Historical Cultural Context
Dreams and Visions
The various gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances reflect a variety of traditions that are not easy to reconcile. Today’s reading is set “on the evening of that first day of the week,” but the “disciples” (Jn 20:19; are there more than Eleven?) gathered together seem unaware of Peter’s, John’s, and Mary Magdalene’s experiences at the empty tomb “early” on that same day (as recounted in Jn 20:1-10).
Scholars recognize that the evangelists received a diversity of traditions which they proceeded to interpret still further according to the “situation of the churches” for which they wrote and the particular purpose each author set for himself (Pontifical Biblical Commission Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels, 1964, no. IX).
John the evangelist reported the tradition of frightened disciples gathered behind locked doors and added to it a story he created about “doubting Thomas” (Jn 20:24-29; see the reflection on this passage in cycle C for details). This new composition formed a larger scene to explain how the risen Jesus commissioned the disciples to bring new members into the community.
Why do the resurrection appearances receive such diverse interpretations in the Gospels? To answer this question, we need to understand the pan-human experience known as altered states of consciousness and the distinctive function or role this experience plays in individual cultures.
Appearances and Mediterranean Culture
Ninety percent of the world’s cultures normally and routinely experience altered states of consciousness; that is, they get a glimpse of an alternate reality that is richer than the reality they experience most often.
Eighty percent of the Mediterranean societies investigated by researchers, including the Hebrews, Greeks, and ancient Egyptians, have had these same experiences.
Physician-anthropologists observe that Western societies in general, and the United States in particular, appear to have successfully blocked out this normal human capability.
Still, even in these societies, dreams are one familiar and common experience of alternate reality. Dreams are not bounded by time.
From the dreamer’s perspective, the dead consort with the living, and experiences separated by clock and calendar in waking consciousness flow together. Bible readers know that dreams are commonly reported in Scripture (e.g., Gen 37:5-11; Mt 1:20-24; 2:12; 2:13-14; etc.).
Visions are another experience of alternate reality reported frequently in the Bible (Num 12:6; 1 Sam 3:16; Ezek 8:3; 40:1-2; Mt 17:9; etc.). It is culturally plausible to include appearances of the risen Jesus in the category of experiences of alternate reality, or states of altered consciousness.
Function of Resurrection Appearances
Church guidelines remind Bible readers of the necessity to distinguish various layers or stages of tradition in interpreting the Gospels.
- At rock bottom lies the tradition of the events of the life of Jesus, the apostles and all who interacted with them.
- The second stage of tradition is what the apostles preached about what they remembered of Jesus’ words and deeds.
- And the third stage is that of the evangelist writing between forty to sixty years after Jesus’ lifetime on earth.
Since the experience of alternate reality is normal and common in Mediterranean societies, it is possible that those who saw the risen Jesus experienced him in an altered state of consciousness. They caught a glimpse of risen life, a reality that truly exists and includes much more than does ordinary human consciousness.
The function of such experiences in the Mediterranean world is to guide people through otherwise insoluble difficulties and problems. When in doubt about a course of action, or the proper solution to a problem,
Mediterranean people seek help and enlightenment in alternate reality. They know how to enter and exit this dimension of human experience as easily as Westerners know how to drive a car, program VCRs, and enjoy their CDs.
At the second and third levels of tradition reflected in the Scriptures, the preachers and evangelists sometimes reported the tradition they received (the appearances of the risen Jesus) and at other times created a tradition that would reflect common, Mediterranean cultural experience (the doubting Thomas story).
While modern science has blessed Western believers many times over, today’s Gospel highlights one area of human experience it may have impoverished. Efforts to regain this gift of God could pay rich spiritual dividends.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University