Tag Archives: Early Attestation

The eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ women followers supports the empty tomb

I wanted to go over this article by William Lane Craig which includes a discussion of the empty tomb, along with the other minimal facts that support the resurrection. The entire paper was also presented orally to the students and faculty at California State University, Fresno in 2005, and a full recording is available here. The paper covers all of Craig’s preferred set of minimal facts, which he uses in debates.

The word resurrection means bodily resurrection

The concept of resurrection in use among the first converts to Christianity was a Jewish concept of resurrection. And that concept of resurrection is unequivocally in favor of a bodily resurrection. The body (soma) that went into the grave is the body (soma) that came out.

Craig explains what this means with respect to the fast start of Christian belief:

For a first century Jew the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. In the words of E. E. Ellis, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”

And:

Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly.

It’s significant that the belief in the resurrection started off in the city where the tomb was located. Anyone, such as the Romans or Jewish high priests, who wanted to nip the movement in the bud could easily have produced the body to end it all. They did not do so, because they could not do so, although they had every reason to do so.

More on this from N.T. Wright, here.

There are multiple early, eyewitness sources for the empty tomb

Paul’s early creed from 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, implies the empty tomb.

Craig writes:

In the formula cited by Paul the expression “he was raised” following the phrase “he was buried” implies the empty tomb. A first century Jew could not think otherwise. As E. L. Bode observes, the notion of the occurrence of a spiritual resurrection while the body remained in the tomb is a peculiarity of modern theology. For the Jews it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised; hence, they carefully preserved the bones of the dead in ossuaries until the eschatological resurrection. There can be no doubt that both Paul and the early Christian formula he cites pre-suppose the existence of the empty tomb.

The dating of the resurrection as having occurred “on the third day” implies the empty tomb. The date specified for the resurrection would have been the date that the tomb was discovered to be empty.

The phrase “on the third day” probably points to the discovery of the empty tomb. Very briefly summarized, the point is that since no one actually witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, how did Christians come to date it “on the third day?” The most probable answer is that they did so because this was the day of the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus’ women followers. Hence, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb.

The early pre-Markan burial narrative mentions the empty tomb. This source pre-dates Mark, the earliest gospel. The source has been dated by some scholars to the 40s.

The empty tomb story is part of the pre-Markan passion story and is therefore very old. The empty tomb story was probably the end of Mark’s passion source. As Mark is the earliest of our gospels, this source is therefore itself quite old. In fact the commentator R. Pesch contends that it is an incredibly early source. He produces two lines of evidence for this conclusion:

(a) Paul’s account of the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23-5 presupposes the Markan account. Since Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old, the Markan source must be yet older.

(b) The pre-Markan passion story never refers to the high priest by name. It is as when I say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House” and everyone knows whom I am speaking of because it is the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from AD 18-37, this means at the latest the pre-Markan source must come from within seven years after Jesus’ death. This source thus goes back to within the first few years of the Jerusalem fellowship and is therefore an ancient and reliable source of historical information.

Lack of legendary embellishments

The empty tomb narrative in the gospels lacks legendary embellishments, unlike later 2nd century forgeries that originated outside of Jerusalem.

The eyewitness testimony of the women

This is the evidence that has been the most convincing to skeptics, and to me as well.

The tomb was probably discovered empty by women. To understand this point one has to recall two facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

(a) Woman occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”

(b) The testimony of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even permitted to serve as legal witnesses in a court of law. In light of these facts, how remarkable must it seem that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legend would certainly have made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb. The fact that women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men, are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb and the gospels accurately record this.

The earliest response from the Jewish high priests assumes the empty tomb

This report from Matthew 28 fulfills the criteria of enemy attestation, although Matthew is not the earliest source we have. Oh, well.

In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection. That polemic asserted that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded to this by reciting the story of the guard at the tomb, and the polemic in turn charged that the guard fell asleep. Now the noteworthy feature of this whole dispute is not the historicity of the guards but rather the presupposition of both parties that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence in support of the empty tomb.

Note how careful Craig is not to imply that the guard tradition is historical, because we can’t prove the guard as a “minimal fact“, since it doesn’t pass the standard historical criteria.

Critical responses to the empty tomb

Richard Carrier tried to argue that the testimony of women was accepted, in his debate with Craig, but Craig showed that this was only possible in two cases: 1) if they were testifying about their status as widows, or 2) if no male witnesses were available, e.g. – they had all been killed. Audio of the debate is here. Carrier’s admission of defeat is here, on his blog. Craig’s post-debate response to Carrier is here and here.

Further study

To see a debate betwen Craig and the well-known skeptic Bart Ehrman, click here for the 12 part playlist. The first two parts are embedded below, containing Craig’s entire 20 minute opening speech. The full transcript of the debate is here, so you can follow along.

To hear a related lecture by Craig on the topic of “Who did Jesus think he was?”, click here. The video is here. This lecture was delivered in February, 2009 at Columbia University, probably the most secular leftist university in the United States. Yes, the same university that invited Ahmadinejad to speak.

Early, independent sources for the empty tomb

Bill Craig’s “Question of the Week” feature at Reasonable Faith recently addressed the problem of the number and dating of the earliest independent sources for the burial and empty tomb stories. I found that my own views were somewhat mistaken, so I thought we would all benefit from a closer look.

Let’s take a look at the independent sources for the empty tomb story.

1) The portion of Mark that recounts the burial is an early source

Mark is the earliest gospel, but even he relies on an earlier source for a portion of his gospel.

The burial account is part of Mark’s source material for the story of Jesus’ Passion. This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion.

…The empty tomb story is syntactically tied to the burial story; indeed, they are just one story. 

