Tim O’Neill and “When Prophecy Fails”

I have written previously on Tim O’Neill’s theory about the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (first see Response to Tim O’Neill’s Answer to the Question, “What Evidence Exists for the Resurrection of Jesus?” on Quora and then see More on the Tim O’Neill Theory That the Resurrection Story “Evolved”).

In this post, I want to show just how inappropriate was Tim’s use of When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter.  In the first chapter of this book, “Unfulfilled Prophecies and Disappointed Messiahs,” the authors themselves bring up the subject of Jesus’ resurrection and ask whether or not their theory explains Christianity’s origins.

The authors compare the record of Christian origins to the five conditions necessary for the application of their theory.  Here are those five conditions:

1. A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.

2. The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.

3. The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.

4. Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.

The first two of these conditions specify the circumstances that will make the belief resistant to change. The third and fourth conditions together, on the other hand, point to factors that would exert powerful pressure on a believer to discard his belief. It is, of course, possible that an individual, even though deeply convinced of a belief, may discard it in the face of unequivocal disconfirmation. We must, therefore, state a fifth condition specifying the circumstances under which the belief will be discarded and those under which it will be maintained with new fervor.

5. The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

These five conditions specify the circumstances under which increased proselyting would be expected to follow disconfirmation.

Regarding the origin of Christianity, and specifically, the faith of the disciples in Jesus’ resurrection which propelled them to spread their message in Jerusalem and throughout the known world, the authors conclude that while the first two and the last conditions were met, they are in doubt about the third and fourth.  The doubt has to do with whether or not messianic prediction, and therefore apostolic expectation, called for the messiah to suffer…or not.  For those who say that the Messiah could not suffer, the crucifixion would have constituted disconfirmation of the prophecy regarding Jesus.  For those who say that either the Scriptures themselves, or Jesus’ interpretation of them (as in Matthew 16:21), prophesied that Messiah would suffer, then the crucifixion would have constituted confirmation, not disconfirmation.  Since there is controversy on this point, and because the majority of scholars, according to the authors, hold to the latter view, the theory cannot be applied to the resurrection of Christ.  Thus the authors conclude:

Was it or was it not a disconfirmation? We do not know and cannot say. But this one unclarity makes the whole episode inconclusive with respect to our hypotheses.

If the authors of When Prophecy Fails declare that their theory is inconclusive with regard to Jesus’ resurrection, why then does Tim, or anyone else, dare to suggest that it is?

Book quotations taken from: Festinger, Leon; Schachter, Stanley; Riecken, Henry W. (2010-11-12). When Prophecy Fails.  Pinter & Martin. Kindle Edition.

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