Hector Avalos wrote the following to me in an email yesterday:
I argue that the Medjugorje apparitions are an excellent laboratory for testing claims about the Jesus stories. There you have all the elements that are usually used to argue for the historicity of Jesus:
1. Witnesses that have little social standing.
2. Claimed physical contact with a person otherwise regarded as dead.
3. Creation of "gospels" within a short span of time, as opposed to the claim that legends need long periods of time to form.
4. Disavowal of the witnesses by main authorities, and yet popular support growing enormously.
5. No recantations of the witnesses despite opposition and persecution.
6. The Medjugorje witnesses were subjected to more scientific tests than anything we have for the Jesus witnesses.
There are many others, too. In short, I don't think the that historical Jesus can be discussed again without thorough acquaintance with events such as those at Medjugorje.
I am not aware of any in-depth study of this phenomena by evangelical Christians. As Steve pointed out in the comment section, Craig and other apologists constantly say that people in NT times would have checked out the disciple's claim that Jesus was risen. Yet, I don't see Craig or any other apologist checking out these apparitions at Medjugorje. I wonder why not? Could it be that they just dismiss it as emotionalism fueled by superstition? Perhaps, that is what the people in NT times thought when they heard the disciples' claim and so they didn't bother to check it out either.
There have been studies of the phenomena at Medjugorje by others, however. A book published in 1987 by Rene Laurentin and Henri Joyeux, entitled: Scientific and Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje . Joyeux, a medical doctor, was the Professor of Oncology in the Faculty of Medicine at Montpellier, France at the time of the study. Laurentin, a priest, a Marian apologist and historian, synthesized the research and co-authored the book with Joyeux. I have not personally read the book but I have it on order. However, Hector Avalos, wrote an article in 1994 for Free Inquiry in which he examined the evidence presented by Joyeux and Laurentin. The article is entitled: Mary at Medjugorje: A Critical Inquiry .
Joyeux concluded that the visionaries had no mental illness of any sort. The apparitions are not sleep or dream or hallucination in
the medical or pathological sense of the word. This is scientifically excluded by the electro-encephalogram and by clinical observation. He also excludes "any element of deceit." Since Joyeux could not find any condition that he would label "pathological," he concludes, "We are dealing with a perception which is essentially objective both in its causality and in its scope." As to the cause of the youngsters' experience, he says, "The most obvious answer is that given by the visionaries who claim to meet the Virgin Mary, Mother of God." In sum, Laurentin and Joyeux conclude that there is no scientific or natural explanation available to account for the reports of the visionaries. More important, they conclude that the absence of any condition labeled as "pathological" is evidence that the reported experience of the visionaries is authentically supernatural.
So, the doctor and the priest conclude that the visionaries were (1) not mentally ill, (2) not hallucinating nor dreaming, and (3) not lying. Their conclusion was that the phenomena was indeed supernatural.
Avalos points out that studies have shown that hallucinations are not necessarily due to mental illness. There is a misconception that hallucinations are either caused by psychosis or by drugs. Instead, there is evidence that otherwise perfectly normal and sober people do experience hallucinations. An article in the Scientific American, Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased, cites a research study that concluded that 80% of elderly people experience hallucinations of their deceased spouse. A third of those studied heard their recently departed partner speak to them. One of the most thorough studies of hallucinations, Sensory Deception: A Scientific Analysis of Hallucination, written by Peter Slade and Richard Bentall, estimates that 7 to 14% of people have experienced an hallucination. In the article, Hallucinations, in the Encylopedia of Psychology (ed. R. J. Corsini), it is reported that anywhere from 1/8 to 2/3 of the normal population experience hallucinations.
Why do otherwise normal people come to believe that they are witnessing non-occurring entities and events? The Barber and Calverley experiment [Toward a Theory of "Hypnotic" Behavior] as well as a host of recent research, indicates that human acts of perception always involve interpretations and inferences that may be held in common by large groups of people. Raw visual and auditory data are combined with inferences about what was thought to be seen and heard. We often select out of the large raw input of visual and auditory data those that we regard as important and that confirm expectations, especially if they are desirable.
