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Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?

According to well-known proponent of Jesus’ resurrection, Dr. N. T. Wright, “The 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.” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003, p. 706). This view—which is really the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is the only plausible explanation for the Christian origins evidence before us—has been popularized by lay authors such as J.P. Holding, author of The Impossible Faith, and Lee Strobel: “I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!” (The Case for Christ, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998, p. 356). It has also filtered down to the lay blogosphere: “The evidence is simply overwhelming. If you believe in gravity, you have to believe that Christianity is also true.”

But is it really true that there is no other plausible way to read the Christian origins evidence except to conclude that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Well, like most complex topics, that is likely a matter of personal opinion. Many nonbelievers dismiss Jesus’ resurrection out of hand based on the evidence that God does not seem to intervene within human history in such a physically direct way. But what happens when nonbelievers engage Christian apologists such as those above? The answer is probably a lifetime of going back and forth, without much progress, on every single piece of Christian origins evidence. I do not know many people who would be interested in such a thing, but there is one particular piece of evidence that I found intriguing—the rise of early Christian belief referred to by Dr. Wright, above.

Beginning my own inquiry into this topic 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 represent the earliest known Christian beliefs and traditions, in existence well before any of the gospels were written:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

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 aside 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. In other words, he is temporarily granting for the sake of argument the position of many in nontraditional scholarship that the gospels are mostly legends, including the discovered empty tomb tradition.

If the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend, not only is Jesus’ resurrection effectively ruled out, but so are several nontraditional explanations for the rise of early Christian belief, such as 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: 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 to 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 proposed before and the controversy surrounding it can be seen in Dr. Wright’s strong disagreement with it, followed by the response of Dr. Robert M. Price 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” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 698; full critique p. 697-701). Price responds to Wright’s critique:

… 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.

If cognitive dissonance was the cause of these beliefs, the other traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 seem easily accounted for as part of a growing religious sect. A few individual hallucinations of the beloved leader would not be unusual, nor would a fringe legend of a simultaneous appearance to over 500 people (the latter seeming a reasonable conclusion given that this appearance tradition does not show up in any other literary source). If there was a need to designate leaders in the new movement—those who had the ability to teach, preach, and defend the group’s new beliefs—the traditions of the appearances to the Twelve and to all the apostles could simply be designations of authority. This would be consistent with the hierarchical structure in the two appearance traditions—Peter apparently being the leader of the group known as the Twelve (“he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve”), James apparently being the leader of the group known as all the apostles (“he appeared to James, then to all the apostles”). We know, too, that an appearance of Jesus was required in order to confer authority to someone in the early church, for Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” 1 Corinthians 9:1. This explanation for the group appearance traditions has, of course, been suggested before. For example, Dr. Stephen Patterson says:

Both the Twelve and the church have everything to gain by the assertion that the risen Lord had also appeared to the Twelve. Including the Twelve in the appearance formulae probably derives from a decision on the part of the early church to expand the sphere of authority that was originally confined to the “pillars” to include the Twelve as well. It is not so likely that it derives from an actual experience of the risen Jesus … [This] could also be said about the claim in 1 Corinthians 15:7 that Jesus also appeared to “the apostles” … [We] have in this expression a second authority-bearing designation from earliest Christianity … The inclusion of “the apostles” in this formula … derives from an ecclesial decision to expand the sphere of authority beyond James to include others who could be trusted with the task of preaching. (The God of Jesus, 1998, pp. 234-236)

Lastly, there would naturally have been an immediate need—almost reflex—in a growing religious sect to ground their beliefs in sacred scriptures. The third-day belief could be a byproduct of this engagement with Jewish scriptures, with some likely scriptural candidates being Hosea 6:2, a Jewish sacred third-day tradition, and Psalms 16:10.

If this is how these beliefs and traditions came about, it makes sense that later legends, such as a discovered empty tomb on the third day after Jesus’ death and corporeal postmortem “meetings” with Jesus where people touch his body, would be built on them. Further, if the gospels are mostly legends, the frequent argument of Christians that the presence of Jesus’ corpse in the tomb would have doomed the new movement, fails. That argument fails because the burial account in the gospels could simply be an integral part of the discovered empty tomb legend. (Note that experts confirm the two traditions are tied together verbally and grammatically.) The question to ask is, what normally would have happened to the body of a crucified criminal from the lower classes which was allowed to be removed from the cross in deference to Jewish burial sensitivities? The answer seems to be—a ground burial, probably in the Kidron or Hinnom valley, with nobody attending except for an indifferent burial crew who only cared to mark the site with whiting or a pile of loose rocks to give warning of uncleanness.

In short, it seems to me that there is a plausible natural explanation for the rise of the beliefs and traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, exactly what Wright is asking for (and expanded on in detail in my book, Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? (second edition
Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? published 2014). If true, this comes full circle and impacts on the historical reliability of the gospels. Why? Because 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is used by traditionalists as “external evidence” for the historical reliability of the gospels, including the gospel burial accounts, the discovered empty tomb, and the corporeal postmortem appearances. But if there is another plausible explanation for the rise of these beliefs and traditions, there is nothing about 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 itself that supports the conclusion that the gospels are more likely historical rather than legendary expansions of these beliefs and traditions. One can always reject a plausible natural explanation for the rise of the beliefs and traditions in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 on the conviction that the gospels are historically reliable, but to avoid being circular one would need to modify their argument for gospel reliability to avoid enlisting the help of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.

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