Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Was Jesus Raised: Backround Facts

This is the sixth post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern pages 12 through 14.

The McGrews seek to establish two facts: one being that Jesus died and the second being that he was buried in a tomb.

The first fact, that Jesus died, is intended to establish that Jesus did not simply "faint" or "swoon" on the cross and then later appear to his followers. I agree that Jesus probably died. Nonetheless, it is worth inquiring: Is it more likely that Jesus was raised from the dead or that he simply fainted on the cross, recovered in the tomb, and appeared to his followers later on before disappearing? Both the resurrection and the swoon theory have exceedingly low prior probabilities. We know resurrection is improbable because it doesn't happen to anyone in our experience. On the other hand, people have been mistaken for dead before. Though it seems unlikely that Roman executioners would be bad enough at their job not to make sure Jesus was dead, the improbability does not equal impossibility. Another thing: I have no backround knowledge that supernatural entities exist, from which it follows that it might not even be possible for a resurrection to occur. On the other hand, the swoon theory, though very, very, very unlikely, is at least possible.

The swoon theory, on the other hand, seems to fall on the horns of whether it would cause early Christian belief. Would the disciples actually see a worn out, bloody Jesus and conclude that it was a supernatural resurrection from the dead and that God had vindicated Jesus? On this point I genuinely don't know. Seeing Jesus alive again (even in bad condition) might have been monumental enough to the disciples to conclude that it was a miracle.

Anyway, it's not important or worth my time to spend much time disputing whether Jesus actually died or whether the swoon theory (as shitty a theory as it is) has more merit than the resurrection hypothesis, since there are other, better alternatives that I will blog on later.

The only other point of focus here is whether Jesus was buried in a tomb or in the ground. If it was more likely the latter, then the empty tomb story is bogus, in which case Christians lose a big piece of their case for the resurrection. The case that Jesus was buried in the ground is made superbly by Kris Komarnitsky in Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?

The McGrews object to the common burial hypothesis on two grounds: 1) It requires dismissing the Markan burial report and 2) It requires dismissing the burial report in 1 Corinthians. Neither of these objections are strong.

To take the second objection first, the McGrews contention that 1 Corinthinas argues against the common burial hypothesis is absurd. 1 Corinthians 15 simply reports that Jesus "was buried... was raised" it doesn't tell us whether Jesus was buried in a rock-hewn tomb or in the ground.

On the Markan burial report, the McGrews tell us:

"In order to maintain this position, Crossan must dismiss the burial narrative in Mark 15:42-47 as a fabrication; accordingly he does, stressing the incongruity in the description of Joseph of Arimathea (a follower of Jesus vs. a member of the Sanhedrin, who all condemned Jesus) and the absence of a motive for his burying just Jesus rather than all three of the crucifixion victims. Crossan argues that the motive cannot have been either piety or duty, for then he would have buried the thieves as well; he concludes that 'Mark created that burial by Joseph of Arimathea in 15:42-47. It contains no pre-Markan tradition.' (Crossan, 1998, p. 555) For good measure, Crossan adds that Mark created the story of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb.

"In company with the majority of New Testament scholars, we find this argument wholly unpersuasive. The very tension Crossan sees in the description of Joseph of Arimathea would count as evidence against his being an invented character. Why, if Mark were embellishing the narrative, would he invent someone who appears nowhere else in his gospel and give him such a pivotal role?"

There's a very easy explanation for this one: Mark's theme of reversal of expectation. Jesus was supposed to be buried by his father, Joseph, but is instead buried by another Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea. See especially pages 226-228 of Bart Ehrman's book Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend.

The McGrews continue with their objections:

"If he did, why would he present a description of that character that generated questions? But in any event, it is not terribly hard to find plausible answers to Crossan’s questions. Anyone who has ever been a member of a committee understands that sometimes decisions are made by the committee as a body in the absence of some of its members, and those decisions are recorded as unanimous. As for Joseph’s motives for burying Jesus, Crossan employs too narrow a set of alternatives when he considers only piety and duty. There is also the reason implicitly given in the text itself: a disciple’s love, which would not extend to the thieves. And we do not know in any event whether, had he been so inclined, he would have had either time or the opportunity to bury the others. This is a profoundly inadequate set of reasons to abandon an inconvenient section of a primary source – or, in this case, four primary sources."

A "disciple's love" of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is ad hoc. Nonetheless, why would Joseph of Arimathea only attend to Jesus' body and not the other three? Even if he did have a secret love for Jesus, why would he do something like this that might call attention to him and get him killed? I mean, as a member of the Sanhedrin you wouldn't want anyone to know that you had any special admiration for Jesus as opposed to the other two criminals?

