How likely is the empty tomb story in the Christian gospels? I’m continuing my critique of a recent article, “12 reasons to accept the empty tomb as a historical fact” with reasons five through eight (part 1 here). This batch of reasons don’t seem to be any better than the first, but they will give us a mental workout. See what you think.
5. Women found the tomb
Women were the first to see the empty tomb. This strengthens the case for an empty tomb since the testimony of women was not trusted as much as that of men. They wouldn’t have included this embarrassing detail if it weren’t true.
Oh, please. If women were first, why didn’t Paul say so in his 1 Corinthians 15 “creed” that you referenced so admiringly in point 3 above?! In it, he ticked off, in order, the people who saw the risen Jesus but never mentions women as the first to find the empty tomb. If you want to cite that creed as reliable history in point 3, you must be consistent here. Each gospel mentions women as the first to come upon the empty tomb. Matthew and John add that the women saw Jesus, and this is a glaring contradiction with Paul.
But back to the point: are women embarrassing to the gospel story, making it more reliable? Nope. Tending to the dead was women’s work in this culture. If someone in the story was to find the tomb empty, it had to be women. Yes, women were considered less reliable in a courtroom, but that’s irrelevant because there is no courtroom in the story. Women were trusted members of Jesus’s inner circle, and they found the empty tomb. If you want men, they saw it themselves after the women told them.
6. The Jewish authorities invented the story that the disciples stole the body
The Jewish authorities explained the empty tomb by invented the story that the disciples stole the body (Matt. 28:11–15). They knew they had something to hide.
Again, we must keep separate the story from 30 CE and the story being written down by the author of Matthew in 80 or 90 CE. How would the author of Matthew know of this secret meeting—with security cam footage? A hidden microphone? Of course not—to this author in 90 CE, these people were just characters in a story, not bound to history, and he can make them do anything necessary to advance the theological point. Nothing in Jerusalem in 90 CE prevented the author of Matthew from writing whatever he wanted about the chief priests sixty years earlier.
7. Early creeds in the New Testament argue for the resurrection
Look at the early creeds in Acts (13:29-31, 13:36-37). They make clear that Jesus was buried, raised, and appeared without experiencing decay. Other verses in Acts indicate that the body of Jesus was no longer found in the tomb.
Creeds are not evidence; they’re just statements of belief. My creed could be that fairies and leprechauns exist, but that doesn’t make it true.
Is it smart to move these passages into the Creed category? I assume you’re trying to argue that they’re older than the authorship of Acts (about 90 CE) to make them more reliable, but by doing so you’ve moved them out of the History category. I agree that they were only tenuously in History to start with, but now that they’re creeds, they’re useless.
You’re building a foundation out of marshmallows. To support the most remarkable claim ever, you need overwhelming evidence.
8. The gospel story is built on many sources
“Historian Paul Meier indicates that two or three sources render a historical fact ‘unimpeachable.’The empty tomb is verified in four sources Mark, M (Matthew), John, and L (Luke), with 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and Acts 13’s sermon summary adding two more. Historically, the more sources one holds, the greater probability that the event in question occurred. In this case, at least 6 sources suggest that the tomb was empty, doubling what historians would call ‘unimpeachable.’ ”
This can only mean two or three independent sources—that is, sources that didn’t know about the others. That’s quite rare, and you certainly don’t have it in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke not only knew of Mark, they copied large portions of it, sometimes verbatim.
Paul’s 1 Corinthians passage is chronologically the first in this list, but it shouldn’t be here at all since it doesn’t mention an empty tomb. It also contradicts Matthew and John, which state that Jesus appeared to women first. The burden of proof is yours to show that any independent source hadn’t read any of the others’ descriptions of the empty tomb.
What about claims beyond the empty tomb? You could admit that Matthew does overlap with Mark quite a bit but that it also brings new material to the party. And that’s true for Luke, John, and Acts.
I’ll agree, but what does this get you? The fundamental supernatural claims are all in 1 Cor. 15:3–7, and we’re back to a single source with the others not being independent sources.
Keep in mind that an axiom of history is to reject the supernatural. That supernatural stories were told is a fact of history. But the consensus of ordinary, not-bound-by-a-doctrinal-statement historians is that every supernatural claim is false.
Let’s turn to the referenced historian, Paul Meier. As stated, he said, “Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimpeachable.” That’s good advice for ordinary facts that we agree have precedents—someone died, someone traveled somewhere by boat/horse/airplane, someone and their army conquered a country, and so on. The claimed fact may be wrong, but at least we’ve seen this kind of thing before. Supernatural claims are unprecedented and need much greater historical evidence.
[The claims in these verses have not] led to universal acceptance of the resurrection as a datum of history. Why not? Because the more unlikely the episode, the stronger the evidence demanded for it. So if something supernatural were claimed, the evidence required to support it would have to be of an unimpeachable, absolute, and, indeed, direct eyewitness nature. Quite obviously, however, such categorical evidence disappeared with the death of the last eyewitnesses nineteen centuries ago.
Let’s imagine we had three independent sources documenting Merlin (from the King Arthur story) as a magician. Christians will respond that stories of Merlin were written centuries after he supposedly lived. All right—let’s suppose that our three sources were no more than 40 years after the life of Merlin (that’s the same timespan from the crucifixion to the first gospel). Would that convince Christians that Merlin could do magic?
Of course not. They’d suddenly become as skeptical as an atheist, saying that 40 years is far too long, that our surviving copies of the stories weren’t reliable, and that supernatural stories need a lot more than that to be convincing.
One example is Joseph Smith. In 1823, an angel told him where to find the golden plates whose writings became the basis of the Mormon church. We don’t have independent sources for that story, but we do have the testimony of the Three Witnesses, who say that they heard God’s voice and were shown the golden plates by an angel. A later group, the Eight Witnesses, testified that they touched the plates.
Or another: beginning in 1849, the Fox sisters claimed to be able to communicate with spirits through “rappings” and were important players in the religion of Spiritualism. Surely hundreds or even thousands of people who witnessed their public performances were convinced that they had seen evidence of the supernatural.
No conventional Christian would believe Smith’s tale or that the Fox sisters’ act was genuine, and yet they have two or more independent sources. Why then think that the far older books of the New Testament should be any more convincing?
For another historian who’s claimed to support the Bible, see: Oral Tradition and the Game of Telephone: A. N. Sherwin-White’s Famous Quote
For more on how historians deal with supernatural claims, see: Historians Reject the Bible Story
Concluded in part 3.
You toss a coin 100 times
and pray for heads before every toss.
If it lands on heads 50 times,
this doesn’t mean prayer works 50% of the time,
it means prayer doesn’t work.
— Geronimo Jones
Read my other critiques of this article on my column. Here’s Part 1, and here’s Part 3.