From Hallucination–>Resurrection?

Ken Pulliam has a post defending the hallucination theory behind the gospel resurrection accounts. At one point he cites apologist William Lane Craig’s objection to that theory:

“Subjective visions, or hallucinations, have no extra–mental correlate but are projections of the percipient’s own brain. So if, as an eruption of a guilty conscience, Paul or Peter were to have projected visions of Jesus alive, they would have envisioned him in Paradise, where the righteous dead awaited the eschatological resurrection. But such exalted visions of Christ leave unexplained their belief in his resurrection. The inference ‘He is risen from the dead,’ so natural to our ears, would have been wholly unnatural to a first century Jew. In Jewish thinking there was already a category perfectly suited to describe Peter’s postulated experience: Jesus had been assumed into heaven. An assumption is a wholly different category from a resurrection.”

Noting that Tom Wright has objected similarly, Pulliam replies with two counter-objections:

“First, there was a lot of diversity among Jewish beliefs in the first century. There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, as well as others. There were also sects and cults that had incorporated various Greek ideas into Jewish theology. To maintain that the Jewish belief in the afterlife was monolithic in the first century is mistaken.”

I would point out that while it’s true that afterlife beliefs weren’t monolithic, there is no documented precedent — among any groups — for one individual (messiah or otherwise) to be resurrected prematurely. The apologists do have a valid point here, though it’s a very limited point. On which see further.

“Second, the concept of the resurrection seems to have entered Jewish theology during the exile and is found primarily in the Hebrew writings after that time, namely Daniel and 2 Maccabees. Many scholars believe this belief in the resurrection was adapted from the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism . The concept of the resurrection in Jewish theology arose as a way to explain how God would vindicate the martyrs. Initially, it seems that Jews who believed in a resurrection expected only the martyrs to be raised… Since Jesus would have been viewed by his followers as a martyr, it would have been natural for them to think that he would be resurrected.”

It wouldn’t have been natural at all, because again, there was no precedent (as far as we know) for anyone — messiah, martyr, prophet, whatever — to be prematurely resurrected before everyone else at the end of the age. To reply, as Pulliam does, that the disciples already believed they were living in the end is incredibly greasy, begs the question, and puts the cart before the horse. Paul’s argument that Jesus’ resurrection was the first fruits came as a consequence of dramatic revisionism, not a natural outgrowth of what was in place. But this, of course, leaves open the possibility that the disciples were simply wild inventors.

It’s a plausible enough idea. Lack of precedent is generally no obstacle to invention and creativity, and apologists like Craig and Wright are on quicksand to rely on a lack of precedent when this point is unqualified. We know that religious people make wild claims all the time, and that apocalyptic movements find creative ways of coping with dashed hopes in order to survive. As Dale Allison often puts it, “rude reality reinterprets expectations”. A classic case is the spiritualization of the prophecy of the temple’s destruction in John 2. When your dreams are broken, you latch onto something else, no matter how far-fetched.

The problem is that it’s highly unlikely the disciples’ dreams had been broken. In their minds, based on everything taught to them, their leader’s death wasn’t even a mark of failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized them — naturally — but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. As Pulliam himself points out, Jesus had braced them for such tragedy: they were already living in the end times, on the brink of the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the apocalypse. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Allison says, “emotionally down but not theologically out”. In the absence of contrary evidence, we must assume they would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse and resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and resurrected along with their martyred savior. Jesus’ martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why apologists like Craig and Wright, despite themselves, are right. It’s not that revisionism is itself unlikely; we know that it is. It’s that there was no need for revisionism, because as far as the disciples were concerned, things were still going “as expected”.

For this reason, primarily, I believe in the historicity of the empty tomb. Craig and Wright are actually correct in claiming that visions alone wouldn’t have yielded the resurrection belief (if not for the reason they think). But an empty tomb coupled with visions/hallucinations could well have forced the issue, and it apparently did.

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12 thoughts on “From Hallucination–>Resurrection?

  1. Loren,

    thanks for interacting with my blog and I am very pleased to meet you. I have the utmost respect for Alan Segal and probably learned more from reading his book on the Afterlife than from any other source.

    You said: I would point out that while it's true that afterlife beliefs weren't monolithic, there is no documented precedent — among any groups — for one individual (messiah or otherwise) to be resurrected prematurely

    I definitely agree but I would add that there was no expectation of the messiah dying at least in 2nd Temple Judaism.

    You continue: It wouldn't have been natural at all, because again, there was no precedent (as far as we know) for anyone — messiah, martyr, prophet, whatever — to be prematurely resurrected before everyone else at the end of the age. To reply, as Pulliam does, that the disciples already believed they were living in the end is incredibly greasy, begs the question, and puts the cart before the horse. Paul's argument that Jesus' resurrection was the first fruits came as a consequence of dramatic revisionism, not a natural outgrowth of what was in place.

