Komarnitsky Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection (Second Edition)

I have been meaning to post about the second edition of an interesting book by Kris Komarnitsky, Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?, exploring what natural explanation is possible for the rise of Christian belief in the resurrection. I’m kind of glad I waited, because now I can also point to Richard Carrier’s post about the book, in which he refers to me as “the infamous James McGrath”! 🙂

The book is important, not least because it shows that there isn’t a solid and simplistic divide between professional scholars and everyone else. It is possible for an interested layperson to inform themselves sufficiently about a field to discuss it in a manner that even scholars will find it interesting to read and interact with. In a world in which academics are sometimes criticized for engaging in “credentialism,” it is great to be able to say, “No, we do look at qualifications not because they automatically vouchsafe trustworthiness, but because the lack of them usually correlates with expertise – but not always, and a person who takes the time to inform themselves and to contribute meaningfully will will not only be heard but appreciated.”

Komarnitsky spends much of his focus seeking to ask relevant historical questions about the evidence and about the claims of conservative Christian apologists. His treatment of the claims and views of those with whom he disagrees impresses me with its fairness. You can read my review of the first edition which I posted on this blog a number of years ago. I won’t restate my points made there. The second edition expands and improves the book, making it that much more worth reading. There are also reviews by Adam Lee and Chris Hallquist of the second edition.

It is my understanding that the Kindle edition of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection will be available for free on Amazon.com on Saturday. And so if you are interested, there is a no-risk way for you to take a look at the book!

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  • $41348855

    I think there is a flaw in Komarnitsky’s theory. His idea is that after Jesus’ death the disciples were suffering from what is known as cognitive dissonance. According to studies of this phenomenon, people will often be prepared to believe irrational things in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. In this case Komarnitsky thinks that the discples convinced themselves that Jesus had risen from the dead as a way of reducing cognitive dissonance.

    The problem for Komarnitsky is that according to his theory, the disciples began by convincing themselves that Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan. So by doing this the disciples would already have been able to reduce cognitive dissonance. So if they had already reduced their dissonance would there still be enough left over to drive them to believe in the resurrection even though, on Komarnitsky’s reckoning, there was no evidence of it? This seems highly unlikely.

    • Kris K.


      Thanks for reading my book and commenting on it.

      Actually, my theory does not propose that the disciples “began” by convincing themselves that Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan and then there was some “leftover” dissonance that led to the resurrection belief. My book proposes that the whole initial rationalization — died for sins, raised, and return soon — came all at the same time in order to coherently answer the two most pressing questions: Why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah? I propose that the first question gave birth to the atonement belief, and the second question gave birth to the resurrection and return soon belief.

      In a similar way (as I point out in my book), some orthodox Jews in the 1990s (the Lubavitch) rationalized that their dead Messiah had taken on the suffering of the Jewish people and would resurrect from the dead. This illustrates how a multifaceted rationalization can emerge out of circumstances that produce cognitive dissonance among a group of people. (It also worth noting that there are good reasons why the Lubavitch did not rationalize that their dead Messiah had already resurrected from the dead which, of course, you noticed in my book).

      A good way to illustrate how radical the process of rationalization can be is to look at the following reaction by David Berger, who is a Jew, a professor of Jewish History, and past president of the Association for Jewish Studies, in response to the Lubavitch rationalization that a dead person was still the Messiah and would rise from the dead:

      “…My sense of puzzlement, bewilderment, disorientation began to grow. The world appeared surreal, as if I had been transported into Alice’s Wonderland or a Jewish Twilight Zone. The rules of Judaism seemed suspended….Here was a movement of posthumous false messianism self-evidently alien to Judaism that no generation of mainstream Jewish leaders would ever have countenanced even for a fleeting moment….Any appeal to Maimonides’ criteria seemed clearly impossible.” (The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (2008), pg. 13, 24).

      Hope this clears some things up.

      Kris K.

      • $41348855

        Thanks for the clarification, Kris. Unfortunately, I don’t think it saves your theory. Certainly, the disciples would have a need to reduce dissonance, but the question is how they would do it. Believing that Jesus had risen from the dead, in the absence of any evidence, would be a very drastic way of trying to reduce dissonance. If they could reduce dissonance more easily then that is what you would expect them to do. And you have already shown how they could do that: they just had to believe that Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan.

        • Kris K.

          I do not think that a dead Messiah that stayed dead and never returned would be an acceptable answer, hence the reason for my Lubavitch example — they did not just rationalize that their dead Messiah had taken on the suffering of the Jewish people, they also rationalized that he would resurrect from the dead. In your thinking, why do you think the Lubavitch added the second part?

          • $41348855

            In that case, why didn’t the disciples settle for the belief that Jesus would return? You could say that they started with this belief and then later convinced themselves that Jesus had already risen, but the evidence suggests that the belief in the resurrection came early.

          • Kris K.

            What I propose in my book is that Jesus’ followers rationalized right at the beginning that Jesus was bodily raised now (instead of later) based on the idea of vindication of and reward for the righteous, as evident in Jewish traditions like the bodily assumptions of Enoch, Elijah, and Mosses into heaven and possibly also influenced by Greek traditions of heroes sometimes being bodily raised at the moment of death.

