Saturday 17 May 2014

The Resurrection from a Secular Viewpoint

I'm late to the party. Back in 2009, apparently, a certain Kris Komarnitsky published a book called Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened In The Black Box? (hereinafter DJR). In fact, earlier this year he published a second, updated edition (Stone Arrow Books). I discovered this thanks to James McGrath's blog, which also mentioned that a certain online bookseller was offering it for free on a certain electronic reading device (sufficiently cryptic? No free advertising for big booksellers here!).
Not being able to resist a bargain, I downloaded it and found it a fascinating read. I'm relatively new to electronic book readers, so you'll have to bear with me in this review as I haven't found a way of referencing page numbers in the paper version. The best I can do is give chapter numbers, with possibly an indication of any endnote number that happens to be near any passage I wish to cite.

Who is Kris Komarnitsky?
I'm afraid I know very little about the author - in fact all I know is from this book, and a quick search on the internet. He is a layperson who has become very well-informed about this particular subject, clearly by reading very widely indeed and discussing his idea(s) with a number of experts in the field.
The second edition of DJR has endorsements from a wide range of scholars in biblical criticism, ancient history, psychology (yes, you'll see why later) and social anthropology. On starting to read the book I was initially very worried about what kind of quality a layperson would be able to produce in a work of this kind; clearly others have shared my initial anxiety, but like me, have become very impressed the more they read by the research that has gone into it. Indeed one of the endorsements comes from the aforementioned Professor James McGrath who states:
"Proving the exception, this book shows that if a layman takes the time to investigate a topic, including learning how the relevant disciplinary tools are applied and familiarizes themselves with what experts have already written on the subject, they can draw balanced and even insightful conclusions that enhance the conversation."

So it's an impressive work, and I find myself very much in agreement with the line of reasoning. Are there faults? Well yes of course, and we'll meet some of those along the way. Nevertheless, I think that Komarnitsky has produced a very plausible account indeed of how the belief in the resurrection of Jesus arose and evolved, probably the most plausible account that has yet been produced, and many of the disagreements that I will outline here are very minor in the grand, overall scheme of things.
One thing which is a shame, but understandable, is Komarnitsky's declaration in an afterword  to DJR that this second edition is likely to be the last. As he himself says, christian apologists, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, will undoubtedly attack the arguments in this edition, just as they did for the first; sometimes their arguments might need rebuttal to a level of detail beyond which an ordinary reader would be able to reach; and Komarnitsky has demonstrated himself to be eminently capable of this.. Nonetheless, I do appreciate the amount of commitment over the years that Komarnitsky has put into this work, and it is far from unreasonable to ask someone else to take up the baton.

The Problem
How did the idea arise that Jesus rose from the dead? What was the earliest form of this idea? And how did the idea evolve throughout the early christian period? If you're a christian - particularly, but not exclusively, a conservative one - the answers to these three questions probably go something like this:
  1. The idea that Jesus rose from the dead was because he did just that, and he appeared to his disciples to prove to them that he had risen.
  2. This gave rise to the earliest form of the resurrection - that Jesus rose bodily from his well-known tomb (which was thus left empty), showed himself to his disciples who were able to see, hear and touch him; he also appeared to Paul, possibly in a slightly different manner. The disciples (and Paul) passed on their witness testimonies, which also found their way into the new testament.
  3. The idea didn't "evolve" during the new testament period - it didn't need to because the story was true from the outset, and passed on faithfully without embellishment.

Hmm, well that's not very satisfying unless you're willing to abandon all healthy skepticism and be credulous enough to swallow whole ancient stories of wonder and miracle! So if you take a more realistic position to history, then how could those stories in the new testament have come about?
Well that's something that has been studied quite a lot, both by christians and by people of a more secular outlook.

