Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Evidence for the Empty Tomb

This is the tenth post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern portions of pages 15-16.

Christian apologists frequently confuse facts with hypotheses. For example, William Lane Craig often likes to bring out the "empty tomb" as a "fact" which needs to be explained. But the empty tomb is not a fact. I have never seen it. You have never seen it. It is not something available for direct verification. What is available for direct verification is that there are reports of an empty tomb in the New Testament. The Empty Tomb Stories might be reported in the New Testament because there really was an empty tomb that Easter morning. Or the Empty Tomb Story might be sheer legend, which I will refer to as the "legend hypothesis". On any naturalistic account of the origin of Christianity, the money lies on the legend hypothesis. Although there are ways to explain an empty tomb without appealing to any supernatural processes,* I consider these to be far inferior to the legend hypothesis.

We'll start with the evidence that the McGrews offer in favor of an empty tomb:

"That some women claimed to have seen Jesus risen is a slightly more controversial matter, but it is supported by the existing evidence. Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Jesus is not mentioned in Mark except in the long ending which is probably spurious, but the account of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is found in John 20:11-18 in some detail, and it ends with her going to the disciples and telling them what has happened. In Matthew 28:9-10 a brief account is given of Jesus’ meeting the women who had been to the tomb in a group."

I believe that probably a few of Jesus' female followers did believe they saw him. I'm not necessarily willing to accept the word of the Matthew, Luke, and John concerning what the exact nature of this encounter was, and indeed, neither can the McGrews trust the gospel on exact details, since they have already made it known that they accept that these stories are contradictory and have tried to use that point to make their case.

"Though some scholars have challenged these accounts as later additions, there are serious reasons to take them to be authentic reports of what the women said. First, the prima facie tensions in the narratives of the discovery of the tomb and the first appearances of Christ tell strongly against collusion, copying, and embellishment. One evangelist gives an account of one angel at the tomb, another of two; one has the women setting out 'early, while it was yet dark,' another sets the scene 'when the sun was risen.' The lists of the women who are named in the
various gospels overlap only partially. Some puzzling details are never worked out for the reader. If Mary Magdalene ran back to tell Peter and John, how did they fail to meet the other women as they returned? What did Jesus mean when he said 'Touch me not' to Mary Magdalene? These are the sorts of loose ends and incongruities one would expect from independent eyewitness accounts of the same event, where substantial unity – agreement on the main facts –is accompanied by circumstantial variety."

I agree that collusion, properly defined, is highly unlikely. On the other hand, that the gospel writers may have copied (to some extent) from one another and embellished the narrative is the most probable hypothesis, in my opinion. I have been engaging L. Michael White's masterful book on the gospels Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite What he tells us is that oral tradition does not seem to preserve stories in a certain order. Since the synoptic gospels appear to follow a similar "timeline" so to speak, and since it seems more likely that such a chronology would be preserved in written, rather than oral, sources, it is therefore prima facie likely that the relationship between the gospels is one of literary borrowing with some embellishments and theological changes that went on in the process.

However, even if the above hypothesis is wrong, the gospel stories could still end up being somewhat similar with some big discrepancies if some sort of oral tradition was in place. The discrepancies could easily show up as being due to ordinary failures of human memory, hearing, or embellishment over the long process of oral transmission from the eyewitnesses (assuming it started with eyewitnesses) to the gospels. It is even possible that both literary borrowing and use of oral tradition occurred: For example, that Matthew copied substantially from Mark but "corrected" Mark on points that disagreed with the oral tradition he was familiar with.

Therefore, the incongruities in the gospel stories cannot be taken as evidence that they are from eyewitnesses, since there is already a far more probable alternative (literary borrowing with embellishment) and two other highly plausible alternatives.

