Altered States of Consciousness in the Synoptics
John J. Pilch
While he was suffering extreme pain, St. Porphyry (353–420 C.E.) had a trance in which he saw Jesus on the cross alongside the “good thief.” Porphyry was moved to repeat the request and prayer of the “good” thief: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (Luke 23:42). Then Jesus directed the thief to descend from the cross and to console Porphyry. The thief raised Porphyry and brought him to Jesus, who came down from the cross to receive him. When Porphyry awoke from his trance, his pain was gone (Brewer 1884:325).
Others such as Pope Alexander l (118 C.E.) and St. Anthony of Padua claim to have seen Jesus as an infant or little child (Brewer 1884:59). St. Philomena (d. 320 C.E.) held the infant Jesus in her arms (Walsh 1906:1.126). William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, claimed that he saw Jesus, who rebuked him for his “nominal, useless, lazy, professing Christian life” (Huyssen and Huyssen 1922:34). This vision led to his establishing a special mission to the poor known around the world.
Collections of reports like these are usually dismissed by contemporaries as unscientific and uncritical. Scholars tend to appeal to the psychological sciences to explore and evaluate these claims, sometimes in conjunction with theological principles. Theology admits that visions are possible in principle, but each vision has to be tested according to specific criteria; for example, is the revelation divisive or does it promote unity and growth in the Christian community (McBrien 1994:268–69; Jelly 1990)? What should one make of these visions? How should one understand visions reported in the Bible?
In general, historical-critical biblical scholars tend to be skeptical about determining the exact nature of the visions experienced by Jesus and his disciples