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Why I (Actually) Discuss Hallucinations

In this post I continue with my response to Larry Hurtado’s critique of How Jesus Became God.  In the previous posts I dealt with factual errors – where he assigned views to me that I do not state and do not have.  As I have pointed out, Larry was generous to retract these critiques in a subsequent post on his blog.   In this post I want to deal not with a factual mistake but with an assertion he makes about my motive for part of my discussion – an assertion that I take issue with.

One of my major premises in How Jesus Became God is that Jesus was not considered divine during his lifetime, but that it was belief in his resurrection that made his followers begin calling him God.   But since my study is a historical account of how Jesus came to be considered God, rather than a theological or religiously motivated account, I have to deal with a very big problem, which is that historians cannot declare a God-produced miracle as a historical event (even if it *is* something that happened).   I give lengthy reasons for why historians cannot argue for miracles in the book, and will not go into that matter here.  For now it’s enough to say, historians cannot establish that miracles (such as the resurrection) have happened in the past.  (n the book I argue that “history is not the past,” since all sorts of things happened in the past that cannot be shown to have happened by the historical disciplines — including miracles.  If that doesn’t make sense to you – I’d suggest you read my chapter on it!)

They also cannot establish that miracles have NOT happened either.  Maybe they have.  If so, I’m afraid that the historical disciplines simply have no access to them (either do the mathematical disciplines, or the biological disciplines, etc.).

What historians *can* talk about in the case of Jesus’ resurrection is not whether God really raised him from the dead (the historian, as a historian, cannot make any statements about what God has done – since those are theological statements that require faith, but history does not require faith), but about what the disciples came to belief.  *That* is part of the historical record.   And one interesting question involves what made them believe what they came to believe.

In the book I argue that one and only one thing made the disciples come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection.   Some of the disciples had visions of him afterwards.  In my view – I argue vigorously for this in the book – this is a *historical* explanation, not a *theological* one.  We can say, on historical grounds, that the disciples had visions of Jesus.  But doesn’t that require the miracle of the resurrection to have happened?   No, claiming that the disciples had visions of Jesus does not require the historian to say that God worked a miracle, and that Jesus was really raised from the dead,  and that Jesus then as the resurrected Lord really appeared to his disciples.  But how can we claim, historically, that the disciples had visions without saying that God really did a miracle by raising Jesus from the dead?   Because we can talk about visions without claiming that a person sees (in a vision) something that is actually there.

People have visions all the time.  And historians do not have to decide whether the visions they have are caused by external stimuli (so that they are what psychologists call “veridical” visions) or not (so that they are “non-veridical” visions).    Now, everyone knows what it would mean if the disciples of Jesus saw Jesus because he was really there (i.e. that there was a real historical stimulus, making these veridical visions).  It would mean that Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples.  But what would it mean if he was not really there?   That’s an interesting historical question and NOT everyone knows how that could be.  And so I devote a lengthy discussion to how it can be historically valid to claim that the disciples had visions of Jesus whether or not he actually appeared to them.

This is what Larry says in critique of my discussion:

[It is] curious that Ehrman then devotes a section of the ensuing discussion to comparing early experiences of the risen Jesus with apparitions of deceased loved ones to the bereaved, and with other such phenomena.  The point of doing so, quite obviously, seems to be to give reasons for taking early Christian experiences as hallucinations, and so not really valid.  To do this, however, is (in Ehrman’s own terms) to move from historical analysis to something else.  To be specific, this discussion seems more aimed to counter Christian apologists and give justification for doubting Christian claims.  But this makes just a bit coy his profession of not being concerned to judge the question whether experiences of the risen Jesus were valid.

