Kris Komarnitsky has a guest post on Common Sense Atheism, in which he summarizes the argument he made in his book of the same name, Doubting Jesus' Resurrection. I have not read the book yet and I am sure it contains much more detailed evidence in support of that argument, but if the blog post is an accurate summary I can't say that I'm impressed. What follows are some critical comments.
Komarnitsky begins by noting that one of the most popular arguments for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus construes the latter as the only plausible explanation for the early Christian beliefs summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7:
For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (emphasis mine)In this passage Paul reminds his Corinthian converts of the traditions he passed on to them, which he had previously received from others. Some skeptics argue that Paul's claim to having received this information about Jesus is on the same level as his claim that the gospel he preached was not of human origin, that he had received it in a revelation from the heavenly Christ (Galatians 1:11-12). But in his letter to the Corinthians Paul is explicit that these traditions were not original to him: "Whether then it was I or they [referring here to the other apostles who had seen the risen Jesus], this is the way we preach and this is the way you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:11) Scholars rightly then take this passage as reflecting the beliefs of a broad cross-section of the very early Christian movement about Jesus' resurrection.
The question becomes how to account for the origin of these traditions (also how they arose and became established in such a short time after Jesus' death). Scholars like N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig argue that the most plausible explanation for these beliefs posits the actual bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Komarnitsky tries to argue that the resurrection is not the only plausible explanation by offering one of his own, based on cognitive dissonance.
He begins by making the strange claim that in focusing on the above passage from 1 Corinthians as evidence for resurrection belief, N.T. Wright "is temporarily granting for the sake of argument the position of many in non-traditional scholarship that the gospels are mostly legends, including the discovered empty tomb tradition." Wright nowhere does any such thing in his work. It is one thing to start one's argument by examining a piece of evidence around which there is a broad and secure consensus as to date and origin-which implies bracketing questions regarding the reliability of other accounts-and quite another to grant, even temporarily, that the other accounts are legendary.
We can see why Komarnitsky has chosen to describe Wright's argumentative move in this way in the very next paragraph: "If the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend, not only is Jesus’ resurrection effectively ruled out, but so are several non-traditional explanations for the rise of early Christian belief..." Komarnitsky provides no further argument for the position that the empty tomb tradition is a legend (though I imagine he does so in his book), and I can only surmise that his loaded description of Wright's argument was meant to give some prima facie plausibility to this latter claim, together with the appeal to the 'many in non-traditional scholarship' who concur. He moves directly from having ruled out the historicity of the empty tomb-with no supporting argument whatsoever-to the 'only other' plausible explanation of early Christian belief, that based on cognitive dissonance. This is a very sloppy move, especially since the N.T. Wright website that Komarnitsky himself links to in his post provides a very good summary of the reasons why Wright thinks the empty tomb and appearance narratives are not legendary. Without engaging with those reasons Komarnitsky cannot assume that he has ruled out the traditional explanation.
Komarnitsky then defines cognitive dissonance as "the human tendency to rationalize a discontinuity between reality and one’s current beliefs in such a way that current beliefs are modified or added to instead of being rejected." He does not give a more detailed description of the phenomenon, including the variety of manifestations in different contexts, and he does not explain how this is supposed to apply to the early Christian movement: what exactly was the discontinuity between reality and the beliefs of Jesus' first followers? Was it simply the fact that Jesus had died, or that the anticipated violent overthrow of Roman oppression and the national emancipation of Israel had not been realized? Or both? Or neither of these? And how did this discontinuity lead to the specific form of resurrection belief that Paul outlines in his letter? Komarnitsky simply notes that cognitive dissonance "[s]ometimes...results in extremely radical rationalizations" and that "we have solid examples of this from other religious movements in history, such as the Millerite movement, the Sabbatai Zevi movement, and others." Here too, however, he does not show how the examples of those movements parallel those of the early Christian movement.
Just as he did with the empty tomb traditions, Komarnitsky then simply takes for granted that cognitive dissonance can account for early Christian belief about Jesus' resurrection and then tries to explain the other aspects of Paul's summary as the natural elaboration of the original impulse to reduce cognitive dissonance: "A few individual hallucinations of the beloved leader would not be unusual, nor would a fringe legend of a simultaneous appearance to over 500 people (the latter seeming a reasonable conclusion given that this appearance tradition does not show up in any other literary source)." But Komarnitsky does not discuss Paul's claim that of the 500 people who supposedly saw Jesus at once, most were still alive (though some had died). This is a bold claim to make on behalf of a fringe legend, especially when made by a missionary whose status and authority was being vigorously questioned (to the point where Paul had to concede that Jesus' appearance to him was "as to one untimely born", 1 Corinthians 15:8). Even if it were a legend it could not properly be called 'fringe' if a substantial fraction of the very small early Christian movement endorsed it. There are any number of reasons why the appearance to the 500 does not feature in the Gospels, the most obvious being that there was nothing in it that served the literary and theological interests of the evangelists; at any rate, this possibility seems just as likely as the 'fringe legend' hypothesis given how little we know about it (only its bare mention in Paul's letter). In any case, Komarnitsky does not explain how these 'fringe legends' resulted from the cognitive dissonance reduction process at work in the first disciples, so there is no further grist for the mill.
