Christian apologists will often throw a tantrum and kick up hay over the notion of “mass hallucination.” That’s impossible! Never documented! Absurd on its face! And they’ll especially bring up “the more than five hundred brethren” Paul says the resurrected Jesus “appeared” to (1 Corinthians 15:6). “You can’t explain that!” they’ll say. And what about “the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:5) and “all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:7)! How can that be explained? Jesus must have risen! God be praised!
Formally, this is an equivocation fallacy. Because what critics mean by “group hallucination” is not what Christian apologists mean by appearances of Jesus. So apologists conflate those two, hope you don’t notice, and get the result they want. But if you unpack that, you can easily expose the deception. Mainstream explanations of the visions of Jesus do not say what the apologists claim. Apologists really just want everyone to assume that the encounters with the risen Jesus narrated in the Gospels are true. And not just true, but true in every detail.
The Gospels Are Useless Data
Of course they aren’t, though. Those stories in the Gospels are no more true, than any other wild claim recorded in history for which we have no eyewitness source and no objective corroboration of any kind. Dead people walking about, gaping wounds and all (John 20:25-27, 20:20), morphing into other people (Luke 24:14-16; John 20:14-15, John 21:4-7), becoming blinding balls of light (Acts 9:3-5, Acts 22:6-9, Acts 26:13), announced by celestial monsters (Matthew 28:2-8; Luke 24:4-8; John 20:11-13; Acts 1:10-11, cf. Mark 16:5-8), teleporting (Luke 24:31, 24:36-37; John 20:19, 20:26), flying (Acts 1:9-11). We recognize those kinds of stories. They never turn out to be true. It’s fantasy. And if it were any other religion, Christians would admit that.
The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. They don’t even claim to be. Yet were written an average lifetime after the events they relate, in a period when we cannot establish any eyewitness was still alive. And we can neither locate nor name any witness they claim to have consulted. In fact, not a single Gospel claims to have consulted any eyewitness. Luke just says he used prior Gospels (Luke 1:1-4; see my analysis of the underlying Greek in Not the Impossible Faith, Ch. 7). And we know which ones: Mark and Matthew, or some other now-lost Gospel(s) used by them; yet neither Mark nor Matthew claim to be witnesses, nor write like witnesses, nor cite any witness as a source for anything they relate.
Hence Luke just asserts those Gospels contained a tradition passed down by eyewitnesses; he does not cite any evidence of that assertion being true. The Gospels themselves don’t even say that. And even the authors of the Gospel of John (yes, plural), who fabricate an anonymous eyewitness source completely absent from every previous version of the story (as I demonstrate in On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 500-05), only claim to have read something that unnamed witness wrote…in other words, some previous Gospel, whom they show no sign of having confirmed was actually written by anyone actually there (they just assert they “know” what he wrote is true; giving no indication of how they know that). They don’t even say they’d ever met him. Or knew what his name was. Nor do we get to hear what anyone who really would have been there, actually thought about these narratives. They may have completely denounced them as fabrications. We don’t know. Whatever they said, was deleted from history. If any were even alive to say anything about them at all. We have no evidence any were.
So, no. We don’t get to assume as fact that anything the Gospels relate is true. We don’t even have a good argument for thinking that’s likely. All attempts to claim otherwise, fail on both logic and evidence (see Proving History, Chapters 7 and 13 of Not the Impossible Faith, and Chapter 10 of On the Historicity of Jesus).
That Leaves us with Paul
So all we have left to count on is Paul, whose letters constitute the only text we have from anyone claiming to be an eyewitness to a risen Jesus, and someone who tells us he knew and met some of the eyewitnesses before him (though he didn’t meet them until years after he himself saw Jesus and was already evangelizing across the Middle East). But here’s the huge disconnect. Nothing in Paul, connects with anything in the Gospels. That’s right. Not a single detail in the Gospels, matches anything in Paul. Paul never mentions anyone hanging out with the undead Jesus eating and drinking and fondling him for weeks on end. And Paul’s only reported sequence of events, corresponds to no Gospel we know.
