Review of “Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?”

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 DJR Coverwithout 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.

-Matthew Ferguson

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30 Responses to Review of “Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?”

  1. B.C. says:

    I don’t follow how the empty tomb narrative in Mark could be based on (i.e., a narrativizing) of the brief mention of burial in the creed in 1 Cor 15:3-8. Mark (unlike Matthew and Luke), of course, ends without any resurrection appearances. But if Mark’s empty tomb story is based on 1 Cor 15, then why does Mark create a narrative about an empty tomb discovery, but not about resurrection appearances, especially since Cephas/Peter is the main character in Mark (other than Jesus)? Regardless what one thinks about the resurrection or appearances, it seems more like Mark and 1 Cor are independently based on an earlier, common-denominator tradition about burial and resurrection (and not Mark based on 1 Cor) since Mark has more about the burial and nothing about appearances, but 1 Cor 15 has more about appearances and hardly anything about burial. Thoughts?

    • Indeed, the order of events at the end of Mark is completely different than that of the creed in 1 Cor 15. Women are the first to learn of Jesus’ resurrection (not Peter), and, when the young man in the tomb announces that Jesus will appear to his disciples in Galilee, if we splice the accounts of Judas’ death in Matthew and Luke, then this appearance would exclude an appearance to Judas (but the creed in 1 Cor 15 says that Jesus next appeared to the “twelve”). We likewise have no mention of a discovered, empty rock-hewn tomb in Paul, despite Paul marshalling every argument to convince the Corinthians that Jesus was raised from the dead (why not mention that his tomb was found empty?).

      Here is my take on Mark’s ending: The scene of the empty tomb in Mark has no indication that the disciples later learned of the empty tomb or visited it. The young man announces that Jesus will appear to his disciples in Galilee (i.e. outside of Jerusalem), and there is no indication that Peter or the other disciples later visited the tomb (Luke 24:12 and John 20:1-10 had to add this detail later on). The scene would imply that only the women saw the empty tomb, and, when they did, they fled and told nobody. Thus, the only way that we even learn of the empty tomb is because the women stand in as witnesses for the scene that Mark has created.

      This whole sequence of events makes sense, if the story of the empty tomb was invented by the author of Mark (or possibly a pre-Markan source). He virtually takes steps to explain why nobody had heard of the discovered, empty rock-hewn tomb before (the women didn’t tell anyone!). Likewise, the author of Mark would be writing c. 70 CE, at a time when Jerusalem was either destroyed or inaccessible. As such, nobody could check to see if this tomb had actually existed. Likewise, there is no evidence that the Christians cultivated the site of an empty tomb pre-70 CE, which is very odd if it was really the site of their Messiah’s resurrection. Furthermore, if the authorities really knew that the tomb was empty (as Matthew 28:11-15 indicates), why were the disciples never charged with grave robbery? A number of them are brought to the authorities in Acts, and yet this charge never comes up. If Jesus’ body had historically gone missing, why is there no historical evidence that any of his followers were charged with grave robbery? This sequence of events is implausible.

      So, I think that a discovered, empty rock-hewn tomb is far from a historical “fact” surrounding the resurrection. There is a good case to be made that the author of Mark invented it, and, even if he didn’t, one of his sources may have done so without there being any earlier tradition.

      That said, here is one way that I think Mark’s empty tomb could be based on the creed of 1 Cor 15. The author of Mark may have been filling in and adding new details to the previous tradition. The 1 Cor 15 tradition has Jesus appear to Peter first with no mention of a discovered empty burial place. However, the author of Mark adds a new scene where an empty burial place is first discovered by women (who tell nobody), then the young man announces that Jesus will appear to his disciples in Galilee (perhaps picking back up with the 1 Cor 15 tradition). The author of Mark would thus be adding a new detail between 1 Cor 15:4 and 15:5 to create a scene for introducing the empty tomb. That is one way that the author of Mark may have been narrativizing the creed in 1 Cor 15. He would actually be adding a new detail into it. But this addition, contra to what the apologists claim, speaks against an implied empty tomb in the 1 Cor 15 creed. Rather, the author of Mark would have had to go out of his way and add a whole new scene to create the tradition of the empty tomb.

