Review of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection

Review of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection January 21, 2010

I am grateful to Kris Komarnitsky for sending me a copy of his book Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?  For some, the title may seem appealing, while to others it may be disturbing, but when it comes to historical study, the simple fact is that there is no way for a historian not to doubt the resurrection – or to put it more precisely, a historian cannot but raise questions about the historical factuality of the early narratives that tell the resurrection story. To paraphrase Bart Ehrman (the actual quote is here), there are any number of improbable historical scenarios for which there is no evidence whatsoever, but which are nevertheless inherently more likely than that an individual who had been dead entered into the resurrection life of the age to come. In addition to legitimate skepticism about unparalleled claims, a historian is trained to ask about cultural-historical dynamics and other forms of explanation on a human level. Those who find such a naturalistic approach threatening to their faith will want to avoid all historical study and not just Kris’ book. Those who are interested in exploring plausible historical explanations, on the other hand, will benefit from reading this book.

At this juncture, I should mention a biographical detail about the author: he is by profession an airline pilot and not a historian or Biblical scholar. As a professor, for the most part I teach undergraduates very few of whom go on to become scholars of religion or history. The aim of perhaps the majority of educators in my field is not to persuade most human beings to pursue higher degrees in our fields so that all attain the same level of expertise and qualifications, but to equip people with tools for critical investigation which they can use in a variety of settings, regardless of their professions. Kris may not be a professional historian, but he approaches historical questions using the appropriate tools, and he has familiarized himself with the work of experts in the field and seeks to build on their contributions. Those of us who are frustrated by misconstruals and inaccuracies in media treatments or popular opinions regarding our fields will find Kris’ book an encouragement. If nothing else, it proves that if someone takes the time to investigate a topic, including learning how the relevant disciplinary tools are applied and familiarizing themselves with what experts have already written on a subject, they can draw balanced and even insightful conclusions.

The book deals with many topics that I am particularly interested in, such as the dishonorable character of Jesus’ burial, which is the focus of chapter 2. Komarnitsky provides a cogent case for the possibility that Jesus may have been buried in a trench grave rather than a rock-cut tomb, mentioning in this context a reference in the Secret Book of James to Jesus having been buried “in the sand.” Chapter 3 investigates the background to the early Christian interpretation of Jesus’ death as salvific, including a helpful treatment of cognitive dissonance reduction. Also provided are Greco-Roman parallels to the disappearance of the bodies of those believed to have been translated to the realm of the gods.

Chapter 4 focuses on the appearance traditions, and relates them to the not uncommon experience of people seeing a deceased loved one some time after their death. What struck me most about this chapter were testimonies of individuals who had such experiences and, after seeing the deceased individual, were overcome with a sense of inner peace which sounds very much like the testimony those of us who have had a “born again” experience might give.

Chapter 5 tackles the early resurrection tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 and its mention resurrection on the third day “in accordance with the Scripture.” The possibility that Jesus was not buried in a rock-cut tomb faces the hurdle that the narrative accounts in the Gospels connect the belief that Jesus was “raised on the third day” to the discovery of the empty tomb. In addition, the question of which Scripture(s) were in Paul’s mind is difficult if not impossible to answer. Kris combines both these questions and offers an intriguing suggestion: Psalm 16:10. Might it have been this text, combined with the belief that after three days a body underwent corruption, that led to the belief that Jesus had been “raised on the third day”? On this point I found the argument less persuasive, since Luke-Acts (where we find Ps.16:10 applied to Jesus) emphasizes the flesh-and-bones, corporeal character of Jesus’ resurrection body in a way that Paul and other of our earliest sources do not. Moreover, decomposition presumably was well underway by the third day in most cases – it was the face becoming unrecognizable by the third day that led to the Jewish belief that the soul of an individual remained in the vicinity until that time. Nevertheless, it is not clear that early Christians would have reasoned as I do about this subject, and thus the possibility that “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” indicated a belief inspired by Ps.16:10 deserves further consideration. For Kris, the early Christians who formulated the “creed” in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 already believed that Jesus had been bodily raised to heaven, in a manner that involved the disappearance of the corpse from whatever grave it had been buried in.

The final chapter offers some practical, functional reasons for the success of Christianity. It is to Kris’ credit that he has no interest in denying the existence of positive aspects of Christianity. Indeed, if one is to provide a plausible explanation of its success in naturalistic terms, presumably one cannot at the same time deny that there is anything about it that might be appealing! From a Liberal Christian perspective, it is not only non-threatening but perhaps even encouraging to consider that Christianity may have thrived and flourished precisely because it broke down social barriers and united people. Kris summarizes his own view as follows: “the founding event of Christianity is human equality, not resurrection” – by which he doesn’t mean that human equality is an idea that originated with Christianity, but simply that Christianity’s emphasis on this point was central to its power and spread.

There is often a tendency to skip over appendices, but the one appendix in Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection is extremely interesting and ought not to be overlooked. Interacting with such great scholars as Strauss, Sherwin-White and Scholem, Kris provides a compelling argument that legends can grow and develop at various rates, and thus one cannot extrapolate from allegedly typical growth rates for myths to the historicity or otherwise of the Gospels. And, quoting Strauss, Kris points out that Jesus was understood by early Christians in messianic terms, and messianic concepts had been growing and developing within Judaism for centuries prior to their being applied to Jesus, which makes for a potentially different scenario than when a heroic leader becomes the subject of legends starting, as it were, from scratch (p.151).

On the whole I found Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection to provide many insights and much food for thought. Although Kris is not a scholar by profession, his treatment of both primary and secondary sources is certainly such that even someone who is a historian or New Testament scholar by profession will benefit from thinking about and interacting with his discussions.

Ultimately, the subtitle of the book is both on target and potentially misleading. It asks the question “What happened in the black box?” The reference is not to the “black box” they look for when a plane crashes (however apt that might seem as a metaphor, given Kris’ profession), but to a mysterious unobservable area with data going in and results coming out, but little or no opportunity to observe the intervening processes. The precise events and phenomena that bridge the historical data of Jesus’ life and death on the one hand and the rise of resurrection belief on the other are obscured from view by time and by sources that are piecemeal and at times divergent. And so the book does not purport to tell us “what happened in the black box” – indeed, the book’s conclusions are impressive for not claiming to have reconstructed “what really happened” but “one plausible way to read the evidence” (p.130). But that seems to be the best a historian can do, and among the plausible interpretations of the evidence, Kris’ deserves thoughtful consideration.

Also available in the UK and as an ebook.

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