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

  1. Great series. Could you possibly make a table of contents post for those of us that want to start with number 1 and go on? It is buried past your first page…unless I’m missing the link in which case sorry.

  2. Pingback: Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? An index to the review of Maurice Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth | Bulletin for the Study of Religion

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