      That, or the author of Mark was simply unaware of the creed. As you say, he provides no descriptions of post-mortem appearances. Furthermore, even the later Gospels, which flesh out the appearances, make no mention of Jesus’ appearance to the 500, which, if it was in the original creed (although many scholars think that Paul might have added it), is very strange, if the Gospel authors were aware of the creed. But, given how the appearance traditions in the Gospels (which have the new element of female witnesses, drawn probably from Mark) differ from the order in the creed (which mentions Peter first), they are definitely not the same tradition. We either have two different traditions, coming from a common-denominator about burial and resurrection, or we have new details tacked onto the creed in 1 Cor 15, either by the author of Mark or one of his sources.

      • B.C. says:

        Thanks for such a thorough response. I think your last paragraph is the simplest explanation. Both Mark and 1 Cor 15 seem based independently on separate traditions about burial and resurrection. I’m always intrigued when the claim is made that Mark 16 is a narrativizing of 1 Cor 15. The absence of appearances in Mark 16 is surprising if it was based on 1 Cor 15. Why would GMark elaborate on the brief and less important item about burial from 1 Cor 15 instead of accentuating the appearances 1 Cor 15 mentions, especially if one involves a major character in the narrative of GMk. The empty tomb in Mk 16 does fit with several Markan themes (messianic secret, failure of the disciples, eschatological immanency, etc.), all of which had important implications for early readers.

        The lack of evidence for veneration of an empty tomb site probably should be balanced with the lack of evidence for veneration of a crucifixion site as well, and there is no legitimate reason to doubt that. Both seem more due to the inaccessibility of Jerusalem, as you mention, both after 66, and again after 132. Well, and also that we have little pre-70 evidence for much of anything Christian other than the undisputed letters of Paul. Thoughts?

        • would says:

          Hey B.C.,

          One thing about Mark 16 is that it doesn’t, strictly speaking, exclude post-mortem appearances. After all 16:7 says that the disciples will see Jesus in Galilee, and I think we are to understand that they in fact do. The main difference behind the 1 Cor 15 creed and Mark 16 is that, in the creed, the appearances are the first sign of the resurrection, whereas in Mark 16 the empty tomb is.

          Apologists like to play off the empty tomb as the first thing that caused people to believe that Jesus had risen. But we have no mention of it in 1 Cor 15. Likewise, Mark 16 implies that nobody else learned of the tomb (the women tell nobody). It is not until Luke 24:12 and John 20:1-10, where some of the disciples visit the empty tomb before the appearances, that the empty tomb is made out to be the first sign of the resurrection (for more people than just the women). The fact that Mark, on the other hand, seems to imply that not even the disciples learned of the empty tomb (only the women), is an indication that the author probably invented it. The author of Mark would have to account for the fact that an empty, rock-hewn tomb had not previously been in the tradition, which is why the women stand in as silent witnesses for the scene. We have an earlier tradition, the creed in 1 Cor 15, which marks appearances as the earliest indication of the resurrection. Those appearances, attested in the earlier tradition, are explicable through cognitive dissonance and hallucinations, as Komarnitsky discusses.

          You may also be interested in Chris Hallquist’s rebuttal to the notion that the Gospel of Mark is narrativizing the creed in 1 Cor 15. His book can be accessed for free online:

          http://wp.patheos.com.s3.amazonaws.com/blogs/hallq/files/2013/03/UFOs-Ghosts-and-a-Rising-God.pdf

          On pg. 131 he points out that you could make just as good a case that the Gospel of Peter is narrativizing the creed. So what if the Gospel of Peter has giant angles follow Jesus outside of the tomb along with the cross? The creed says “he was buried” and “he was raised on the third day.” The Gospel of Peter was just filling in the details that Jesus also emerged from an empty tomb with giant angles and the cross following him. We have as much reason to think that this scenario is implied within the creed as the empty tomb in Mark. In reality, William Craig is an apologist who engages in an egregious amount of quellenforschung that any Classicist would recognize to be invalid. But, he wants to read the empty tomb into the tradition as far back as he can, so he takes out his laser specs and sees it in the 1 Cor 15 creed, even when there is no trace of it for us ordinary folks.

          I think, if there had been an empty tomb, that it would have been venerated. The Christians venerated the tombs of dead saints, for example. I am not sure, however, if the crucifixion site would have been. I take the crucifixion to be a probable historical fact, but I do not think that we have an accurate account of the details. The Passion narratives in the Gospels are packed full of legendary elements, such as earthquakes tearing the Temple shroud, a worldwide three hour darkness, etc. Was Jesus crucified? Highly probable. Was he crucified between two thieves? I have no idea. That’s the problem. “A” Crucifixion is only a general fact. I do not think that we can pin down the specifics of “the” crucifixion. As such, it is difficult to know where and how it happened. If Jesus was crucified at a general spot used to crucify criminals all the way up until 66 CE, then we have little reason to think that the early Christians would venerate the spot. The later tradition about Golgotha could easily be an invention. An empty tomb, on the other hand, not where Jesus died, but where he miraculously resurrected, would be a more isolated and important site. That we have no evidence for.

