Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (7) – Visionary Experiences of Jesus’ Resurrection

Casey - Jesus of NazarethReview of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.

Part 7: Visionary Experiences of Jesus’ Resurrection

As the arguments and examples provided throughout this review have shown, any attempt to appreciate Jesus’ own self-understanding as Son of Man, the vision reports of the earliest Christians, and the development of post-resurrection stories must come to terms with the pervasive influence of visionary experiences. Many of the stories found in, for example, the Acts of the Apostles are a world away from our everyday experience. In it we find stories of interactions with angelic visitors, the account of Peter’s vision of a large sheet being lowered from Heaven symbolizing that all animals are kosher, and different accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. It can only be reasonably concluded that the earliest Christians experienced a world in which not only everyday waking life was real, but so too were the “subjective” images and experiences within visions and dreams. It was, Casey says, “a culture in which visions were normal, and considered to be perfectly real.” While first-century Christians still made distinctions between waking life and the world of dreams and visions, they were not what most of us would count as our own distinctions. In fact, in first century Palestine, a visionary or dreamed experience might even offer a deeper experience of “reality” than did more quotidian and tangible tasks such as going down to the local market to buy groceries. Furthermore, even in what we would consider these ordinary everyday tasks, the world was categorized in radically different ways: a purchase of meat was not merely an item on your grocery list, but risked participation in the spiritual realm of sacrifice to gods or demons.

The earliest Christians experienced a world in which not only everyday life was real, but so too were the subjective images and experiences within visions and dreams

Second Temple Judaism was a visionary culture, in which people believed that people saw appearances of God and angels, and had visions and dreams in which God and angels appeared to them. (p. 488)

So when we read accounts in the Gospels, in particular certain episodes more obviously coloured by the indicators of vision reports (e.g. Jesus’ baptism, temptation, transfiguration, resurrection appearances), we should consider how these accounts have been shaped by the visionary experiences of the early Christians who created them. Biblical scholarship, which originated in and continues to be dominated by Protestant scholars operating in a rationalistic framework, has always been suspicious or even dismissive of visionary experiences. Traditionally, biblical scholars have been a lot more comfortable examining, for example, how certain Old Testament passages have influenced the telling of the Gospel stories about Jesus. But given the great importance of visionary experiences attested throughout the New Testament and later Christian writings, any examination of the development of Jesus traditions must consider a complex interaction between the historical Jesus’ life and teaching, Jewish beliefs found in the Old Testament, Enochic books, New Testament and other literature, visionary experiences, other social and ritual practices of the earliest Christians, and the workings of oral tradition and memory. What is more, consideration of this complex socio-cultural environment tends to complicate any simple solution of cause and influence, rather that provide clear solutions. The proposed solutions hopefully help us think through the problems inherent to understanding the Gospels and the historical Jesus, but at best they are only working models hoping to approximate what happened, and not what in fact happened.

Some New Testament scholars have been all too quickly dismissive of the explanation of the resurrection appearances in terms of visionary experiences
Some New Testament scholars have been all too quickly dismissive of the explanation of the resurrection appearances in terms of visionary experiences

What should be positively shunned by scholars, however, is the uncritical dismissal of options without due consideration. For the reasons offered above, some New Testament scholars have been all too quickly dismissive of the explanation of the resurrection appearances in terms of visionary experiences. They fail to acknowledge that “some [ancient worldviews] are so odd that they may just have happened” (to employ the formulation of N.T. Wright in Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003: 636). And indeed, the pervasive examples of visions and vision reports throughout earliest Christian literature, including many of those books that came to be included in the New Testament, provide positive proof of what an odd and foreign world we are dealing with.

Casey devotes many pages to the analysis of Late Second Temple and New Testament data on visions, which in Jesus studies are still underexplored. I have mentioned Casey’s observations in respect of 1 Corinthians 15.3-8, in which he concludes that Paul does not distinguish, and in fact equates, his much later and personal vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road with each of the other resurrection appearances. In fact, as Casey notes (p. 488), in the presentation of Acts, Paul claims that he was “not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (26.19). Noting the similarity of Paul’s reported speech in Acts to his description of a “vision… of the Lord” in 2 Cor. 12.1, Casey concludes: “It follows that Paul and Luke were both happy to think of Resurrection appearances as visions.”

In Acts 10.10-17; 11.5-10, another of Christianity’s early leaders, Peter, is presented as experiencing visions. Peter sees his vision of a heavenly sheet while in a “trance”, and interprets its symbolic meaning as annulling the kosher laws. Peter simply accepts that what he sees during a vision must convey some real message from the divine realm. Conversely, in Acts 12.9, Peter claims that his escape from prison was facilitated by instructions he received from an angel. But significantly, Peter cannot determine whether the angelic instructions and his own escape were real or part of a vision. Grappling under a different conception of the boundaries between reality and nonreality, vision and waking life, Peter finally concludes that both the prison escape and the angel must have been real.

