Sunday, October 16, 2011

Resurrection Sundays: An Overview of the Empty Tomb

It is believed by many historians that, on the very first Easter, a group of female disciples discovered that the tomb of Jesus was empty. Some atheists believe that this event, in conjunction with later visionary experiences and prior prophecies from Jesus himself, eventually led to the belief in Jesus' corporeal resurrection from the dead. However, there is a large and respectable minority of scholars holding the view that the empty tomb story is fictional- and that the Resurrection appearances alone caused the belief of the early disciples.

Just how large and respectable is this minority, you ask? Well, according to a study carried out by Gary Habermas, as many as a quarter of scholars think that the story of the empty tomb is fictional. Yeah- an entire quarter. That means that, unless a quarter of professional Jesus scholars are desperate non-believers- at least some Christians must hold this view. This consideration gives us at least some prima facie evidence that the arguments against the empty tomb must have at least some force. But what if most scholars are, in fact, non-believers? After all- Mike Licona says just that in his interview here. Well- wouldn't that be even better for Atheism's case?

Anyways, before I write any posts that actually examine the arguments, I just want to be upfront about my opinion on the empty tomb. For decades, Apologists have used this as an argument for the Resurrection. But to me this tactic seems like sleight of hand. For even if the body went missing- why must we infer a Resurrection? We have the traditional hypothesises, like the reburial theory or the stolen body theory. On top of this, we have other, less conventional explanations we can appeal to. For example, an earthquake could have caused the ground under Jesus' corpse to open up and swallow it! Atheists do not require one specific theory to serve as their official explanation- any number of possible scenarios will suffice. After all- the Bible only records theological interpretations of these events- not the underlying events themselves. Those are lost in history forever.

So that's about it. If you want to learn more about the empty tomb's historicity at a popular level, I would recommend James McGrath's Burial of Jesus: History and Faith and Kris Komarnitsky's Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box. At a more scholarly level, I would recommend the books of Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann, Maurice Casey and Dale Allison. And of course, if you haven't read it yet, also get a copy of  Dale Allison's 2008 Philosophia Christi essay, which responds to arguments from William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas.


  1. I think Licona is wrong about most NT scholars being non-believers. Habermas' paper indicates the opposite:

    Under "Some General Tendencies" he notes a ratio of 3:1 for "moderate conservative to skeptical publications."

    I guess this raises the question of whether most scholars are Christians because the historical evidence for the resurrection is so convincing, or if most scholars find the historical evidence for the resurrection so convincing because they are already Christians.

    Also, regarding his 75% consensus on the empty tomb, I'm really curious what publications he surveyed. Are they all from peer-reviewed, academic journals/presses? Did he consider publications from evangelical journals which only allow inerrantist views? Did he also consider articles from the other end of the spectrum, from journals like "Skeptic"? It would be really interesting to compare the results of a similar survey conducted by a non-believer.

  2. Scholars: I agree that most historical Jesus scholars are most probably Christian. My comment that it would be good if it most scholars weren't christians was supposed to be a little jab at Licona, since it looked like he was trying to prove a point when he said it ;)

    But I think he does have a point. Even though most scholars are christians- many still work with an enlightenment attitude. For example, Jim West, James McGrath and Diglotting all believe that miracles cannot be proven using historical tools. I personally dont find that specific argument as compelling as they do.

    Habermas' study: I am a bit skeptical of the study too. He gathered papers from scholars who wrote on the resurrection ever since 1975 and counted them. To my knowledge, he didn't check to see if there were any trends- which woulkd have been more valuable. Plus- some evangelical scholars like himself and Craig probably write far more often about the resurrection than more serious scholars that, you know, care about who Jesus was as well. The case for the resurrection is pretty much dead if Jesus can be proven to have been a failed apocalyptic prophet.

    But, for me, all that matters is that at least 25% of scholars, which must include some christians, think the tomb is fictional. This proves nothing on its own- but it does make me question certain apologists' integrity who dismiss these scholars as being desparate.

  3. EDIT: He did check for trends. Sorry, I hadn't read the paper in months!

  4. "Plus- some evangelical scholars like himself and Craig probably write far more often about the resurrection than more serious scholars that, you know, care about who Jesus was as well."

    Good point.

    "The case for the resurrection is pretty much dead if Jesus can be proven to have been a failed apocalyptic prophet."

    Ya, this is a really interesting point. From the little I've read so far, it does seem like Jesus was most likely an apocalyptic prophet who was ultimately mistaken in his eschatological expectations. Intuitively, this looks like a defeater to the resurrection. But is it really? I've never seen a rigorous defense of that position, and it seems like the Christian could argue the opposite way: i.e. the evidence for the resurrection provides a defeater for thinking Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Or they could just argue that the other, non-apocalytpic aspects of Jesus were so awesome that they outweighed his one mistake - therefore, God would still have had good reason to raise him.

    But with that said, the "failed prophet objection" seems like one of the stronger objections to the resurrection. It's kind of surprising that it doesn't come up more often in resurrection debates.

  5. I'm not sure why no one uses this argument, or what real scholars think of it. Crossan mentioned it once when responding to Dale Allison, humorously stating that it would be preposterous to think that Jesus would be the first and only failed prophet to be "transcendedly wrong".

    I know Ex Apologist used the argument once on Vic Repperts blog. Pretty much all of the commentaters just said it was because Jesus was "100% man" AND 100% god- and therefore he was fallible. I dont recall anybogy claiming that he made no false prochecies at all.

    I do agree with you though that this argument can only make the resurrection improbable at best. But, we can at least make it more improbable if we consider other arguments, such as the fact that Jesus wasn't much different than the other messiahs, and that the early disciples may have believed in a literal adam and eve.

  6. The thing about Jesus' failed expectations is that, according to the Torah, mistaken prophecies are not errors but signs that the prophet is not representing the one true God. This comes from Deuteronomy 18:17-22 (NRSV):

    "17 Then the LORD replied to me: 'They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak--that prophet shall die.' 21 You may say to yourself, 'How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?' 22 If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.'"

    So, presuming to be God's messanger and predicting acts of God that don't come to pass makes one a false prophet, which deserves the death penalty. Jesus identified himself as a prophet (Mark 6:4: "Then Jesus said to them, 'Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.'") and assumes the authority to speak for God throughout the Gospels. Acts 37:7 explicitly identifies Jesus as the prophet like Moses and quotes the above passage from Deuteronomy. But Jesus' prophecies were wrong--the timetable was not ambiguous--so we should not follow him or be afraid of him. If Jesus ever did come back on a cloud, the proper response of God-fearng, Torah-observing Jews would be to put him to death a second time!

    The Bible, however, does not speak with one voice. God decides to leave Jonah's prophecy unfulfilled, because of human response it. And maybe Jesus did not always presume to speak for God--he did not use the traditional "thus says the LORD" of the old prophets, but instead said "Truly, I say to you..." There are theories of the incarnation that say Jesus did have access to God the Father's omniscience. So maybe you can square orthodoxy with an apocalyptic Jesus, I don't know. I like Dale Allison's idea of reading the eschatology of the Bible the same way we read Genesis--as mythology filled with theological meaning.

  7. Correction: that should be Acts 7:37.

  8. Ugh, another correction: Should say "theories of the incarnation that say Jesus did NOT have access to God the Father's omniscience"

  9. Yeah, your right Chris. Ex Apologist used Acts 7:37 in his case. However, he used it as a defeater. Now, I know I cant prove that Jesus meant it literally- or that a failed prophecy must make him a fake. As I meantioned earlier, he wasn't just 100% God. However, I think we could show that the resurrection is at least prima facie improbable using this argument.