Sunday, October 23, 2011

Resurrection Sundays: The Women as witnesses

Any critic of the empty tomb is probably aware of this argument. The way it goes is to first argue that women were considered to be sub-par when compared to men, at least in terms of testimony. The second point is to argue that, with this consideration in mind, the Gospel writers would have had no reason to make women discover Jesus' empty tomb first- unless women really did discover the empty tomb first. Now, most critics will not bother with the first part of the argument. As Licona would say, it is "part of our historical bedrock". The second point is the one that Critics attack.

One of the common skeptical responses to this argument is that the Women may have had a symbolic reason to have been included in the story. Anyone who has read David Straus (or Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) should be aware of his theory- that certain events of the New Testament are "true", even though they never happened. In other words, they were meant to be taken metaphorically, not literally. This makes a few of Jesus' miracles make sense, like the raising of Lazarus- which would undoubtedly appear in all four Gospels if it were historical. Proponents will say that the women were part of a "reversal of expectation" motif- in which the lowliest of the low found God- while the rich and even Jesus' own disciples were clueless and didn't get it. This view is certainly possible- although as you can see, it largely depends on whether you think the Gospels were intended to be literal history or not. I know that ancient biographies commonly included miracle claims- but anything further is beyond my expertise to comment on.

Another common response to this argument is that the inventor of the story had no choice but to make women discover the empty tomb, since they were the only ones left in Jerusalem. The Disciples all fled, remember? The counter argument to this, though, is that if someone were to have invented the story- they would have invented a male disciple whole cloth before they'd allow a woman to find the tomb. They could also have made Joseph of Amirathea find the empty tomb- at least in the later Gospels, where Joseph was elevated to the role of "secret disciple". Despite it's shortcomings, however, this argument can easily be combined with the above one to increase it's explanatory power.

A third scenario, proposed by the late scholar Michael Goulder, was that the story of women finding the empty tomb could've been invented by the early church to explain why the empty tomb wasn't previously known- because the women messed it up by running away and "telling nobody". This scenario has some force, since it at least tries to explain why the Gospel of Mark ends with the Women running away, telling no one "because they were afraid". However- there are many scholars who believe that the Gospel of Mark does, in fact, have an original ending- one that is missing, and will probably never be found again. Also, another argument against this hypothesis is that, had this account been made up, the real Mary and anyone who knew her would have spoken out. Sadly, I can't really comment on this since I don't know much about the politics of the early church. I do question, though, whether she could have reacted to the story. Mary probably died before Marks Gospel was completed (considering the very short lifespans of ancient Jews), and her family and friends could have been either totally unaware of the stories existence- or have been far too old or weak to speak out against it. Women were considered inferior to men, remember?

Although these three scenarios are the most popular ones, Maurice Casey came up with a new, more powerful scenario that may account for the Women discovering the empty tomb. Casey argues in his book that a vision of an empty tomb was what started the belief in Jesus' resurrection, not a real event. A vision from none other than Mary herself! This idea certainly sounds weird at first- but keep in mind that visionaries were quite common in Jesus' time, and that they were often Women. This alternative scenario certainly looks possible- but I have yet to see any scholars critically evaluate it in depth. If you want to know more, read the book, as well as this review of it here.

The argument for the empty tomb via the testimony of female disciples is defiantly the strongest argument in support of the empty tomb. If you must know, this argument is the reason I remain agnostic on the matter. With that said, I think that every other argument in support of the empty tomb is nowhere near as good as this one, and next week, I will explain why.


  1. One theory I've seen floating around the internet is that Mark used women because it was customary for women to annoint dead bodies, not men. Having men visit the tomb would have appeared strange for the early readers of the gospels. I haven't researched this idea, but apparently this book provides some good support:

    Also, Neill Hamilton has another theory about why Mark might've created the empty tomb, which kind of blends together some of what you mentioned above. Hamilton says that for Mark, the empty tomb story functioned as a "translation" story. Translation, or the assumption of a heroic figure into heaven, was apparently common in Greco-Roman literature and was often signified by a missing body. Mark wants to show that Jesus has been translated into the Son of Man figure, and that he is about to return in judgment to Galilee. Mark uses women because he was aware of the resurrection tradition from Paul. In order to preserve this tradition he has them keep silent - the appearance to Peter still retains its primacy. All this allows Mark to communicate a message to his readers - "Do not return to Jerusalem, but go to Galilee where the Son of Man will soon begin his second career." This theory is a bit "out there" but I find it really interesting. Hamilton explains it in this article:

  2. Hamiltons theory isn't too wiered. I agree with him that stories of missing bodies and empty tombs actually were quite common 2000 years sgo. Even WLC acknowledges that when he reviewed Allisons book.

    I prefer it to certian evangelical Christian theories, in which the ending of Mark inexplicitly disappeared, despite being the perfect, accurate, and divinley inspired word of God.

    BTW I didn't know that women were the only ones who annointed dead bodies. If its true, than the women would have been the only ones who could've found out that the body of Jesus was missing- anything else would be awkward. Some have also suggested that the angel(s) was added to the story exactly so that a man could be present. This theory seems to compliment the other one rather well. Od course, I'll have to do more research into it to make sure its accurate.

  3. BTW I know it is unrelated, but I've been meaning to put up these links on hallucinations for some time. Really amazing stuff.