    “Natural” was a poor word choice on my part. What I should have said was that the resurrection in 2nd Temple Judaism was, for those who believed in the resurrection, for martyrs. Whatever else the disciples may have thought about the death of Jesus, certainly martyrdom was a big component. My point is that its not as wildly novel an idea as Wright and others make it out to be. What was novel was the idea that one person would be resurrected a considerable time before the rest were resurrected. I think some of the Jewish Christians had a problem with this and thus, the interpoloation of Matt. 27:51ff. as a possible explanation after the resurrection was not completed in the first generation of believers. The first generation of believers expected Jesus to return at any moment and complete the resurrection. When the first theologian, Paul, sat down to try to make sense of this, he called Jesus the first-fruits of them that sleep. At least thats how I see it at the moment.

    As far as the references in the gospels to Jesus dying and being raised, I tend to see these as later additions as well. They were put in to make it look like the early Christian's beliefs were not ad hoc . Thus, I think the disciples were shocked when Jesus was killed. As their theology grew, they came to see his death as a sacrifce to God but I don't think they thought this when he was on the cross.

    I appreciate the dialogue as I am always looking to refine my thinking.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Loren. I think the apologists may be in difficulty here because they are obliged to accept the historicity of other elements in the narrative like the repeated Passion & Resurrection predictions. Those predictions, of resurrection on the third day, give the ready framework for the interpretation of any visionary experiences. I'm not arguing that the Passion & Resurrection predictions are historical but just pointing out that there is a problem with the apologetic argument from the unprecedented nature of the resurrection claim. The precedent is in Jesus' own teaching.

  3. The problem is that it's highly unlikely the disciples' dreams had been broken. In their minds, based on everything taught to them, their leader's death wasn't even a mark of failure.

    I find statements like this rather puzzling. Since our only records of what the disciples were taught was subject to several decades of reinterpretation, I don't see how the likelihood of any affirmative statement about their state of mind immediately after the crucifixion could be considered “high.”

  4. Thanks to all.

    @Ken. Nice to stumble on your blog recently. I agree with most of your objections against the apologists, but on the point of the empty tomb, I think they're right despite themselves. And of course I'm saying they're right about the tomb being empty, not necessarily how they think it got empty.

    @Mark. The apologists have plenty of problems, don't they? 🙂

    @Vinny. My belief about the NT sources is that they're largely reliable in reflecting early Christianity as a failed apocalyptic movement, and that we can draw certain conclusions with a fair to high degree of confidence, depending on the issue. I've blogged at more length about this in the past and realize this brief comment will hardly persuade you.

  5. Mark raises an excellent point. If the gospels are accurate as the apologists claim, then they should have been expecting the resurrection. One would think that they would have been standing outside the tomb in anticipation for the very first Easter sunrise service. Thus, I think the predictions of death and resurrection in the gospels is not historical.

    The apologists have another problem as Keith Parsonspoints out: By the way, it is very odd that the gospels depict the disciples as skeptical of the Resurrection. After all, the disciples had supposedly seen Jesus raise others from the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, cast out demons, cure the sick, the lame, and the blind, feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and appear in glistening raiment with Moses and Elijah while a divine voice boomed “This is my beloved son…” By this time it should have been clear even to the slowest disciple that Jesus was a supernatural being possessed of awesome miraculous powers. After all that it would surely be a pretty simple trick to come back from the dead. So something is out of place here. Either the disciples, dumb as they were, could not have been so skeptical of the resurrection, or they had not witnessed the miracles they allegedly did. Either way, the credibility of the gospels is undermined.

  6. Loren,

    I am not dogmatic on whether or not the empty tomb is historial. I lean towards it being a legend primarily because Paul doesn't mention it, its not mentioned in Acts and we know that the gospel stories contain a lot of legendary embellishment.

    What convinces you that it is historical?

  7. Loren,

    One other question, did my clarification, regarding the idea that resurrection of a martyr would not have been as novel as Wright supposes, make sense to you?

  8. Hi Ken,

    That Paul didn't explicitly mention a tomb is an unimpressive argument from silence, and is balanced by the (slightly more plausible) counter-claim that the language of I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb, since it says that Jesus was raised and appeared to Cephas (not merely that he was buried and appeared to Cephas). Of course, Paul's view of the resurrected body is ambiguous (about which I think Segal is largely right: largely Pharisaic, not entirely fleshy as the gospels would have it, but not entirely “spiritual” either), but given at least some continuity between the old body and the new, the image of burialresurrection implies a body “getting up” in-between. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the evidence of Paul counts strongly either for or against the empty tomb, only that the pro and con arguments in this case perhaps cancel each other out.

    Naturally the gospels contain plenty of legendary embellishment, but that's too general to be of help. Each item must be evaluated independently, and I think when the pros and cons are weighed on both sides, the evidence tips in favor of an empty tomb. Here are the arguments against and for. It's a pretty close match, but Dale Allison is (to me) convincing about the strongest arguments “for” being concrete and evidential (#6 is the one that really convinces me, and the whole point of this blogpost in response to yours), while the best arguments “against” remain hypothetical and suggestive.