Maurice Casey: "Jesus' closest followers during the historic ministry were much more likely to have visions of him after his death than normal people in our culture today" (painting by James Gleeson).
Maurice Casey: "Jesus' closest followers during the historic ministry were much more likely to have visions of him after his death than normal people in our culture today" (painting by James Gleeson).

Although Casey is somewhat at a loss to make sense of the unusual Transfiguration of Jesus, he concludes that in this account too, “someone thought it appropriate to tell a story of the inner circle of three, Simeon the Rock with Jacob and John, the sons of Zebedee seeing Jesus with his clothing temporarily transformed into the whiteness characteristic of heavenly beings” (p. 489). As Christopher Rowland maintains also, Casey concludes, “Jesus himself was a visionary” (p. 489). Casey notes Jesus’ call vision at his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1.9-11) and his vision of the spiritual consequences of the sending out of 72: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10.18; p. 490). Jesus’ visions taught him that his Movement was beginning to displace Satan from the heavens (and, I would add, that Jesus himself would be glorified as leading power under God in the highest heavens, following the similar belief recorded in the Similitudes). Casey is right to conclude, therefore, that it was to be expected that Jesus’ own followers would have followed their leader and experienced visionary experiences based expecially on his teachings about his own resurrection and glorification in Heaven.

All this means that Jesus’ closest followers during the historic ministry were much more likely to have visions of him after his death than normal people in our culture today. Moreover, they might relate such an event as if it were what we may reasonably call an “appearance” of the risen Jesus. (p. 490)

The tactic of conservative commentators in recent years, notably N.T. Wright, has been to attempt to restrict the meaning of “resurrection” to a bodily resurrection from a physical grave. But as Casey demonstrates, this very conveniently and arbitrarily limits the great diversity of early Jewish beliefs in how a righteous man or woman would “awaken” into eternal life (pp. 466-468). The restriction of “resurrection” even has to minimise some of the contrary presentations of life after death which are available within the Gospels. In Mark 12.25, Jesus assumes there will be a single occasion on which the dead would arise, and that “when they rise from the dead” they will have spiritual bodies, “like angels in the heavens” (p. 468). By contrast, in Luke 16.19-31, Abraham is presented as already active in the next world, before any general resurrection. When we add the great diversity of other Second Temple notions of the afterlife, Casey is right to conclude:

The stories of the Resurrection appearances in the New Testament fall within the range of what was believed to be possible in Second Temple Judaism. (p. 490)

Casey also argues that the appearance of Jesus to “more than 500 brethren at once” reported by Paul (1 Cor. 15.6) “is paradoxically not as improbable as an appearance to the Eleven all at once” (p. 495). For there are many instances of “strange experiences by large numbers of people at once”.  He refers to Allison (Resurrecting Jesus, 283 n. 333), who cites “the 1968–1969 sightings of the Virgin Mary at St. Mary’s Coptic church in Zeitoun, Egypt; she was reportedly seen by tens of thousands, both Muslims and Christians”. So as Casey concludes, “It is entirely plausible to suppose that some of more than 500 followers of Jesus thought that they saw something on a given occasion, that the dominant interpretation was that it was Jesus, but that he said nothing.” What Casey is describing is a mass form of pareidolia, of which the examples are numerous. While widely reported, such mass visions are never very convincing to everybody present. So this is probably why, as Casey notes:

neither Luke, who cannot have failed to know of this incident from St Paul, nor any of the other Gospel writers, thought this supposedly amazing incident worthy of recording. If this experience was not worth writing up, it cannot have been as unambiguous as conservative Christians like to believe. (p. 495)

In conclusion therefore, at least some of those who followed Jesus during his life accepted that he would be martyred in Jerusalem and would be vindicated by God, to take up a preeminent place in Heaven. Although these disciples had to flee the authorities at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion because of the animosity of some officials, and some appear to have later given up on Jesus (see Matthew 28.17), others continued to believe in Jesus’ message that he was the Son of Man. These faithful disciples saw Jesus appear to them in visions which they experienced in their native Galilee at some point after Jesus’ death. These visions were informed by Jesus’ own teachings about his heavenly exaltation after death, depending as all visions do on the visionary’s existing knowledge. As such visions were considered real, even “more real” than everyday experience, they would have helped to consolidate the early faith of the disciples and their small but growing community.