          Pre-70 CE, as you say, we only have Paul. Paul speaks of “a” crucifixion, so I think it is good enough evidence that one happened, even if the details of “the” crucifixion are obscured to us. However, Paul says nothing about an empty tomb. That only comes from post-70 CE narratives outside of Palestine, at a time when Jerusalem would have been inaccessible and such an invention could easily be made, which is probably what we have in the case of Mark 16.

          • B.C. says:

            I think your first two paragraphs point further to the independence of Mark 16 and 1 Cor 15. And GPeter is dependent on GMatt (e.g., the guards) which is dependent on GMark.

            Regarding the veneration of sites, Jerome says from the time of Hadrian to Constantine, a figure of Jupiter stood over the site of the tomb and a statue of Venus over the site of the cross. Jerome lived near there, and if true, then these sites could not really have been venerated except before Hadrian and Aelia Capitolina, but we really don’t have Christian sources from Palestine in that early time period. The NT and Apostolic Fathers seem to be written elsewhere. My thoughts on this matter of veneration of a site is simply that the evidence is too sparse to speak for or against it.

          • Hey B.C.,

            Jerome is a pretty late source for whether there was any veneration of the tomb and crucifixion site. Writing some 300 years later, we would have to assume that he could still locate the site after Jerusalem had been destroyed, rebuilt as the Pagan city Aelia Capitolina, and then Christianized around the time of Constantine and after.

            Now, tons of Christians in Jerome’s day were no doubt claiming multiple sites to be the empty tomb and Golgotha. Just as we have more than one traditional site today, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb, just to name two. That said, no Christians mention veneration of the site pre-70 CE, which is probably the only point where it could be accurately located. As you say, the evidence is sparse, but the lack of known locations fits well with the hypothesis that the empty tomb is an invention.

          • B.C. says:

            No doubt about Jerome being late, but we don’t have many earlier Christian writers in Palestine (e.g., Eusebius, Origen) to mention such a geographical detail. Jerome is talking about something that would go back to 135 CE but we have no way of knowing if he claim had antiquity to it or not. My only point is that in light of Jerusalem’s turbulent history and the scarcity of Christian writings from Palestine, it’s hard to know either way if a site in Jerusalem was ever venerated between 30-135 CE.

          • The evidence is sparse, but Paul is one author who could have written about the tomb, if it was a known or venerated site. Alas, he does not. While it is plausible that he knew about it, but did not mention it, his silence fits admirably with the hypothesis that the empty tomb was Markan invention, or at least a post-Pauline development.

            Also, the site of the empty tomb never comes up again in Acts, nor is Joseph of Arimathea discussed again, even when it was his tomb that was found empty. The empty tomb simply appears in the narrative when it serves as a scene for the resurrection and then disappears when that role is over. Nor are the disciples ever charged with grave robbery in Acts, even though at the end of Matthew, after the guards’ report, the disciples are accused of grave robbery (a capital offense). These silences suggest a literary, rather than historical, origin behind the story of the empty tomb.

  2. That’s about where I am too. I don’t think anybody had to be deliberately lying to spread falsehoods. I don’t like to accuse people of lying. It seems so much more likely that Christians then did what they do today–let their wishful thinking lead them into exaggeration and misperceptions. I loved how you reviewed this. I’m definitely going to get it now. Thank you.

  3. Wim says:

    The funny thing about Rabbi Schneerson is that the members of the group in Brooklyn who still believe he is the Messiah and the people who no longer believe/never believed it, still occupy the same building in Crown Heights; the messianists have their synagogue in the basement if I’m not mistaken. So, you have two groups within the same sect inside the same building holding widely different beliefs. Imagine if this sect had lived two thousand years ago in a surrounding culture that was just as superstitious as them and the non-messianist group, for some reason like say quashing a Jewish rebellion, had been wiped off the map and the messianist group in the basement had been the only one left standing and writing or rewriting the texts of that movement.

