Overview:

Dr. Craig argues that the embarrassing fact that women found the empty tomb was central to bolstering historians’ accepting the empty tomb. I am not as impressed.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Many Christian apologists focus on women finding the empty tomb. But if women were second-class citizens in ancient Jewish culture, why give them this prominent role in the story—unless that’s actually what happened? (Part 1 of this debate with William Lane Craig is here.)

To be an eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus, you must see three things: you must see him alive, then see him dead, and then see him alive again. If you didn’t see all three, you might be able to document the event with reports from others, but you wouldn’t be an eyewitness.

Women at the tomb

The earliest gospels report that “all the disciples deserted [Jesus] and fled” (Matthew 26:56b) before the crucifixion.

Dr. Craig responded that the women were there. That’s true, and (according to the story) they were eyewitnesses, but they probably weren’t authors of a gospel.

Then he said that the Romans could be counted on to do an execution properly, so hearing the death sentence was as good as seeing the corpse. Perhaps, but the gospel authors still wouldn’t be eyewitnesses.

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. I’m simply saying that only an author who saw Jesus alive, then dead, then alive again would be an eyewitness, and the earliest gospels make clear that the disciples weren’t.

In my article, I noted the popular argument that women weren’t reliable witnesses in Jewish society at that time. If the gospel authors wrote through gritted teeth that it was women who were privileged to first see the empty tomb, then it was more likely to be accurate. If they invented the story, they’d probably use men.

Craig is a big fan of this thinking:

I have to say that this argument more than I think any other has caused a reversal of opinion among New Testament scholars with respect to the facticity of the empty tomb. Compared to back in the 1940s when skepticism about the empty tomb was rampant, by far and away the majority of historical Jesus scholars today would affirm the historicity of the empty tomb, and they would do so on the basis of this criterion of embarrassment and the role of the women in discovering the tomb empty.

Craig says that the remarkable role of the women discovering the empty tomb convinced “the majority of historical Jesus scholars today.” But expand the scope to religious professionals worldwide, and this becomes a minority view. Religions worldwide are so hopelessly fragmented that they can agree on little more than that the supernatural exists, and perhaps not even that.

I wonder if the fact that the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars are Christian is why they accept this argument. Let’s explore this with a tangent and consider Muslim scholars. They respect Jesus as a prophet, and they have no problem with the supernatural, but they universally reject the Resurrection. Maybe because they’re biased? Maybe because they were trained to think that? Sure, that’s quite likely—as Muslims they’re pretty much obliged to think that way. But then how is bias not the reason for the Christian scholars’ contradictory opinion?

See also: William Lane Craig Replies to My Attack on Faith Statements

Where was everyone Easter morning? The women knew where the tomb was, and everyone should’ve been camped out awaiting the joyful reunion.

Does the Criterion of Embarrassment apply?

But are the women embarrassing? Would it have been more plausible to have men visit a tomb to apply spices? I argue that this was women’s work in this culture and that the story only makes sense with women finding the empty tomb.

Craig’s response:

What he just said is false. It is not true that Jewish culture was one where caring for the dead was women’s work particularly for the disposal of criminals’ bodies. Notice that it is a delegate of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court), Joseph of Arimathea, who takes charge of the disposal of Jesus’ body. This is in common practice with the Jewish treatment of condemned criminals.

What is interesting about the treatment of the body of a criminal? Craig doesn’t say. And anyway, Joseph of Arimathea only appears in the gospel of John.

I’m saying that women typically dealt with the dead, not that they universally did so. Here’s where I get this from:

This claim that it was specifically women who found the empty tomb makes the best sense of the realities of history. Preparing bodies for burial was commonly the work of women, not men. (Bart Ehrman)

It was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. (Women in the Bible)

In the ancient world it was common for women, usually family members, to wash a corpse and lay the body out for burial. (Women in the Bible)

(The “Women in the Bible” site contains the contents of the book Women in the Bible (Harper Collins, 1997).)

Could men have prepared a body for burial? Sure. All I’m saying is that women going to the tomb was not only unsurprising but expected, and a story that has them visiting the tomb shortly after the burial to wash the body and apply spices isn’t embarrassing. And if women finding the body makes you anxious, you can rest easy because Luke and John have male disciples run back to see for themselves.

Why was anyone surprised by the Resurrection?

This is a tangent but a fun one. The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), each have Jesus repeatedly explaining how things will end. Here is the first instance, halfway through Mark:

[Jesus] then began to teach [the disciples] that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this. (Mark 8:31–32a)

Jesus knows how things will play out, and he’s open about it. Combining these ten instances, we learn about his upcoming betrayal, his rejection by the Jewish establishment, his suffering, death by crucifixion, and the resurrection after three days. Several of these say that the disciples didn’t understand, but none of the instances in Matthew say this, so Matthew at least should have the inner circle preparing for the miraculous reunion.

Why then is everyone morose about the crucifixion? It’s part of the plan, and Jesus wouldn’t be gone long. Where was everyone Easter morning? The women knew where the tomb was, and everyone should’ve been camped out awaiting the joyful reunion.

This is an enormous inconsistency.

Concluded with the short ending of Mark and a wrap up on eyewitness testimony.

We can easily forgive
a child who is afraid of the dark.
The real tragedy of life
is when men are afraid of the light.
— attributed to Plato

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