This is not a generous reading of my discussion.  Larry is arguing that I am anti-Christian and want to demonstrate that the visions of Jesus were non-veridical hallucinations.   This is “obvious” to him.  The reason I take some umbrage at this charge is that I went completely out of my way to prevent precisely this reading of my discussion.   I explicitly state “I am not taking a stand on the question of whether there was some kind of external reality behind what the disciples saw” (p. 186); “I am not going to take a stand on this issue of whether Jesus really appeared to people or whether their visions were hallucinations” (p. 187).   Did Larry not read these statements?  Or did he simply think that I was being deceitful or duplicitous?  I assume that latter.

Either way, I don’t think it is a generous reading of my discussion.  One may well ask, in reply, why, if I’m not taking a stand, do I spend so much time talking about hallucinations – for example of people who see deceased loved ones weeks or years after their demise, or of people who see the Blessed Virgin Mary (sometimes hundreds or even thousands of people at once).  Why spend so much time on hallucinations if I’m not trying to convince people that the disciples had hallucinations?

For PRECISELY the reason I’ve explained.  There are basically two options about what happened.  Either Jesus really appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion, or they were seeing things.  Now, if Jesus really appeared to his disciples, how much discussion of the matter is required to indicate that this is what happened?  Does one need to devote a chapter to saying “Jesus appeared to his disciples”?  Of course not.  If he appeared to his disciples (something historians cannot prove and cannot disprove) he appeared to his disciples.  Full stop.   But if Jesus did not appear to his disciples, why did they *think* (or at least *say*) that he did?   THAT is a matter that needs to be unpacked, explained, gone into.   Most people don’t know the scholarship on hallucinations, and might automatically think that when I’m saying that it was the visions that made them think Jesus had been raised EITHER that I must mean he really was raised (which I’ve just argued historians cannot say) OR that I’ve made a mistake an made a non-historical claim (God did a miracle) and claimed it as historical.

If I’m going to argue that it was the visions that convinced the disciples that Jesus was raised, I *have* to show how that can be a historical claim rather than a theological one, and to do that I have to talk about hallucinations.  In my chapter on this I am clear and explicit on repeated occasions: the discussion is *not* in order to argue that the disciples must have had hallucinations.  I’m not taking a stand on whether the visions were veridical or not.  That’s my entire *point*.  I’m not taking a stand.  If you think the visions were veridical, then you think Jesus was really raised.  You can take that view.  But how can you think they had visions if they were not veridical?  They would have to be hallucinations – and if that’s the view you want to take, you need to know what we know about hallucinations.

I’m really not being duplicitous, as Larry charges.  I’m simply giving people two options.  I’m explaining only one of them at length because the other one needs no explanation.  If the visions were veridical, then Jesus was raised from the dead.


Christ as an Angel in Paul
More Misreadings of How Jesus Became God



  1. Avatar
    John123  June 9, 2014

    Whoops, forgot to delete some other things I was going to say but decided not to. Laurentin reports people levitating, foretelling the future, and healing the sick, which leads me to think he may in some cases be reporting second hand reports or is easily duped (do you really think someone levitated?), but in the two examples you give in your book, there seems to be firsthand eyewitness evidence, so this is not a factor.

  2. Avatar
    Shubhang  June 9, 2014

    Professor, I completely agree with you that the disciples of Jesus had ‘visions’ of the risen Jesus. I think the other point to be made regarding the resurrection stories is that we don’t have the eyewitness accounts. What we have are the writings of the evangelists which I assume would have been based on oral stories circulating around Palestine for 30-40 years. That provides a lot of scope for distortions. That presumably would also explain why the accounts of the resurrection vary so widely across the Gospels. When we have such a straightforwardly logical explanation for the event, I wonder why there is so much debate about the veridical / non-veridical nature of the resurrection event. If we had the writings of Peter who presumably had these visions, maybe we could analyse them and arrive at more substantive conclusions. Since we don’t, can we classify this debate as a lot of hair-splitting about second hand accounts of second hand accounts of second hand accounts..ad infinitum?

