The Historicity of the Empty Tomb is Rock-Solid

16 01 2011

This is a general defence of the historicity of the empty tomb as well as a response to the YouTuber myintellectualjourny. Well, I hope you can appreciate it and that this clarifies my position.

When it comes to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, most skeptics will cast doubt upon the general reliability of the Gospels and rest their case. Needless to say, their case normally hinges on some philosophical presuppositions biased against miracles and the supernatural or grounded in some theory that is without any plausibility and without a shred of evidential support, such as the conspiracy theory or apparent death theory. Such forms of scepticism turn out to be at best question begging or a feeble attempt at humour.

I won’t be tempted to give a defence of the Gospels’ general reliability, not just because this would take me a book or three, but also simply because it is unnecessary. I don’t believe there is any good reason to doubt their reliability. For now, one remark by C. S. Lewis will suffice:

  • “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage — though it may no doubt contain errors — pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”
    (Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Christian Reflections)

However, a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t depend on my demonstration that the Gospels are generally trustworthy historical documents. Even if they were unreliable, they could still contain a historical core that the historian will be able to find properly using the methodology he has.

Thus New Testament scholars have come to the conclusion that the following facts are historical, namely that Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross, that he was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, that the tomb was found empty shortly after, that the apostles sincerely believed that the risen Christ really appeared to them bodily, such that some of them would die for their belief and, finally, that the apostles preached and testified to the resurrection in Jerusalem, where eyewitnesses were still alive. The case for the resurrection of Jesus depends on the established historicity of these facts and on its theoretical adequacy as the explanation inferred from these facts.

One of these facts, the discovery of the empty tomb, I am going to discuss with you now. First of all, very early independent sources report Jesus’ burial. We have the sermons in the book of Acts and four independent historical biographies based on eyewitness testimony. They relate Jesus burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and the women’s discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week. The three synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts were most likely written independently within about 35 years after the events, far too early for legendary influences to wipe out the historical core. It is implausible that the figure Joseph of Arimathea is a legendary embellishment, for one because the Gospels are extremely polemic against the Jewish Council and rich people in general.

But that’s not all, we also have an extremely early apostolic tradition that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15, which probably goes back no later than the first five years after Jesus’ death. A formula or creed that Paul hadn’t made up himself, but had received as such from the apostles.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:

  • that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
  • that he was buried,
  • 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 at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
  • Then he appeared to James,
  • then to all the apostles.”

Is this the same empty tomb tradition as we find elsewhere? Probably, it is. If we compare the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 with the sermon in Acts 13:28-31 and the narrative in Mark 15:37-16:7 (see image below), you’ll find that the correspondence of these independent attestations is sufficient to conclude that the Pre-Pauline creed is a summary of the core events, incl. Jesus’ burial in the tomb.

The fact that the tomb was empty is also implied by the statements “he was buried” and “he was raised on the third day”. But the emphasis is on the appearances of the risen Messiah. This tradition doesn’t simply proclaim the belief or profession that Jesus was raised from the dead, but also has the audacity to demand a verdict, as if it says: if you don’t believe it, ask these witnesses and make your own judgement.

Interestingly, the first Jewish objections to Jesus’ resurrection didn’t deny the empty tomb, but claimed that the disciples stole his body. This is something we wouldn’t expect, if Jesus’ body was still there or, as MIJ seems to suggest, if they were at all ignorant of Jesus’ burial site. Instead of questioning the integrity or credibility of the apostles or asserting that Jesus’ body was still there in the grave, they openly accepted the fact that the tomb was found empty, but explained it differently by way of body theft.

The idea that Jesus was buried in a criminals’ common graveyard cannot be substantiated and seems rather contrived to me. Indeed, if you want to avoid the early literary evidence of the family tomb, you will have to resort to some sort of conspiracy theory, which is the last thing a good historian would propose. There is also no good theological reason for a first century Jew to invent the burial in the tomb.

If Jesus’ body was still in the grave, why wouldn’t anybody correct the disciples in their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection? Especially knowing, as I said before, they proclaimed it in the very city of Jerusalem where Christ’s judgement execution and alleged resurrection occurred. Like MIJ, you might argue that his corpse was no longer identifiable. But this is actually false, since Jewish burial customs included excavating the bones of the deceased after a year and deposing them in an ossuary. So Jews would keep a close eye on every Jewish burial site, even in case of so-called criminals.


COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.
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8 responses

16 01 2011
Vinny

Imagine trying to write a biography of Joseph Smith or a history of the Mormon church he founded if the only accounts we had from the 1800’s were those produced by Smith’s most devoted followers. We can be quite certain that if we accepted these accounts at face value we would come up with a narrative that was wrong in countless details both major and minor. We might very well think that Joseph Smith was the faithful husband of a single wife.

This is the problem that we face with trying to figure out what happened in the early years of Christianity. We have no non-Christian sources. We only have one side of the story. While it is possible that the the other side of the story would confirm the side we have, knowledge and experience tell us that it is foolish to ignore the possibility that it wouldn’t.

25 01 2011
buckleyharry

Thanks for your comment. Good point, Vinny. It’s not entirely true that we don’t have non-Christian sources, but let’s assume we don’t. Then I could also reverse the argument and say that, since the writers of the Gospels were followers of Christ, we would expect them to be most devoted to the historical accuracy of their biographies. Unless you hold to a conspiracy theory, there is no good reason to doubt the sincerity of the authors’ belief in the historicity of their account. Moreover, if you’d argue they had an agenda to persuade the readers to join “the movement”, the ad hominem would still say nothing about the truth of their narratives. Finally, even if the Gospels were found to be unreliable, the historical core of facts I mentioned would still uphold God’s resurrection of Jesus Christ as the best explanation.

26 01 2011
Vinny

Why would we expect them to be most devoted to the historical accuracy of their biographies? Have we observed such behavior elsewhere in the biographies of religious leaders written by their followers? In the case of Mormonism, we observe exactly the opposite.

30 01 2011
buckleyharry

I’m not familiar with the history of Mormonism, but I don’t see why I should already have beforehand a prejudice against the reliability of a biography written by a follower or friend. There is no good reason to presuppose that the authors of the gospels were not sincere in their beliefs about Jesus Christ. Moreover, we don’t find the expected legendary embellishments as we do in extra-Biblical gospels. There is also hardly any theological grandeur, people are mocking Jesus, laughing at him, attempting to stone him. His disciples are represented as ignorant, unimportant fishermen, even preposterously stupid at times. His followers are the social ‘misfits’ of the time. Jesus sometimes even fails to perform miracles, because of the people’s unbelief. Jesus is presented as ignorant in some respects, not knowing when he will return in the future. He is extremely frightened to suffer and die. Is that what we’d expect from Almighty God in the flesh? Finally, the gospels were based upon eyewitness testimony and were most likely written at a time when eyewitnesses of the narrated events were still alive.

31 01 2011
Vinny

You shouldn’t prejudge the reliability of a biography written by a follower or friend. You should judge it. If you can verify its reliability, you should believe it. If you can verify that it’s unreliable, you should reject it. If you can’t verify it either way, you should withhold judgment until you can.

The gospels are ancient writings containing accounts of supernatural events. How does one go about verifying the reliability of such an account? What are the criteria to be applied?

You assert that the canonical gospels do not have the type of legendary embellishment found in the apocryphal ones. How does that help to verify the reliability of the canonical gospels? Off the top of my head, I can see why a story with less supernatural embellishment is more likely to be true than a story with more supernatural embellishment. However, if I follow that principle through to its logical conclusion, I have to prefer a story with no supernatural embellishment at all.

Why would lack of theological grandeur be a valid basis for accepting the reliability of the gospels? The stories from Greek mythology portray their gods as being greedy, petty, envious, lustful, and angry. Does this suggest that they are likely to be true?

I have no doubt that you can point out lots of ways in which the gospels are different from other accounts both ancient and modern. What I don’t think you can do is establish that any of those differences form valid criteria for distinguishing supernatural events that really happened from supernatural events that didn’t really happen.

4 02 2011
Harry

Good point. But I still think the burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the skeptic. Given the clear distinctives between the gospels and ancient folk tales, as you admit, and the insufficient time span for legendary embellishments to eliminate the historical core, we have good reasons to believe the gospels are reliable.

