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So Just How Dumb Were Jesus’ Disciples? The Resurrection, Part VI

By Robert Conner ~

Besides being the first to comment on the ghost story quality of the post- resurrection accounts, the philosopher Celsus appears to have been the first to advance a psychological explanation for Jesus’ apparitions. Celsus, a conservative member of his society’s upper class, was particularly critical of the irrational, emotionally driven nature of Christian belief.

“While [Jesus] was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who say this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress the others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a chance for other beggars.” (Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum, 109) 

Historian Lane Fox notes the likelihood that “women were a clear majority” in the early church, and of the writing of pagan critics, observes, “It was a well- established theme...that strange teachings appealed to leisured women who had just enough culture to admire it and not enough education to exclude it.” (Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 310). Classical scholar Catherine Kroeger approaches the issue from the point of view of “the socio-religious world of [Greco-Roman] women,” that addresses the social strata of Christian women specifically: “Neither is it surprising that women who lacked any sort of formal education flocked to the cults that were despised by the intellectuals.” (Catherine Kroeger, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987), 25- 26, 28)

According to Luke, the male disciples who went to the tomb “did not see Jesus” (Luke 24:24). The tactile Jesus who later appears to them is an attempt to “counter the idea that the risen Jesus was some type of ghost or phantasm.” (Gregory Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered, 53) So who or what, exactly, did the women see? From the standpoint of the wider culture, the lack of male witnesses and the ambiguous nature of Jesus’ manifestations became major points of weakness. Christian women “were expressly targeted as unreliable witnesses, possessed, fanatical, sexual libertines, domineering of or rebellious toward their husbands” (Wayne Kannaday, Apologetic Discourse and the Scribal Tradition, 141) and by the end of the first century, Christian estimation of women was little better: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man.” (1 Timothy 2:12) Younger women “get into the habit of being idle and gadding about from house to house. Not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not.” (1 Timothy 5:13) In Paul’s list of resurrection witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:3-8), the women are notable for their absence.

According to Luke, the male disciples who went to the tomb “did not see Jesus” Celsus’ suggestion that at least some early “witnesses” were imagining the experience or actively hallucinating has modern support. Seeing or otherwise sensing the presence of the recently dead is surprisingly common. In one study fifty percent of widowers and forty-six percent of widows “reported hallucinatory experiences of their dead spouses in a clearly waking state” and in several instances another person shared the individual’s experience. (Haraldsson Erlendur, Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 19 (1988-1989), 104, 111). In one study of modern “mystical” experiences that specifically addresses Jesus’ post-resurrection apparitions as examples of “after-death communication,” the survey found “2.5% involved multiple witnesses.” (Ken Vincent, Journal of Near-Death Studies 30 (2012), 142).

While doing background research on Apparitions of Jesus, I discovered there is an extensive and rapidly growing body of literature on the connections between religion and mental illness, delusional belief based on proximity to a religious site—commonly known as “Jerusalem syndrome”—and “visionary” experience as a symptom of temporal lobe micro-seizures without overt physical components such as facial tics or convulsions. Hallucinatory experience and delusions are predictably determined by culture and situation: evangelicals touring holy sites identify with John the Baptist or other biblical characters, Portuguese school girls see the Virgin Mary, British soldiers in the trenches see visions of Saint George, indigenous peoples see spirits compatible with their cultures, and the women at the tomb saw Men in White as well as Jesus. In short, hallucinations and delusions are downstream from previous cultural conditioning.

As previously noted, in the era in which Christianity appeared the majority accepted visions and the appearance of ghosts as real events, and lived in expectation of omens, prophetic dreams, and other close encounters of the supernatural kind. Like people of the present, they were primed for self- delusion. Given the mass of contradictions and the implausibility of the resurrection accounts, who bears the greater burden of proof, the apologist who claims the gospels record eyewitness history or the skeptic who points to similar “sightings” such as apparitions of the Virgin Mary?

In the final installment we’ll look at the earliest mention of the resurrection, the disputed passage in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

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