Evolution of a Story
There's quite a lot attached to the story of the resurrection of Jesus, at least in most versions that are read today. Take resurrection appearances, for example. In the earliest version of Mark (which finishes at chapter 16 verse 8 - everything you see afterwards in any bible translation has been added) there are no resurrection appearances, only a vague prediction that some women who went to the alleged tomb will see him in Galilee (Mark 16:7).
Mark is pretty much universally considered these days to be the earliest of the 4 gospels that found their way into the bible. Indeed, the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke knew Mark's gospel and used it to write their own gospels, according to the overwhelming majority of biblical critics today; moreover, most think that the author(s) of John's gospel also knew Mark's gospel, but used it a lot less. Yet when you read any gospel other than Mark's you get a whole host of post-resurrection detail that isn't in this earliest gospel. Across the 3 non-Markan gospels, for example:
  • Jesus makes an appearance where he walks on water, 
  • he enters rooms whilst the doors are locked, he asks explains scriptures to people,
  • he eats some food,
  • he gives his disciples instructions,
  • he asks some to touch him to show that it really is him, and 
  • in Luke's gospel (the only gospel that tries to tie up some loose ends) the body is disposed of - Jesus ascends to heaven.

Not bad for someone who has been 3 days dead!
So we have some evolution of the story just within the gospels themselves. There is further evolution in some other non-canonical gospels - early christians were not afraid to add to the stories as they went along.
But what kind of evolution of the resurrection story took place before the gospels were written? Can we get back to earlier forms of the story? Does this help us figure out how the idea of a resurrection got started?
Well to answer these questions we first need to identify the earliest form of the resurrection story that has passed down to us. This is where Komarnitsky starts his examination.

The Earliest Preserved Form of the Story of the Resurrection of Jesus
You might be forgiven for thinking that the earliest accounts of the resurrection of Jesus that we have today are found in the so-called gospels; given that Mark is the earliest such gospel, then presumably the earliest account is to be found here. But Komarnitsky points out something that biblical critics have known for a long time. In fact the authentic letters of Paul (there are some that are considered forgeries, or more euphemistically "pseudonymous") are considered by almost all biblical critics to have been written earlier than any of the gospels.
In the last few days I have learnt of the passing of one scholar who was part of a very small minority who argued that Mark's gospel was written before the authentic letters of Paul. Maurice Casey was a brilliant scholar, who sadly passed away last week and will be much missed. He, and his colleague James Crossley, were really the only 2 biblical critics that I know of who argue for such an early date for Mark's composition. They have not persuaded the overwhelming majority of scholars who argue for a date of around 70CE for Mark, thus putting it significantly after the authentic letters of Paul. I join the reams of people who disagree with Casey on this point, but although I think he was wrong here, that does not diminish his standing as a scholar of international repute.

Paul does give some sort of account of the resurrection in his letter 1Corinthians 15:3-8:
παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρώτοις, ὃ καὶ παρέλαβον, ὅτι Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς καὶ ὅτι ἐτάφη καὶ ὅτι ἐγήγερται τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς καὶ ὅτι ὤφθη Κηφᾷ εἶτα τοῖς δώδεκα· ἔπειτα ὤφθη ἐπάνω πεντακοσίοις ἀδελφοῖς ἐφάπαξ, ἐξ ὧν οἱ πλείονες μένουσιν ἕως ἄρτι, τινὲς δὲ ἐκοιμήθησαν· ἔπειτα ὤφθη Ἰακώβῳ εἶτα τοῖς ἀποστόλοις πᾶσιν· ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι* ὤφθη κἀμοί.

3 For I delivered to you of foremost importance that which I received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures 4 and that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Next he appeared to more than five hundred brothers [and sisters] at once, from whom many remain until today, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Next he appeared to James and then to all the apostles. 8 and last of all, like to "the untimely born"* he appeared even to me.

* τῷ ἐκτρώματι an unusual expression in context, normally used of miscarried babies. Paul is presumably trying to make quite a distinction between him and the other individuals listed in this passage.

The composition of this letter is usually dated to about 55CE which already makes it roughly 15 years earlier than the earliest gospel account from Mark's gospel. But as Komarnitsky points out, Paul probably didn't just come up with this story at the time he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Rather, it is likely that this kind of story, a seemingly rather formulaic one, was given to Paul sometime significantly earlier than this.
This resurrection story looks even more primitive than the story in Mark's gospel. That is, it is unadorned with even the few details that Mark has. In Paul there is no empty tomb, no discovery of the aforementioned empty tomb by a group of women, no announcement that Jesus will appear in Galilee, indeed no-one to make any such announcement; it's a story, but it's a story with noticeably fewer paraphernalia.
Nonetheless, Paul's account still does have a supernatural event at the heart of it. So how did this simpler, yet supernatural version of the story get started?

That's what DJR sets out to answer. We'll take a look at what it has to propose in this series.

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