Paul tells us Jesus was seen, and preached his gospel of resurrection and salvation, in revelations (Romans 16:25-26; Galatians 1:11-16; 1 Corinthians 9:1). Not by showing up at the apostles’ door and asking for a hot breakfast. In fact, what Paul does tell us, rules that out. The most detailed account Paul ever gives is in 1 Corinthians 15:5-9:
[I told you] that [Jesus] appeared to Cephas [Peter]; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom most remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one malformed, he appeared to me too, for I am the least of the apostles, who is not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Apologists will lie to you and claim Paul distinguished the nature of the appearance of Jesus to himself, and to the others. To the contrary, he equates them as identical (“me, too”). He makes no distinctions other than time (“last of all”) and divine motive (“I persecuted the church”). That he meant anything else here, is a false assumption, based on importing later fake myths, and “assuming” Paul agreed with them. He never says such a thing. It is not credible that he did. He clearly believed he saw Jesus in just the same way as the “apostles before him” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 9:1; Galatians 1:6-20). Even his calling himself “one malformed,” literally a miscarriage (ektrôma), refers to his being a monster, because he was a persecutor (as he directly tells us), so he means it’s a miracle God chose to include him. This implies he knew, and everyone knew, his vision was the same as every other apostle’s.
But Paul tells us what his vision was like. Paul says Jesus appeared to him not as a “man,” not in “flesh and blood,” but “through a revelation” (di’ apokalypseôs: Galatians 1:11-12), which Paul describes as God revealing Jesus “inside me” (Galatians 1:16). He never says anyone saw Jesus in any other way. So we cannot assume he or anyone thought he had. All we have are myths and legends a lifetime later, from no known or credible source. Paul had revelations like this all the time, complete with schizophrenic conversations with Jesus inside his mind (see 2 Corinthians 12:1-9). In fact the evidence shows the earliest Christians were prone to hallucinating, and believed their hallucinations real (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 124-41). Like many schizotypal cults throughout history (ibid.; plus pp. 159-63).
So what mainstream historians are saying when they say the visions of the risen Jesus “were hallucinations” is that the apostles received inner experiences, inside their mind, that convinced them they had “seen” Jesus. They do not mean “they met a walking corpse, manhandled him, dined with him, and sat in on his scholarly lectures.” They do not mean even just “saw a walking corpse.” Some have speculated things close to that, like imagining that Paul’s brief four-verse history of the visions is a decades-in-the-making exaggeration of what actually began as momentary and fleeting bereavement hallucinations. But we don’t even need to posit that. And I personally don’t think that’s the most likely account of what Paul relates. It’s just more likely than actual walking corpses.
In antiquity, distinctions were not even routinely made between hallucinations and dreams. Both would be described as “seeing” the god, as the god “appearing” to them, as “revelations” from the god. Both were believed to be real, actual manifestations of the god (see William Harris, Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity). So we can’t even tell if Paul means by “appeared” simply “appeared in a dream.” Did Peter have an extended dream about conversing with a resurrected Jesus explaining to him all the things he’d been hoping were true, and then awoke, assured Jesus had really appeared to him? He would have excitedly told the others, explaining how Jesus had appeared to him and appointed him an apostle of the new gospel. And so inspired, and wanting desperately for it to be true, and to be apostles too, each then had his own dream in which Jesus elected them to the apostolate. And they then inspired yet more followers to the same. This would be 100% consistent with everything Paul says. And therefore, we can’t rule it out. And if we can’t rule it out, we can’t “rule in” anything else, much less anything far more improbable, like actual resurrections of eternal space aliens.
It could just as easily been some combination of dreams and hallucinations, as they would not have seen any relevant difference, and thus never remarked on it. An appearance of a god was an appearance of a god.
The Five Hundred Brethren
The key wording in verse 6 is:
Epeita ôphthê epanô pentakosiois adelphois ephapax ex hôn hoi pleiones menousin heôs arti tines de ekoimêthêsan.
