By Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?
While getting my knee x-rayed for a recent injury, I noticed a sign on the wall saying that a radiologist’s “interpretation” fee would be added to my bill. I thought it interesting how even photographic evidence involves interpretation and how much more so interpretation plays a role in making sense of Christian origins evidence. A recent discussion with popular Christian Internet apologist JP Holding illustrates this point.
The occasion that led to our discussion was JP’s review of my book Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? After his review, I approached JP to get a better feel for his opinion on one particular topic that he critiqued. The result was a cordial exchange of ideas.
The topic JP and I discussed was whether or not some of the early Christians at Corinth doubted the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and whether or not the Apostle Paul was, in his first letter to the Corinthians, trying to defend the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. I say yes on both counts, JP says no. These two questions are important when trying to decide if the empty tomb story in the gospels is fact or fiction, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
The verse that our discussion centered on was 1 Corinthians 15:12 in which Paul asks the Corinthians, “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” JP argues that the Corinthians here only doubted the future resurrection of believers, not Jesus’ resurrection. I argue that they doubted both. Interestingly, even if JP is right on this count, the Corinthians would soon have their doubts about Jesus’ resurrection because Paul points out the obvious in the very next verse: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised” (1 Corinthians 15:13). Either way, Paul is forced to defend Jesus’ resurrection. The evangelical "Expositor's Bible Commentary" (EBCOT), a highly respected source solidly in JP’s own camp, agrees:
In one of the reports Paul received concerning what was going on in Corinth, he heard that some were claiming “that there is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor 15:12). ...Paul was so deeply concerned about this theological position that he gave an extended discourse in ch. 15 to prove the resurrection of Christ and to set a timetable for the final return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead.1As an aside, the EBCOT also says, “[Paul] is here dealing with a group of Corinthians who are close to denying a cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith, namely, the resurrection of Christ.”2 A person “close to denying” Jesus’ resurrection is plainly and simply someone who doubts Jesus’ resurrection.
Is the EBCOT the final judge on how to properly interpret 1 Corinthians 15? Of course not. But it is an example of an interpretation that is different than JP’s. Who then decides the correct interpretation? Ultimately, the individual does. We read source material, study commentary about it, and decide for ourselves. And in this case we try to answer the question: Is Paul writing to some who doubt Jesus’ resurrection and, more importantly, is Paul trying to defend Jesus’ resurrection in the first part of 1 Corinthians 15? It is an important question because if Paul is trying to defend Jesus’ resurrection it is odd that he never mentions a discovered empty tomb. As many scholars have pointed out, Paul’s silence suggests that the discovered empty tomb tradition did not yet exist when he was writing two decades after Jesus’ death or that Paul knew it was an emerging legend.
JP goes on to argue that the “high-context” society Paul and the Corinthians lived in can account for Paul’s silence on the discovered empty tomb. But as JP admits, even in high-context societies “repeat of detail would...occur if some need were present to repeat.” This just leads us back to the question above. If Paul is trying to defend Jesus’ resurrection, he definitely has a need to repeat information. And in fact that is exactly what we see Paul do. He repeats the basic community creed that Jesus was raised and that this has been confirmed in the scriptures (1 Cor 15:4). He lists those who Jesus appeared to (1 Cor 15:5-8) which, being an already established Download an electronic version of "Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened In The Black Box?" to any personal computer for $9.99. Christian community, the Corinthians must have heard about before. Drawing on the authority of these witnesses, Paul then challenges the Corinthians, “Now if Christ is proclaimed [by all of these people] as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12). Paul finishes off by pointing out to the Corinthians the obvious consequences if Jesus did not resurrect – their preaching is useless, their faith is useless, they are false witnesses, they are still in their sins, those dead are lost, and they should be pitied (1 Cor 15:14-19). Given all of the arguments that Paul marshals here in support of Jesus’ bodily resurrection (I do think Paul has in mind a “corpse-gone” bodily resurrection belief), it is hard to imagine why Paul does not also mention the fact that Jesus’ burial location was discovered empty. Such a discovery would have been a solid piece of objective evidence in favor of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and it is the only piece of major evidence missing from Paul’s argument. As Dr. Tony Burke said of Jake O’Connell’s recent debate attempt to explain Paul’s silence on the discovered empty tomb: “It is one of O’Connell’s weaknesses that he cannot effectively respond to the silences of the texts. No one can. So, why did he even try?”
