On his blog Escaping Christian Fundamentalism, Gary Matson has been considering the origin of resurrection belief, looking particularly at the possibility that sightings of the risen Jesus as recorded in the New Testament, were visions or hallucinations.
Naturally, his resident troll, FT Bond, recently banned from the site, objected to this suggestion, even though there is very good internal evidence that this is exactly how the belief in the resurrection arose. I felt compelled to raise the matter – no pun intended – of the occasion in the gospels where Jesus himself sees long dead people, apparently and inexplicably returned from the dead. In all three synoptic gospels Jesus chats with Moses and Elijah who appear in front of him. Mark 9.2-10 relates the story, usually referred to as the Transfiguration, as follows:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
So what is going on here? There are three options:
1. Moses and Elijah were actually ‘resurrected’ or otherwise miraculously returned from dead.
We can safely rule out this first possibility. Two men who had been dead for centuries did not suddenly return from the dead or even from their eternal repose in the bosom of Abraham for a cameo in the Jesus story.
2. Moses and Elijah were a vision that Jesus and his three associates experienced simultaneously.
Jesus and the three disciples experiencing the same vision simultaneously is clear evidence of shared hallucinatory experiences in the gospels. Mark and Matthew (and possibly Luke) understand the story in this way, using the term ὤφθη (ophthe) meaning ‘appeared to’ or ‘appeared in front of’; ὤφθη usually conveys the sense of ‘apparition’: something that appears that has no physical presence: a vision. The synoptic gospel writers use it almost exclusively in this sense.
3. The event is an invented story. It didn’t happen in reality. There was no hallucination, no vision. It is a fiction devised to convey a symbolic point.
The symbolism is this: Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, and in this episode are seen to give way to their superior: Jesus, God’s Chosen Son. He supersedes the old Jewish folk-heroes in every way. Most scholars, and even some conservative Christians, argue for such an interpretation. As symbolic fiction, however, the episode has little or no basis in reality.
Let’s now apply the same analysis of the options in terms of the resurrection stories:
1. Jesus really did come back to life after being dead for 36 hours.
There really is no evidence he did because a) we know this doesn’t happen and b) Paul, who wrote the only first-hand account we have of someone ‘seeing’ the risen Christ, admits it was an hallucinatory ‘revelation’.
2. The disciples had visions of the Risen Jesus similar to Paul’s and to those they are said to have in the Transfiguration story.
Significantly, both Paul and Matthew use the phrase ‘appeared to/in front of’ (ὤφθη, ophthe again) when describing sightings of the Risen Jesus. Luke does so on one occasion too. There is no distinction for the gospel writers, therefore, between the way they describe the vision of Moses and Elijah (ὤφθη, ophthe) and the way they describe Jesus ‘appearing in front of’ the disciples after his death (ὤφθη, ophthe). Moses and Elijah ‘appear to’ the disciples, then the Risen Jesus ‘appears to’ them in the same way. In this option, the Risen Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, are mere visions in people’s heads.
3. The stories of the disciples resurrection visions are fiction: made up stories about visions, designed to convey a symbolic point.
There is no reason to suppose that the stories of Jesus reappearing after his death are in any way different from the fiction that is the Transfiguration story. Matthew and Luke were both skilled in creating symbolic events to hammer home the significance of Jesus; the Moses/Elijah story is one such; the nativity, the temptation in the wilderness, voices from the sky, cursing of the fig tree, walking on water and healing of the blind are others. The resurrection belongs to the same category as these. It too is symbolic fiction with only a limited basis in reality. We know from Paul that some people had visions that they took to be the Risen Jesus. The resurrection narratives are the made-up stories invented to illustrate those visions.
You pays your money, you takes your choice…