Epeita [Then] ôphthê [he appeared] epanô [to more than] pentakosiois [five hundred] adelphois [brothers] ephapax [all at once] ex [out of] hôn [whom] hoi [the] pleiones [majority] menousin [remain] heôs [until] arti [the present] tines, [some] de [however] ekoimêthêsan [have fallen asleep].
There are several things to notice here, that apologists and even many mainstream scholars gloss over.
First, this is the only appearance on Paul’s whole list that is “all at once” (ephapax). That means none of the other appearances he lists were “all at once.” So when he says Jesus appeared “to the twelve” in verse 5, he means individually, on separate occasions; not to all twelve “at once.” Otherwise, he’d have said so. As he does here, for the five hundred. Likewise, to “all the apostles” in verse 7 means individual apostles had individual experiences over time. Not a mass appearance all at once. Indeed, Paul can be read as including himself in that number, simply specifying that he was the last one. Because he does not say “then” Jesus appeared to him, but “then” Jesus appeared to all the apostles “and last of all me too,” meaning, he was the last of the apostles he just mentioned. Certainly other apostles must have been in that group, whom we know are, like Paul, Diaspora Greeks and not Galilean peasants: certainly Apollos, possibly Andronicus and Junias (or Junia). They would not have been on hand to experience a mass vision. They must have had individual experiences (whether dreams or visions) on isolated occasions. Just like Paul. Paul is clearly saying only “the more than five hundred brethren” got to have a mass experience, that indeed this was the most remarkable thing about it.
Second, Paul cannot mean Jesus hung around with his followers for days or weeks. Paul’s use of “all at once” for only one single event, and his entire sequence (Cephas, and then each of the Twelve, and then the brethren, and then James, and then each of the Apostles, and then Paul), entails these were isolated, momentary visions. They came, and went. Paul therefore cannot mean a lingering Jesus who stuck around and dined with them for days on end. That simply isn’t what he is describing here. At all. And yet this fact strongly supports explanations from the cognitive science of religious experience: these were visions; not a reanimated body. A reanimated body would stick around.
Third, this is not an apostolic election. Paul says Jesus appeared to more than five hundred brethren on this occasion; not apostles. Instead, he reserves the apostolic appearances for other verses (verse 7, “to James and all the apostles”; verse 5, “to Cephas and the twelve”). He very conspicuously does not say this was an appearance to “the apostles.” And that distinction matters. It means Paul (and everyone else who heard this same story, whatever it was) regarded this appearance as different from all the others. Because it did not result in these brothers becoming “over five hundred apostles.” Apostles were elected in separate, individual visions, in which Jesus appointed them and “sent them forth” (the meaning of apostolos: messenger, ambassador; from the verb apostellô, “to send forth”), just as Paul relates of himself.
Paul also must mean multiple revelations, of course. In verse 6 “all the apostles” would mean Cephas and the Twelve, too; but they are already listed as receiving their revelations in verse 5. So “all the apostles” (not “all the other apostles”) must mean Cephas and the Twelve had further revelations. Which also means the James in verse 7 could be anyone, even the Pillar among the Twelve. And what we may have here is a second leader, James, having a new vision that endorsed electing more apostles, inspiring The Twelve to have the same confirming revelation, and then many others receiving their own now-approved revelations of election—the last to exploit this being Paul, whose reference to being “the last” must mean the central leadership shut that process down after hearing about him (after which anyone claiming to see Jesus was declared a liar or the victim of deceiving spirits).
But regardless of whether that’s the case, what is clear is that there was something unique about this appearance to “more than five hundred.” It was different in being “all at once” and it was different in not being an apostolic election like all the other appearances were. It seems only to have confirmed to the brethren that what the first apostles were saying was true. Without allowing these brethren to claim they had thus been chosen by Jesus to be apostles as well.
Was This a Scribal Mistake?