  3. Avatar
    SpaceCoast  June 9, 2014

    I find this critique of your work almost comical. I listened to the audible version of the book. One night at my son’s soccer practice, I got to that particular section while jogging around the park with head phones on. Without realizing it, I apparently came to a dead stop at one point, made some sort of gesture with my hands, then continued on. One of the other parents at the park observed this and asked me later (laughing at me of course because it looked like I was some sort of insane person) what in the world I was listening to when that happened. It dawned on me, it had to have been when I’d thought to myself, “Okay, we get it. You’re going out of your way to be fair to believers. Move on already.” LOL!

  4. cheito
    cheito  June 9, 2014


    You either believe the apostles testimony that they saw Jesus after he was killed by crucifixion or you don’t believe their testimony. Paul testified that more than 500 people saw him at once. Some of His closest disciples ate and drank with Him as John testifies. These men were liars or were telling the truth. You can’t prove nor disprove it as you say. I don’t think they were hallucinating. I believe that they really saw Jesus alive after His death by crucifixion but I can’t prove it either. We’ll have to wait and see.

    • Avatar
      willow  June 11, 2014

      “We’ll just have to wait and see.” And wait. And wait. And wait, for how many more hundreds if not thousands of years?

    • Avatar
      HowardPepper  June 19, 2014

      No, they need not have been liars… most likely not. Have you thought through what has been stated here and many other places, and generally agreed on even by believing (Christian) scholars, that nowhere in the Gospels or elsewhere do we have the direct report of any direct disciple who “saw” Jesus post-burial (in one manner or another). Paul is almost an exception, but he makes clear his experience was visionary (1 Cor. 15 and elsewhere), and he was not a disciple while Jesus was alive. If anyone was a “liar”, which I don’t think is the right term although purposeful non-literal story telling was involved, it would be Matt, Mark, Luke, John (and we don’t even know their real identities)… none of them direct disciples (tho some argue that “John” was, but with little real evidence).

      And BTW, I don’t know if Bart does so in this book directly, but I’m sure it’s implied, as in other of his books, the saying C.S. Lewis popularized, “Liar, Lord, or Lunatic” does not at all exhaust the possibilities for Jesus.

  5. Avatar
    John123  June 12, 2014

    I am not questioning that INDIVIDUAL hallucinations of Jesus took place, only that GROUP hallucinations of Jesus took place. If the latter took place, there should be solid examples of that phenomena in history. I don’t think there are any, and I have looked around a fair amount. You keep punting me to Laurentin’s book, but based on the two examples you drew from that book, it seems like you may not have read that book very critically. One of the two Laurentin examples you include in your book involves a photograph, so it CANNOT be a hallucination. The most likely explanation for the photographed event is some unique combination of light reflections associated with a specific location. The other Laurentin example of a supposed group hallucination you give in your book involves the Virgin Mary being at the top of a waterfall. Now I know many waterfalls have water mist that goes from top to bottom. If you add a little light and a little suggestion, it seems very plausible to me that many people could see an image of the Virgin Mary. This seems way more plausible to me than a group hallucination. Sure, I could go read the entire Laurentin book, but since you have already read it, and since you chose the two examples you did in order to illustrate group hallucinations (which I assume were the best examples you thought were in that book), I am basically asking you if you know of any better examples from that book that cannot be attributed to unique light reflections associated with a specific location like the two examples above can. I have read several Virgin Mary apparition books and all have been wild goose chases — I have not found one credible example of a group hallucination among adults; most examples are drawn from tradition, second or third hand at least and passed on without critical examination, and many are like those you describe above where the image is associated with a very specific location at a distance, which in my mind means it could easily be light reflections. Here’s another example of the exact same thing:


    I know your schedule is extremely busy, but can you provide just one example (the one you think is your best) of a group of adults hallucinating the exact same person at the exact same time? Surely you must already have this in your notes somewhere.

  6. Avatar
    JEffler  June 16, 2014

    Are you going to be responding to Dr. Michael Kruger? http://michaeljkruger.com/bart-ehrmans-worldview-problem/

  7. Avatar
    skeptixxx  October 17, 2014

    This is a note to Mr Ehrman.

