lent itself to being zealous about whatever cause he might take up: first he was a zealous persecutor and then he was a zealous Apostle of the Gospel.

            On another point, why do you say that being a Pharisee would indicate that one was an “extreme” Jew? I’ve long thought of the Qumran community as extreme but never the Pharisees.

          • dragonfly  March 19, 2017

            I have come to pretty much the same conclusion, with one slight difference. Before his conversion, Paul would have been hung up on following the law to the letter, like a Pharisee. Obviously he changed this after his conversion. The funny thing is he was then arguing against other Christians who thought following the law was necessary, exactly what he would have believed before his conversion.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 16, 2017

        I’m not sure that this fits in. Most people SAY they see the Sun move across the sky even though they KNOW that it’s an illusion. They say “The Sun’s coming up” and “The Sun’s going down. “But it’s not an illusion in the sense that the Sun isn’t really there or in the sense that it really does not appear low on one horizon, then high overhead, then low on the opposite horizon. We really do experience it in all those places. The experience would the same whether the Sun really did move across the sky or whether the Earth was rotating. What the intellect knows, in this case, does not cancel out what we all experience.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 16, 2017

      Paul’s desciption of his “vision” of Jesus is symptomatic of a concussion or a similar case of brain trauma. In fact, when Paul talks about the “scales” on his eyes, that sounds exactly like the “bright light” one sees in cases of head trauma. For instance, when I was a child, I was hit in the head by a fly softball. The only thing I remember is standing there talking to friends and then suddenly waking up on the ground with people around me asking if I was okay. I also remember going to the hospital to get my head examined. Not long afterward (days or weeks?), I was walking back from recess at school when my vision went out — but not to black. All I saw was bright white, like someone was shining a spotlight in my face. I fumbled around for a minute, as other children laughed. I didn’t find it so amusing; I was scared out of my wits.

      Now, as an educated adult, I can look back and, remembering that I was hit in the head just behind my left ear, I can understand that I was hit near my left visual cortex — a location on the brain that, were it concussed, could typically induce such an episode. But at the time, I was an ignorant child, who did not understand what was happening to me and why. I can imagine that a man like Paul, who knew nothing about modern neurology, likewise would have reacted like I did as a child — confused, reaching out for answers, being ridiculed by people who couldn’t relate. I can imagine that if I were Paul, I’d want answers, too. Fortunately for me, being a highly educated person from the 20th century, I had the right answers. Unfortunately for Paul, being an ignorant person from the 1st century, he had only the wrong answers.

      • Wilusa  March 17, 2017

        “Unfortunately for Paul, being an ignorant person from the 1st century, he had only the wrong answers.”

        Well, it may not have been “unfortunate” for him personally, because he probably believed the experience had enriched his life, and he never regretted it, even if he wound up dying a martyr.

        It may, however, have been “unfortunate” for the many other people who accepted his beliefs!

      • turbopro  March 17, 2017

        So, “did you hold on to the ball?”

        Sorry, that was just too tempting.

    • godspell  March 17, 2017

      Paul’s case is different, because he reportedly had a personal revelation that no one else experienced–he never claimed to have seen Jesus, he claimed to have heard a voice on the road to Damascus, berating him for persecuting the followers of Jesus.

      He is not saying “I personally was there when Jesus revealed himself to hundreds of people right after he was crucified.” In that case, he’s merely reporting what he’s been told by others, which he believes happened, but which he did not experience himself. And given that he’s asking people to believe that he had this personal vision that no one else had, he’s not going to question whether all those people in fact saw Jesus, and he’s going to be as unspecific as possible, because probably people are still arguing about who saw what when. Basically, they were probably arguing about that for as long as most of the original Christians were alive. It was only after pretty much all of them were gone that they could work out an official story, and they decided that it did not make sense that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people at once, but it was too late to edit Paul.

      Obviously his own vision was influenced by the visions he heard about, but it was also qualitatively different. He did not claim that Jesus appeared to him in the flesh, in a form that could be recognized by someone who knew him personally. Because best as we know, he never met Jesus, probably never saw him. Paul believed Jesus had walked the earth as a man, but it wasn’t the human Jesus he was really interested in.