Komarnitsky further argues that the appeal by Paul and the other apostles to having seen the risen Jesus was conceived as a means to establish a hierarchy of authority in the early Christian movement: "If there was a need to designate leaders in the new movement – those who had the ability to teach, preach, and defend the group’s new beliefs – the traditions of the appearances to the Twelve and to all the apostles could simply be designations of authority." In particular, a visitation by the risen Jesus seems to have been a prerequisite of apostolic authority, as evidenced by Paul's passionate appeal: "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1) Komarnitsky quotes Stephan Patterson's conjecture about why the appearance traditions seem to have expanded in scope, starting with Peter and then extending to the Twelve and others:
Both the Twelve and the church have everything to gain by the assertion that the risen Lord had also appeared to the Twelve. Including the Twelve in the appearance formulae probably derives from a decision on the part of the early church to expand the sphere of authority that was originally confined to the “pillars” to include the Twelve as well. It is not so likely that it derives from an actual experience of the risen Jesus….[This] could also be said about the claim in 1 Cor 15:7 that Jesus also appeared to “the apostles”… [We] have in this expression a second authority-bearing designation from earliest Christianity… The inclusion of “the apostles” in this formula… derives from an ecclesial decision to expand the sphere of authority beyond James to include others who could be trusted with the task of preaching. (The God of Jesus, 1998, pg. 234-236)First of all, there is an internal inconsistency in Patterson's argument. He suggests that an authority which was originally held only by the 'pillars' of the Jerusalem church (Peter, James the brother of Jesus and John; cf. Galatians 2:9) was later expanded to include the Twelve and then all the apostles. But 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 has James receiving a visitation only after those granted to Peter, the twelve and the 500 brethren. If the tradition recorded there reflects the original sequence by which authority was granted to various members of the Jesus movement-and that is the upshot of Patterson's argument-then the authority of the risen Jesus could not have been originally confined to the pillars, since James didn't see the risen Jesus until after many others had done so. So who were the original authoritative seers of the risen Jesus? Patterson's own suggestion seems quite arbitrary, not at all a good explanation for the tradition as it is actually recorded in Paul's letter.
But there is a more serious problem for the overall hypothesis: while it is plausible that the leaders of a new religious movement would claim authority through alleged religious experience, this conjecture does not explain the specific content of that experience. Suppose Jesus had simply died and a movement carried on in his name: why didn't the apostles simply claim to be the tradents of the Master's authoritative word, the guardians of his memory, like the companions of Muhammad after his death? Why did the claim to authority take the specific form of bodily resurrection of a single individual in advance of the general resurrection? Why was seeing the risen Jesus a prerequisite of apostleship? So we are back to the question of what accounts for the rise of the belief in Jesus' resurrection, which this hypothesis fails to do.
Finally, Komarnitsky suggests that "there would naturally have been an immediate need, almost reflex, in a growing religious sect to ground their beliefs in sacred scriptures." This is certainly true, but finding a grounding for beliefs in the scriptures does not explain the origin of those beliefs in the first place, especially in the case at hand. For one thing, while Paul says that Christ died and rose again 'in accordance with the Scriptures', he does not say that his burial was in accordance with the Scriptures. This is puzzling, since there was a relevant text that would have been readily available: Isaiah's claim that the suffering servant "was buried like a criminal/he was put in a rich man’s grave." (Isaiah 53:9) This suggests that when Paul refers to Jesus' burial he did not have Scripture in mind, but rather the recollection of an event that was perceived to have actually happened. Furthermore, if the traditions about Jesus' empty tomb and resurrection resulted from scriptural reflection, it is remarkable that, as N.T. Wright observes, "the [empty tomb and resurrection] stories are told with virtually no embroidery from the Hebrew Scriptures...the story the evangelists have told up to this point—of Jesus’ triumphal entry, his actions in the Temple, his teaching on the Mount of Olives, the Last Supper, the arrest, the hearings, and the crucifixion—not only provides a steady narrative crescendo in itself, but also includes a crescendo of biblical quotation, allusion, reference, and echo. Even the burial narrative has its biblical resonances. After this, the resurrection narratives convey the naked feeling of a solo flute piping a new melody after the orchestra has fallen silent. Granted that the evangelists felt so free, as our own scholarly traditions have insisted, to develop, expand, explain, theologize, and biblicize their story sources, why did they refuse to do so, here of all places?"
Of course I have not given a full discussion of these crucial texts in this post. And I grant that Komarnistky has developed these arguments in greater detail in his book, presumably responding to the kinds of objections that I and Wright himself raise against the cognitive dissonance hypothesis. But if Komarnitsky's guest post is meant to be a persuasive piece in its own right, it fails utterly to convince. There are just too many unargued assumptions and shoddy argumentative moves. There may be a plausible secular explanation for the beliefs summarized in 1 Corinthians 15, but Komarnitsky has not given us one.