Nor is "multiple attestation" lend any credence to their case. Since Matthew and Luke seem heavily dependent on Mark, and since even the gospel of John shows signs of awareness of Luke and Mark (though it is far from clear what sort of relationship exists between Luke and John, it is clear that there is a relationship)** they don't qualify as independent, multiple attestation. The Empty Tomb story is not to be found in the hypothetical Q document (the link presents four "transcripts" of Q and Michael White's book Scripting Jesus contains another, and none of them contain the empty tomb story). As far as my reading has taken me, it remains to be seen whether other hypothetical source documents contain anything concerning the empty tomb story.

Nor are the "loose ends" and strange things that the McGrews cite evidence of anything. In the case of the "Touch me not" Jesus, for example, the McGrews don't attempt any formal argument to show that this is somehow evidence of eyewitness testimony. And I can't think of how it would be; certainly not in any way that would constitute a strong argument.

The Old "Women at the Tomb" Routine

The McGrews present us with yet another argument for the historicity of the empty tomb:

"Second, there is the remarkable fact that in the accounts in Matthew and John where the women are shown as seeing the risen Christ, they are the first witnesses. It is not controversial that in first century Jewish society women were widely considered to be unreliable as witnesses to serious matters. (See Wright, 2003, pp. 607-8.) A few quotations illustrate this point:

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex; ... (Josephus, Antiquities, 4.8.15).

Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer) ... (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1.8c)."

The comment from Josephus refers to a courtroom setting (not day-to-day life) and does not say that women are "unreliable." Rather, it says that women are not to be admitted because of the levity and boldness of their sex. Levity refers to having a lack of seriousness (i.e. not solemn and serious as would be required in court) and boldness I assume would mean not being controlled and solemn. None this says anything about women being untrustworthy.

I have not been able to find a text of the Rosh Hashana, so I can't say for myself what this may refer to. However, Richard Carrier has written about this and offers us the following commentary (which I have abbreviated for space):***

Rosh Hashshanah 1:8c says of various scofflaws that "all evidence that cannot be received from a woman cannot be received from" these scofflaws either, with regard to testifying that the new moon was seen, which implies...that women were not qualified to testify to the moon being new... Since witnessing the new moon called you to the duty of traveling to the Temple to report it, even to the point of violating the Sabbath if necessary (ibid. 1:3-2:3), this entailed taking a public religious role (including remaining in the Temple for a whole day and sharing a communal meal with men: ibid. 2:5), which all no doubt entailed a boldness that was unseemly for a woman. At the same time, witnesses were interrogated on minute astronomical details (2:6-2:8), suggesting that significant technical knowledge was necessary for your testimony to count, knowledge a woman was not supposed to have, and certainly was not expected to have.

I'm not sure if Carrier is right on this or not, as I said, I have not checked the source for myself. Nonetheless, it is notable that the McGrews make a pretty big concession right after citing those two passages:

"The point should not be overstated, for there are disagreements reported in the Talmud regarding the degree of credibility to be granted to the testimony of women.

Wherever the Torah accepts the testimony of one witness, it follows the majority of persons, so that two women against one man is identical with two men against one man. But there are some who declare that wherever a competent witness came first, even a hundred women are regarded as equal to one witness ... but when it is a woman who came first, then two women against one man is like half-and-half (Talmud, b.Mas. Sotah 31b).

"Nevertheless, it would plainly be better from the standpoint of enhancing the credibility of a contrived story to put a group of respectable males at the tomb and as the first to see the risen Christ than a group of women."

Actually, Luke and John do put "respectable males" at the tomb. Luke and John do not, however, place the men first, though I would regard that as so minor a point as to be irrelevant. What about Matthew and Mark? Since Matthew feels the need to place guards at Jesus' tomb and to fend off the Jewish rumor that the (male) disciples stole Jesus' body (Matt. 28:13-15), obviously the worst thing he could do is to place the male disciples as being the first discovers of the empty tomb! As for the presence of women in the gospel of Mark, Bart Ehrman makes a case that they are simply a literary device showing that the "last shall be first":

