The Importance of the Empty Tomb: Allison vs. Wright
Tom Wright has repeatedly claimed that without the empty tomb, it’s inconceivable that the disciples would have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead. On this basis he further concludes that Jesus actually was raised from the dead. “I regard this conclusion as coming in the same sort of category of historical probability so high as to be virtually certain, as the death of Augustus in AD 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p 710).
Bad judgments like these mar an otherwise fine piece of work, for Resurrection of the Son of God is on the whole a magisterial study. Plowing through mountains of Jewish and pagan literature, Wright argues convincingly that both Paul and the gospel writers fall in line with the orthodox view that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, in a transphysical body, the same body as before yet also changed. On this point he is entirely convincing, against those like Richard Carrier, on whose arguments see my review on the Crosstalk mailing list.
But Wright is not so convincing in other areas, and even when he is onto something, his arguments leave much to be desired. In this post I want to deal specifically with his contention that the disciples would doubtfully have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead if they hadn’t found his tomb empty.
I believe this statement is true, but it needs careful unpacking. Dale Allison, in his newly released and powerfully presented Resurrecting Jesus, shows why Wright is right only despite himself. We need to consider how the empty tomb relates to (I) cognitive dissonance and (I) the visions.
(I) Cognitive Dissonance When Wright says that the disciples would doubtfully have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead if they hadn’t found his tomb empty, he means that the disciples wouldn't have made the radical claim that their messiah had been raised from death without external evidence pointing to this; that the idea of an individual’s resurrection before the apocalypse was just too wild and blasphemous. No other Jewish groups, after all, claimed such things: when messiahs were killed, people either found another messiah, or just gave up.
But as far as I’m concerned, Wright has this backwards. Given what we know about millenial groups, it’s surprising that more Jewish groups didn’t make wild and offensive claims in order to make success of their failures. It's abundantly plain that apocalyptic groups become wildly creative, unpredictably creative, in the face of failed expectations (so Festinger). It’s no stretch of the imagination, at all, that the disciples could have invented a resurrection belief (and thus a tale about an empty tomb) in order to cope with broken dreams and keep their movement going.
But here’s the problem, says Allison, and why Wright is onto something, despite himself. The disciples’ dreams actually hadn’t been broken. Allison writes:
“Reinterpretation of eschatological expectations stems from dissonance bred by the distance between prophecy and event, and -- despite widespread scholarly assumption to the contrary -- before belief in Jesus’ resurrection, no such cause for dissonance existed.”
Jesus’ death was not a cause for dissonance in the minds of the disciples. It would have demoralized them, but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama. Jesus, after all, had braced them for such tragedy: they were living in the tribulation, and suffering/death had to precede the kingdom. The shame and scandal of the crucifixion would have put them, as Dale says, "emotionally down but not theologically out". They would have gone on hoping for the imminent apocalypse and the general resurrection of the dead, at which point they would have been vindicated and reunited with their savior. Jesus’ martyrdom does not constitute a failed expectation, and that is why Wright, despite himself, is right. It’s not that revisionism itself is unlikely (for indeed it is); it’s that there was no need for revisionism in this case. For the disciples, things were still going “as expected”.
Contrast the early followers of Jesus with a group like the Lubavitchers, who recently split over the question of Schneerson’s messianic identity. Over on The Sword, Michael Turton used them as an example to show why it’s easy to believe the disciples invented the empty tomb and resurrection legend:
“While some people sensibly give up their beliefs when faced with reality, others simply deny that reality exists. Look at the Lubavitchers...”
To which I replied (citing Allison’s line of reasoning):
“Those who deny reality like this do so as a way of coping with failed expectations and broken dreams. For instance, the account in Jn 2 about the spiritual temple copes with the failed rebuilding of the actual temple. The radical idea of Jesus' resurrection would thus have been a way of coping with the failed arrival of God's kingdom and the general resurrection. But had the disciples actually given up on this expectation? Didn't Jesus' crucifixion conform to martyrdom theology -- all the sufferings and trials Jesus told them to expect? Unlike the case of Schneerson, whose strokes, illness, and death were hardly built into the original messianic expectations of the Lubavitchers.”
