A couple of months ago I was sent a pre-release copy of Kris Komarnitsky’s second edition of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?. I posted a review on Amazon when the second edition was published, but, seeing as today is Easter Morning, I think it will now be a good time to discuss the book likewise on my blog.
Is it impossible to explain the earliest Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus without recourse to a miracle? Can we account for what happened on Easter Morning without God intervening to raise Jesus from the dead? Although apologists often exercise hyper-skepticism towards any natural explanation of Christianity’s origins, Kris Komarnitsky engages in serious academic research, and in this book provides, in my opinion, one of the most plausible alternative hypotheses that can explain the origin of the resurrection belief in purely natural terms.
Like apologist Lee Strobel (author of The Case for Christ, which I have discussed previously here), Komarnitsky began his investigation as a layman curious about Christianity’s origins. Unlike Strobel, however, Komarnitsky did more than merely interview a bunch of conservative apologists, in order to create an after-the-fact rationalization of Christianity easily marketable to a built-in Christian audience.
Instead, Komarnitsky likewise read into what non-apologists and serious scholars have written about the resurrection, coming to a far more interesting and powerful conclusion, which helped Komarnitsky form a plausible and well-supported hypothesis of what may have happened surrounding the Easter event two thousand years ago.
The simple truth is that we are very, very distanced from Christianity’s origins. We do not have any contemporary historical sources for Jesus, we can only loosely reconstruct anything about his biography from Greek sources (different from the Aramaic spoken in the region) that date to decades after his life, and for the handful of these Christian scriptures that we do possess, many historians and NT scholars doubt their historical reliability.
Due to these problems, we really only have a few kernels of information about the historical Jesus, the core of whose biography is now lost to us. It is fair to say that, if Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person who really lived, then he must have died. We can make so general a claim about any person from antiquity. But, what exactly happened following his death? Can we know for sure what happened to his body after he died? When his disciples later claimed that he had risen from the dead, can we know exactly what they saw or believed? What exactly happened in the first couple weeks, months, and years after Jesus’ crucifixion?
As the title of the book points out, we have a “black box” between Jesus’ death and the rise of the early Christian belief in the resurrection. We can pin down a few circumstantial details at the periphery of the event, but ultimately we have no direct window into the small span of time itself.
Christian apologists will claim that the only plausible explanation is that Jesus miraculously resurrected from the dead. However, we have a number of good inductive reasons to be skeptical of such miracle claims: 1) many spurious claims are made (both in the past and the present) about miracles that virtually always turn out to be false, when full investigation is available, 2) nobody has ever medically documented an instance of someone being brain dead for three days and then resurrecting into an immortal body (and later flying into space), and 3) several other religions the world over have started from false claims about miracles, revelations, and so on. These considerations should at least give us pause to have some initial skepticism about the claim of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection.
In contrast, we know that bodies can be buried in obscure locations or go missing, that people have hallucinations of the dead, that post-mortem appearances of popular figures like Elvis, Nero, and Michael Jackson, while uncommon, are not unheard of, and that there are thousands of other religions on Earth that, despite their claims about the supernatural, probably have purely natural explanations.
With these considerations in mind, it would seem like quite a stretch to say that the “only” explanation for Christianity’s origins is a miraculous resurrection. Several other natural explanations would seem plausible, and Komarnitsky builds a powerful case for defending the one that he thinks is most plausible.
Komarnitsky starts with the earliest plausible tradition that we have for the resurrection belief, setting the outer limit of the black box at the resurrection creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (which I also have discussed here), which is but a mere handful of brief sentences, but, to be fair, is dated by many NT scholars to have been coined only a 2-5 years after Jesus’ death. The creed claims that Jesus was buried, but that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that afterwards he appeared to a number of people. The apostle Paul relates this creed to the church at Corinth (far away from Palestine across the Aegean) after a number of decades had elapsed following Jesus’ death. Is there any other way to explain the origin of this creed without recourse to a miracle?
2-5 years is a very long time. We are talking about 730 to 1,826 days, or 17,520 to 43,834 hours, in which but a few sentences of Greek could be coined to claim that a man had resurrected from the dead. This creed was then related to unknown persons far away from the time and location. Yet, apologists claim that it would be impossible for such a belief to have spread without an actual miracle.
Komarnitsky is not so hyper-skeptical towards a natural explanation. In this book he breaks down all of the different details and circumstances that we can reconstruct about the early Christian belief in the resurrection and performs a step-by-step analysis of how they can all be naturally explained.
