Professor James McGrath Reviews "Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?"

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, 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.

Link.

6 comments:

Harry H. McCall, CET said...

Christianity is Canonically focused. By that, I mean the concept of the Christian Canon is a human created filter to block out all other Jewish miracles tells in non-canonical texts in order to give the impression that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus was an exclusive.

But the fact of the matter is that even in the Hebrew Canon, Elijah (via the power of God) resurrected the widow’s son from the dead (1 Kings 17 -24) and Elijah himself goes body into Heaven just as Jesus was latter claimed to have done(2 Kings 2: 1-14).

Many of these Old Testament tells are recreated in the Gospels to give them credibility among the Jews. Thus, the New Moses Theme is prevalent in the Gospel of Matthew while the Elijah Theme is the template for Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

Corky said...

Of course, there was no resurrection but only the rumor of a resurrection.

All it took among the earliest believers was for one person to claim to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Then suddenly, others (not to be outdone) claimed to have seen him also.

Obviously, from 1 Cor. 15, all believers had not yet heard of the resurrection rumor.

According to Paul (the rumor spreader) Cephus (Peter) saw Jesus alive first and then the other apostles later on and still later, other people saw him. Even much later, Paul himself saw him.

How easy was it for a rumor like that to spread in those most superstitious times? Well, have you heard the rumor that Elvis Presley is still alive?

Sometime after 70 AD, the gospels that we are familiar with were written down and, lo and behold, Jesus even predicted the destruction of the temple within their generation - and it happened!

There is no end to what believers will believe. One of them even wrote that "the end of all things is at hand", 1900 years ago, and people are still believing that lie today.

Corky said...

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.

Not impossible. Paul is referring to Hosea 6:2.

Of course, Hosea is meaning the faithful Jews and not Jesus. But, it is the same thing as when the early Christians claimed that the faithful Jews (the suffering servant) of Isaiah 53 was Jesus.

All this was "hidden" in the scriptures all along but only the Christians knew how to interpret the Jewish scriptures correctly.

Everything, and I mean everything the NT writers referred to in the OT is taken out of context or completely misquoted.

The NT writers must have thought that the book of Enoch was "scripture" too, because they quoted from that book about 130 times in the NT.

District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...

Harry,

By that, I mean the concept of the Christian Canon is a human created filter to block out all other Jewish miracles tells in non-canonical texts in order to give the impression that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus was an exclusive.

Harry get off it buddy...4-real....I see you still on that bong you use before reading the bible. is it really that painful???

Jesus said this:

John 5:39~SEARCH THE SCRIPTURES; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

The key to understanding who Jesus was, was contained within the OT narrative in it's entirity. every good jewish boy since he could talk was trained in those scriptures and you know this. Those scriptures as even atheist Richard Carrier ADMITS pointed to a death and resurrection event event.

Your argument is poor and unfounded by the evidence even from critical scholars. The parallels is in line with Carrier 101 but also fail...My father's name was Harvey too...was that a figment of my mother's imagination just because we have the same name? Get outta here.

Russ said...

Mr. McGrath,
You said,

Indeed, if one is to provide a plausible explanation of its [Christianity's] success in naturalistic terms, presumably one cannot at the same time deny that there is anything about it that might be appealing!


This statement is not befitting anyone who considers themselves a scholar.

If "success" means mere longevity then what is construed as the "success" of Christianity today results directly from it's having achieved totalitarian political power over the Roman Empire. The power of the state to coerce is a compelling reason to conform. For most of Christian history citizens in Christianity-governed societies have been afforded no leeway in their attitudes toward the church: you professed belief in it or you lived with the threat of dying by any means the church deemed fitting. This is something of which one familiar with the history of Christianity should be aware.

Of course if longevity is "success" then there are religious systems which could be considered superior to Christianity in that regard.

It has often been the case that Christianity was adopted by the denizens of a region only as a result of Christian military conquest, no appeal to the "appealing" necessary. Christianity was more appealing than a slit throat. Kosovo provides a good example. Over its long history, under varying conquests, the Kosovars have alternated between Christianity and Islam. What was "appealing" about Christianity at these junctures was that choosing to adopt it meant that your Christian conquerors might let you live. No intrinsic appeal of the religion itself was involved. It was enough that you and your loved ones would be allowed to live.

I suppose one could make the case that Christianity must be exceptionally appealing since the Kosovars have been converted to Christianity by similar means several times. But, then, Muslims could make the same claim.

Muslims could also make the claim that Christianity is lacking in appeal since Kosovo time and again so easily converted to Islam.

It seems clear that Christianity lacks the necessary appeal to compel the well-informed from other religions to convert. Scholars, theologians, and clerics from Sikhism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism do not find the claims of Christianity to be sufficiently appealing or compelling that they convert.

Anyone positing a plausible explanation of Christianity's success in naturalistic terms, is unlikely to say that there is nothing about Christianity that might be appealing. But, what makes Christianity appealing to its insiders is the same thing that makes Islam appealing to its insiders: its social underpinnings. The appeal of Christianity has little to do with Christianity-specific claims, notions, or ideas. The appeal of Christianity like all other religions is that, almost without regard for its particular claims, it is a socially-shared experience. It's the same social experience that appeals to members of the Ku Klux Klan or other hate groups.

What would be appealing about some generic Christianity is actually impossible to define considering that Protestants for instance, in general, do not see the appeal of Christianity in its Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox forms. Protestants find the appeal of Christianity in their sect-specific socially-shared experience.

Russ said...


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.

This, too, I find unbefitting a serious scholar of religion. It's nice that the bias of "Liberal Christian perspective" is declared upfront, but it would be far more accurate if he had characterized that bias as "naive and not-too-well-informed Liberal Christian perspective." If Mr. McGrath is the one embracing that "Liberal Christian perspective" as opposed to voicing what that "Liberal Christian perspective" would be for others, then it casts considerable doubt on his work as a "scholar" since he's intentionally ignoring observed failings of Christianity throughout its history.

One who thinks that Christianity "broke down social barriers and united people" has quite an unrealistic view of Christianity. In fact, looking at Christian history one has to ask what the author could have meant by "broke down social barriers and united people." Christianity falls into a favorable light in this regard only if one picks and chooses from its history with an extreme bias.

Christianity was a banner under which the Puritans were united, but it was also the Christian banner under which those aligned against the Puritans were united. Yes, they were separately united under the Christian banner, but Christianity divided them, and divided them violently. If one focuses on the united as some sort of universal good while ignoring what they chose to do in that unity, one can make Christianity meet all of their expectations. If instead one takes all of Christian history into account, it cannot be made to look as good as the biased might like.

Where can we look to find other examples paralleling the Puritan one?: everywhere you look in Christian history. The fights, started early in Christianity for the definition of "orthodox," which have been handed down to this very day. The Great Schism. Calvin's Geneva. The Reformation. The proliferation of Christian sects proclaiming differing absolute truths. Today's approximately 40000 Christian sects divided along every possible doctrinal line imaginable.

Christianity breaks down social barriers and unites people in a limited way at best. It is very common that Christianities are united around the idea that anyone not like them stands on the wrong side of a social barrier, a barrier defining who is good, who is worthy. Christianity does not unite Christians as a whole. Recall that the current Pope knows that those who are not Roman Catholic are condemned. The Christianities abound with such thinking. So much for uniting and breaking social barriers.