    Regarding the resurrection of the martyrs, I tend to agree with you that nothing is quite as shockingly novel as Wright makes it out to be, though I think he has a point. (It may pain us to admit it, but apologists can stumble on parts of the truth from time to time.) You kind of make my point for me when you concede that “what was novel was the idea that one person would be resurrected a considerable time before the rest were resurrected”. My response to this (as stated) is twofold: (1) this argument is based on a faulty assumption about novelty and lack of precedent, since religious groups make up wacky things all the time — but (2) they usually do so in order to cope with failed expectations, which I don't think applies to the early Christians. So I think the novelty you mention does come into play after all, despite (1), and counts against your view, for reasons pertaining to (2) which scholars like Craig and Wright ignore.

  9. Since you think #’s 6 and 7 are the most weighty, let me tackle those.

    Only the empty tomb (in conjunction with the post-mortem appearances) could have yielded the resurrection belief, because there was no reason for the disciples to invent a premature resurrection.

    There was IF my theory is true. That is, the initial belief came about through visions (Peter’s and Paul’s) and then as the teaching developed and a basis was sought for the teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures, a more physical nature to the appearances ( in order to be a resurrection and not merely a vision) became necessary. As the teaching continued to develop, it is to be expected that eventually an empty tomb would pop up in the tradition.

    People create fictions in order to cope with failures and broken dreams, but Jesus' death wasn't seen as a failure. Here I disagree. I think it was initially seen as a failure but then reinterpreted not to be (just as the failed prophecy of Miller was reinterpreted by Ellen White as not a failure).

    The crucifixion would have demoralized the disciples but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they — and he — would have been resurrected. This assumes that the teaching of Jesus reported in the gospels predicting his death were genuine. As was pointed out earlier by Mark Goodacre, if Jesus really taught that he was going to die and rise again, the disciples should have been expecting it. An empty tomb caused them to conclude that Jesus had been raised prematurely. (pp 321-326) This I think is where we play into the hands of the apologists. If the empty tomb is granted as historical, then the problem of the premature resurrection surfaces. If, however, the visions were really the initial phenomena, and support from the Hebrew Scriptures was sought to give a foundation to this, some type of resurrection concept had to develop and eventually this led to the idea of an empty tomb.

    If Jesus was simply buried as a criminal, which I tend to favor, then Paul’s statement is understandable and so is his silence about an empty tomb, Joseph of Arimathea and so on. I know an argument from silence can be tricky but I think it has some validity if one ought to expect something to be mentioned and its not. It seems to me that if the empty tomb was historical, something would have been said in Acts about it, perhaps in Peter’s pentecostal sermon. It would have been a great apologetic to say: “If you don’t believe me, go check the tomb where he was buried and ask Joseph of Arimathea if he laid him there.”

    In a culture where the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 326-331)

    This has some weight but not a lot. If the empty tomb legend developed with Mark, then I think it can be understood by his motif in the book. The least expected ones are the ones who recognize Jesus. The command to silence can be attributed the “messianic secret” motif.

  10. On the martyr theory, you say: You kind of make my point for me when you concede that “what was novel was the idea that one person would be resurrected a considerable time before the rest were resurrected”.

    But I think the disciples awoke each day expecting Jesus to return and bring about the resurrection. It was only as time dragged on, that this became a problem.

    Again, I appreciate your insights and I hold my views tentatively at this point.

  11. Ken, you wrote:

    This assumes that the teaching of Jesus reported in the gospels predicting his death were genuine. As was pointed out earlier by Mark Goodacre, if Jesus really taught that he was going to die and rise again, the disciples should have been expecting it.

    They were indeed expecting it, and that's my point. But they were expecting it to follow the pattern of other established apocalyptic/tribulational beliefs, not that of gospel revisionism. I.e. The historical Jesus would have taught that suffering and death had to precede the kingdom, and a lot of the disciples might die along with Jesus, but they would all be vindicated and resurrected together in the end. I certainly never claimed that the historical Jesus taught he would die and rise as reported in the gospels, in which case my argument would be irrelevant anyway.

    “An empty tomb caused them to conclude that Jesus had been raised prematurely.”This I think is where we play into the hands of the apologists.

    Well Ken, the last thing I'm worried about is whose hands I might play into. That's just not how we should be weighing evidence. As I said, even those whom we disagree with can be right about some things.

    If the empty tomb is granted as historical, then the problem of the premature resurrection surfaces. If, however, the visions were really the initial phenomena, and support from the Hebrew Scriptures was sought to give a foundation to this, some type of resurrection concept had to develop and eventually this led to the idea of an empty tomb.

    No, there's no reason why a resurrection concept had to develop in the way it did on the basis of visions/hallucinations alone. The disciples could have easily claimed he was ascended into heaven, to await resurrection with everyone else — martyr or not — and if not for the empty tomb, that's what I suspect they would have done.

  12. In my last comment I wrote:

    I certainly never claimed that the historical Jesus taught he would die and rise as reported in the gospels, in which case my argument would be irrelevant anyway.

    I should note that apologists may claim oppositely, in which case their slope gets more slippery, and I believe that was Mark Goodacre's point. I have no idea what Craig believes in this regard.

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