Is The Evidence For Jesus's Empty Tomb Genuinely Historical? (Part 2)

October 8, 2018

[read part 1 of this conversation]

 

Ben,


Thanks for answering my previous questions. However, your answers don't seem realistic to me. Your argument is that a later Christian wouldn't invent Joseph of Arimathea arranging a decent burial of Jesus. But that's a double-edged sword. Why would that be unlikely for a later Christian to invent? Because it's unlikely for it to happen in history (and the audience therefore wouldn't believe it). But if it's unlikely to happen in history why think it's historical? In any case, you need to come up with an explanation of why Joseph of Arimathea would arrange for a decent burial. And whatever will work as an explanation of why it happened in history will also work as an explanation of why a later Christian would invent it.

(By the way, did you know that Arimathea means "a place of the best disciple"? And would you believe a story where the president is named John President?)

Secondly, you mention that we do have an example of a fairly contemporaneous crucifixion victim, named “Yehohanan,” who had received a proper burial afterwards. However, as I already stated, I'm aware there's both archeological and literary evidence that under certain circumstances, crucifixion victims were given a decent burial. But that's exceptional (I think most scholars would argue it was exceedingly rare) while crucifixion victims not being buried at all was usual. Which means that by definition, the former is less likely than the later. And why would you believe something that is less likely than its alternative?

Thirdly, you answer that the case you have made here with respect to the silence of Paul on the empty tomb may also be easily explained by the fact that Paul was not an early eyewitness. Really? Assuming the empty tomb narrative was in circulation in Paul's time, do you really think Paul never learned about the empty tomb from the leaders of the Jerusalem church or anyone else? Especially if the empty tomb was perceived as evidence of the resurrection? 

Fourthly, you say that it is hard to see how a deductive argument could be constructed which demonstrated logically and inescapably that Paul’s silence was proof of his ignorance. But do you seriously require historians to produce deductive arguments that lead to inescapable conclusions? The last time I checked, the goal of historians is to figure out what "probably" happened in the past given the evidence we have. So nobody's arguing that Paul's silence on the empty tomb inescapably proves he didn't know about it. And it would be silly to ask for a proof like that. Instead, my argument is that Paul's silence is very improbable if the empty tomb story was in circulation in Paul's time but very probable if it didn't (because it hadn't been invented yet).

Fifthly, you note that the fact that Jesus of Nazareth had arisen to life and immortality prior to and wholly set apart from the General Resurrection of the dead is genuinely, religiously novel, and that this hardly comports well with antecedent Judaism. But do you really think there are never any religious ideas that are both novel and false? Also, the fact that this particular idea hardly comports well with antecedent Judaism is probably the reason why hardly any Jews became Christians; early Christianity was mostly comprised of lower class Gentiles living in large urban areas of the Roman empire outside Palestine.

And that raises another general concern. Have you ever noticed that after the New Testament, the Jerusalem church completely disappears from the early Christian literature for some 300 years (until empress Hellena goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem)? Isn't it weird that none of the early Christian church leaders, martyrs or theologians outside the New Testament come from Jerusalem? Isn't it weird that none of them ever mention what the Jerusalem church does, what it preaches, who leads it at the time or anything else about it? Isn't it weird that nobody ever defers to the position of the Jerusalem church at the time when discussing theological controversies? Why is that? Could it be because the Jerusalem church was actually spectacularly unsuccessful in its attempts to convert the local population (i.e. the Jews) compared to churches active among the Gentiles (in Alexandria, Antioch, Carthage etc.) and therefore quickly fell into obscurity?

Sixthly, you point out in response to me that no one in the Gospels or the book of Acts converted solely on the basis of the empty tomb. 
But I'm not claiming this is an argument you're making. I'm claiming that nobody in the Gospels is ever convinced by the tomb being empty. Don't you think it's a bit strange if the empty tomb is supposedly a piece of evidence in favor of the resurrection? If you are capable of acknowledging the supposed significance of the empty tomb as evidence of the resurrection, why do none of the characters in the Gospel ever acknowledge it? For example, if the tomb being empty is evidence of the resurrection, why does Mary in the Gospel of John come to the conclusion that the body was moved and not to the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected?

Finally, you question that given the presence of strict religious guidelines for ritual separateness, why make up a story about an empty tomb only to contrast it with pagan prototypes largely unknown to a Jewish audience. Are you kidding? Largely unknown to a Jewish audience? There were more Jews living in the diaspora throughout the Roman empire than there were Jews living in Palestine! These Jews were living surrounded by pagan culture. Of course they would be familiar with these stories. And what makes you think the audience of the New Testament was exclusively, or even mostly Jewish? Doesn't Jesus himself preach to the Gentiles in the Gospels? Don't the apostles preach to the Gentiles in Acts? Doesn't Paul goes on and on about dead idols in his epistles? Doesn't he give instructions about whether it's permissible to eat meat from animals sacrificed to pagan gods? Do you think that members of his churches who got meat from their pagan neighbors which was sacrificed to pagan gods during pagan festivals didn't know anything about pagan mythology? Really?

 

Your answers hardly seem realistic! K.

 

Kamil,

Thank you once again for your interest in this subject. I do hope that you will consider the possibility that Jesus really did rise from the dead as this is the center of the Christian faith. So let me see if I can speak into some of your doubts and objections.