Komarnitsky starts in chapters 1 and 2 with an analysis of the traditions for Jesus’ burial. In these chapters he makes a powerful case for why the rock-hewn tomb in which Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea (the tomb later claimed to be found empty) was probably a later Christian invention, based on the tomb’s absence in the earliest Pauline tradition and the various theological motives that could have led the later Gospel authors to invent such a tomb. Instead, Komarnitsky engages some of the best archeological and historical scholarship that is available for the burial of criminals in 1st century Palestine, showing instead how it is far more likely that, as a crucified criminal, Jesus was unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave. Since mourning would have been prohibited at such an event, this obscure burial location was probably unknown to his followers.
In chapters 3-5 Komarnitsky explores what could have caused the resurrection belief, if not the discovery of an empty tomb. Of particular interest is chapter 3, which has Komarnitsky’s discussion of “cognitive dissonance reduction.” For people outside of a religion, it would seem obvious that if a particular religious teaching or prophetic figure made a claim that later turned out to be false and disproven, that the religion’s former adherents would drop out of their belief. For example, many Jews in the 17th century thought that the prophetic figure Sabbatai Zevi was their Messiah. But later, after he was captured by hostile Muslim forces, Zevi converted to Islam. So Zevi was obviously recognized by his former followers not to be the Jewish Messiah, right? Wrong. Rather than abandon their beliefs, many of Zevi’s followers instead created new rationalizations for how he had only “temporarily converted” or was “destroying Islam from within.”
Likewise, in the second edition of the book, Komarnitsky discusses cognitive dissonance reduction in the case of the messianic figure Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who gained a worldwide following in the 1990’s among a sect of Hassidic Jews called the Lubavitch. Schneerson was widely expected by his followers to be the Jewish Messiah who would usher in the end times apocalypse. The problem is, however, Schneerson died of a stroke on June 12, 1994. Did this stop his followers from believing that he was the Messiah? Nope. Instead, the movement rationalized that Schneerson would return from the dead as the true heir of David and usher in the end times. As Simon Dein of Durham University, an expert on Schneerson, author of “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails: The Case of Lubavitch,” and an endorser of Komarnitsky’s book, points out:
“[The] Lubavitch are not a group of fanatics … They are sane people trying to reason their way through the facts and in the pursuit of understanding … Like many groups whose messianic expectations fail to materialize, resort is made to eschatological hermeneutics to explain and reinforce messianic ideology … [Schneerson’s] illness and subsequent death posed cognitive challenges for his followers. They made two predictions that were empirically disconfirmed: that he would recover from the illness and that he would usher in the Redemption. In accordance with cognitive dissonance theory … they appealed to a number of post hoc rationalizations to allay the dissonance.”
Interesting enough, when I visited Safed, Israel in the summer of 2012, I saw many pictures of Schneerson put up by Jews who still regard Rabbi Schneerson as their Messiah.
What Komarnitsky shows is that for religiously devoted persons, disconfirming evidence does not always cause them to abandon their beliefs, rather than to create new rationalizations to explain away the disconfirming elements. Jesus was thought by his followers to be their Messiah, but then he died of crucifixion. Did this disconfirm their beliefs? Nope, as rationalizing that Jesus had not really died, but instead been raised to heaven (from whence he would soon return leading an apocalypse) could harmonize his crucifixion with him still being the Messiah. Like the religious cults of today, the earliest Christians were more inclined to seek new explanations for how their beliefs could be true, rather than to abandon them. Thus, cognitive dissonance reduction, just like in the case of Zevi and Schneerson, shows how the earliest Christians could have still rationalized Jesus as their Messiah, providing a natural explanation for the earliest belief in the resurrection without an actual miracle.
Chapter 4 is also of great interest, in which Komarnitsky engages in psychological studies to examine how grieving people can have hallucinations of the dead. Cross-cultural studies show that (especially in superstitious cultures like 1st century Palestine) many people have hallucinations of the dead, especially not long after the death of a particular person. These hallucinations can include visual and auditory visions of the dead person. If Jesus’ earliest followers, through cognitive dissonance reduction, had rationalized that Jesus had not really died, but instead ascended to heaven from whence he would soon return, then they could easily have developed an expectation to see Jesus somewhere and at some time. In such a state, personal hallucinations and visions could have caused them to believe that Jesus had “appeared” to them (just as the language states in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). After such appearances were reported by individuals to other members of the group, more individuals could have started to expect Jesus to appear to them, and, having such an expectation, could have easily misinterpreted their senses, had placebo effects, and simply saw what they wanted to see. Decades later, a figure like Paul could write to a distant community claiming that Jesus had “appeared” to many of his followers, just as in the creed. Such an embellishment over time is not at all difficult to imagine, as several other popular figures, such as Elvis, Nero, and Michael Jackson, have had similar stories and alleged sightings not long after their death.