    • That’s a good thing to bring up. Apologists often try to polarize the beliefs of the earliest Christian community about the resurrection. “James was a skeptic, but then he converted! How can you explain that?!” The impression given is that, among those closest to Jesus, there were those who believed (because Jesus appeared to them), and those who thought that the others were completely crazy (until Jesus appeared likewise to them, causing them to 180). However, as your example with Schneerson shows, people of the same sect/community can come to different conclusions after an event that causes cognitive dissonance, and yet still associate with each other. The Brooklyn community was divided about Schneerson and the resurrection rationalization, and yet they still stayed associated. Likewise, perhaps James did not originally believe in his brother’s resurrection, but still stayed with or interacted with the earliest Christian community. After some time, however, perhaps James eventually had a change of heart and came to believe in the resurrection, as they did. Nothing about this need imply a complete 180 on James’ part. That impression only comes from the unnecessary fact that apologists polarize the earliest Christians’ beliefs about/reactions to the resurrection, juxtaposing complete disbelief with a sudden 180 of complete belief. But, as the example of the Schneerson community shows, there can be many shades of grey and yet internal cohesion within cult communities/sects.

  4. Peter N says:

    I’m a little unclear on when you think 1 Corinthians was written. You say it is “dated by many NT scholars to have been coined only a 2-5 years after Jesus’ death”, but later “after a number of decades had elapsed following Jesus’ death”.

    My understanding (and I’m only an ancient history hobbyist!) is that the idea that Paul probably wrote in the 40s and 50s AD is based on the “church tradition” that he was executed about 67 — but there is no independent evidence for a date, or even that he was executed at all. For that matter, all we really have are the writings attributed to him — should we take any of the autobiographical details in his writings at face value?

    • Hey Peter,

      Here is what Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pgs. 514-515) says about the dating of 1 Corinthians:

      “AD 50/51-2. According to Acts 18:1-13 Aquila and Priscilla (almost certainly Jewish Christians) were at Corinth when Paul arrived there. Some challenge that sequence because in 1 Cor 3:6,10; 4:15 Paul claims that at Corinth he planted and laid the foundation and fathered the Christian community. We may wonder, however, whether that language excludes the possibility that a few Christians were on the scene before he came … AD 52-56? After Paul left Corinth in 52 with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18), other missionaries came; and the vivacious preaching of a man like Apollos may have catalyzed spirited elements within the Corinthian community, producing some of the enthusiasm that Paul would have to criticize in 1 Cor … (ca. AD 56). While staying at Ephesus (54-57), Paul got reports about Corinth, e.g., from “those of Chloe” (1 Cor 1:11; also 11:18). We know nothing of Chloe: whether she lived at Corinth (with contacts at Ephesus?) or at Ephesus … about the same time or shortly afterward at Ephesus, Paul received a letter from the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:11), perhaps in reply to his Letter A and seemingly brought by Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17-18) who probably added their own reports. Paul wrote 1 Cor from Ephesus (Letter B).”

      As you can see from above, the dating of 1 Corinthians is messy business, but we can splice details from Acts and Paul’s epistles to provide a date in the mid to late-50’s CE. I don’t know if any mainstream scholars dispute this date range.

      The creed presumed to be behind 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 would have a different date. Hence, I was referring to the letter being written “a couple decades later” and the creed “being coined in 2-5 years.”

      Since Paul would be quoting the creed, the creed itself would have been coined earlier. The dating of the creed is another matter, but most scholars place it at around 2-5 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. That said, identifying such a creed is based on quellenforschung (“source analysis”), which is inherently a speculative endeavor. Scholars may have stylistic/grammatical reasons for thinking that the creed predates Paul, but we can never be 100% certain whether it does, or when it would have been coined, if so.

  5. Terrell Taylor says:

    Hello Mr. Ferguson,

    After enjoying this post as well as enjoying your blog as a whole, I was wondering if thorough case can be made against Paul’s visions or at least a naturalistic account for this supposed event. I think Paul’s visions are something that I feel should be contested independently of the other visions being that Paul was an unbeliever and never saw Jesus in person. From what I know I don’t think I’ve read a thorough naturalistic explanation of Paul’s alleged visions apart from reading that Paul probably had a hallucination. Perhaps you have addressed this elsewhere or know of others who have addressed Paul’s visions that you could direct me towards? Nonetheless, what are your thoughts on the importance of having a naturalistic account for Paul’s visions that is independent of the other disciples’ and followers’ visions? Unnecessary maybe? I think that Paul hallucinated if he did have these visions but I’m not quite satisfied. Thoughts?

