Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Posthumous Appearances of Jesus

Over the past year or so I have received numerous queries about 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, specifically as to the statement in 1 Cor15:6 where Paul reports that Jesus had “appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive though some have fallen asleep.” The issue seems to be that appearances to single individuals (like Cephas, James, Mary, Paul, etc.) might seem less convincing than appearances to groups since one person is more prone to hallucinations, or simply being mistaken (as Mary initially was, John 20:14-15). The appearance to multiple individuals at one and the same time, my questioners felt, increased the probability that there was actually something out there to be seen because groups of people would be less subject to the charge of hallucination (“perceptions of objects with no reality”). As one person put it: an appearance by Jesus “to groups of people at once makes it more real, since hallucination is a private event.”1

This raises the question of what exactly was seen by those who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus—if anything. An appearance of Jesus is not unique; for example, through the years many have also claimed to have seen an “apparition” (appearance) of Mary, Jesus’ Mother.2 One reasonable way to think about these posthumous appearances is as follows. If something registers upon the retina of the eye then one is seeing something “physical.” Hence, it is not a hallucination. There was something “there.” It would have been something like what occurred in Matt 28:9, where the women took hold of Jesus’ feet—they not only saw but they physically grasped his feet.

If there is no impression on the retina of the eye at the moment of the putative “seeing,” then it is a hallucination. One might argue, however, that it was a “spirit body” (whatever that might be; see 1 Cor 15:44, 50). If it was a “spirit,” however, then there was no actual “thing” out there to be seen, since spirits are invisible (God is spirit [John 4:24] and is represented as an invisible deity in the Christian Scriptures [Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27]). Yet if there was no actual physical “thing” out there, how does that differ from a hallucination? In that case it must be a mental event. I suppose one might think of it as a vision (something seen in a dream, trance, or experienced during ecstasy), but that is also a mental event. I personally would say the same thing about ghosts or phantoms, which at the very least are not physical, and since they do not physically exist how could they register on the retina?

Ophthalmologists recognize two kinds of afterimages. “An afterimage is an image that continues to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased.”3 The two types are: physiological, or pathological. A physiological afterimage refers to an afterimage that continues after exposure to the original physical image has ceased. Pathological afterimages are of two types: illusory and hallucinatory. An illusory afterimage is “the distorted perception of a real external stimulus.”4 A hallucinatory afterimage is “the projection of an already-encoded visual memory and is similar to a complex visual hallucination: the creation of a formed visual image where none exists.”5

The difficulty with thinking that groups are not subject to the charge of “hallucination” is that hallucinations are also group events. Such an event is called “mass hysteria.”6

So what can reasonably be said about the posthumous resurrection appearances of Jesus: Depending on your point of view, they are as likely or unlikely as the reported apparitions of Mary.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For reported group appearances see: Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-53; John 20:19-23, 26-29; 21:1-14; Acts 1:6-11.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Fundamentalism and its Rhetoric of Fiction

Let’s begin with a few definitions:

Rhetoric: the art of speaking or writing effectively.
Fiction: something invented or feigned by the imagination.
Fundamentalism: A movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teachings.*

One of the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” of Fundamentalism is that the Bible is “The Word of God.” Here are two articles from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).** 

Article I: We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God…
Article X: We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God, can be ascertained with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original…

Fundamentalists who work with the original languages of the Bible, however, know that justifying this confessional tenet is an uphill battle for several reasons. We do not possess a single “autographic” text (i.e., the original author’s copy of the manuscript). The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible date for the most part from the middle ages.

There are over 5000 manuscripts of the New Testament writings. The earliest are in fragmentary condition and date from the third century and later. There are only a few fragments surviving from the second century. Complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from the fourth century and later. None of these manuscripts agree alike in all particulars. Standardization does not begin until the 19th century with the science of textual criticism. Textual critics have established a more or less agreed upon standardized text of the New Testament—not with prayer but with hard-nosed scientific observations.*** While most papyrus and vellum manuscripts date from the third century and later, all of the New Testament, except for Second Peter and perhaps Acts, are thought to have been composed in the first century.

The fundamentalist “fictional rhetoric” is that somehow God has protected the readings of the original author’s personal copy (which has ceased to exist) through the vicissitudes of the historical evolution of copying the manuscripts. Further, fundamentalists confidently assert that the readings of the non-existent autographic versions “can be ascertained with great accuracy” from the some 5000 extant manuscripts. We do not, however, have a single copy of any autographic text in either Hebrew Bible or New Testament. And if we did how would we recognize it as an original author’s copy? The truth, no doubt disturbing to many, is that the Bible is not inerrant. It is a flawed human product; it constitutes Man’s word about God, as well as many other things. And as an afterthought: if there are no autographic copies how can we verify that the later copies and translations “faithfully represent the original”?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*these are dictionary definitions.
***This paragraph touches only on the tip of the iceberg; see the Anchor Bible Dictionary 6:393-435: “Textual Criticism (OT and NT).” These two articles will give readers a good idea of the complexity of the situation text critics face in reconstructing what they regard as the “earliest recoverable form” of New Testament texts (which is not the same as the autographic copy).