On "Doubting Jesus' Resurrection"

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.


Meh... said…
I think the point of the post at Luke's site is similar to the one he did at Loftus' site awhile back, and that is basically media publicity for selling his book. The average reader of those blogs are the people who will buy this book. They are largely uninformed and want a somewhat intellectual sounding argument against the resurrection. That's why the book carries endorsements from Price and Carrier. The only reason to have those guys endorse a book is to cash in on their cult-following among internet atheists...as the average reader of this site knows...they hold virtually no respect in the field of biblical studies and their endorsements would actually hinder some scholars from reading the book, ya know?

As you make clear in this post, most of us who have studied the topics would find the posts at DC and CSA wanting and thus skip even considering to buy the book...but your typical internet infidel buys up things like this and thinks they are serious scholarly interactions.
Weekend Fisher said…
I think, if we take the "cognitive dissonance" theory seriously, it actually makes an argument for (not against) the resurrection.

Consider this: if cognitive dissonance is struggling to get your beliefs to take in some new fact that they don't cover, then what do we see the apostles struggling with? It's the implications of his resurrection for the world.

Take care & God bless
Jason Pratt said…
{{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.}}

It also isn't at all a good explanation for the existence of the eventual data in the canonical Gospels and Acts.

In GosMark, all the disciples (with an after-emphasis on Peter) are told that Jesus has gone on ahead of them and will appear to them in Galilee. The women, though, are who get the first indication of the empty tomb per se. (Unless the young man is himself John Mark, which is a pet theory of my own.)

In GosMatt, the women (and the guards!) are the first ones to know about the empty tomb, and the women are the first to see Jesus. (It's unclear whether the guards are supposed to be witness to that appearance, too.) The angel's message doesn't mention Peter especially. The eleven apostles (called the eleven disciples) broadly make the trip and find Jesus in Galilee, receiving the Great Commission. Neither Peter nor John (nor any other by name, including Matthew/Levi) are mentioned.

In GosLuke, the women are still the first to testify to the empty tomb--and the apostles regard their good news as oblivion-gush!! Lk 24:12 is widely regarded on text-crit grounds as an addition, but it doesn't involve Peter seeing Christ. Christ first appears in GosLuke to Cleopas (and maybe his wife) on their way to Emmaus--they clarify in fact that no one has seen Jesus yet, though others have seen the empty tomb by now. By the time they get back to Jerusalem, Peter has had his visitation; but that happens ENTIRELY OFF-SCREEN!! And with no details at all (other than "The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon." None of the apostles or other disciples are mentioned by name during Jesus' subsequent appearance and ascension ending out GosLuke.

In GosJohn, MaryMag (and some unknown second person) are the first to discover the empty tomb, but receive no angelic announcement (leading Mary to the reasonably naturalistic conclusion that someone has moved the body). Peter and an unnamed but beloved disciple (unclear in the narrative if this is supposed to be ApostJohn) race out to find the empty tomb. But Peter leaves without understanding Jesus has risen. The Beloved Disciple figures it out, but doesn't see Jesus yet. MaryMag is the first to see Jesus, and receives no instructions to alert any particular people especially. No particular disciples are mentioned for Jesus' first group appearance, and only Thomas is specifically mentioned for the second one. (He also gives the fullest and strongest deity affirmation of Jesus in GosJohn.) Simon Peter features crucially in the epilogue, as does the BD in a different way, but the BD isn't given any specially obvious authority by Jesus.

Part 2 of 2 in next comment...
Jason Pratt said…
Part 2 of 2... (see previous comment)

No particular disciples are singled out for mention during the Acts ascension scene. Peter takes the lead in explaining why and how they should choose a new apostle to fill the Judas vacancy, but only after all surviving 11 are listed (during which Peter shares first-breath mention with four apostles including his brother Andrew.) Peter has to be pushed to the foreground for the first public sermon at Pentacost (after all the disciples begin witnessing to everyone in foreign languages.) Peter, John and James (John's brother) take the lead for a while, but John and James don't do much; and there's a significant break in their action (the first imprisonment of which involves all the apostles apparently not only Peter) to talk about other non-apostolic disciples including especially Stephen the first martyr. Peter's main contribution to the story afterward (aside from a somewhat comical jail-delivery) is an incident highlighting that he isn't being a very good evangelist in some regards. After which lesson, he basically disappears from Acts.

