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.