Many recent experiments show that the human mind is biologically wired to interpolate many expected images or portions thereof, even if such images are not objectively present. People often form mental images of all types of objects, real and unreal.
Once a believer is convinced that an inference is valid, then the conclusion may be considered sufficiently certain to contradict or suppress raw visual data. Any further disconfirmation of their interpretation may be either ignored or disregarded in favor of the inference. This type of avoidance of disconfirming data among Marian devotees is clearly manifested in the oft-repeated dictum: "To those who believe, no proof is necessary; to those who doubt,
no proof is sufficient."
If, as in the Barber and Calverley experiments, an average of at least 33 percent of people with no obvious pathology can report clearly seeing or hearing events that are not occurring, then it would not be extraordinary to find 333 "normal" people in a parish of at least one thousand believers who could report seeing or hearing non-occurring events, especially when, as is the case with supposed Marian apparitions, the events in question are believed to be not only possible but desirable as well.
If, as in the Barber and Calverley experiment, at least 2.5 percent believe what they are seeing or hearing is actually present, then it would not be extraordinary to find at least twenty-five people in a parish of one thousand members who actually believe what they are seeing and hearing is present in real time and space.
Avalos believes that the social setting in which many of these visions takes place is very conducive to such claims. He writes: Imagine living in a subculture that constantly and repeatedly suggests to its members the desirability of experiencing a Marian apparition. Imagine living in a subculture where young people who have claimed to have seen Marian apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, and other places also are beloved role models.
In addition, other cues within in the subculture can influence the nature of the visions. . . .it also provides detailed and coherent imagery of how the Virgin Mary ought to look and speak. According to P. and I. Rodgers, a picture of Mary supported by a cloud rising above Medjugorje has been present in the church of the visionaries since about 1971. Not surprisingly, the youngsters' description of the Virgin is quite consistent with the picture to which they were exposed for years.
So, it seems to me that we are justified in being skeptical of these visions. Many within the Catholic Church are themselves skeptical. Bishop Pavao Zanic, the former bishop for the diocese which includes Medjugorje, denies the validity of the visions. He even maintains that it is a conspiracy of the Franciscans. Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the group that recommends individuals for sainthood, a requirement of which is to have worked miracles), as recently as January of this year expressed his strong doubts about the authenticity of the visions.
I do not question the sincerity of those who claim to have experienced miraculous phenomena in Medjugorge but I do question the reality of it. Pilgrim, the individual who commented on yesterday's post, says he saw the sun "spinning" in the sky on many occasions and on one occasion he saw it "dancing." He describes what he saw:
The sun seemed to descend towards me. In fact, I thought it about to crash to the earth. It then receded, and then moved to my right across the sky to a two o’clock position before returning to its starting point. From there it again started to descend towards me and once more receded. Its next move was to my left and a 10 o’clock position. When this happened I literally had to turn my head to follow its movement. Once more it moved back to its starting point before descending towards me. Finally, it settled back to its original position, pulsating and spinning. The whole event probably lasted between five and ten minutes.
Once again, I do not doubt Pilgrim's sincerity but I do deny the objective reality of what he saw. If the sun had literally moved around in the sky in the fashion he describes, it would have caused enormous consequences on the earth. It would have been reported by every observatory in the world. It just could not have happened in any objective sense.
What are the ramifications of all of this for the claims in the NT that Jesus was seen alive after his death? I think we can conclude that at least some of those who claimed to see him probably did see something. What they saw, however, was not, in my opinion, objective reality. They were not crazy. They were not lying. They were not on drugs. They experienced a phenomena that was not unique to them or their time in history. Such visions have been reported almost since the invention of writing. We don't understand everything involved in this phenomena but I don't believe there is any need to conclude they are supernatural.