    Are you familiar with the book entitled Bible Myths and their parallels in other religions” by Doane 1862….now free from Goggle Books and other sources. I found this book by accident in an historic house in Newport. If you are familiar with it, what is your opinion of the book and it’s contents? The author collected all his resources.

    FYI: I do think your feeling that Jesus alleged physical return to earth makes it very different from other resurrection stories…is given too much importance. It’s just a rewrite..of the same ole same ole.

    RE: Visions: My mother saw my father (long since passed) at the foot of her bed. I laughed. Years later I’m on the couch falling asleep and my wife keeps waking me up…around the eighth time I see my mother appear in front of the TV then she fades away. Hence a state between dreamland and reality..for both my mother an I. Nothing great. Statistics and crowd visions. Sooner of later it has to happen as it did in Fatima. No great shakes vision wise..but enough to convince people who were there for that purpose.
    Finally…a thought I heard recently…God wondering how S/he got here…….(I am not a believer)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 19, 2014

      I’ve read a ton of books like it, but not that book. After about ten of them, they all are about the same I’m afraid….

  8. Avatar
    Gary  February 20, 2016

    In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph twice, once to tell him that he should go ahead and marry Mary, even though she is pregnant (not by him), and then again a couple of years later to warn him of Herod’s plan to kill Jesus and that he should take the family to Egypt. The author of Matthew tells us that both of these “appearances” occurred in dreams.

    The question is: Did Joseph believe that God had sent a real angel to him to give him real messages?

    If first century Jews were truly able to distinguish dreams/visions from reality, why would Joseph marry a woman who had been impregnated by someone else just because an angel “appeared” to him in a dream? If first century Jews knew that dreams are not reality, Joseph would have ignored the imaginary angel and his imaginary message. For Joseph to go through with his marriage to a pregnant Mary was a very rare exception to the behavior of people in an Honor-Shame society. His act of obeying an angel in a dream is solid proof that he believed that the angel was real and the message was real.

    And if Joseph understood that dreams are not reality, why would he move his family to a foreign country based only on a dream?

    And how about Paul’s dream/vision? Paul saw and heard a talking bright light in a dream. Paul saw the men accompanying him to Damascus collapse to the ground with him…in a dream. Paul reported that these men also saw the light but didn’t hear the voice…or heard some kind of noise but didn’t see the light…in a dream….depending which passage of Acts you read.

    So it is obvious that first century Jews were just as likely to believe that a dream is reality as some people do today! People have been seeing angels, bright lights and dead people for thousands of years…in their dreams…and have believed that these events are reality.

    So the fact that four, anonymous, first century books contain stories of people “seeing” dead people and even “seeing” large groups of people “seeing” dead people, should come as no surprise.

    They were vivid dreams. Visions. Nothing more.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2016

      Are you asking about the real, historical Joseph? I don’t think we can psychoanalyze someone with this little information. But my view is that these dreams are a literary trope, so the psychological plausibility is probably a secondary issue.

      • Avatar
        Gary  February 21, 2016

        You are correct. We have no idea whether the author of Matthew believed that the stories of Joseph being visited by angels in his dreams were real historical events or whether he was using a literary trope. However, if you are a conservative Christian living today, you believe that angels truly did “appear” to Joseph, in dreams; Joseph did not just imagine these angels. God really did send him messages by these supernatural beings.

        So if Joseph can “see” supernatural beings in dreams, in the first century, that come to him as messengers from God and believe that he has truly “seen” them, why should we be surprised that other Galilean peasants, a few decades later, also saw supernatural beings (specifically the dead Jesus) appear to them…in dreams.

        I’m trying to make the argument that the appearance stories of the resurrected Jesus were very likely based on the same types of vivid dreams that allegedly also happened to Joseph, Jesus’ step (or real) father.