    • doug  March 17, 2017

      Perhaps when one interpreted an experience (such as having a feeling, daydream, hallucination, seeing someone who looked like Jesus) as “seeing” the risen Jesus, it may have been influenced by what they wished or expected to happen. Emotional needs can be very persuasive.

  3. flshrP  March 16, 2017

    Research efforts, like the Amsterdam plane crash group hallucination study, number in the hundreds in the scientific literature. Which makes the phenomenon of group hallucination so well established that continued doubt about the existence of these phenomena borders on the perverse.

    • Gary  March 16, 2017

      It was not a group hallucination. They were individual false memories.

  4. godspell  March 16, 2017

    Memories fade over time. Imagination never does. Particularly imagination based on memory.

  5. RonaldTaska  March 16, 2017

    Since I never encountered any reports of shared/group hallucinations during four decades of psychiatric practice, I was one of those scratching my head, but you have explained it very well, as you usually do, and clearly there are groups of people who are convinced that they have seen the Virgin Mary. Good post. Thanks.

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  March 16, 2017

    I’ve been to a couple Charismatic services in my life, and the pastor could really work people up. I could imagine a situation where a leader gets everyone into a trance like state and says he’s seeing Jesus, and over time asks “can’t you see him too? After a few minutes of this prodding everyone starts agreeing they are seeing Jesus, genuinely, they really believe it. And the leader is also genuine. They are all in the same room, at the same time. Then the rest of their lives they tell others they saw Jesus and so did everyone else in the room, at the same time. That is how I imagine early group visions took place, and still do today.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2017

      Yup!

    • godspell  March 17, 2017

      My father’s brother was a priest. When he died, very suddenly, in an accident, somebody at the wake who ahd known him claimed to have had a vision of him in the arms of the Virgin (you know, Jesus’ mom, this is how Catholics talk). My dad was very distraught at having lost his brother this way, and accepted this vision as the truth. He was a very well-educated and mainly quite skeptical man in most things, but the vision comforted him. He believed it, or at least claimed to.

      People with little or no religion can have visions too. It’s just part of how our minds work. Much as I think we need to understand the difference between the real and unreal, we also need to know that sometimes the unreal has its own truths to impart.

    • Kirktrumb59  March 17, 2017

      See “The Gymnast,” Seinfeld season 6 for another example.

  7. Todd  March 16, 2017

    I am reading your discussion of visions with great interest. As a result, I ordered and received your book “Jesus Before The Gospels” to learn more about visions. I look forward to reading this book.

    Question…….

    A few days ago, I wrote a comment here about visions with regard to Paul’s vision of the “risen Christ” and how that vision converted him to a follower of Jesus.

    I mentioned that I think there are 3 possibilities 1. He was lying, 2. He was mentally ill or 3. He actually had a genuine external vision of the risen Christ who spoke to him.

    You said you thought “Paul actually had a vision.”

    Now then, today you indicate that a vision is an hallucination. To me an hallucination is a form of mental “illness” in the sense of “illness” meaning that our mind is playing tricks on us…not think clearly. In that sense his vision does NOT mean that the actual physical/spiritual Jesus was there in front of Paul, external from Paul’s mind, not playing tricks in his mind, that Paul was just thinking with his mind that he saw the great light and a heard Jesus speak with his voice….but rather it was Paul’s mind was playing trucks on him from within without any external stimulus. That is what I mean by mental illness or aberration.

    That is: ***did Paul, in your opinion, actually saw Jesus (or a great light) and actually heard his voice in a normal human way of hearing…or was his vision an hallucination created within his mind alone with no external stimulus.***

    What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2017

      I don’t think Paul was mentally ill. Perfectly healthy people have hallucinations all the time. One out of eight of us will “see” a recently deceased loved one — be able to talk with them, touch them, and everything. It doesn’t make us mentally ill! It just is something that happens in the brain, even to healthy people.

      • Todd  March 17, 2017

        Fair enough. Perhaps mental illness is a harsh term for this kind of event. Something produced the visions…with Paul and with those who say the saw and touched Jesus after his death. I am simply trying to get a handle on whether or not there is any evidence that these visions were externally or internally generated with the viewer of the vision. If the reports in the NT are serious reportings of witnessed events rather than here say over many years of oral reports, then we could say that something unexplained happened…an external stimulus that produced the visions. I doubt that there is enough evidence in the texts to determine that one way or another. Thank you for your discussion on this.