JP voiced his disagreement with many other aspects of my book. I appreciate his effort and although I found his other critiques not very persuasive I found them equally illustrative of the different ways that people can interpret evidence. Which brings me back to my main point. Often in complex topics like this there is more than one way to interpret the evidence. There may be a way to interpret the Christian origins evidence such that Jesus resurrected from the dead, and for that I would recommend JP’s work, but is that the only way to interpret the evidence? I don’t think so and neither do a lot of other people.
For those who do think the only way to interpret the evidence is that Jesus resurrected from the dead, they might want to take a closer look at each point of evidence. A good starting point might be the topic discussed above and a good person to start with might actually be JP himself. Ask JP how he concludes that none of the Corinthians doubted Jesus' resurrection, how he concludes that Paul was not defending it, and how the scholarly body that lies behind the EBCOT could get it so wrong. If JP’s answers don’t make sense to you and it does appear to you that the Corinthians doubted Jesus' resurrection and Paul was defending it, try to come up with a good explanation for why Paul never mentions the discovered empty tomb. If you can’t come up with one, you might want to consider the additional reasons critical scholarship thinks the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend (covered in my book), and you might be led to ask the main question that my book attempts to answer (see book summary below).
1. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 11 (ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan, 2008), 247. Emphasis added.
2. Ibid., 392. Emphasis added.
Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? begins at a place where believer, non-believer, and those who are not quite sure about Jesus' resurrection can meet - at the Bible's account of a discovered empty tomb three days after Jesus' death. Considering scholarship from both sides of the aisle, this book explains in clear and easily understood terms what many scholars have been saying for years - there is good reason to conclude that this tradition is a legend. If true, the historicity of Jesus' resurrection collapses. Following up on this possibility, this book turns its attention to a key bible passage (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) that is widely recognized 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. Again drawing on a wide range of scholarly expertise and covering many topics often encountered in discussions about Jesus' resurrection, this book investigates and offers an answer to the question, what plausibly could have caused the rise of these extraordinary beliefs and traditions if there never was a discovered empty tomb?
Here is what just a few well-known scholars have had to say about Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?
"Rare is it when a lay author puts in the effort of wide research, gathers the references to every point together, interacts with the leading disputes, and offers something soundly argued that hadn't been so well argued before. Komarnitsky does all of that and presents a surprisingly excellent demonstration of how belief in the resurrection of Jesus could plausibly have originated by natural means. Though I don't always agree with him, and some issues could be discussed at greater length, everything he argues is plausible, and his treatise as a whole is a must for anyone interested in the resurrection." – Richard Carrier, Ph.D. Ancient History
"If you liked my book Beyond Born Again, you're going to love this one by Kris Komarnitsky! He shows great acuity of judgment and clear-eyed perception of the issues. He does not claim to have proof of what happened at Christian origins, but he does present a powerfully plausible hypothesis for what might have happened, which is all you need to refute the fundamentalist claim that things can only have gone down their way. By now it is a mantra – it is also nonsense, and Kris shows that for a fact." – Robert M. Price, Ph.D. Theology, Ph.D. New Testament
"Komarnitsky is addressing an important topic in a considered and rational way. This book offers the open-minded reader an opportunity to work through some of the key questions surrounding the Easter mystery that lies at the heart of Christian faith." – Gregory C. Jenks, Ph.D. FaithFutures Foundation
"Clearly written and well argued, Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection lays out a plausible and intriguing case for a non-supernatural explanation of the New Testament resurrection accounts. Don’t be put off by the fact that Komarnitsky is not a scholar – his book makes a solid contribution to the historical-critical understanding of these immensely important texts. This book deserves serious attention from scholars and all those interested in Christian Origins." – Robert J. Miller, Professor of Religious Studies, Juniata College