As I explained over a decade ago in The Empty Tomb (pp. 192-93), there is only one event anywhere in the Gospels that comes anywhere near to matching this. The Pentecost ecstasy narrated in Acts 2:1-4:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
That would have been fifty days after Jesus died (the Pentecost).
Paul’s sequence—Peter, the Twelve (Disciples?), Hundreds of Non-Commissioned Brethren, James, All Apostles, Paul—matches no Gospel we have. In no Gospel is Peter the first to see Jesus (others always are, and always before the Twelve as a whole do). In no Gospel is there any special appearance to anyone named James (just the same whole appearances to the Twelve). In no Gospel are there any additional apostolic elections by revelation after the Twelve. Other than Paul, who does get to be “last of all” in the Acts narrative. Which narrative is the first to invent any other distinction between Jesus “appearing” to Paul (an amorphous light in the sky, and words heard inside his head) and Jesus “appearing” to the Twelve (the fondled, shape-shifting, teleporting, flying, angelically announced, dinner-eating corpse-lecturer).
But Acts says there were about 120 brothers and sisters (not apostles). Ten times twelve being a suspiciously convenient biblical number, we can doubt this was based on any kind of actual census of the church at the time. It probably is just a way of saying “over a hundred,” the actual number not being known. It’s bizarre though that the author of Acts didn’t say “about five hundred” to line his account up with Paul. Could this be because Paul’s letters did not then say “above five hundred brethren” when the author of Acts consulted them? It’s distinctly possible. There are three pieces of evidence for that conclusion: (1) that no Gospel ever mentions an appearance “to over 500,” not even Luke-Acts (yet how could they have failed to have built that out, if they had such a precious verse in Paul to work from?); (2) that “over five hundred” looks suspiciously similar in Greek to “over the Pentecost”; and (3) Paul actually links the resurrection of Jesus to the Pentecost, and indeed in the very same chapter of First Corinthians that he mentions an appearance to hundreds of brethren.
Shortly after listing the appearance sequence, Paul writes “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The firstfruits is a reference to the Pentecost ritual of offering the “first fruits” of the harvest to God (per Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). It seems a remarkable coincidence that Paul said the risen Jesus was akin to the Pentecost offering in the same place he mentions an appearance to over a hundred “all at once,” and Acts narrates an appearance to over a hundred on Pentecost “when they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1)? Might Paul’s letter have originally read epi pentêkostês adelphois rather than epanô pentakosiois adelphois? That would have meant Paul said Jesus appeared “during the Pentecost to the brethren.” In other words, he didn’t say how many brethren were there, only that “the brethren” all experienced a vision, at the Pentecost. This would explain where the author of Acts 2 got the idea for a mass vision of the brethren on Pentecost.
If someone screwed up on copying Paul’s original text—say, slipping from epi into epô, or pentêkostês to pentêkostois, or any of a number of common errors we find throughout ancient manuscripts—a later corrector would have had to make sense of the resulting mishmash and come up with a fix. They could easily assume epô must have meant epanô, and therefore pentêkostês must have been a mistake for pentakosiois; or that epi pentêkostois must have been a mistake for epanô pentakosiois. We have examples throughout ancient manuscripts of these very kinds of corrections and emendations. And we know the early copyists of the New Testament were unprofessional amateurs prone to all kinds of mistakes (see Three Things to Know). Such an emendation is even more likely if the corrector faced with the garbled text was a Gentile not fully immersed in the Jewish ritual calendar, and thus “Pentecost” wouldn’t have been the first thing occurring to him as what Paul could have meant.
The spelling is even weirdly close. Acts says the event happened tês pentêkostês, the day “of the Pentecost”; 1 Corinthians now says the event involved pentakosiois, over “five hundred” brothers. Acts says the event occurred epi to auto, “in the same place”; 1 Corinthians, that the event was epanô, to “more than” a certain number. Acts says the event happened when pantes homou, “all were together”; 1 Corinthians, that the event happened ephapax, “all at once.” The similarities seem too numerous to be a coincidence. Has Luke remodeled Paul? Or did Paul originally describe a Pentecostal appearance and not an appearance to “more than five hundred”?