  9. TWood
    TWood  January 22, 2017

    So in your scholarly view, Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances to his various disciples (e.g. Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, James, Paul) are historical events in that such claims were truly made mere days (not decades) after Jesus’ death in the cases of Mary, Peter, John, James… and a few years (not decades) after Jesus’ death in the case of Paul… the question is the nature of these appearances (were they delusions in these people’s minds or was Jesus somehow really appearing to them)… in other words… the historical evidence is strong enough to support that these people truly believed they saw him and that the explanation that “it was made up” doesn’t hold up under scholarly scrutiny… so in short… the historical evidence shows that they really saw him *in their minds*… it’s just a matter of whether they were hallucinating or actually seeing him in some real sense… is that an accurate summary of your view?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      No, I do not know if the claims were made mere days later — but certainly not as long as decades later. I talk about all this in my book How Jesus Became God.

      • TWood
        TWood  January 24, 2017

        I have that book (haven’t had time to read it yet, but now I will have to—thanks). Really quick, what’s your sense on how long after his death the appearances did happen (be they hallucinations or otherwise)? It seems they had to happen fairly soon after 30 CE (or else Paul’s reaction a few years later wouldn’t make sense). I assume this has to do with your view that the tomb stories aren’t likely historically accurate, but whatever the case, Paul, who knew Peter, John and James, knows of the tradition in 1 Cor 15, which seems to go back pretty early. I’m not asking for a detailed reply (I’ll read your book I bought for that), but I’d love to get your terse answers on these three things:

        1. What’s your sense on how long after Jesus died the first “appearances” occurred?

        2. Why don’t you think the three day tradition goes back to Peter, John and James?

        3. Do most critical scholars that you know think the three days (or “on the third day”) tradition is historically reliable?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 25, 2017

          1. I don’t think we know. My guess is that it was no sooner than a week (after the disciples had gotten back to Galilee?) and no longer than a couple of months; 2. I just don’t think we know 3. I’m not sure what you mean by historically reliable. Do you mean that Jesus was really raised on the third day? Christian scholars probably think so; non-Christian scholars probably not.

          • TWood
            TWood  January 25, 2017

            No, in the third question I don’t mean that. I mean do they believe the appearances *be they hallucinations or otherwise* started three days after Jesus died (not whether they were real appearances). It seems like a very early tradition that fits well with the evidence (i.e. that the disciples *believed* they saw Jesus relatively quickly after he was crucified). We see it in Paul and all four gospels (John 2)… I don’t see a reason for making up the three days outside of some theological purpose (maybe “Jonah in the fish for 3 days…”), but that seems weak, as it’s only in Matt. Is it possible they said three days because that’s really when their visions began (be they hallucinations or real)? I’m asking if most critical scholars see evidence (if so, what is it?) to stretch the three days tradition to a view of no sooner than a week and no longer than a couple of months (which is pretty close to three days in the grand scheme… so it’s not a big deal really)—but I’m just wondering if scholars generally accept the visions began three days after Jesus’ death or if they see them as happening a bit after three days and that the three days are some kind of theological construct.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 27, 2017

            I’m not sure, but I suppose since most of these scholars are Christian they do think the claims to resurrection started three days after Jesus’ death. But yes, there are reasons for three days to be made up, both the Jonah story and Hosea 6:2.

          • TWood
            TWood  January 27, 2017

            Interesting… I can see that possibility being plausible… next question is off this topic… but when the LXX translated “young woman” to “virgin” I assume they didn’t mean virgin in its literal modern “never had sex” sense (the original Hebrew context surely didn’t mean that)… so my question is: was there a Greek word that meant “young woman” rather than “virgin” that the LXX scholars chose not to use—and if so, why cause such confusion?! (which Matthew and Luke made even more confusing later).

          • Bart
            Bart  January 29, 2017

            My sense is that the word they used PARTHENOS could mean simply young woman (there were other words that could meant that too), but eventually it took on more of the connotation of a young woman who had never had sex. The translators of course would not know that it would eventually have that meaning.

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