James JesusBro, meanwhile, never shows up by name doing anything (except not believing in Jesus in GosJohn!), until a brief mention in Acts 12:17. He makes two more appearances in Acts, both of them admittedly authoritative (rather moreso than Peter, much moreso ApostJohn--though his last appearance at Acts 21:18 effectively involves him sharing authority with an unspecified group of elders), but how he got into leadership of the Jerusalem church is utterly overlooked. And if Paul hadn't said so in 1 Cor 15, we wouldn't even know from Acts that James had seen the risen Christ!!

These actual textual details, I think, are extremely difficult to square with the hypothesis that only the "pillars" start off authoritatively witnessing the risen Jesus and then later this is expanded to include all the Twelve + then Paul afterward. The hypothesis, if true, would seem much more likely to lead to different results than to the actual facts of the real data (the textual characteristics.)

An explanatory hypothesis that doesn't arrive at the actual data very well (without a lot of cognitive dissonance anyway {g}), insta-fails.

steve said…
“That cause is the human phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction. Basically, this is 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. Sometimes this results in extremely radical rationalizations. We have solid examples of this from other religious movements in history, such as the Millerite movement, the Sabbatai Zevi movement, and others.”

Komarnitsky observation is true, but highly deceptive:

i) It clearly cuts both ways. We could just as well (or better) apply “cognitive dissonance reduction” to the case of unbelievers who try to explain away evidence for the Resurrection.

ii) Examples of religious movements which reinterpret the terms of a failed prophecy after the fact take for granted that testimonial evidence is sufficiently reliable for us to access both the original words and actual events, so that we can compare the two to discover or confirm a discrepancy. If we didn’t know what a false prophet really said, or if we didn’t know what really happened, we couldn’t tell if his prediction failed.

iii) Komarnitsky has to show that predictions or expectations regarding the Resurrection don’t fit with what actually happened. What’s his evidence? Does he think the NT contains failed prophecies about the Resurrection? If so, where are they? Or does he think the original prophecies were redacted (or else fabricated as vaticina ex eventu) to “rationalize” the disappointing outcome? If so, how could he ever detect a rationalization, since the original evidence was systematically suppressed?

iv) On the face of it, he’s simply assuming the Resurrection didn’t happen, and then jumping to a psychological theory to explain what we find. But, of course, that begs the very question in dispute.

v) In my observation, when religious movements issue false prophecies, the effect is divisive. You have a tiny core of diehard adherents who stand by the false prophet no matter what. But you also have many former adherents who become bitterly disillusioned and leave the movement. And some of them become outspoken opponents.

What evidence do we have of a major split in the nascent Christian movement over the “non-Resurrection” of Jesus?
Jason Pratt said…
{{Does he think the NT contains failed prophecies about the Resurrection? If so, where are they? Or does he think the original prophecies were redacted (or else fabricated as vaticina ex eventu) to “rationalize” the disappointing outcome?}}

It's even better than that, actually; because the texts (written at least 10 years, maybe more like 40 if not 60) after the events clearly are NOT going out of their way to homogenize pre-Res narrative prophecies about how long Jesus was going to stay in the ground. In three days? On the third day? After three days? (The first two aren't mutually exclusive, of course, but neither are they quite the same.) Yet they all agree in the end on the timing: dead Friday afternoon before sundown, alive again sometime Sunday morning pre-dawn.