Either way, many experts have suggested or concluded the Pentecost event in Acts 2 is indeed the event Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 15:6. For example: Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology: §126.96.36.199 (pp. 100-08); Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 258); Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 730); and Raymond Collins, First Corinthians, pp. 535-36. Opponents of that equation tend to be Christian apologists who don’t like what accepting it entails for their agenda. N.T. Wright, for example (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 324-25). Because admitting this, would undermine his case for a walking-corpse dinner-guest.
What Was It Then?
So it seems significantly probable that this appearance to (maybe hundreds) of brethren “all at once” is not only the only mass event Paul knew, and also something different from what he and the other apostles experienced, but also the event lying behind the fanciful narrative of Acts 2, the Pentecost ecstasy.
The author of Acts lies and exaggerates a lot (many examples are documented in On the Historicity of Jesus, Ch. 9). He often takes what we know was probably a more mundane phenomenon, and spins it with fantasy into something amazing. We see this with his treatment of glossolalia in the same chapter: we know from an actual eyewitness (Paul) that speaking in tongues never actually meant a magically acquired knowledge of foreign languages, but the same thing it means today: random unintelligible babbling, that required special “interpreters” to understand (see On the Historicity of Jesus, pp. 124-25). Yet the author of Acts spins it into a fabulous narrative about magically acquiring human languages.
We can assume the author of Acts did the same thing with the Pentecost vision. Probably the original story was something about seeing lights in the sky or the air and feeling a presence (or even hearing voices in one’s mind). Not only because this appears to underlie the same author’s fabulization of the appearance to Paul—which we can infer was also a celestial or aerial light, and an inner voice—but also because this is, like glossolalia, a common and well-understood type of mass hallucination. In fact, it’s the best documented kind of natural mass hallucination: a mass of people seeing some kind of miraculous “light” in the air or sky, and being convinced it’s the apparition of a divine being.
The most famous example being the Fatima Sun Miracle, which we know (because we had the ability to carefully record the events and interrogate those present at them) was really just an ecstasy-inspired hallucination of some unusual light phenomena associated with the sun, really only experienced internally. Just an altered state of consciousness; a perceptual confabulation of the human brain. This isn’t the only example in history. Other kinds of mass hallucination of light occurred at Our Lady of Assiut and Our Lady of Zeitoun. Many a mass UFO report appears to relate to misperception of an amorphous light phenomenon. Similar experiences have been studied in Buddhists.
The significant fact for us is that everyone who experienced the “vision” at Fatima came away claiming they had “seen” the Virgin Mary; that a celestial woman named Mary had indeed “appeared” to them. Only upon careful interrogation would you even know that what they meant was just an ambiguous dance of light. And yet unlike the Fatima incident, for the event Paul refers to we don’t get to access what anyone actually was saying or claiming. If all the eyewitness testimony in the Fatima sun miracle were destroyed, and all we had was a report twenty years later that the Virgin Mary “appeared to hundreds at once,” would it make any sense to conclude she really did in fact appear? Of course not. The only reason we can’t prove how the confusion came about from “hallucinating a bouncing sun” to “Virgin Mary appeared” is our lack of access to accurate reports of what happened, not the falsity of the conclusion. What we know for certain is that we have very good evidence that these kinds of mass hallucinations occur, and get rapidly misreported as gods or spaceships “appearing” to masses of excited observers. We have no evidence that corpses rise from the dead. And when it comes to explaining what has happened in history, when we don’t have access to any more data about what happened, what is well documented as a thing that happens is far more likely than what has never been reliably documented at all.
