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What do you do if you don’t have any good arguments? Just pile on poor ones and call it a “cumulative case.” Today we’ll critique “12 reasons to accept the empty tomb as a historical fact” by Brian Chilton. I liken this cumulative case to 12 sieves. Let’s see if they hold water.

1. Christianity’s enemies could’ve checked to see if the tomb still had the body

Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the very place 1. where the gospel message was first preached. The last place you’d 2. invent a story would be where the event supposedly occurred. A doubter could have easily 3. checked the tomb. [The Christian argument will be in italics.]

There’s a lot of confusion in this one.

1. Historians have no data to back up a claim of what was preached where. Rather, they can offer a date at which time a particular book was written and where. And the first gospel, Mark, was almost certainly not written in Jerusalem (most likely Rome).

2. I don’t say that the gospel story was deliberately invented. I say it was legend that developed through decades of oral history.

3. The idea that opponents would’ve just presented the body of Jesus to shut down the early Christian movement confuses two things. The apostles of Jesus and the leaders in Jerusalem just after the crucifixion in 30 CE is one thing. The story in the gospel of Mark (the first gospel), written in 70 CE, is the other. When we read Mark, we’re (at best) reading about events that happened forty years earlier. The leaders, the dead body, the tomb—these were all elements in a story that wasn’t at all constrained by reality. It didn’t suit the story for anyone to discover Jesus’s body on Easter Sunday, so that didn’t happen.

(The dates and time spans I use come from the consensus of relevant scholars. They’re just best guesses using mediocre evidence.)

2. Hallucination hypothesis

“If Jesus’s disciples had only hallucinated, Jesus’s body would have still been in the tomb. Because Jesus’s body was never retrieved and Christianity continued, then one must assume that the tomb of Jesus was empty. Hallucinations cannot account for an empty tomb.”

Who says the disciples hallucinated Jesus? Not me.

3. The resurrection is a very early claim

The message that Jesus had resurrected was 1. written soon after the event. The 2. creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 dates to just a couple of years after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. 3. Residents of Jerusalem could have easily checked to see if the tomb was empty.

This passage in 1 Corinthians gives the basics of the resurrection, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, [was buried, and] was raised on the third day,” and lists the post-resurrection appearances. The author is claiming here that this passage didn’t appear twenty years after the crucifixion (when Paul wrote that book) but within a few months or years because it was an independent creed that Paul later copied into this epistle.

1. So what if the creed were early? Suppose a similar supernatural claim were written about someone else’s religion yesterday. Would “But look—it’s just a day old!” make it believable?

2. Yes, it does sound a bit like a creed. But a creed isn’t evidence. It isn’t intended to be evidence. It’s nothing more than a list of beliefs; it gives no reasons why anyone should believe them.

3. Again, the players in the story written in 70 CE could do or not do anything they wanted, unconcerned about what happened forty years earlier.

And why think that a simple factual correction—“No, you’re mistaken; I have it on good authority that the tomb wasn’t empty”—would cause a religious community to abandon their beliefs? When does that ever happen? A religious community’s faith isn’t built on facts.

Consider a few examples. Prior to the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Millerite community got rid of their possessions to make themselves right with God because their leader had calculated that the end would come on October 22 of that year. When October 23 dawned like any other day, do you think they all had a good laugh at their naivete and then returned to their prior lives? Some did leave the group, but many reinterpreted the facts to create a reality in which they weren’t wrong.

Or imagine the early Mormons spreading the word about Joseph Smith using magic stones to translate mysterious writing on golden plates. Do you think their faith would’ve been shaken if they’d learned that Smith had been tried in court for using the same seer-stone trick to scam neighbors with promises of treasure?

We’ve seen enough examples of how religions work to know that it’s not built exclusively on evidence.

See also: 13 reasons to reject the Christian naysayer hypothesis

4. The tomb and burial weren’t secret

Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin (a tribunal of elders) and was well known in first-century Israel. Everyone would have known where his tomb was located and therefore where Jesus’s body had been placed.

According to the story, we know certain facts about Joseph of Arimathea, but we only get this from the gospels. The burden is on you to show that this is reliable history. There are plenty of legends about him after the time of the gospels, none of which are reliable. Historians aren’t even certain where Arimathea was.

And was the tomb known to everyone? Only Matthew says that it was Joseph’s tomb. The other gospels suggest that it was just a convenient tomb. John and Matthew say that it was new, which is more reason to doubt that it was a well-known landmark. Mark and Luke suggest that the women who attended the crucifixion knew where the body was laid only because they stayed to watch. In other words, the rest of the crowd wouldn’t have known.

See also Responding to the minimal facts argument for the resurrection

Continue to part 2.

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CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware, and he is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...