One of the great benefits and joys of Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth, and one of the reasons I have chosen to review it by concentrating especially on a single chapter, is his careful attention to detail, clear argumentation, and refusal to rely on accepted authority for its own sake. As the most suitable textbook on the historical Jesus for university study, it is resolutely critical in its methodology and conclusions, and does not contain any of the embarrassing confessional acclamations which blight most alternative treatments. In comparison to what has been offered in recent decades, with the partial exception of Dale Allison’s recent work, it provides by far the best introduction to the historical Jesus today, as well as so many original ideas as to make it most worthwhile for the more experienced Jesus scholars. I warmly and enthusiastically recommend Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth to all who are interested in the study of Jesus, the Gospels, and the origins of earliest Christianity.

Previous part: (6) Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance

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26 thoughts on “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (7) – Visionary Experiences of Jesus’ Resurrection

      • One of the great benefits and joys of reading your reviews Deane, is your careful attention to detail, clear argumentation, and refusal to reply on accepted authority for its own sake. No embarrassing amateurish agenda driven groupie opinions. Compared to other reviews generally by other reviewers, your reviews of this book are exceptional. I had no doubt of your independent mind or sophisticated, broadly learned, honest scholarship before, but you are inspiring. There’s hope for this discipline and a point to honest historical inquiry after all. Thank YOU honey!!!

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  1. Hey, I am a fan of yours that has recently gotten really into the subject of the empty tomb. As I have been made aware (at least through my reading)- at least 1/4 of biblical scholars do not believe that the empty tomb story is historical. Yet- there are so few scholars out their activley trying to “teach the controversy”. I mean, it just seems like 1/4 is an awful lot. This isn’t like evolution, where 98% of them believe in it- this is a whole quarter of them. And we’re including very good ones like Ehrman, Crossan, etc. Do you know of any really great resourses on this topic- that teach the controversy, and why both sides disagree with each other? Thanks for your time.

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    • Hi Andyman409, perhaps you could try Michael Bird vs. James Crossley, How did Christianity begin? (2008), or Gerd Lüdemann’s What really happened to Jesus? (1995), and of course Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth (2010). James McGrath has a recent book called The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (2008) which I haven’t read, so I can’t recommend it, but I’m sure it would be informative.

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  2. Steph,
    I suppose that you meant that Godfrey and Carr hate you, Casey and Crossley because you are atheist scholars who nonetheless think Jesus existed. According to Godfrey and Carr any true nonreligous person who has studied the Jesus puzzle should see as clearly as these gentlemen that we are just chasing a mirage. Yes, and I find it pathetic when Godfrey tries to trump Casey without having any knowledge whatsover about Aramaic.

    And thanks again to Deane for this excellent set of reviews. It has been a pleasure to read them.

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  3. Andyman,
    I certainly wouldn´t put Crossan among the “very good ones” who have written extensively about the historical Jesus. Crossan is certainly not in the same legue as bishop Wright (who is?) but his search is in many ways just as theologically driven as the good bishops´ . Crossan personally wants a non-apocalyptic, egalitarian Jesus who didn´t think too highly of himself and naturally finds one after all kinds of torturous arguments leading us through and infinite number of literary strata and hypothetical documents. I gave up on Crossan many years ago when he tried to redefine de definitions of Hell just to show that Jesus didn´t believe in eternal hellfire for some sinners. I asked Crossan in a seminar we had years ago if he would continue being a Christian if Jesus har really preached eternal hellfire and he said no. So it shouldn´t come as a surprise to anybody that Crossan does his utmost to present a Jesus who doesn´t smell of brimstone and hellfire.

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    • I agree with you Antonio, but I’d also include (unfortunately) Ehrman in the same category. I’m afraid his fundamentalist Christian background has gradually distorted his critical ability.

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    • Oh yeah- another quick question. Their seems to be some confusion over excactly HOW many scholars think the empty tomb is ahistorical. You see- the only two studys I know of were the habermas one and this older one william lane craig used during his debate with carrier.

      The Habermas one stated that 75% of scholarly papers being published defend the empty tomb- which really doesn’t help, as christians would be more motivated to defend it then non-christians. The second survey has a similiar number- but it’s outdated (plus, quite frankly, I dont really trust WLC anyways). I have no idea how many scholars think the empty tomb is ahistorical- all I know is that its enough to convince WLC its the majority idea- and its not enough to convince Licona (whostopped using it). Thanks.

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      • I suspect that these percentages are all generalisations, but you’re safe to say that the vast majority of scholars defend the historicity of the empty tomb.

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      • Are you sure? If you include all New Testament “professors” in American seminaries, yes that’s probably true. But if you only include New Testament scholars in independent universities, how do you know? Naturally decent critical New Testament scholarship doesn’t defend the historicity of the empty tomb… :)

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      • Yeah, I was including all the “professors” in US seminaries, who would have to defend an empty tomb or get kicked out of their “academic” institutions.

