Sunday, 1 June 2014

Doubting Jesus' Resurrection - A Review (Part 2)

In my last post I explained the idea behind this book - to examine how the stories of the resurrection of Jesus got started and developed over time. Turning to Komarnitsky's introduction, it is obviously here that he sets out the general theme of the book.

Words, words, words...
There is one thing I wanted to pick up on. He introduces some of the terms he is going to use; and here he comes up against a problem that those of us who write in this field face, namely how do you refer to the views of scholars who aim to examine the data on as-neutral-a-basis-as-they-can-achieve in contrast to those who impose a doctrine of inerrancy on the text and force the data into that paradigm?

Here is Komarnitsky's way of dealing with this issue:
  In general terms, traditional scholarship argues that the four canonical Gospels are historically reliable and that as a group they form a powerful combination of independent attestation of events. In contrast, non-traditional scholarship argues that none of the gospels can be considered historically reliable, and none are truly independent from the others because they all draw from a common pool of circulating oral traditions and/or from each other. [Introduction just after endnote 4]

My italics. And just a little later:
  (SIDE NOTE: This book will use the terms "traditional" and "non-traditional" to refer to the two sides of the resurrection issue - the traditional side believing that Jesus did resurrect from the dead, and the non-traditional side believing that he did not. This designation is an attempt to avoid the baggage that usually comes with terms like critical/uncritical, liberal/conservative, and skeptic/believer.) [Introduction immediately after endnote 5]

I'm not sure that Komarnitsky is entirely consistent in this book with these designations, nor that really they get through the well-established problem successfully. When he refers to non-traditional scholars he is content to include inerrantists. As I have written elsewhere, inerrantists are anything but scholars; scholars have to be free to accept evidence-based conclusions wherever they lead, inerrantists are not. Inerrantists are apologists at best, and have no place in the guild.

Outside of inerrancy, I'm happy to accept that there are scholars who do believe in some kind of resurrection event. Is it reasonable to describe these people as traditional scholars? It's probably a question of degree. I suspect many scholars who do believe in a resurrection event would be more than a little surprised to find themselves as "traditional", largely because they have spent much of their academic lives rejecting, modifying and updating traditional scholarship; perhaps on this point they could be described as traditional, but even here, given the diversity of understanding about exactly what the resurrection event was like, I'm not sure that this is a helpful description.

I guess ultimately authors have to make their way through the jungle and make sense of a complicated picture for their lay readership, and Komarnitsky has made a stab at this.

The Players
On one side of the debate Komarnitsky talks about "The Jesus Seminar" and will make reference to them from time to time in DJR. It might have been helpful here to spell out what the Jesus Seminar was a little more. Also, as there are rather more skeptics than just the Jesus Seminar, and as some of the views of the Jesus Seminar haven't held up well over time, it would have been useful to give more examples of scholars who do not consider that Jesus rose from the dead.

So here's a very brief explanation of the Jesus Seminar. In 1985 American biblical critic Robert Funk set up a group of scholars (initially about 30, but later many more joined) to sift through the words and deeds of Jesus to try to determine which ones were more likely to be historical and which were less likely to be so. Over the years the Seminar published a few works setting out their conclusions.

At the other end of the spectrum from the Jesus Seminar, Komarnitsky frequently cites from inerrantists or those who are so close to inerrancy as makes no odds. For example throughout the work we will hear from Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Lee Strobel, N.T. Wright, Craig L. Blomberg, William Lane Craig, Richard Bauckham and more. No-one can say that Komarnitsky fails to engage with the apologists!

More nuanced academics are also quoted; Raymond Brown, Bart Ehrman, James Crossley, John Dominic Crossan, etc.

Finally, there are those on the fringe that are also cited, for example Robert M. Price, Richard Carrier and even Earl Doherty! The inclusion of the last two of these raise an eyebrow or two. Indeed although the citing of Doherty is rare, it does appear that Komarnitsky has relied on the advice of Carrier quite a lot, perhaps not so much in direct quotation, but I gain the impression that he has been consulted to a considerable degree in writing this book. The fact that there are references to a few Jesus mythicists in this work, should not be taken as discrediting the book: their mythicist views do come come through in Komarnitsky's thesis - perhaps fortunately. Neither, thankfully, does Komarnitsky adopt Carrier's over-reliance on Bayes theorem for which the latter has become so notorious.

The Argument and its Presuppositions
It is in this introductory chapter that Komarnitsky first touches upon his overall thesis. Given that his proposal contains a number of elements, most of which Komarnitsky is going to argue for in later chapters, this device carries a risk that readers might cry foul: that he hasn't established what he is arguing for. But I think it is a sensible strategy given the large number of ingredients that make up his thesis.

  This book will begin looking at just one Gospel tradition in isolation, the discovered empty tomb tradition. Considering scholarship from both sides of the aisle, it will be argued that there is good reason to conclude that this tradition is a legend. Following up on this possibility, this book will then move on to its main topic, which is to address a much more basic and interesting question that automatically follows from the conclusion that there never was a discovered empty tomb. [Introduction, 3 paragraphs before endnote 6]

DJR then cites 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (see previous post) before raising the question just alluded to:

  ...this passage... leads to an interesting historical questions: If the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend and Jesus did not resurrect from the dead, what then caused the rise of these beliefs and traditions? [Introduction,just after endnote 6]

Komarnitsky goes onto explain that he is presenting one plausible way to answer this question. To get a summary of his full thesis the reader will have to wait to chapter 6 (although the same reader will have picked up an awful lot about the proposition along the way!).

DJR also sets out some presuppositions in the introduction. Some of these will come as no surprise to the lay reader: 
  •  There was a guy Jesus who existed, even if he didn't do all the things laid out in the New Testament;
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is not a late insertion into Paul's letter.

Some other presuppositions may strike some readers as a bit odd if they are not up-to-date in the field:
  • Paul really did write the epistles Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, Philippians and Philemon. This probably only strikes some people as odd as they are unaware that the other letters of Paul, e.g. 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, etc, are usually considered "pseudonymous", if one's being polite, or "forgeries" if one's being blunt.
  • The Gospel of Mark was written before the other gospels. This is almost unanimously accepted these days; previously there was a theory that Matthew's gospel was the first to be written, but today there are just a few last Griesbachian theorists left who, as far as I know, aren't publishing anything currently.
  • The earliest christians believed Jesus was bodily raised from the dead, not just spiritually; this is contested in some quarters, but probably does set out the majority opinion.

Each of these 3 would merit some discussion, but DJR steers clear of this. When all's said and done I think this is wise, although it might have been helpful to signal to the reader, perhaps in endnotes, where more information could be found on these topics. 

Additionally it would have been helpful to give some rough dating of the gospel of Mark (Komarnitsky seems to assume the pretty unanimous view that it was about 70CE) so that the relative dating of Paul's authentic letters (he cites roughly 50-60CE with which I don't think many will disagree) can be registered in the reader's mind.

So the introduction sets the scene. DJR is going to examine how 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 could have come to be written without anything supernatural having happened after Jesus' death. But first he needs to tackle how a belief that there was an empty tomb came about; this latter belief is not in Paul's authentic letters but is found in all four gospels which came to be considered canonical. This is the subject of chapters 1 and 2.

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