    • Hey Terrell,

      An important thing to remember with Paul is that, although he was not originally a member of the earliest Christians, he was aware of them and knew about their beliefs regarding Jesus. As such, Paul’s vision is not entirely independent of the others. He still had this messianic figure in his background knowledge, which could have prompted a vision of him under the right circumstances.

      Furthermore, we have signs elsewhere that Paul was prone to other visions/hallucinations. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul describes an experience were he was taken up to “third heaven.” Bear in mind that this is in an age of widespread supernaturalism. Paul was not some naturalist skeptic who did not believe in miracles. He was a supernaturalist, who probably had multiple experiences in his life that he believed to be interactions with the divine/supernatural.

      While this kind of supernaturalism is less common in educated Western nations today, I have written another post discussing a man I encountered at the University of Arizona, who claims to have been raptured to heaven twice, to have physically touched Jesus, and to have performed miracles. He also has continued to preach even after being arrested and threatened by angry people. I don’t think that he is lying about his experiences. He is willing to suffer for what he believes and probably would die for it. I think that he is prone to hallucinations and delusions that give rise to a highly zealous and determined set of religious convictions. This set of convictions has prompted him to travel the country, to write theological epistles to communities he has come in contact with, and to maintain a small following of self-ostracized people.

      What I mean to demonstrate by this is that figures like Paul are not unprecedented. There are people like him even today. What haven’t been demonstrated are immortal resurrections. Komarnitsky likewise discusses in DJR another similar figure, Nathan of Gaza, who had visions that prompted to him follow the messianic figure Sabbatai Sevi. And, even after Sevi’s conversion to Islam, Nathan of Gaza remained ardently devoted to Sevi as the Messiah. Nothing would shake his religious convictions and beliefs.

      Now, here is the thing: If Paul was already a religious person who had visionary experiences, it is not that strange that he would have a vision of Jesus, even as an early persecutor of the church. All it would take is a scenario where Paul was reflecting on his experiences with the Christians, perhaps facing dissonance or remorse, while walking on a hot road to Damascus, when he came into a visionary experience of Jesus, perhaps chastising him for persecuting the church.

      As Gerd Ludemann (The Resurrection of Christ, pgs. 170-171) explains:

      “Paul shows clear evidence of conflicting emotions: a radical sense of guilt and unworthiness combined with an exalted self-image that results in the need to be an authority figure … Caught up in an intellectual and emotional maelstrom that can only have been intensified by his growing familiarity with the sect he was harassing, he seems at last to have discovered the resolution of his problems for himself. The humble and self-sacrificing Jesus represents for Paul a new vision of the Almighty: no longer a stern and demanding tyrant intent on punishing even those who could not help themselves, but a loving and forgiving leader who offered rest and peace to imperfect humans who accepted his grace …. Paul could become the Apostle-in-Chief of some new program of salvation with a culture-wide appeal. Something of that nature was in all likelihood the dynamic that impelled the persecutor turned proclaimer whose religious zeal stands as a measure of the inner tension that was powerfully released and transformed in a vision of Christ.”

      Now, is this kind of persecutor-turned-convert scenario very common? No, but, guess what, it only happened once. If Jesus had really resurrected from the dead, tons of former persecutors, Pilate, Caiaphas, Tiberius Caesar himself, could have been converted. Instead, only one man had such a rare conversion, as we would expect if it were a rare thing.

      The reverse scenario, if we took the accounts in the NT at face value, it would be that Jesus resurrected into an immortal body, flew into space (Acts 1:9), and then shined down a light from heaven to converse with Paul on the road (Acts 9:3-5; 22:6-8; 26:13-15). How many times in history has this kind of explanation been behind such a conversion, as opposed to a vision, hallucination, or personal experience? Likewise, these details have to be spliced from Acts, and even Christian scholar Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, pg. 534) points out, “Few would give the Lucan picture priority over Paul.”

      What does Paul himself tell us? Not much, nor does he ever say that he physically saw Jesus. In 1 Cor. 9:1 Paul claims to “have seen the Lord” and in 1 Cor. 15:8 that “he appeared also unto me.” In Galatians 1:15-16 that God “was pleased to reveal his son in me.” Paul never says anything concrete or clear about an actual experience with Jesus. Everything he describes is compatible with a personal vision or hallucination. Furthermore, as Bart Ehrman pointed out in a debate with Mike Licona, how would Paul even know what Jesus looked like? He never even knew him during his earthly ministry.