This is what distinguishes the case of the early Christians from other millenarian groups who revise in order to deny reality. Turton has the right idea: the early Christians were capable of denying reality as much as any other religious group. (Look at Jn 2!) But on this point they had no reason to.
(II) The Visions When Wright says that the disciples would doubtfully have claimed Jesus was raised from the dead if they hadn’t found his tomb empty, he also means that the visions of Jesus alone would not have produced the resurrection belief. It took the sight of an empty tomb in conjunction with the visions. Dale Allison agrees with this, particularly against Gerd Ludemann who says otherwise. Allison writes:
“It would have been easy enough for Peter and [others who saw the visions] to declare that God had vindicated and exalted Jesus without using the concept of the eschatological resurrection. If, as Ludemann contends, the first community knew nothing about an opened tomb, Peter and his fellow believers could have said, in a manner reminiscent of Jubilees 23:31, that while Jesus’ bones rested for now in the earth, his spirit was exalted into heaven. Or they could have spoken about Jesus the way the Testament of Job, without using the language of resurrection, speaks about its hero: Job’s soul was taken to heaven immediately after his death while his body was prepared for burial.”
Indeed, Judaic belief easily accommodated ideas about the immortality of the soul. The visions of Jesus, by themselves, hardly account for the resurrection belief, especially with no cognitive dissonance in place.
What’s curious here is that Wright actually undercuts the importance of the empty tomb by claiming that the visions were exceptional in their transphysicality. The idea of a body appearing out of nowhere, disappearing, and transcending physical barriers is bizarre, according to Wright, and so the resurrection belief must have come about from reflecting on encounters with this unexpectedly transphysical Jesus.
But Allison strikes a heavy blow against the so-called uniqueness or exceptional nature of the visions. As recorded in the gospels, they show every sign of pointing to a widespread phenomenon. There is abundant documentation for the recently bereaved reporting contact with the dead, and far from ghostly shades, they are more often reported to be transphysical: being seen and heard (even touched); seen first by one person, then another, or by more than one person at the same time; seen by individuals who did not know them in life; creating doubt in some recipients; offering reassurance and giving comfort; giving guidance, making requests, or issuing imperatives; being seen less and less as time goes on (most apparitions are seen following shortly after death). Even more so than Ludemann, Allison makes a powerful case for grief-induced visions, however exactly they are to be understood.
Acknowledging this, of course, only strengthens the importance of the empty tomb in accounting for the resurrection belief. But for Wright, the gospel visions have to be unique, since he believes Jesus actually was resurrected.
(III) Conclusion Bearing these two caveats in mind -- that wild revisionism is common and to be expected of millenial groups, and that transphysical visions of the dead are common; both against Wright -- Dale Allison agrees with Wright’s conclusion, if not how he got there: It could only have been the empty tomb (when taken in conjunction with visions) which caused the disciples to make the claim that their messiah had been raised from death before the apocalypse, and before the general resurrection for which they obviously kept hoping.
So what happened to Jesus' body? Wright thinks it's historically evident that Jesus was resurrected by God. Historically evident? One is hard pressed not to laugh. Allison, who describes himself as a “reluctantly cryptic deist”, likes the idea of Jesus being resurrected while acknowledging there is obviously no way of knowing what happened to the body. Richard Carrier entertains the idea that the body was stolen (that is, on days when he’s not claiming the empty tomb is pure legend), since grave robbing was a common problem in antiquity. Jeffery Jay Lowder suggests that Joseph of Arimathea kept the body in the tomb for a day and then moved it to a final resting place after the sabbath.
I personally like the grave-robbing explanation, but Dale is right, there's no way of knowing what happened to the body. All we can say is that it was missing from the tomb when later visited by the women. And because of this mysterious vanishing act, we today have the doctrine of the resurrection.
Allison, Dale. Resurrecting Jesus. T. & T. Clark, 2005. [Note that page numbers are not cited above, since the page numbers I have come from an unpublished draft. I still haven’t received my official copy of the book.]
Ludemann, Gerd. The Resurrection of Christ. Prometheus, 2004.
Price, Robert & Lowder, Jeffery Jay. The Empty Tomb. Prometheus, 2005.
Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Augsburg Fortress, 2003.