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      • So, do you think that within serious critical scholarly circles, it is more common to believe the empty tomb story is ficticious (than in general)?Is it really the fact that many of these seminaries require you to believe in a fixed creed that forces scholars to not be able to hold different opinions? And what do you mean by “vast”? Is it 75% of scholars or more of a 90% of scholars?

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      • It’s extremely hard to tell what the exact percentage would be. I really can’t say. But in New Testament studies in particular, including all the odd pseudo-academic US institutions, the field is dominated by quite orthodox or conservative Christians, most of whom would defend the resurrection and the stories about it as a sine qua non. And yes, if you teach at Asbury Theological Seminary, for example, as does Ben Witherington, you would have to affirm inerrancy, in an institution “called to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, Spirit-filled men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world through the love of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit and to the glory of God the Father”. Now, in my definition, such people fail by some way to meet the minimum standards of “serious critical” scholars – but they are all there together at the annual meeting of the SBL.

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      • You say that somewhat pessimistically. It’s not so bad, is it? I mean, the fact that books are still being released defending the idea that the tomb was not empty is a good sign (Than again, there are books defending innerancy as well).

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  4. You quote from the book:
    Luke, who cannot have failed to know of this incident from St Paul, nor any of the other Gospel writers, thought this supposedly amazing incident worthy of recording. If this experience was not worth writing up, it cannot have been as unambiguous as conservative Christians like to believe. (p. 495)

    Should that read “unworthy of recording”?
    Assuming so, what makes you think Pentecost in Acts isn’t the unambiguously amazing write up of the appearance to the 500 from 1 Cor. with heavy literary embellishment?
    I agree with most of what you (and Casey) have to say here about visions in general, but in my view you (and perhaps Casey; I haven’t read it) neglect other sorts of ecstatic experiences that could have been understood as “appearances” of Jesus or the Spirit without actual visual content. We know of plenty of these via the same sources Casey finds sources for the specifically “visionary” character of the first Christianites.
    Agree on the Transfiguration and I could see the Stilling the Storm and Walking on Water pericopes as originating in someone’s visionary experiences too. But I disagree that most or even many of the narrated visions Casey adduces here, Peter’s in Acts, the disciples’ resurrection experiences in the gospels, are anything but literary fictions, farther removed, in time as well as in outlook, from the early ecstatic expression of belief than Casey supposes.

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    • There was a “neither” missing at the beginning of the quote, thanks.

      I wasn’t using visionary experience exclusively of other altered states of consciousness, so I don’t disagree that other experiences could be in play, including auditory. Most such experiences are not “ecstatic”, though. It is always difficult to tell a vision report from a pure literary fiction, so there is always room to argue for a literary fiction. Yet even a literary fiction shows us how these ancient authors conceived of visionary experiences.

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  5. I agree with you 100% Antonio- I just mentioned Crossan since he was one of the more popular scholars that did not believe int eh empty tomb (and has debated it). I believe in the apolclyptic Jesus that, as you’ve rightly pointed out, was dead wrong about many things. I don’t read Ehrman too much (sice his work is for beginners and laymen), so I don’t know how careful he is. Also, thanks for the recommendation- never heard of the book- “Michael Bird vs. James Crossley, How did Christianity begin?” Thanks.

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    • SPCK (2008) – It’s a little bit embarrassing but worth reading. Not James’ favourite book. It has responses by Christian apologist Scot McKnight, and critical scholar Emeritus Professor Maurice Casey… :)

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  6. Agh! That Steven Carr is certainly a piece of work. I am an ex-mythicist, so I actually know where they come from, and it is really embarrassing. As a matter of fact- I became a sort of deist a while ago because I believed that every atheist was a mythicist. Now, it’s just too bad that someone can’t come in and put them straight.

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    • I understand that Maurice Casey is writing a refutation of mythicism. But the thing with fundamentalists is that they don’t really register facts which are outside their worldviews – so the chance that they will be put straight is rather slim. The real benefit of such a book would be for those who might otherwise believe that theirs is a sensible critical position to take.

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  7. Waiting for the return of Jesus’s women, Jesus’s disciples, Jesus’s resurrection, Jesus’s glorious ascension, and Jesus’s Second Coming on his cloud.

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  8. I recommend to read a book by Michael F. Bird “Are you the One to come?” where a scholar critically proves that Jesus clearly saw himself in messianic categories. Who said that evangelical scholar cannot be a critical scholar? I am reviewing the book of Maurice Casey “The Solution to the Son of Man problem”. To be honest his solution to the problem creates more problems for the Son of man debated.

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