Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Why Invent an Empty Tomb?

Why would the early Christians invent the story of an empty tomb? At least two factors (besides sheer mythmaking) may be the sole or contributing reason(s):

1. On page 147 of Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in RewriteL. Michael White figures that there was a sort of back and forth arms race between claims of Jesus' resurrection and skeptical opponents. The Christians began by claiming "Jesus was raised". Skeptics, White hypothesizes, responded with "You only saw a ghost!" It is notable that conservative scholar N. T. Wright, in his book Resurrection of the Son of God, points out that post-mortem appearances were normally understood in ways other than bodily resurrection. Hence, critics of Christianity might have been especially likely to reply that the Christians had "only seen a ghost". White figures that the empty tomb story originated in order to emphasize the physical nature of what the Christians were proclaiming about Jesus. They didn't simply see a ghost, they saw a resurrection, and they were sure of it because the body had gone missing. To which the Jews (or perhaps some other opponents of Christianity) responded that the disciples stole the body (see Matthew 28) to which the Christians responded that there were guards at the tomb (see Matthew 27 and 28) to which the opponents responded that the guards had fallen asleep, to which Christians responded that the guards had been bribed to say they had fallen asleep when they hadn't.

Hence, the origin of the empty tomb story as part of a propaganda war is highly plausible. It's plausible, if not highly probable, that there were propaganda wars between Christians and their detractors (Matthew makes that much clear). It's plausible, if not probable, that the Christians claiming to have seen the post-mortem Jesus would have been answered with "you only saw a ghost." And one response to such a charge would be: "We didn't see a ghost, it was really Jesus. If we had seen a ghost, the tomb wouldn't have been empty." That response would be very plausible. In fact, I'm willing to bet that someone would have made such a response whether it was true or not.

2. Pre-Christian Jewish and Pagan traditions contained stories of a hero figure whose body went missing after death. Some examples are listed below. Suffice it to say that if this was a common story to tell about a hero figure (and it was), then it is likely that the Christians would have borrowed it. Why? Because it was what was commonly expected of a prophet or Son of God or hero. Because people might naturally wind up confusing the already similar stories of Jesus with the missing body stories of other Sons of God/ancient holy prophets.

2 Kings chapter 2 records Elijah going missing and his body not being found even after being looked for for three days. If you read the second paragraph of Plutarch's Numa Pompilius you'll find out that Romulus' body was "never seen alive or dead" after Romulus disappears in a whirlwind. Other parallels can be found in my DB Skeptic article and also in Robert M. Price's book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Manin which Price demonstrates extensively that many "apotheosis" narratives like the two I've mentioned were told about other figures around the same time Christianity was born.


eheffa said...

These questions are like asking whether Gandalf really died or did he just swoon when he fell into the chasm with the Balrog? He must have died. How could anyone survive such a fall? It is clear that the witnesses to his post-Balrog resurrection reliable were quite reliable and there should be no doubt that this was a true resurrection event. On & on it goes...

Nevertheless, these are all foolish, nonsensical questions when the whole epic tale was only an elaborate fiction to start with...not like those oh-so reliable historical accounts we call the Canonical Gospels.

The whole controversy of whether Jesus was really raised from the dead is just as irrelevant when the only information we have about this putative god-man saviour has all the hallmarks of an elaborate pious fiction. (At least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, we know the identity of the author.)

I appreciate that to engage the multiple flaws of the apologist arguments for a literal resurrection event you can grant them some latitude for arguments' sake, but the questionable reliability of the Gospel accounts renders the rest of the discussion unnecessary and moot. Let's not get lost in the minutiae when the primary data is so flawed. Undated, anonymous, heavily redacted evangelical tracts from the second century, do not represent good reliable history.

Bayesian probabilities and careful analysis only have relevance when you have good data to start with. The Gospel accounts do not represent good data; therefore, Garbage in - Garbage out. End of discussion.

I would suggest that the most solid conclusion we can come to is this:

The resurrection never happened, because it is very likely that no other parts of the Jesus story happened either.


asuwakan said...

I'm reading White's Scripting Jesus right now, it's very interesting! If the empty tomb is legendary, then the "evidence" of the empty tomb claimed by Craig, Habermas, and others fails. But, I suppose I'm still wondering, why would all four gospels mention the empty tomb? And, why does the tomb appear similar in each account? It's my understanding that when certain things are multiply attested in the gospels, that means they are likely based on something true.

By the way, I'm a long-time lurker on this blog, as well as its parent site. Thanks for providing plenty of information refuting the backwards pseudoscience and blatant lies of creationism!

eheffa said...

asuwakan wrote: why would all four gospels mention the empty tomb?

Because, the unknown author of Matthew had a copy of 'gMark' on his lap when he wrote his version. The unknown author of Luke had a copy of Matthew and Mark as well as Josephus' writings on his lap when he wrote his gentile version and John came even later with his version loosely based on these same primary resources. We know that these are not independent accounts and that they were written for varying political and theological reasons that had nothing whatever to do with the 'real events' they pretend to describe. These are not multiple independent attestations but merely variations on a common literary source.

Pious fiction however high-minded is still fiction.


AIGBusted said...

Hi asuwakan,

"But, I suppose I'm still wondering, why would all four gospels mention the empty tomb? And, why does the tomb appear similar in each account?"

Why would the tomb be mentioned in all four Gospels? Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source (discussed in White, Scripting Jesus, as well as in many of Bart Ehrman's books), so their mention of an empty tomb isn't so much of a mystery. John is a different case, for many scholars had thought for a long time that John was totally independent. However, as White discusses in "Scripting Jesus" and others have demonstrated, even the author of John was familiar with other gospels (he was familiar with Luke and possibly Mark). 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.

"It's my understanding that when certain things are multiply attested in the gospels, that means they are likely based on something true."

That's the "Criterion of Multiple Attestation". If you look it up on Wikipedia, you'll find a pretty decent article on it and the problems with it. I know, I know, Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, but the article does a nice job of summarizing the logical issues with the criterion, and it offers some useful references (such as to Stanley Porter's book "The Problem of the Criteria").

Steven Carr said...

"It's my understanding that when certain things are multiply attested in the gospels, that means they are likely based on something true."

The old , if 4 Scientologists sasys something, then it must be true argument.

asuwakan said...

AIGbusted, eheffa,

Thanks for pointing all of that out. Clearly I still have a lot to learn. I'm still digging through the evidence and examining my former faith. It's a fascinating journey so far. Oh, by the way, there's a quote I found that relates to the post here. It's from Maurice Casey's new book, Jesus of Nazareth: "Their [the apostles'] belief did not require an empty tomb for its verification, partly because the normative modes of verification were dreams or visions and scripture... thus we find in our earliest sources that it is precisely resurrection appearances and the witness of scripture that are put forward as proofs... it must be inferred that the story of the empty tomb is secondary."

- Dan