      • Gary  March 17, 2017

        Sorry, I have to be so disagreeable, but as a physician I can tell you that perfectly healthy people do not have hallucinations “all the time”. Perfectly healthy people hallucinate only under very extreme conditions such as severe sleep deprivation, severe grief states, severe alcohol or drug intoxication, and very high fevers, to name the most common. How often to any of us experience these states? Answer: Not often.

        Most healthy people do not “see” dead people. To claim to have seen a dead person as Paul did, several years after the death of the person, and to not be a friend or relative of the deceased, would raise serious red flags to me as a physician. I highly suspect that Paul had mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder with occasional delusions during manic phases, accompanied with hallucinations. His Damascus Road vision was not his only visionary experience per his own statements. I can’t prove it, but for a non-friend, non-relative to have a “grief-hallucination” years after the death of the deceased is very, very, very odd.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2017

          I agree, a healthy individual doesn’t have hallucinations all the time. But hallucinations do happen all the time. One out of eight of us will hallucinate a deceased loved one. For anyone interested in further reading, if you don’t want to read the scientific literature, I’d recommend Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations.

  8. Gary  March 16, 2017

    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 vision”. 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. Would it be correct for a physician today to describe someone whose body is seizing as being ” demon possessed” just because the ancients used this term? Of course not. I strongly encourage you to stop using the term “vision” except when repeating what someone else, either in the past or in the present, has used to describe his or her religious experience. No one in the Dutch airplane crash referred to their experience as a “vision”, for instance. It is inaccurate, therefore, for you to describe anyone’s experience of this event as such. Their experience was a “false memory”.

    We skeptics look to you as a leader. It is important for you to keep your information accurate and to use proper terminology.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2017

      Thanks for the feedback. Yes, my point about the Netherlands crash is that groups of people claim to see things they did not see. It certainly was a false memory. On the broader point, see today’s post.

    • Tony  March 19, 2017

      I think that both you and Garth have very benign points of view of Paul and his visions.

      Has it occurred to you that Paul could have been a con man who decided to take advantage of a gullible group he persecuted? That his “visions”, or whatever, served him to get inside the followers of the Church of God and milk them? The pay-off? Status, control, free room and board, and money.

      Yes money, note Paul’s collection for the poor Saints in Jerusalem. We have no idea what happened to that money.

      I know that is a cynical perspective, but then again – I have no connection to Christianity and can look at the possibilities with more scepticism as compared to those who do.

  9. davitako  March 16, 2017

    This was really interesting to read. I agree, Bart that one way several people can remember an analogous thing is through false memories.

    However, I can easily imagine a scenario where a group of people see “the same” thing at the same time. When we have people with brains predisposed to certain types of phenomena, they automatically become “vulnerable” in some sense (even the intelligent ones) and more likely to envision it.

    If we place these people in a hypothetically emotional state (e.g. distress) and one of the group members (maybe an influential one) sees something afar, starts screaming “Ah, look, this is him! This is him!!”, this might immediately affects imagination of the rest and they will see it “the same way” as the first one. Whereas in reality, none of them actually saw exactly like the other.

    This is a lot like scared children who see figures and shapes at night in their room very much according to how “monsters” were described to them before.

  10. Gary  March 16, 2017

    “Groups of people do indeed claim to have had visions of Jesus and probably actually think they saw Jesus. I’m calling that a group vision.”

    Nowhere in the New Testament does it state that a group of people claimed to have a “vision” of Jesus. Instead, there are multiple claims of Jesus “appearing” to groups of people. Conservative Christians believe that these appearances were real events (historical reality) involving the presence of a living, flesh and blood, reanimated, previously dead corpse. The question is: How do we skeptics explain these group claims? To assert that these experiences were “group visions or hallucinations” is to create confusion as medical experts agree that groups cannot “see” the same non-visible event.

    I again assert that there are only these possibilities: belief based on a delusion (belief that contradicts the overwhelming evidence available to the person or persons); belief based on misperceptions of reality (illusions); belief based on dreams; belief based on hallucinations. Hopefully even Dr. Ehrman now agrees that no two people can share the same dream or hallucination. Therefore, either the groups described in the Bible accepted a story that they knew contradicted the evidence (a delusion). Or, the groups saw something that they all misperceived as Jesus (an illusion), or one person had a dream or hallucination and then convinced everyone else of the reality of his or her dream or hallucination.