"One of Mark’s overarching themes is that virtually no one during the ministry of Jesus could understand who he was. His family didn’t understand. His townspeople didn’t understand. The leaders of his own people didn’t understand.Not even the disciples understood in Mark—especially not the disciples! For Mark, only outsiders have an inkling of who Jesus was: the unnamed woman who anointed him, the centurion at the cross. Who understands at the end? Not the family of Jesus! Not the disciples! It’s a group of previously unknown women. The women at the tomb fit in perfectly with Mark’s literary purposes otherwise. So they can’t simply be taken as some kind of objective historical statement of fact. They too neatly fit the literary agenda of the Gospel. The same can be said of Joseph of Arimathea. Anyone who cannot think why Christians might invent the idea that Jesus had a secret follower among the Jewish leaders is simply lacking in historical imagination." (See Page 20 of Ehrman versus Craig)

I wonder whether the women were originally understood as the first to discover Jesus' empty tomb in the gospel of Mark. Does that sound strange? Take a look at Mark 14:51-52, when during Jesus' arrest a young man loses his garment and flees. Who is this young man? Some believe that the young man was the author of the gospel of Mark.**** Now look at Mark 16:5, in which the women go to the tomb and disocover a young man clothed in white. Was the author of Mark trying to identify himself as a witness to Christ's resurrection? (Which strangely recalls, "The Lord has said, you will be my witnesses"). If so, the gospel of Mark has a male witness as the first witness to Christ's resurrection, and therefore the presence of women in Mark is irrelevant.

The blogger NT Wrong has conjectured that the women merely had a vision of an empty tomb. He has pointed out that if the women were used as witnesses (in a sense) then this would not have been "embarassing" in any sense, since misogynistic societies often do hold a special place for women who recieve visions, indeed. He cites both medieval and Biblical evidence for that claim. I would point out that Acts 16:16, of the possessed girl who made a great living telling fortunes, as yet another example of this.

The McGrews make one last attempt to establish the credibility of this account:

"The last important fact concerning the women’s reports is that they were not believed. Luke says of the women’s report of the empty tomb to the disciples, 'And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them' (Luke 24:11)."

Sure, that's credible. As we all know, cult members are highly prone to disbelieving suggestions that would confirm their prior views.

Seriously: According to the gospels Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, his disciples thought enough of him to give everything up and follow him, they saw him perform many miracles, they hear the women's testimony, Peter even goes to the tomb and finds nothing but Jesus' clothes in Luke 24 (!) and apparently Peter just walks away wondering to himself what had happened. This just isn't plausible. These stories are very probably later contrivances concocted for the sole purpose of inspiring faith in those who read the accounts. As Luke tells us in the introduction of his gospel: "I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." Or as the gospel of John would have it: "These are written that you may believe."


I conclude that the McGrews have failed to show that the empty tomb narratives were probably derived from eyewitness testimony. In my next post I will explore why the empty tomb narrative might have been invented (assuming the empty tomb was not derived from some sort of visionary experience).


* See The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave
Especially Jeffrey Jay Lowder's chapter, which completely destroys the arguments called on to support an empty tomb [that I have not addressed here], and debunks standard canards such as "If Jesus hadn't been raised, the Jewish leaders would have hauled out the body and Christianity would have died instantly." In case your curious, one of the more devastating counters to this argument is that first-century Jews did not consider a body to be identifiable for legal means after 3 days. This is supported and strengthened with further references from Jews for Judaism.

** See Pages 58-60, Andrew Gregory, The reception of Luke and Acts in the period before Irenaeus, as well as page 54, John Amedee Bailey, The Traditions Common to the Gospels of Luke and John.

*** See here:

And by the by, Carrier's revised version of this series of essays is well worth owning:
Not the Impossible Faith

**** Pages 198-200, Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Also see page 22, R. Alan Cole, The Gospel According to Mark: An Introduction and Commentary.

1 comment:

Maths Tutor Wirral said...

The McGrews have a real lot to prove if they want to show that their Jesus turned into a form of matter which has never been seen on Earth before - one which can go through locked doors,appear and disappear at will, and is indestructible.

'They wouldn't make it up' is not really enough evidence for the existence of new forms of matter.