The most probable thing that could have happened is that all the brethren in the congregation at that time, riling themselves up into an ecstasy on Pentecost owing to its prophetic and religious significance, and the exciting and hope-fulfilling claims of the Twelve, had a Fatima-style mass experience, in an altered state hallucinating amorphous lights above them, and feeling the Presence of the Lord, and then concluded this was an instance of Jesus having appeared to them, now in his celestial and supernatural form. Probably no auditory element was present, no verbal revelation, not only because none is recorded (not even in Acts), but that would have made this into an apostolic election. And Paul clearly does not think it was. These brethren did not become, and thus are not described as, apostles. The apostles appear in the next verse.
Scientifically, what happened was the same as in the Fatima incident: each individual had his own private hallucination of a miraculous light, each one different from the next, but because it was amorphous and only communicable in the abstract (“I see lights above us!”) there was no way to “compare notes” (even if they were inclined to) so as to discover they were seeing different things (and they likely wouldn’t conclude so anyway: the believers in the Fatima case didn’t). And they all had this experience at once because all were exciting themselves into the same altered state on the same religious occasion, just as with the Fatima events. The well-studied scientific facts of anchoring and memory contamination and the power of suggestion and need of belonging (and thus the need to have seen or felt the same things as one’s comrades, or at least claim to have) would ensure the resulting story became more and more homogeneous over time.
Just as it came to be told that the Virgin Mary “appeared” to hundreds of witnesses at Fatima, so it came to be told that Jesus “appeared” to hundreds of witnesses at Pentecost. There is no evidence against this being what happened. And it has the highest prior probability, given all the background knowledge we have about how these claims commonly originate and come to be told. Corpses don’t rise. But masses of people do claim divine beings have appeared to them—when all that really happened was a subjective ecstatic hallucination of lights in the sky. It thus doesn’t matter if any Corinthians could “check” Paul’s claim by finding any of these people. If they even did (I thoroughly cover that problem in Chs. 7 and 13 of Not the Impossible Faith), the witnesses would simply report they saw Jesus as a fabulous light, and so decisively felt his presence that they could not be mistaken, and the usual psychosomatic miracles of “tongues” and “healing” proved it. Which is what the Corinthians would already know. And back then, who could prove it wasn’t real?
So there remains no difficulty in explaining what Paul reports to us about what maybe “hundreds” of brethren all saw on one single occasion. And we are left with no reliable way from this information to be confident Jesus rose from the dead. We can’t access eyewitness accounts, nor vet them in any way. And that leaves us with no other conclusion we can claim probable except that what most likely happened is what usually happens when the marvelous comes to be believed and is embellished over time. That means phenomena we have well and securely documented—not phenomena that has never been documented, like corpses restored to life. Indeed, we have no evidence connecting anything of Paul’s Epistles with the later Gospel accounts. For all we can ascertain, Paul had never heard the resurrection tales in the Gospels nor any of the details in them. Nor had any Christian for many decades. Not even, so far as we can tell, had the author of the first Gospel (Mark) ever heard them. Mark’s narrative has no account of the risen Jesus. What he heard about that besides, could have been anything. It’s only after Mark that fantastical tales of the walking and eating and fondling dead come about.
All we actually have to explain is why Paul would write 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. What experiences was he aware of and thus intending when he wrote? Paul specifically mentions only revelations, and writes exclusively of inner experiences. He told the Galatians “God…was pleased to reveal his Son inside me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” He talks about conversations with Jesus inside his head (e.g. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Paul never mentions anyone ever experiencing the risen Jesus in any other way. Even on the one occasion he reports a group experience to hundreds of brethren, that’s the only experience Paul says happened “all at once.” And that cannot be identified as anything more substantial than “suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them” (Acts 2:1-4). Amorphous, indistinct, ecstatically hallucinated sounds and lights. Which they simply concluded was an appearance of Jesus.
That’s impossible? Nope. It fits all known science. Never documented? Nope. We have well-documented examples. Absurd on its face? Nope. Entirely plausible; indeed, highly probable. To deny this, you’d need to rule it out. But you have no access to any of the evidence you’d need to do that. And that’s the end of that.