      Now, here is the real kicker, as Raymond Brown (pg. 534) points out, “Paul is the only NT writer who claims personally to have witnessed an appearance of the risen Jesus.” Does he describe his appearance in physical details? No. Does he describe concrete person clearly dialoging with him? No. All he described is “revelation” and having Jesus “appear” to him. The language speaks exceptionally to a personal conversion experience.

      Here is the other thing: Apologists like to claim that people converted because of “evidence” and “checking it out.” Paul would have been in a better position than anyone else to do this. He would have had all of the “minimal facts” that apologists claim there were and he would have had them first-hand. Does he describe visiting the empty tomb to make sure the body was missing? No. Does he describe talking to women and how they saw the young boy (or flying angel) who announced Jesus’ resurrection? No. All Paul discusses are revelations and vague “appearances.”

      Paul’s manifesto can perhaps best be illustrated in Galatians 1:11-12:

      “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

      There you have it, a “revelation” is the basis of Paul’s beliefs. Not physical evidence or investigating the circumstances. Paul never discusses such a thing. Furthermore, in Galatians 1:16-17, Paul says that right after his conversion he did not “consult any human being.” Didn’t he want to interview eyewitnesses and collect evidence? No, instead he goes to Arabia, because his own private vision and experience was already enough. He believed on the basis of the revelation alone. This is the best historical evidence and testimony that we have of how an early (and literate) Christian came to believe in the resurrection, and all we have is a discussion of “revelation,” with no mention of critical investigation discussed at all.

      • Terrell Taylor says:

        Thank you, Mr. Ferguson. I know that your busy at the moment so your reply is greatly appreciated. As a naturalist and a laymen, piecing together history is never an easy task when you can’t evoke the miraculous to explain gaps in one’s knowledge. Nonetheless, your blog helps a lot. The greatest part is that you provide sources that we can check for ourselves. Anyways, enough rambling. Again, thank you and good luck in your studies as well.

      • vinnyjh57 says:

        An important thing to remember with Paul is that, although he was not originally a member of the earliest Christians, he was aware of them and knew about their beliefs regarding Jesus.

        The assumption that Paul knew about the beliefs of the earliest Christians has always struck me as problematic as it seems to me that it is often the case that the perpetrators of religious prosecutions don’t actually understand their victims’ beliefs or practices. For example, the Romans believed that the early Christians practiced incest and cannibalism. European persecution of Jews has often been predicated on the charge that they practiced ritual infanticide. Often the victims are being used as scapegoats for reasons that are unrelated to their actual beliefs as when Nero blamed the Christians for burning Rome.

        Unfortunately Paul never says what it was about the Christians he found so offensive prior to his conversion, but I think we have to allow for the possibility that Paul was simply the instrument of some powerful faction of Jewish society that found it convenient to scapegoat the messianic cults in the same way that Imperial Russia found it convenient to whip up pogroms from time to time. In such a case, there would be no reason to think that Paul had a particularly accurate picture of the earliest Christians beliefs regarding Jesus.

        In addition to the problem that religious persecutions are not necessarily founded on an accurate understanding of the victims’ beliefs, they are not known to be conducive to developing an accurate understanding. If Paul used torture, his victims would have told him anything that they thought he wanted to hear. If he used informants, he would be exposed to even more misinformation.

        I am not sure whether Paul should be considered the founder of Christianity, but I don’t there is any way to determine how much continuity there was between the message that he came up with as a result of his revelation and the actual beliefs and practices of anyone who came before him.

        • I don’t think that Paul’s pre-conversion view of Christianity was similar to later (largely 2nd century) Pagan critiques, and here is why:

          Paul was a Jew and Pharisee, who, pre-conversion, probably had a conventional view of the Jewish Messiah, i.e. that the Messiah would be a great military leader, or a king, or a judge of the Earth, or a priest. He almost certainly did not think that the Messiah would be a crucified criminal. That kind of view would have been highly blasphemous to Paul. In fact, it is probably the best reason to explain why he was persecuting the Christians.

          The later Pagan critiques of Christianity made them out to be an anti-social, atheistic cult. I don’t think that Paul saw them this way, rather than a blasphemous Jewish sect (remember, Christianity was largely a Jewish sect before Paul took the mission to the Gentiles). As such, I think we should associate Paul’s views with Jewish critiques of Christianity, rather than Pagan ones.

          We do have a few snippets of Paul’s own words about his pre-conversion views.

          Gal. 1.11: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

          Phil. 3.4-6: “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”

          And we have some descriptions of Paul before his conversion in Acts 7-9. He is likewise depicted in Acts 8 to approved Stephen’s stoning, which done under the pretense that the Christians had violated the Law.

