Book Review: Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection

Today I’m reviewing a book that I was initially apprehensive about reading. As regular readers of this blog will know, I am grounded in a Christian faith that is based on the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I’m so convinced of the latter that I’ve written about it a fair bit, and think its amazing. In discussion with someone who commented on my “Resurrection” page, I ended up perusing various sceptical sites and blogs, and ended up buying this book: “Doubting Jesus Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?” The slightly odd title comes directly from the author’s prime profession – an airline pilot – as he seeks to apply the tools of biblical, historical and psychological criticism to the gap between Jesus’ crucifixion and his Resurrection belief. At the outset, I should make it clear that I went into this book with an open mind, and so was slightly disappointed that it didn’t seriously challenge my faith, or even my historical/critical understanding of the Resurrection and the Biblical texts. Regardless, as it is a book that you may read, or have used as a weapon wielded against your faith, I felt reviewing it would be worthwhile, if only to demonstrate that sceptical claims can be challenged.

In the stream of liberal and sceptical scholarship (neither of which are inherently bad things), Komarnitsky starts with a premise in black print on the front of his (self published, but very professionally so [note to self, ask where he had his book printed!]) book that could be seen as sending a shiver down the spine of Christian believers: “An Inquiry into an Alternative Explanation of Christian Origins”. With that premise established, Komarnitsky gets straight to it, in a very readable, generally respectable writing style. It is refreshing to read  a book by a sceptical enquirer with genuine respect for the biblical texts. That said, it is disappointing throughout that Komarnitsky sets up a straw man of Christian apologetics (his biography singularly fails to engage with heavyweights like Van Til, Richard Bauckham, Darrell Bock and so on), and even then only really approaches some of a certain sector. I read just before reading this book an excellent volume, “The Historical Jesus: Five Views”, in which five heavyweight scholars discuss very similar issues. One of Komarnitsky’s endorsers writes a chapter in it, on which legendary scholar can only say “Sad, really”. However, whilst I would recommend this other book, I am review today Komarnitsky’s, so I shall dwell here no longer.

One of my major criticisms of this book is the reliance the author places on the findings and writings of the Jesus Seminar. I wrote a little about them in my recent post on Jesus having a wife, suffice to say it is not a great foundation to build part of your case on. Komarnitsky focuses (rightly) on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, the central and earliest example of Resurrection belief. In passing, he fails to undermine the validity of the Gospels as historical sources (though this is probably due in part to a lack of space in what is a relatively slim volume). The major premise of this book, then, the major attack it makes on Orthodox Christian belief, is based on Komarnitsky’s usage of “Cognitive Dissonance Theory”. Simply put, CDT (as I shall abbreviate it) states that people are very good at wishful thinking, that the mourning disciples of Jesus would have made up the resurrection belief in order to ‘get over’ the death of their leader.

Komarnitsky does nod at the fact that N.T.Wright dismisses the theory – largely because Wright is a heavyweight who deals with it adequately in the rest of his work – but dismisses him by way of a quote from Robert Price. The same Robert Price who is a member of the Jesus Seminar, endorses Komarnitsky’s book, and is generally ignored by mainstream scholarship (based on the aforementioned book on the Historical Jesus). As my Pastor, John Wright would say, hmmm. Komarnitsky then unfortunately fills a few pages talking about CDT in relation to UFO’s, cults and various other unreasonable things, all the while emphatically stating that he is not comparing these believers to Christians. Unfortunately, its a transparent tactic – the very fact that Paul, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, states the centrality of the historical nature of the Resurrection makes Christianity of a different type to what Komarnitsky is talking about.

The author makes what I percieve to be a fatal flaw with a statement that pre-empts his conclusion; “when cognitive dissonance results in a new belief, the historical record leaves little or no trace of the cause“. As I’ve already hinted, Komarnitsky is at odds with the current direction of Scholarship on the historicity of Jesus. We then, for no discernible reason, dash off on a jaunt round the Mediterranean of Jesus time, as Komarnitsky tries to link Jesus’ story to other cults and later ‘messiahs’. This is disappointing. Komarnitsky has abandoned his interesting thesis to dwell on tangental details. His conclusion, relating vaguely to what he writes, is not particularly conclusive, not least as his great statement is “it is plausible” is not the damning indictment of Christian origins that readers might have hoped for. It is interesting to note that Komarnitsky puts forth the idea that early Christians might have constructed their belief from the Old Testament – but he fails to consider that reality of the fact that those texts were prophetic, and that the sheer number of them that Jesus fulfilled would have taken serious literary effort, that a persecuted minority (as the early church was) would not have had time to do. This element of his premise is unreasonable – even as he omits any form of discussion on the notion of prophecy.

In conclusion, then, read this book. Or don’t. And if you do or do not, bear in mind that there are some fairly serious flaws, some major omissions, and some disappointing leaps of logical fallacy. Komarnitsky’s various arguments are built on speculation and poor scholarship, and his occasional good point is not expanded on very helpfully. I was (and am) grateful that he writes with respect for his opponents – all too often writers of this sort of book end up being ad hominem rants – and that he has engaged with scholarship from various ends of the spectrum. However, a failure to engage with some key bits of Orthodox Christian thought (like OT Prophecy), the mainstream of Christian scholarship (like James Dunn and C.H.Dodd for example) and (occasionally) common sense, means this book falls short. The endorsements on the back betray this, perhaps, with Robert M. Price being the most notable scholar.  Whilst on its own this book can be seen as a threat to reasonable Christian belief, a bit of analysis and an awareness of the issues surround it render it rather less than the lightening bolt of reason that some have talked it up to be.

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