Bill talks about the dating and significance of this early source:

…Whereas most of Mark’s Gospel consists of short anecdotal stories strung like pearls on a string, when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we encounter a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread through Jesus’ burial and empty tomb.

…According to James D. G. Dunn, “The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels. This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them” (J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 2003, pp. 765-6.)

The dominant view among NT scholars is therefore that the Passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony (Mark Allen Powell, JAAR 68 [2000]: 171). Indeed, according to Richard Bauckham, many scholars date Mark’s Passion narrative no later than the 40s (recall that Jesus died in A.D. 30) (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006, p. 243)….

Wow, this independent source is almost as good as 1 Corinthians 15:3-7! What else is a good source?

2) Matthew has an independent source for the empty tomb story

Craig writes:

As for the other Gospels, that Matthew has an independent tradition of the empty tomb is evident not only from the non-Matthean vocabulary (e.g., the words translated “on the next day,” “the preparation day,” “deceiver,” “guard [of soldiers],” “to make secure,” “to seal”; the expression “on the third day” is also non-Matthean, for he everywhere else uses “after three days;” the expression “chief priests and Pharisees” never appears in Mark or Luke and is also unusual for Matthew), but also from Matt. 28.15: “this story has been spread among Jews till this day,” indicative of a tradition history of disputes with Jewish non-Christians.

This one was new to me.

3) A source used by Luke and John for the empty tomb story

The inspection of the empty tomb by Peter implies the empty tomb. Craig writes:

Luke and John have the non-Markan story of Peter and another disciple inspecting the tomb, which, given John’s independence of Luke, indicates a separate tradition behind the story. Moreover, we have already seen that John’s independence of Mark shows that he has a separate source for the empty tomb.

This one was also new to me.

4) The early sermons in Acts support the empty tomb

Acts was written by Luke. Craig writes:

The early sermons in Acts are likely not created by Luke out of whole cloth but represent early apostolic preaching. We find the empty tomb implied in the contrast between David’s tomb and Jesus’: “David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day.” But “this Jesus God has raised up” (2:29-32; cf. 13.36-7).

This one I had heard about before, from Gary Habermas.

5) The creed recited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is an early source

This passage does not explicitly mention the empty tomb, but it does imply the empty tomb. We moderns are not free to re-invent the meaning of the word resurrection. Ancient Jewish theologians who believed in the resurrection had a definite definition of the word: the word means that the body is gone from the tomb.

Craig writes:

…the old tradition handed on by Paul to the Corinthian church, which is among the earliest traditions identifiable in the NT, refers to Jesus’ burial in the second line of the tradition. That this is the same event as the burial described in the Gospels becomes evident by comparing Paul’s tradition with the Passion narratives on the one hand and the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles on the other. The four-line tradition handed on by Paul is a summary of the central events of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, and his appearances to the disciples.

This creed has been dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, as I mentioned before.

Further study

A scholarly-level article where Craig makes the case for the empty tomb is found here. Atheist commenters: be sure and read this article before commenting.

I’ll be posting a follow-up later this week on the empty tomb, but I wanted to write about the sources separately.

Tough Questions Answered has first report of Licona/Ehrman debate!

Here is their commentary on the recent Licona vs. Ehrman debate at SES. And they didn’t even tell me about it, I had to find it myself. Those meanies!

Excerpt from their awesome post-debate report:

Here is my summary of the arguments that each of them presented.

Licona opened the debate with a historical argument that goes like this.  First, he argued, virtually all historians (close to 100%) agree on three key facts about Jesus:

  1. He died by crucifixion.
  2. His disciples believed they saw Jesus appear several times after he died.
  3. The apostle Paul believed he saw Jesus appear after he died.

Then, Licona explained that the historian’s job was to figure out the best explanation of these three facts.  There are four criteria that the professional historian should use to judge possible explanations of the facts:

  1. explanatory scope
  2. explanatory power
  3. plausibility
  4. less ad hoc

I read their post, and it sounds like Bart Ehrman made his standard discredited case based on 1) manuscript variants and 2) David Hume’s argument against miracles. He doesn’t even care that he lost his debate against Craig with these exact same arguments.

As I reported before:

In Ehrman’s debate with Peter Williams on the UK-based Unbelievable radio show, and in Ehrman’s debate with Dan Wallace, Ehrman lists the 4 worst problems caused by the invariants:

  1. the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) is a late addition not present in the earliest manuscripts
  2. the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) is a late addition not present in the earliest manuscripts
  3. Jesus was angry and not compassionate when he healed the leper (Mark 1:41)
  4. that Jesus died apart from God, and not by the grace of God (Hebrews 2:9)

Now I have to tell you, these disputes are irrelevant to standard Christian doctrine. Also, I personally prefer the woman at the well story being left out, and I prefer angry Jesus in 3). Why? Because I am snarky. The only variant that bugs me is the ending in Mark, because I liked the long ending. But none of these “worst cases” affects anything that Mike Licona might say on behalf of the resurrection, which is what the debate is supposed to be about, right?

That post also had some links to other debates on the resurrection. Furthermore, in previous debates, Ehrman’s argument against miracles is really just David Hume’s argument against miracles, which even non-Christian scholars, like John Earman, have defeated at the highest level here:

Here is an another interesting part of part one of TQA’s report (part two is forthcoming, they say!):

Interestingly, Ehrman did fully accept Licona’s three facts about Jesus as historically true.  He just didn’t accept the explanation of Jesus rising from the dead to explain those facts.  His favorite explanation seemed to be hallucinations, so the two debaters spent a lot time discussing hallucinations.

UPDATE: Part 2 of their evaluation has been posted!

Further Reading

Here are some resources related to this debate.