          From the available evidence and the historical context, I think we can deduce the following:

          1. Paul was a religiously committed Jew and Pharisee.
          2. Paul probably knew that Jesus was a crucified criminal.
          3. Paul probably knew that the Christians considered Jesus to be the Messiah.
          4. Paul probably found this view to be highly blasphemous.
          5. Paul also probably knew that the Christians in some way believed that Jesus had resurrected (probably the belief that Jesus had been taken up to Heaven after his crucifixion).

          However, as the Ludemann quote from above discusses, Paul shows signs of being a man with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, he was highly religious and found an outlet for his faith in the Pharisees. On the other hand, he came to sympathize with this group that he had been persecuting, probably empathizing with their concept of a humble and self-sacrificing Lord, so different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisees he was associating with.

          Add an interval of time for reflection and dissonance, combined with a journey on a hot road to Damascus, and Paul had a vision of Jesus that changed his mind about the church and altered the course of his life.

          All of this may not have been very common (most Pharisees persecuting the church did not become converts), but it is hardly a miraculous change. People can have a change of heart for a variety of internal, subjective reasons.

          Bart Ehrman has also posted a couple blogs about Paul’s pre-conversion views, if you have access to the Christianity in Antiquity website:

          http://ehrmanblog.org/did-paul-invent-the-resurrection/

      • Ceres says:

        Ludemann’s reading of Paul is pretty terrible.
        I think its pretty anachronistic , and he’s reading some Lutheran view of Paul and unworthiness back onto Paul’s writings. His stuff on guilt is anachronistic too , because ancient Palestine was primarily an honor/shame culture , not an integrity/guilt culture like modern Europe/America are.

        • Ceres,

          Again, you are missing the point with this. The point is that we do not have to explain Paul’s conversion using the explanation “a zombie man rose from the dead, flew into space, and then shined down a light to a man on the road.” I explain here why alternative hypotheses are more probable than this absurd scenario.

          Paul had a vision that changed his mind and caused him to convert to Christianity. People having hallucinations and people switching factions have been demonstrated today. Immortal resurrections have never been demonstrated. Human psychology did not change in going from an “honor/shame” culture to a “integrity/guilt” culture. People hallucinated and changed their beliefs during both. What Ludemann is explaining is that there are explicable psychological factors and details about Paul’s background that can explain why he had a hallucination that caused him to change his beliefs. There is no reason to believe that magic should be a more probable explanation than this scenario. As such, Paul’s conversion is not a good reason to believe in the resurrection.

  6. Ceres says:

    “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). ”

    I don’t think that’s a straw man. Have you ever read “The Empty Tomb”? Especiall that essay by J. Duncan M. Derrett

    • Ceres,

      If you read The Empty Tomb, it is a resource laying out multiple plausible natural explanations (demonstrating that there are multiple alternative explanations and that non-believers do not have to commit to any single one), most of which do not involve conspiracy elements. Apologists try to make it seem that anyone who doubts the resurrection of Jesus is saying that the disciples set out to plan a grand conspiracy. That is absurd. Non-believers are saying that a mixture of theological rationalizations, wishful thinking, rumors, superstition, hallucinations, pious frauds, and so on gave rise to a movement that developed over time, proselytized to gain converts, and eventually produced theological hagiographies praising a messianic figure that are full of legendary elements. That does not require a conspiracy, only hearsay and exaggerated stories circulating, just as they do today. Thus, apologists who try to make it seem that those who do not believe in Jesus’ resurrection are arguing for a conspiracy on the part of the disciples (as apologists claim in the martyrdom argument, which I refute here) are committing a straw man.

  7. aljones909 says:

    There’s a talk here: “Shamanism and the Evolutionary Origins of Schizophrenia” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJN3D8UhtGQ

    It’s a speculative idea but what is very well established is that religious visions are fairly commonplace.Shaman were prized for their ability to communicate with the spirits. In a study noted in the talk it was found that religious delusions were present in 65% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia. I’m not claiming that we can confidently diagnose Paul as schizophrenic but he may have been somewhere on the shaman/schizophrenia spectrum that pre-disposed him to religious visions.

    • Hey Al,

      Thanks for the link!