As a final consideration, I quote from Peter Kirby's essay on the empty tomb:

[T]here is a plausible significance to the name Arimathea. Richard Carrier speculates, Is the word a pun on 'best disciple,' ari[stos] mathe[tes]? Matheia means 'disciple town' in Greek; Ari- is a common prefix for superiority." Since commentators have seen the burial by the outsider Joseph of Arimathea as a contrast to the failure of the disciples and intimates of Jesus, the coincidence that Arimathea can be read as "best disciple town" is staggering. Indeed, it is good evidence that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional character and that the
tomb burial story in the Gospel of Mark is also fictional.

In conclusion, I find that there is a very strong consideration against Jesus' burial in a tomb: Tomb burial was not common amongst the poor (See Komarnitsky on this point) and therefore unlikely in the case of Jesus. On the other hand, there aren't any very strong considerations that Jesus was buried in a tomb. Our information on that point derives from the gospel of Mark but there are plausible reasons that show that Mark's story is a fiction and there are some points on which Mark's narrative makes little sense.


James F. McGrath said...

Just by way of clarification, we do have evidence that burial even of crucified criminals was important to Jews because of the requirement to do so in the Law. James Tabor conveniently provides the relevant quote.

This doesn't itself settle the matter as to whether Jesus could have been buried - most likely in a graveyard or tomb for criminals - but it does place it within the realm of plausibility.

But you probably already expected me to say this, didn't you? :)

Steven Carr said...

Why, if Mark were embellishing the
narrative, would he invent someone who appears nowhere else in his gospel and give him such a
pivotal role?"

I see.

So sceptics have to prove people are making things up,and the McGrews get to sit back and say 'It's in the Bible.Prove it isn't true.'

Why don't they just produce some evidence that this empty tomb existed?

Surely somebody must have seen it.

Who actually wrote on a piece of paper that he had seen this empty tomb, right next to the second gunman who shot JFK, who was holding the Golden Plates of Joseph Smith in his hand?

eheffa said...

In my opinion, not only is the evidence for Jesus' resurrection thoroughly deficient, but we have no good evidence that the Jesus of the Gospels was an actual flesh and blood human being. Unlike many other important characters of history, (think of Julius Caesar or Plato for example) this character has no third party attestation of his historical existence let alone a miraculous resurrection. The only accounts we have, (the interdependent canonical and gnostic gospels) are not biography, but evangelical tracts written 'that you might believe'. They are as reliable and believable as Joseph Smith's descriptions of the Angel Moroni and should be dismissed, by the same criteria, as nothing more than pious fiction.

Accepting the Gospel accounts as having some kernel of veracity is assumed by the apologists as a given, but this should be challenged at the most basic level. The Gospels accounts have no more veracity than the legendary accounts of Arthur and his stone trapped sword or William Tell & his trusting son. Great Stories, but not something you want to build your life around. Entertaining swoon vs. stolen body theories gives far too much credence to the background fiction.

AIGBusted said...

Hi James,

Great to hear from you again.

Yes, I agree that the Jews would have definitely wanted to see Jesus buried. The thing that I dispute is: would Jesus have been buried in a tomb or in a graveyard/burial pit/trench? The latter appears to have been common amongst poorer criminals, at least based on my reading. What do you think?

James F. McGrath said...

I think that, all other things being equal, the use of trench graves would seem more likely. But I'm not entirely persuaded that all other things were equal. Given what we know of the frequency of Roman executions in this period, the relatively shallow soil/high bedrock in the Jerusalem area, and the practice of secondary burial using ossuaries, it is not implausible that caves, or even tombs cut from limestone, could have been used. The traditional site of Golgotha seems to have been an abandoned limestone quarry in the first century, and beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher there is evidence for a "graveyard" in the sense of an extensive burial site in the rock. When we consider that this fits so poorly with the depictions in later sources (the tomb supposedly being a ruling council member's own tomb, as though such an individual would have a family tomb next to a Roman execution site), matches well the impression some scholars get from Mark that Jesus was given a dishonorable burial in a criminal's grave, and the site was identified by local Christians as the place where Jesus was executed even after a temple of Aphrodite had long stood on the spot, all makes me think that there might be something to the traditional site. It is far from certain, but enough circumstantial evidence to be intriguing, if not decisive. :)

Steven Carr said...

Why, if Mark were embellishing the narrative, would he invent someone who appears nowhere else in his gospel and give him such a pivotal role?"

Are they claiming that it would be a miracle if 'Mark' invented somebody?

Isn't that what they have to prove, as they want to show that one miracle happened, they have to show that the probability of an anonymous person inventing somebody is less than the chance of a dead guy walking out of a tomb and then flying off into space on his way to Heaven?

If only one person in history had written that I, Mr X, had met Joseph of Arimathea....