            So turning your question around, one might ask why the Lubavitch did not rationalize the same thing for their dead Messiah…right? In my opinion they would have, or at least some would have, except the Lubavitch had three hurdles to clear that Jesus’ followers did not. One, in contrast to Jesus’ followers who did not know where Jesus was buried (another part of the hypothesis in my book, as you already know), in the back of the Lubavitchers’ minds when they were rationalizing, they may have realized that a resurrection NOW conclusion could potentially have been dashed with a relatively quick grave check (their dead Messiah’s gravesite was in downtown New York City, right next to Lubavitch headquarters). Two, the modern-day realization that heaven is not a physical place located just beyond the clouds that a body could go to would have made a bodily raised to heaven rationalization difficult for those Lubavitchers with a scientific/rationalist bent. Three, and this is clincher, it was part of Lubavitcher theology that a “prince”, in this case their dead Messiah who had no successor, MUST be present in this world in some physical capacity in order to mediate the world’s divine force or the world would cease to exist. Since the world existed, their dead Messiah was still present in the grave.


          • $41348855

            Actually, Kris, I think there is a much simpler way of looking at it. Believing that someone has risen from the dead is a very hard thing to do. So even if believing in the resurrection was the only way for the disciples to reduce their dissonance it would still seem implausible. But if it can be shown, and it can be, that they had another way of reducing their dissonance then the theory collapses.

          • Kris K.

            Well, you just said two things there, and I think it best to focus on only one at a time or things get convoluted and the amount of writing gets ridiculous. Which one of these do you want to talk about?

            1] “…Even if believing in the resurrection was the ONLY way for the
            disciples to reduce their dissonance it would still seem implausible.”

            2] “…They had another [easier] way of
            reducing their dissonance [and that easier way is that Jesus would be raised later]…”

            Kris K.

          • $41348855

            Kris, I think you know this is pointless. It is perhaps ironic that you have just acquired a very personal knowledge of cognitive dissonance.

          • Kris K.

            Ouch. That one hurt. But I guess taking insults is part of posting on the web.

            If you are ever interested in defending either of your two statements, just let me know.

          • $41348855

            Kris, I would like to apologise for my last remark. It was uncalled for. I think I may need a break from internet debating.

          • Given the number of people back in the early days of Christianity who came to believe in the resurrection based on no evidence other than the word of the person who told them it happened (and those who continue to do so today), I cannot see how you can justify the claim that “believing that someone has risen from the dead is a very hard thing to do.” It is clearly an idea that has great appeal to people who are aware of their own mortality.

        • I cannot think of any reason why we should expect the disciples to reduce dissonance in the most efficient way possible. If they were incapable of accepting the simplest and most obvious explanation–i.e.,Jesus’ mission had failed–I would expect them to be willing to accept any other explanation no matter how convoluted or implausible it might be. I think that is what is suggested by the examples Kris cites in the book.

          • Kris K.

            Thanks Stuart. Apology accepted.

            It might be worth noting for others that cognitive dissonance and cognitive dissonance reduction rationalizations are not diseases. They are a normal part of our humanity. It is one of the ways that we help make sense of things when there are gaps in the evidence. Biases and dissonances steer people on both sides of an issue toward explanations which seem the most reasonable to them, so there is just no point in one side accusing the other of being influenced by their biases and dissonances. Of course they are, and of course I am, and of course you are.

            There is a whole bunch I could write in response to your two claims, and it is all in my second edition (in case you only read the first edition), but here are just two quick things.

            Some in the orthodox Jewish sect of the 1990s that I mentioned earlier (the Lubavitch), rationalized that their dead Messiah was God incarnate. In this view, their dead Messiah never actually died, his death was in appearance only, he is concealed at this time, and he will become visible again at the time of the redemption. Would you ever have thought that such a rationalization was possible by anyone?! It is truly incredible.

            It does not even matter if these Lubavitch were influenced by Christianity; Christianity could have been influenced by Hellenistic beliefs and the Jewish traditions I mentioned earlier to arrive at their own beliefs two thousand year ago.

            This and the other examples of cog dis induced rationalization I mention in my book lead me to conclude that there is probably no rationalization by others, none, that can ever be declared impossible, as long as their rationalization, in their minds, logically solves the problem at hand.

            A great book to read is Leon Festinger’s original “When Prophecy Fails”. I know someone who read this book five times because they just could not believe what they were reading. I felt the same way when I first read this book. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

            As for the easier rationalization for Jesus’ followers — that he would be raised later and perhaps had already been raised spiritually — am I saying that there is no way they could have rationalized this? No. But I think a Messiah that was bodily raised to heaven now would have been more appealing for reasons I mention in my book and that would take a fair amount of writing here (pg. 71-74).

            Lastly, I would like to clarify, as I do in my book, that I do not claim that I can demonstrate that the rationalization I propose is what happened at Christian origins. I only claim that it is ONE plausible way to read the evidence.

            All the best,

            Kris K.

          • David Ashton

            Could the Lubavitch example have been influenced indirectly by Christianity?

            Could the disciples of Jesus have had access to psychoactive substances in their post-crucifixion meals?

  • Jerome

    Grief-struck, the disciples left Jerusalem when their leader got executed. Then at some point, one of them (or maybe one of the women followers) got the idea that Jesus had not really failed after all. That this was all part of the plan. That what looked like a defeat was actually a win! That God had exalted him by ‘resurrecting’ him, meaning that he gave Jesus’ spirit/soul a new, divine, perfect body with which to reside in ‘Heaven’ (and to be used for ‘visits’ to Earth). And that got the ball rolling. Later on people misunderstood this and thought to be resurrected meant a corpse revival.