    However, there is one more possibility, especially for the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels: They never happened. They are literary/theological inventions. I believe that the group appearances in the Early Creed are closer to the historical truth as these claims do not involve any details or physical descriptions. It is therefore entirely possible that all the appearances in the Early Creed were based on individuals and groups seeing the same thing that the author of the Books of Acts says that Paul saw on the Damascus Road: a bright light. And that’s all.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2017

      The term “vision” comes from the Latin

        videre

      and simply means “something that is seen.” It is the term scholars of religion use to what you’re describing in modern psychological terms. But it is also the Latin equivalent of what the Greek actually says about what the followers of Jesus experienced. In the Vulgate of 1 Cor. 15:5-8, e.g., “et quia visus est Cephae … deinde visus est…deinde visus est” etc. Visus, of course is where we get “vision” from. So, yes, in my judgment there are reports of people having “visions” of Jesus.

      • Gary  March 17, 2017

        That’s what I get for stepping out of MY field of expertise. Thank you for the correction.

  11. madmargie  March 16, 2017

    I always recall the McMartin Day Care scandal. These day care workers were convicted of numerous things….from molesting children to witchcraft. Later…much later…. after the staff had spent prison time, some of the children who claimed this, revealed the truth. It never happened. Do you recall that incident?

    • madmargie  March 16, 2017

      Actually the charges were finally dropped and no one went to prison. I mis-remembered. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2017

      There was a slew of these things — it is one of the things that got psychologists especially intrigued by the possibilities of false memories.

  12. TWood
    TWood  March 16, 2017

    This can make sense for the 500 in 1 Cor 15, and possibly even Paul as you say (although I think there are better options for Paul). But “commonsense inference” doesn’t seem to fit the very first “visions” of Jesus that Peter and/or Mary had. Since the evidence suggests Jesus’ quick resurrection was the opposite of common sense, what would cause these first disciples to infer such a belief. They were not expecting or even focused on such an event happening. I guess my question is, how do you best explain the very first “visions” or “hallucinations” that the very first disciples had? I’m not trying to be evangelistic or anything like that. I really want to know how you explain those earliest visions, because they seem to have happened within a different context than the later “group visions” when “commonsense inferences” makes sense. I’m after what caused the earliest visions before “commonsense inferences” makes sense.

    • Gary  March 17, 2017

      If Jesus was predicting he would rise from the dead, as is stated in all four Gospels, then the material for someone to hallucinate or dream Jesus’ resurrection was present in the culture and is easily explainable. If Jesus was not predicting that he would rise from the dead, it makes the resurrection hallucination scenario more difficult, but, since some first century Jews did believe in a resurrection of the physical body, it is still conceivable that someone could dream or hallucinate one person being resurrected as the “first fruits” of the general resurrection of all the righteous, so Jesus’ resurrection would not have been viewed as an “individual resurrection”—all the other righteous dead would soon be resurrected.

      If Paul’s account of the reception of the Gospel by the Jews in Asia Minor is true, some Jews found the resurrection of Jesus story believable simply by reading the Jewish Scriptures, so it wasn’t as if the Christian Resurrection Story was a concept from “out of the blue”; that no one would have thought of (or dreamed of, or hallucinated).

  13. madmargie  March 16, 2017

    Except for Ray Buckley…he spent five years in jail and was never convicted of anything. That’s a case of all sorts of false memories.

  14. Eric  March 16, 2017

    I think you could lean further on the other reader’s suggestion of “illusion”. Undoubtedly the phenomenon you describe would be a major factor in memories of common “visions”, but also groups of people can experience the same interpretation of an “illusion”, ESPECIALLY, one would think if they we looking for it.

    Remember the relatively recently blue-and-black dress or gold-and-white dress controversy. Many people, sometimes in groups, “saw” the same thing that wasn’t actually so (and in most of those cases, they had no a priori expectation).

    “Hey, what is that weird light coming through that alley?”

    “It looks supernatural”

    “You mean, like Jesus?”