As far as I know, we don’t have criteria to establish a-historicity, we only have criteria to establish historicity and these do apply to the historical core of the gospel narratives. Whether supernatural events are possible is not a historical question, but a philosophical one. I believe God’s resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most adequate explanation of the established historical facts I mentioned. Anything that would prevent a historian to take the best road, is a philosophical bias against miracles and the supernatural.

The Greek mythological gods are what I would expect to be human inventions, a Trinity such as the Christian God, is what I would least expect. Jesus Christ’s divine authority is unsurpassed and his moral standards so high that they are unnatural or even practically infeasible for human beings. It’s unnatural for us to love our enemies and still, we can all acknowledge that this is a profound virtue.

5 02 2011
Vinny

Whether or not supernatural events are possible may be a question of philosophy, but whether they are detectable is a question of historical methodology because the historian is limited by the tools available to him. The process by which a historian (or a scientist or a detective or anyone else for that matter) infers the likeliest explanation for any particular collection of evidence depends upon the consistency of the natural processes that we observe in the world around us.

For example, we think that fingerprints on a gun may be evidence of who handled it last. We think this because we understand the natural processes by which the unique patterns on the human finger can come to appear on other objects and we understand that those natural processes act consistently. Fingerprints wouldn’t constitute evidence if we thought that those patterns could appear by some process other than the transfer of natural secretions when the friction ridges of the fingers come into contact with the gun. If we thought that such patterns appeared randomly or by divine fiat, we could not infer anything from fingerprints.

Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about how miracles happen. Being supernatural, they don’t follow the consistent natural processes that I observe. I may believe in a God who can suspend those natural processes, but I cannot have any expectations about the kind of evidence that such a suspension is likely to leave behind and I cannot infer from any particular evidence that it must have been the product of such suspension. For all we know, a miracle might produce evidence that is perfectly consistent with some natural explanation.

The evidence that the historian examines is the effect of some cause which the historian wants to discover. However, he can only reason by analogy to causes and effects with which he is already familiar. If the historian has no general knowledge of how the effect of a miracle differs from the effect of a natural cause, he has no basis to posit a miracle as the cause of any particular effect that he observes.

13 02 2011
Harry

Good point again, but questions of scientific methodology are philosophical in nature. As a scientist embracing methodological naturalism, a historian would feel constrained by his philosophical pre-understanding of the historical texts to limit his explanations to natural ones, but as an unbiased reader he need not feel constrained.

I believe we can agree that a miracle is the direct interference in nature by a supernatural power, such as the creation of the universe out of nothing, an impregnated virgin and raising someone from the dead. As such, miracles are only possible, if naturalism is false. And these supernatural events are clearly recognizable by anyone, even to a 1st century Jew. I agree that the principle of uniformity is something a scientist has to presume in order to draw plausible conclusions from repetitive natural events about how the universe operates. However, not all fields of science require scientists to reason from their evidence in this way. Historians, for example, are not interested in how the universe operates, but what happened in the past and “where the present came from”. Now this may be to some extent uniform, but it certainly needn’t be, f.ex. the decisions people make. I don’t believe every human being would choose to do the same, if put in the same circumstances. It’s often said that history repeats itself, but nothing happens the exact same way twice. Therefore, unlike psychologists, historians are not interests in psychoanalysis: how the human psyche operates, but what happened and how can we explain this.

Whether some event warrants a miraculous explanation depends on what we can plausibly infer from the evidence. We needn’t and shouldn’t invoke supernatural causes for everything that happens in this world. Yet if a miraculous explanation such as God’s raising of Jesus Christ best explains the historical evidence, I think this is a reasonably informed explanation. For example, as far as we know, people aren’t raised naturally from the dead: in our experience, when someone dies and is buried, there is no reason to expect them to walk out the grave again, yet it is certainly plausible that a supernatural power could raise someone from the dead. And as far as we know, Jesus’ divine self-understanding and divine authority and his exercising of this authority publicly in Jerusalem and its surroundings would make the resurrection more than informed guess: Jesus truly believed he was God. Needless to say, the radical transformation of the disciples from traditional Judaism to Christianity, abandoning ancient Jewish traditions established by the prophets and commanded by Yahweh, the Lord of the universe and the King of Israel, in favour of following the hated and humiliated man Jesus Christ and his commandments, in humble service and worship of him to the death, would at least endorse their miraculous beliefs and religious experiences as sincere: something must have happened that radically and truly transformed their lives and beliefs.

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