Indeed, for the most part the texts show no clear evidence for progressive development in their Res accounts (even in Acts); and it's outright impossible to argue cogently that the texts are an extrapolation of 1 Cor 15 material. There are at least 5 (maybe 6, with Acts) basically co-independent Res accounts. Yet there is no clear evidence that the variances indicate competing divisions of Christianity either: doctrinally they're all on par with each other--which is exactly why practically no one has ever had doctrinal problems using the divergent accounts together. (The problems, such as they are, come from historical harmonization issues. And obviously I think there are several plausible ways to 'solve for the ranges' historically, just like we do with other ancient multiple-attestation records.)

It's a pretty nifty mix of characteristics, actually. {g}

Derek said…
Steve said:

"What evidence do we have of a major split in the nascent Christian movement over the “non-Resurrection” of Jesus?"

Excellent point! All early traditions surrounding Jesus of Nazareth may disagree about the meaning or scope of the rez, but none question it's presence as a defining feature in Jesus' work/mission. Komarnitsky doesn't, excluding possibly a more full discussion in his book, seem to take seriously enough the danger the apostles and early Christians placed themselves in within their 1st century Jewish/Greco/Roman context.
goliah said…
It may very well prove to be that both Cadre and Komarnitsky are well off the mark in understanding the Resurrection and its significance.

The first wholly new interpretation for 2000 years of the moral teachings of Christ is on the web. Redefining everything including all primary elements including Faith, the Word, Baptism, the Trinity and the Resurrection.

Using a synthesis of scriptural material from the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha , The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Library, and some of the worlds great poetry, it describes and teaches a single moral LAW, a single moral principle, and offers the promise of its own proof; one in which the reality of God responds directly to an act of perfect faith with a individual intervention into the natural world; correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries. Intended to be understood metaphorically, where 'death' is ignorance and 'Life' is knowledge, this personal experience of transcendent power and moral purpose is the 'Resurrection', and ones justification for faith.

For the first time in history, however unexpected, the world must now measure for itself, the reality of a new moral tenet, not of human intellectual origin, offering access by faith, to absolute proof for its belief.

Revolutionary stuff for those who can handle it?

info at http://www.energon.org.uk
Jason Pratt said…
Speaking purely from a marketing perspective: trying to market something with the title Energon (like the cubes of energy made by Transformers) using the name Klatu (like Klaatu, the Christ-like alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still--the remake of which, with Keneau Reeves, didn't go over so well) using maximal descriptions of shocking awe, isn't likely to work very successfully in the United States. Or so I would expect.

Good luck with that, though. {s!}

Klaatu Barada Nnn... necktie, nessie, nincompoop... it was definitely an 'n' word... {looking around carefully} {starting over} Klaatu...! Barada...! N{coughcoughumphingcough}! So! Okay then!

(Others of us will remember it as a joke from Army of Darkness. I recommend re-designing the approach for better sales, so as not to evoke memories of Bruce Campbell. Otherwise we're likely to hear his voice in our minds intoning with growly seriousness, "Revolutionary stuff!!--for those who can handle it..." Admittedly, that would be unspeakably cool, but still probably not the mental associations you're aiming for.)

Anonymous said…
I love the Army of Darkness reference ;-P

By the way, Evil Dead II, is that a sequel or a remake or what? (You won't get this unless you know the infamous "Spooning with Spoony" sketches)
Jason Pratt said…
I'm just waiting for the "zombie rabbi" comments to start. {g} (At least it would be getting back to the topic of JD's excellent post... {lol})

Another way I regret making that comment, is that now I can't get Bruce Campbell's voice out of my head when doing anything serious, either. 'Hearing' him read scripture is infinitely entertaining, for example, but also more than a little distracting.

Sigh. I wish Burn Notice would hurry up with the second half of its third season... (I haven't even watched the first half yet, because I knew this hiatus was on the way and didn't want to suffer it halfway through the season. But they're on DVR! I think. Hopefully.)

Anonymous said…
Meh... Price and Carrier aren't the only atheists out there- so don't assume that JUST because some atheists support them, we ALL do as well.

Besides, well respected Scholars also dispute the accuracy of the ressurection narratives (even the historicity of the empty tomb).

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