    “You’re right, that does look like Jesus coming to see us”

  15. Tony  March 16, 2017

    In 1 Cor 15 Paul, like other mystery religions, uses the Greek word “ophthe” to describe the reported visions. Modern translations use “appeared”, but older translations such as the KJV use “seen” as the English equivalent.

    In my opinion, the KJV is closer to the mark. Visionary seeing would be a closer term, but that is a mouthful. The point is that for Paul and his first century readers the term ophthe would have been perfectly clear – it meant vision.

    Visions were highly regarded and respected in that time, but people were not stupid. Paul in 2 Cor 13:3 had to defend himself to accusations that he was faking it and apparently was asked to provide proof that Christ was indeed speaking to him. Paul responds by threatening his accusers using Christ himself – and he will pray for them…

    My problem is that many contemporary Christians will read the Gospels into 1 Cor 15 and mistakenly conclude that the “appearances” refer to a life resurrected Jesus.

  16. UCCLMrh  March 16, 2017

    All this discussion seems like a desperate attempt to force the Bible into the shape of a modern historical account of a series of events that actually happened in some way. I grew up in an evangelical church, and all this is really familiar. I remember endless discussions of how Moses could have crossed the Red Sea aided by strong winds and such. And “explanations” of burning bushes and fires that didn’t burn people and on and on. But really, why bother? That’s simply not the nature of the Bible. Contriving an “explanation” that shows how the Bible could be “true” isn’t useful. I’m surprised, based on the life story you’ve told, that you are caught up in this discussion at all. It seems like a waste of time.

  17. BrianUlrich  March 16, 2017

    I’ve often wondered: When you describe what happened in a traffic accident to an insurance company, do you feel the need to begin with a preface about the fallibility of human memory?

    • Hormiga  March 17, 2017

      > do you feel the need to begin with a preface about the fallibility of human memory?

      Yes I do, but generally restrain myself as required by the circumstances. Same as when being sworn in as a witness: “Truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth”? Well, no, that’s beyond my ability for reasons being discussed here. But I say “I do” meaning “I’ll do my fallible best.”

  18. Lev
    Lev  March 17, 2017

    Hey Bart,

    This is my first comment on your fab blog – thanks for keeping this going and engaging with your readers.

    In Luke 24 and John 20 & 21, the gospel authors seem to emphasise Jesus and his disciples exchanging pieces of food and Jesus eating. In the same chapters (along with Matt 28) they also claim his disciples touched the body of the risen Jesus. On the face of it, this seems to be a defence against the vision / ghost hypothesis that sceptics no doubt raised at the time.

    If you accept the earliest Christians believed they had visions of the risen Jesus would you also accept they believed they witnessed him eating and touched his body?

    Many thanks and warm regards from Brighton, England.

    Lev

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2017

      Yes, I think it is just such a defense. And no, I don’t think there’s any evidence that anyone of the disciples actually remembered this happening; it is a later legend that arose.

      • Lev
        Lev  March 17, 2017

        Thanks for your response Bart.

        How do you separate the fact from fiction on the risen Jesus?

        You accept, as historical, that the disciples believed they had visions of the risen Jesus – so how do you reject, as legendary, the physical interactions with the risen Jesus as they are drawn from the same accounts?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2017

          That’s a good question. I’ll add it to my mailbag (the answer is a bit too long for just a comment here)

  19. tompicard
    tompicard  March 17, 2017

    When should we take the words of a prophet literally, particularly an apocalyptic prophet?

    Should we take John the Baptist’s words literally that he was preaching his message to a bunch of snakes?
    How about that a rock will magically become Abraham’s son ?

    Should we take Jesus words literally that we are made of salt ?
    Or that his first choice in professions was arsonist?
    How about his advice that some corpses should make the funeral arrangements for different dead bodies ?
    Or that we will never die if we follow the Mosaic commandments?
    How about his his expectation that the faithful but now dead, Queen of Sheba will criticize the unfaithful men and women alive today?

    Should we take the 4 beasts in Daniel 7 coming out of the ‘churning sea’ to be coming out of literal ocean?
    How about the verses directly following, a son of man coming on a ‘cloud of heaven’, should we take that to mean a man standing on vaporized H2O ?

    all the above is meant to be rhetorical . . .

