The Empty Tomb: Arguments for Historicity
(Previous post here.)
Let's now consider Dale Allison's assessment of arguments for the empty tomb:
(1) The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 -- that the disciples robbed the tomb -- shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty. (p 312)
(2) The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration. (pp 312-313)
(3) Paul's language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 314-316)
(4) The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty. (pp 316-320)
(5) Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed. (pp 320-321)
(6) Only the empty tomb (in conjunction with the post-mortem appearances) could have yielded the resurrection belief, because there was no reason for the disciples to invent a premature resurrection. People create fictions in order to cope with failures and broken dreams, but Jesus' death wasn't seen as a failure. The crucifixion would have demoralized the disciples but ultimately been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they -- and he -- would have been resurrected. An empty tomb caused them to conclude that Jesus had been raised prematurely. (pp 321-326)
(7) In a culture where the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 326-331)
Allison offers counters to the first five arguments (not a difficult task) and declares the last two formidable. Weighing these against the other side of the debate, he decides:
Of our two options -- that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied -- the former, as I read the evidence, is the slightly stronger possibility. The best two arguments against the tradition -- the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies -- while certainly weighty, remain nonetheless hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential. (pp 331-332)I agree, but have also indicated another reasonable argument from the "against" side, and that argument (2) is more concrete and evidential than (6) and (7): the parallels between Mk 15-16 and Dan 6. Granted it's not entirely persuasive. Stephen Carlson points out that Daniel was still found in the den in the morning (Dan 6:19, 23) unlike Jesus. But the parallels are still too numerous for me to ignore without feeling guilty. I wonder if it's time for someone to do a Goodacre-like analysis and strike a balance between history remembered and prophecy historicized? I'm confident that an (historical) empty tomb tradition interacted with Dan 6 and was colored by it; but it's difficult to say which came first in the case of each parallel.
James Crossley puts stock in argument (3) from the "against" side, that Mk 16:8 (the women saying nothing to anyone out of fear) is an attempt to explain why the tradition of the empty tomb was not well known. But as Allison points out, "they said nothing to anyone" trails not a command to proclaim the empty tomb but a command to tell the disciples about Jesus going before them to Galilee (p 303). The angel simply says that Jesus has been raised and his tomb is empty (Mk 16:6); it orders the women on another account entirely (Mk 16:7), and that's what their saying nothing (Mk 16:8) is linked to.
Noteworthy is that Paul has been pressed into service on both sides of the debate (arguments (5) and (3)). That's the trouble with arguments from silence (on the "against" side) and implied logic (on the "for" side). But Paul's silence tells us nothing, and if his argument assumes an empty tomb it still doesn't mean it's historical.
In the end, Allison is right. Arguments (6) and (7) from the "for" side carry considerable weight. Visions of Jesus, without an empty tomb, would have resulted only in a belief that he was vindicated and assumed into heaven, not resurrected. And accounts of female witnesses discovering the empty tomb certainly smell like nonfiction.