Monday, August 28, 2006

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.

15 Comments:

Blogger steph said...

For no. 7 I think I agree with James that Mark describes the witnesses as women in order to explain why the tradition was not well known (or known at all).

8/28/2006  
Blogger Rick Sumner said...

Argument six is formidable, and one I haven't considered previously (I have not yet read Allison's book, though it is on the "to read list" (which really goes without saying, being Allison and all). I'm not sure whether or not it changes my mind though.

8/28/2006  
Blogger Ryan said...

Loren,

I agree with you against Crossley on the women's silence as an apologetic for the late introduction of the empty tomb story. I think Gundry made the same point against that theory that Allison does. Further, no need for Mark to do himself in by mentioning some pretty well-known people in the Christian community if that was his intention. Mark presupposes that the women did indeed tell *someone* as he's relating the story, so obviously their silence was not permanent. And given the views about women's testimony and reliability/judgement as you say, making them women doesn't aid acceptance of the late entrance of the empty tomb story - it only makes it less reliable. Mark could have worked out a delayed scenario like Crossley envisions with many other more culturally convincing scenarios.

I can't agree with you or Rick on the strength of Allison's argument 6 though. You wrote:

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 problem is -- Allison's argument has never seemed consistent to me here. He himself argues that the disciples expected the resurrection of Jesus as vindication after his expected death. So if this is what they're expecting, and then you have the visions, they deduce that he is risen from the dead. Given the common understanding of resurrection as bodily, you've got yourself a belief in an empty tomb right from the start. What's wrong with this scenario?

Ryan Helms

8/29/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Allison's argument has never seemed consistent to me here. He himself argues that the disciples expected the resurrection of Jesus as vindication after his expected death.

But only at the apocalypse.

8/29/2006  
Blogger Ryan said...

Loren,

But only at the apocalypse.

Which can come at any moment, in *their* lifetime, right?

Ryan

8/29/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

The point is that Jesus would have been expected to be raised at the general resurrection along with everyone else.

8/29/2006  
Blogger Paul said...

Do you have an opinion, Loren, on whether 1-5 under "for" or 1-5 under "against" collectively carry more weight.

I can understand that there are possible rejoinders to practically ANY assertion about an alleged historical event, but I've always taken 1-5 (for) as cumulatively worth something.

Also, does Allison spend any time on various theories of a lost ending of Mark? This would seem significant to the discussion, particularly if one is taking the line that the other resurrection narratives are derived from Mark.

8/29/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

'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. '

Of course, this is not much use if the Gospellers didn't know that the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable.

See John 4:39 where people are described as believing because of a woman's testimony.

And only a full tomb can account for people converting to Christianity (as the Corinthians did) and still scoffing at the idea that God would choose to raise a corpse from the grave, while still believing that a god like Jesus was raised from the dead.

And for Paul calling them 'idiots' for doubting the resurreciton because they imagined that a resurrection (of a non-God like they were) involved such a process.

The Thessalonians also had to be reassured that corpses were not lost. Hard to believe if they had had the precedent of Jesus' corpse being raised in front of their beliefs.

But easier to explain if the resurrection of Jesus involved a change of state which a mere mortal could not hope to emulate.

To give a rough analogy.

If Zeus turned into a swan and then the swan was killed, and Zeus appeared in a vision telling people that he had been a swan, but had now reverted to God-form, then many people might convert to Zeus-worship.

However, they would still scoff at the idea that any ordinary swan could turn into a god after death.

Paul solves this problem by explaining that Jesus was a type - the last Adam - so they too would have the same sort of resurrection that Jesus had, namely becoming a life-giving spirit (as opposed to their current 'body of death' to use Paul's phrase from Romans)

8/29/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Would 'everyone else' have been expected to be raised at the general resurrection?

No Jews every thought that Elijah would come first, for example?

Or that one of the other ancient prophets might appear?

8/29/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Do you have an opinion, Loren, on whether 1-5 under "for" or 1-5 under "against" collectively carry more weight.

I don't think either group carries more weight collectively, simply because it's easy to refute each one of them. Though some are more easy than others, granted: my pecking order would be a bit different from Allison's. For instance, under "against", I think (1) and (2) are stronger than (3), (4), and (5); it's curious that Dale ranks them at the very bottom (especially (2), as I've noted).

8/29/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

'Visions of Jesus, without an empty tomb, would have resulted only in a belief that he was vindicated and assumed into heaven, not resurrected.'

I'm not sure how people can believe in an assumption into Heaven *without* there being an empty tomb.

8/29/2006  
Blogger Paul said...

Loren,

I guess I'm confused about which sense you attach to "refute". Lets take point 3, for example (the assumption of the empty tomb in I Cor 15--Romans 8 could be added here as well). It would seem that to "refute" such a position would require either

a) a strong demonstration that by "resurrection" Paul must have meant something entirely different than what people have always assumed he meant (seems very unlikely to me);

b) Paul was simply misinformed about what had happened to Jesus;

c)Paul was just insane/rambling/incoherent;

d) I Corinthians 15 (ad Romans 8 and other passages?) are later interpolations

Maybe I'm missing some other argument. But anyhow, I don't know how one would construct a proof for one of those positions sufficient for it to be "refuted" other than on the basis of "resurrections are obviously impossible, therefore something else MUST have happened".

Perhaps you merely meant "questionable"?

8/30/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Loren, I guess I'm confused about which sense you attach to "refute". Lets take point 3, for example (the assumption of the empty tomb in I Cor 15).

The counter/rebuttal to this one is easy: Paul could have assumed an empty tomb without knowing a previous tradition about its discovery. It's just as weak to argue what Paul's argument may imply (on the "for" side) as from his silence (on the "against" side).

By "refute" I basically mean "counter", and on the "for" side, the first five arguments are easy to counter. But all the counters I've heard to (6) and (7) are weak and unconvincing.

I don't know how one would construct a proof for one of those positions sufficient for it to be "refuted" other than on the basis of "resurrections are obviously impossible, therefore something else MUST have happened".

In these two posts the resurrection is not under discussion. Only the empty tomb is. (One can obviously believe that Jesus' tomb was empty and maintain that he was not resurrected.)

8/30/2006  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Paul never mentions an empty tomb.

But he would have if he had wanted to rub the Corinthians noses in the fact that God would choose to raise a corpse from its grave.

8/30/2006  
Blogger Paul said...

Sensible enough. I'm not sure I understand the value of splitting the *empty tomb* discussion from *resurrection*, but I'll just let it go.

8/30/2006  

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