  20. Wilusa  March 17, 2017

    I’ve only known – slightly – two people, both deceased now, who claimed to have had “visions” of some kind.

    One woman had what I think is a well-known *type* of vision. She’d been in bed with her husband, and had somehow “seen” an apparition of Jesus in their bedroom mirror. For some reason, she couldn’t wake her husband. And the vision was connected with a tragic event: it was either before or after (I forget which) she gave birth to twin sons, both of whom were stillborn. So the vision was either a “warning” or a “consolation.”

    The other woman said that when she was a child, she’d shared a bedroom with two or three sisters. As she remembered it, she woke up during the night and saw a strange mist hovering over one of her sisters. She woke the other girls, who saw nothing, pooh-poohed her, and told her to go back to sleep. But then – after the others *had*, presumably, gone back to sleep – she saw a *baby* crawling on the floor, where no baby could have been! I think the conclusion was that the baby simply crawled out the open bedroom door. But the woman believed she’d seen the ghost of a baby brother who’d died before she was born.

  21. pruffin  March 17, 2017

    I can say from personal experience that false memories are real.
    A co-worker of mine many years ago had a funny encounter with a customer, and I’ve told the story to others on several occasions. After having told the story for years, I caught myself telling it in first person. I could visualize it happening to me. I suddenly caught myself in the lie. I had to think carefully and re-convince myself that it didn’t happen to me, but to the co-worker.
    I have tried not to do that again.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 19, 2017

      Not a false memory but related. I began singing folk music in 1960. My sister once criticized my singing as always sounding too much like the artist from whom I’d gotten the song. I held that over myself for a long time and, years later, played a few of the old albums again. I couldn’t get over how much I’d made them mine–that is, I wasn’t singing them like Joan Baez or Judy Collins or others at all. My own personality and sense of aesthetics had taken over.

  22. Rick
    Rick  March 17, 2017

    So, if we can assume as historical fact that Jesus had disciples who had left other worthwhile lives to follow him and his message of imminent apocalypse, we can also presume they were emotionally and intellectually wired to expect the supernatural particularly at a time of great grief and disappointment. All it would take would be for a leader ( ie. Peter) to say something like ” I saw him last night, he came to me in a dream and seemed like he was alive and with me again.” Very quickly that story could morf into “Peter saw him” to (not to be outdone by Peter) we saw him to…..

  23. Celsus  March 18, 2017

    Can’t the word “ophthe” that Paul uses in 1 Cor 15:5-8 be used to denote that the 500 just “experienced his presence” in some sense? Just like people in church today who pray, sing, or speak in tongues have a collective shared experience? The word ophthe does not necessarily mean that they actually “saw” anything and by Paul placing his own vision in the same list without a distinction it seems he’s saying these were all some sort of spiritual encounters anyway.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2017

      As you probably know, it is the aorist passive of οραω (ORAO) which means “to see,” so technically it means “he was seen.” I’m not sure offhand if it is ever used less literally to mean “he was experienced” — I can’t think of a place where it does, but maybe someone can correct me.

      • Celsus  March 19, 2017

        Hi Professor Ehrman,

        I found online what seems to be an excerpt from the TDNT.

        The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. V, p. 358) points out that in this type of context the word is a technical term for being “in the presence of revelation as such, without reference to the nature of its perception.” In other words, the “seeing” may not refer to actual sensory or mental perception. “The dominant thought is that the appearances are revelations, an encounter with the risen Lord who reveals himself…they experienced his presence.”

        H. J. de Jonge in “Visionary Experience and the Historical Origins of Christianity” notes that the word is used for God “appearing” in a dream – Gen 31:13 LXX, 35:1 LXX as well as two other ways in which nothing is actually “seen.”

        “There are references to appearances in some cases in which nothing at all could be seen, but a
        voice alone uttered the divine message The voice which restrained Abraham from killing Isaac is
        referred to in the Septuagint in the words “the Lord appeared” – Gen 22:4 LXX. Further examples
        occur in Gen 12:7 LXX, 26:2 LXX.