      Yes, a common point missed by apologists is that one does not have to prove that Paul had any sort of hallucinations or mental disorder to know that such hallucinations are more probable than genuine visions of dead people who have ascended to Heaven. The historical Paul can only speak to us in a handful of letters and there are many things we would like to know about him that we cannot. In light of incomplete evidence, we are left in the realm of plausibility and probability. I think that it is certainly plausible that what convinced Paul to convert to Christianity could have been nothing more than a subjective vision. I also think that this explanation is more probable than the resurrection.

      If new evidence should arise (which is doubtful at this point), then perhaps we will know more. But, in light of the current evidence, the explanation you suggested above is completely plausible, and provides more than an adequate natural for Paul’s conversion without Jesus rising from the dead.

  8. mansubzero says:

    Greetings Matthew

    tony costa argues that the reason why paul modified the creed by omitting the women was because,

    “of his Corinthian audience” and “they would dispute him on that point”

    so nobody in Corinth, according to costa, would know about the women witnesses?

    even if paul said that peter verified the claims of the women , Corinthians would still dispute him?
    even though there were 500 other witnesses?

    • Well, to begin with, the only place where we have clear evidence that Paul modified the creed is in verses 6b and 8, which are not related to Jesus’ burial. Funny enough, 6b instead refers to Jesus’ alleged appearance to “the 500,” which is an event not attested in the Gospels or Acts (unless the 500 is referring to the Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13, which wouldn’t have been a literal sighting of Jesus).

      So, the one place that we can tell Paul *did modify* the creed, he actually included a detail that is *not* explicitly found in the later sources. And yet Tony Costa wants us to think that Paul knew the details of these later sources, such as women finding an empty tomb (when the Gospels are not even consistent in the role call of who these women were, anyways), when the details that Paul *does relate* are absent from these sources, suggesting that Paul and the Gospels probably had different information.

      We could also use Costa’s logic to argue that Paul omitted other things:

      For example, did Paul omit the death of Judas, when he stated that Jesus appeared to the “twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5), even when Luke explicitly states that Jesus appeared to “eleven” of the former disciples (24:33-34)?

      Did Paul also feel the need to omit Joseph of Arimathea? As Bart Ehrman (How Jesus Became God, pp. 141-2) explains:

      “It is important to realize that all the statements of the two sections of the creed are tightly parallel to one another in every respect — except one. The second section contains a name as part of the tangible proof for the statement that Jesus was raised: ‘He appeared to [literally: ‘he was seen by’] Cephas.’ The fourth statement of the first section does not name any authorizing party. There we are told simply that ‘he was buried’ — not that he was buried by anyone in particular. Given the effort that the author of this creed has taken to make every statement of the first section correspond to the parallel statement of the second section, and vice versa, this should give us pause. It would have been very easy indeed to make the parallel precise, simply by saying ‘he was buried by Joseph [of Arimathea].’ Why didn’t the author make this precise parallel? My hunch is that it is because he knew nothing about a burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea.”

      So, did Paul omit both the women, the death of Judas, and Joseph of Arimathea all at once from this creed, or is it more likely that we simply have here two different traditions of Jesus’ resurrection? Needless to say, Costa (much like Bill Craig) thinks that he has laser spectacles where he can read in later traditions into this earlier creed, which clearly aren’t there.

      I should also note that my logic, in contrast, does not hinge on the assumption that Paul *didn’t know* about the women. We don’t know what Paul knew except what he writes about. He didn’t write about the women, so we can’t say that he knew about this claim. This means that, when accounting for the circumstantial evidence surrounding the origins of belief in the resurrection, the historian does not need to explain the women at the tomb as part of the earliest traditions. It simply isn’t there. All the historian has to explain is why anonymous accounts about Jesus half a century later made this claim (in a variety of contradictory ways), and such data can be explained in a variety of literary, rather than historical, ways. Because we can’t eliminate these literary motives, this later tradition is, at the very least, too dubious to be a “minimal fact” surrounding the origins of Christianity. It thus does not require any circumstantial explanation from the historian as an actual event.

  9. Zak says:

    Hi, I wanted to tell you that I appreciate your blog and your enjoy reading your thoughts on early Christianity. Based off your review, Karminitsky’s book sounds very interesting. Just out of curiosity, what was Karminitsky’s view on Paul’s conversion?

    -Zak

  10. ICW says:

    One of the biggest apologetic points I’ve heard from WLC is that nobody understood “risen from the dead” to mean anything other than a literal physical body walking out of a grave. To imagine that any 1st century Jew believed in a “spiritual resurrection” (or would make one up) is presented as absurd by those apologists. I’ve not yet found a response to this.

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