This is a guest post by Kris Komarnitsky, the author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?
In January Hemant hosted Christian apologist Lee Strobel on this website. When Strobel was asked to provide some challenging questions to the audience here, the first question he provided was this one from fellow Christian apologist Dr. Gary Habermas:
Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself. These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.
We see the same basic challenge from resurrection defender Dr. N.T. Wright: “The [discovered] empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ with Jesus, when combined, present us with not only a sufficient condition for the rise of early Christian belief, but also, it seems, a necessary one. Nothing else historians have been able to come up with has the power to explain the phenomena before us” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003, pg. 706).
In my opinion these are fair questions from the traditional side of scholarship, and as a layman studying Christian origins, I found the responses from non-traditional scholarship not completely satisfying, or at least not very well or completely explained. The lack of a satisfactory response does not by default mean that Jesus resurrected from the dead, but it does spark the imagination. What really happened 2,000 years ago?
I began my own inquiry into this question several years ago. I took as my starting point the beliefs and traditions expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, widely recognized amongst scholars on both sides of the aisle to contain the earliest known Christian beliefs and traditions: Jesus died for our sins, was raised on the third day, and appeared to many people.
In considering the possible causes of these beliefs and traditions, notice that Dr. Wright does not appeal to the historical reliability of the gospels. He is saying that even apart from the gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and “meetings” with Jesus, nothing else historians have been able to come up with has the power to explain early Christian belief. Strobel and Habermas are not as open to suggestions outside the confines of the gospels, but as Habermas admits, the discovered empty tomb tradition is the weakest of his five “facts.” Given this, I start my investigation by accepting the possibility that the gospels could be mostly legend, including the discovered empty tomb tradition. For those who reject such a starting point, hear me out and I will show how this topic comes back full circle and impacts on the question of gospel reliability.
If the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend, not only is Jesus’ resurrection effectively ruled out, but so are several non-traditional explanations for the rise of early Christian belief, like the stolen body theory, the moved body theory, and the theory that Jesus only appeared to be dead and then resuscitated. With these ruled out, there is only one explanation that jumps out at me as a plausible cause of the two-pronged belief that Jesus died for our sins and was raised, half of the 1 Cor 15:3-7 formula. That cause is the human phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction. Basically, this is the human tendency to rationalize a discontinuity between reality and one’s current beliefs in such a way that current beliefs are modified or added too instead of being rejected. Sometimes this results in extremely radical rationalizations. We have solid examples of this from other religious movements in history, such as the Millerite movement, the Sabbatai Zevi movement, and others.
This theory has of course been presented before and the controversy surrounding it can be seen in Dr. Wright’s strong disagreement with it and Dr. Robert M. Price’s response to Wright’s critique. According to Wright, “The flaws in this argument [that cognitive dissonance caused early Christian belief] are so enormous that it is puzzling to find serious scholars still referring to it in deferential terms” (Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 698; full critique pg. 697-701). Price responds with:
…there are many viable explanations [for the rise of the belief that Jesus resurrected], not least Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction, whereby more than one disappointed sect has turned defeat into zeal by means of face-saving denial. Wright suicidally mentions this theory, only to dismiss it…with no serious attempt at refutation [emphasis added].
I agree with Price; Wright does not adequately rebut this idea.
Finding the cognitive dissonance solution very plausible myself but feeling that it has not been communicated very well in discussions about Christian origins, I decided to publish a book about it. For those interested in my book, it can be found here (or at Amazon.uk), along with endorsements from several notable scholars. Not only does my book apply the concept of cognitive dissonance to the belief that Jesus died for our sins and was raised, but it offers an explanation for the appearance traditions (no, not mass group hallucinations) and the belief that it was on the third day that Jesus was raised. It also takes a look at where Jesus was most likely buried considering the fact that he was a member of the lower classes. In summary, my book attempts to condense a lot of thought that has gone into this specific topic and adds what I think are a few missing links to produce a single comprehensive natural explanation for the rise of the beliefs and traditions in 1 Cor 15:3-7.
A plausible non-traditional explanation for the rise of the beliefs and traditions in 1 Cor 15:3-7 comes full circle and impacts on the historical reliability of the gospels. Why? Because 1 Cor 15:3-7 is used by traditionalists as external evidence for the historical reliability of the gospels. But if there is another plausible explanation for the rise of these beliefs and traditions, there is nothing about 1 Cor 15:3-7 itself that supports the conclusion that the gospels are more likely historical rather than legendary expansions of these beliefs and traditions. In short, traditional scholarship should not be using 1 Cor 15:3-7 to support gospel reliability.
I’d like to thank Hemant for giving me the opportunity to voice my opinion and introduce my book. I think other laypeople especially will find it readable and original in its approach to Christian origins, and I think it is the laypeople of the world who need to make sense of the arguments and claims that scholars make about their religious traditions.
Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened In The Black Box? is also available for immediate download to any personal computer for $9.99.