        Finally, there are references to God’s appearances when there is no indication of any visible form or of the hearing of a voice, but that God’s power and favor were made manifest in the course of earthly affairs. A psalm says, for example, that when God has taken away the indignity from Jerusalem and freed it from its enemies, “he will appear in his glory” – PS 101:17 LXX, 83,8 LXX See also Isa 40:5 LXX, 60:2 LXX, 66:5 LXX, Jer 38:3 LXX (31:3 MT) All these passages describe the coming of a period of salvation, but Jer 38:3 LXX has the aorist (κύριος ωφΟη) instead of the future tense Isa 60:2 LXX shows that there is no difference between the appearance of God’s glory and that of God himself. This is not a suggestion of a theophany in the strict sense. The word “appear” (όφθήναι) is purely metaphorical.”

  24. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 19, 2017

    Bart, how do we know that many Jews were apocalyptic in the first century? Josephus? Philo?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 20, 2017

      Certainly not Philo. And Josephus is anti-apocalpytic. We know this both because of writings that have survived (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls; non-canonical apocalypses) and by descriptions of Jews in Jesus’ day by Josephus.

  25. Wilusa  March 20, 2017

    I just remembered a different (but seemingly not unusual) type of “vision” that I “heard about” while it was actually happening!

    Many years ago, I visited a cousin in a nursing home when she was close to death. We were first cousins, but she was 24 years older than me.

    I don’t think she realized I was there. But she seemed to be carrying on a conversation with an unseen visitor. I don’t remember the details, but I know I got the impression this “invisible person” was a man – an old friend she hadn’t seen in years, but no closer than that.

    Here’s what I do remember clearly. She made a gesture in the direction of the head of her bed, as if other people were standing there, and seemingly *introduced* them to her friend, saying, “This is my Aunt Helen and her husband Joe.”

    My deceased parents!

    I admit it gave me goosebumps.

    A nursing home attendant later told me their patients had experiences like that so frequently that she’d become convinced the phenomena were somehow “real.”

    And even though I “incline strongly” to the belief that my parents had reincarnated by then, I’m not willing to rule out the possibility that we *can* have those hoped-for reunions with friends and loved ones, in a dimensional realm that’s somehow outside of time.

  26. tcasto  March 21, 2017

    I think bran scan technology can now differentiate between real and false memories. False memories light up different parts of the brain than do real memories.

  27. Christopher
    Christopher  March 29, 2017

    I think the false memory thing is a great thing to stress to people when on this topic, but it is not nearly as convincing as realizing the potential for a charasmatic overtaking! Bart, I met you once before in Dallas and suggested to you that it seems the potential that the visions should be explained by a charasmatic surge of imagination is quite high, but you shrugged it off. My understanding is that you just don’t see the evidence that the Jerusalem disciples were very charasmatic. However, Jesus DID practice faith healing and exorcism. These are part and parcel of a charasmatic leader! Now how the early Christians get from faith healing and exorcisms to speaking in tongues, I don’t know! But we know they did! From Acts, and Corinthians, and the Didache! Isn’t it most plausible that, as a counter culture movement, the early Christians simply ran amongst the same crowd as people who practiced tongue speak. This is far out but… So is the idea that 500+ people remembered a false memory. Honestly, that seems more implausible to me and less evidenced than thinking that some charasmatic event occured. At least we can go to Pentacostal churches today and see this still happening.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2017

      Where are you getting the speaking of tongues in the Didache?

      • Christopher
        Christopher  April 6, 2017

        My bad. Speaking in tongues ISN’T in the Didache. I got confused because I remembered reading about traveling “charismatics” or “charismatists” and got to thinking about modern Charismatics. However, you’re absolutely right, in the Didache, this is just mention of basically people who we might think of as “strong in the Spirit”, either strong speakers or faith healers or whatever. Now there IS mention to tongue speak in Mark, Acts, and Corinthians. Plus we know that faith healing was a big part of Jesus’ ministry, and also early Christian culture. I’m really curious to ask:

        Where do you speculate tongue speak integrated into early Christian communities from?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 7, 2017

          I’m not sure I would count mark, since it is a later addition to the text. But where does it come from? I’m not sure. I do know that glossolalia is attested in a variety of religious/cultural traditions. I need to look into the matter! Seems like I used to have a view about this….

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  April 8, 2017

          “we know that faith healing was a big part of Jesus’ ministry”? We know it is part of a collection of stories in a book called the New Testament. We do not know it was a part of Jesus’ ministry much less a big part.

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