In chapter 6, Komarnitsky lays out an excellent summary for what could have occurred in the weeks and months following Jesus’ death that led to the resurrection belief. I consider the passage below (pgs. 139-140) to be one of the clearest, simplest, and most persuasive explanations for how Christianity could emerge without a miracle that I have come across in a book written for a general audience:
“After his death on the cross, Jesus’ body was allowed by the Romans to be removed from the cross in deference to Jewish burial sensitivities. Jesus was buried in the ground by a disinterested Jewish burial crew with none of his followers present. His grave was marked with a pile of loose rocks or chalk to warn of uncleanliness. His followers returned home to Galilee never knowing where Jesus was buried in Jerusalem. During and/or after this several day trek home, some of Jesus’ followers found it impossible to accept that Jesus was not the Messiah as they had hoped. To resolve this conflict between their beliefs and the harsh reality of Jesus’ death, some of them rationalized as a group that Jesus died for our sins, that God raised him bodily up to heaven, and that he would be back very soon as the Messiah should (a cognitive dissonance reduction rationalization) … Anticipating the yet to be realized return of Jesus and experiencing the normal feelings associated with the absence of a recently deceased loved one, Peter had a hallucination of Jesus that he interpreted as a visitation of Jesus from heaven … Still others heard Jesus speak to them, felt his presence, and shared in group ecstatic experiences (perhaps like a spirited Pentecostal gathering today). Jesus’ followers immediately turned to their Jewish scriptures to find scriptural confirmation for their beliefs. Interaction with their scriptures, most likely Psalm 16:10, led Jesus’ followers to conclude that it was “on the third day” that Jesus was raised from the dead … As the years and decades passed, the above experiences, beliefs, and traditions gave birth to legends like Jesus’ burial in a rock-hewn tomb, the tomb being discovered three days later, his corporeal post-mortem appearances to individuals and groups described in the Gospels, and his appearances to over five hundred in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Eventually Jesus was deified … [T]here was a swirl of rationalizations, individual hallucinations, collective enthusiasm, designations of authority, and scriptural interpretations.”
The explanation above seems a lot more probable to me than a man being brain dead for three days, then resurrecting into an immortal body and appearing to a handful of his followers, before flying into space. Furthermore, as I explain in my article “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup,” so long as there is a plausible natural explanation, such as the one above, it will always be more probable than the Easter Resurrection, as such a natural hypothesis does not have to rest on unproven and radical metaphysical assumptions.
Moreover, what I particularly appreciate about Komarnitsky’s hypothesis is that it requires no conspiracy theories or deliberate falsehoods on the part of the apostles (something that apologists often straw man natural explanations as implying). Instead, Komarnitsky simply looks at how cult members and grieving people react in circumstances similar to those experienced by the early Christian church, illustrating how the first Christians could come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection with neither a malicious conspiracy to do so, nor an actual miracle needed to form this new belief. At the end of the day, it all shows how truly human Christianity is.
Chapter 7 is an excellent addition to the second edition of this book, in which Komarnitsky compares his hypothesis to all of the arguments and evidence given by apologists like William Craig and Mike Licona. Komarnitsky takes the reader through a slow, step-by-step analysis demonstrating how every single circumstance that apologists claim has no natural explanation can each be naturally explained. In short, Komarnitsky provides a perfectly plausible natural explanation for how everything about the origins of Christianity, top to bottom, could have emerged without a miracle.
I highly recommend the book. The only shortcoming that I found is that the book is better read when supplemented by other books on the issue. Komarnitsky, for example, does not spend very much time discussing the background of the New Testament and the broader historical issues about the rise of Christianity outside of the resurrection belief. All of this is fine, however, since there are excellent resources to supplement this book. For a broader discussion of historical problems in the New Testament, as a whole, I recommend Bart Erhman’s Jesus Interrupted. For a further explanation for how Christianity could have succeeded in the subsequent centuries and taken over Europe without a miracle, I recommend Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith. Kris Komarnitsky’ Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection serves an excellent bridge between these two books, closing the last few gaps in the origins of Christianity, so that there is not a single hole or gap left in doubting Jesus’ resurrection.