First, your comments about the burial of Joseph of Arimathae seem confused. You seem genuinely unaware that we are speaking about The Criterion of Authenticity (TCOA). Narrowly speaking, these are criteria which historians typically use to ascertain whether a given assertion may justifiably lay claim to historicity. Specifically, the criteria I am working with is called “The Criterion of  Dissimilarity” (or, TCOD). It  holds that if a given claim is embarrassing or awkward to the author, than it becomes more likely for that claim to be genuinely historical. About this, atheist Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, writes: “...[this] criteria…[is] best used in a positive way to establish traditions that most probably can be accepted as reliable.” [1] Hence, historical postulations (such as that Jesus derived from Nazareth), are more likely to be true because they are embarrassing to the subjects and interests of the author. For the very same sorts of reason, the story about Joseph of Arimathae is likely, genuinely historical. And so that is why many scholars, both Christian and atheist, are convinced that Jesus’ honorable interment may indeed be trusted as authentic.

Now, for the purpose of clarifying, the criterion here is not to be understood as some sort of spurious “criterion of unbelievability” (or something else like that). We are not to think that atheist New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman count a given claim as “more historical” if it is unlikely to believed by the original audience. Such a criterion, as you have noted, would indeed cut both ways. But that is not at all what we are talking about. Rather, as I’ve stated, we are talking about TCOD. In fact, no such criterion of unbelievability exists. This is an imagined opponent.

Secondly, your comment about the name of Joseph of Arimathea as a false moniker would also likely fall on deaf ears for most modern scholars. The reason is that the town of Arimathea is specifically mentioned in Luke 23:51 as a “city of the Jews” who also, like Christians, called themselves “disciples.” Furthermore, the word “Arimathea” is not likely to be a Greek word but is probably pronounced as “Harimathea,” which has a distinct Semitic ring to it. It thus seems plausible that Arimathea is a Hellenized version of a Hebrew phrase meaning “to be high” and does not mean what you suggest. Finally, the story is mentioned in all four gospels, which is another criterion of authenticity—namely, that of multiple attestation (“TCOMA”). And since the title, as I’ve indicated, is most likely a vestige of Jewish ancestry, why say it is a strike against historicity?

Thirdly, your complaint about the higher probability of a crucified victim being tossed into an undesignated grave is again rendered moot given the fact that a historical basis remains for believing Jesus was honorably buried—namely, it was mentioned in all four gospels. Again, atheist Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, writes: “I have repeatedly stressed that a tradition appearing in multiple, independent sources has a greater likelihood of being historically reliable than a tradition that appears in only one.” [2] And so that is why most scholars, both atheist and Christian alike, believe that Jesus’s burial is more likely historical than not.

Fourthly, you once again take exception to the burial account because it is not mentioned by Paul. But this is just confused, methodologically. Since, we already have early, independent attestation of the empty tomb from the four gospels (TCOMA), Paul’s silence does not tell against the Easter claims. The account of the empty tomb is simply written too close to the time of the events which they report to be the subject of mere legend making. As late classicist, A.N. Sherwin-White has argued, at least two generations are needed to supplant historical memory. [3] Using the science of historiography (and drawing from the writings of ancient Greek historian, Herodotus), White established a critical test case to make this distinction. Today, his work demonstrates the absurdity of the idea that myth or legend could somehow have reconstrued events, such as the empty tomb narrative, leaving us with a mere legendary account. Therefore, since the gospels already establish the historicity of the empty tomb, Paul’s silence does nothing to “unestablish” it.

That is why I argue that I have justifiably insisted that your argument on Paul’s silence on this point would need to be “logically and inescapably true” in order to debunk the empty tomb. Since we already have a good historical case for the empty tomb on the basis of  the four gospels (TCOMA), only a logical refutation could prevail against it. I am here assuming of course that the absence of a good historical counter-case against the empty tomb leaves us with no other option—that is unless we open our discussion to include the possibility of non-textual arguments (i.e. scientism, reliabilism, etc.). However, since my video presentation does not deal with such matters, I have precluded them from my responses to your inquiries.

 

Fifthly, you note that it is possible for a religious idea to be both novel and false. Naturally, I readily grant that point. If not, I would have to consider that all “novel” religious ideas are true. However, I have not argued that novelty may be taken as the sole proof of the resurrection. Rather I have presented a cumulative case for Jesus’s resurrection which is based on four crucial historical facts: 1. The empty tomb, 2. The post-mortem appearances, 3. The very origin of the disciples beliefs, and, 4. The disciples willingness to suffer for it. Based on the evidence which I have presented, I am arguing that the resurrection may be taken as the best explanation for these facts. At the very least, perhaps you would be willing to admit that it is a “possible” explanation.

 

Sixthly, your mention of the failure of the Easter proclamation to convert the Jews in Jerusalem seems rather innocuous. I don’t see how this is a strike against the historicity of Jesus's resurrection. Something may be true regardless of whether anyone believes in it. So I’m going to have to leave this point unaddressed for the moment, since I am unsure of what it is you are arguing.

 

Seventh, you say again (repetitiously) that no one in the gospels ever speaks of the empty tomb as the sole proof that Jesus is risen. However, once again, I have not made that claim here. Perhaps more importantly, neither have the gospels made that claim. Indeed, it would be strange to find a biblical argument for the resurrection which begged the reader to believe solely on the basis of the empty tomb. The only reason I brought up the empty tomb in our discussion in the first place is that you have attempted to explain away the resurrection by refuting it—an approach which has struck me thus far as being historically unconvincing.

 

Finally, with respect to your last point, let me say that I have clearly misunderstood your argument. My response presupposed that you were attempting to show that a literary contrast with Pagan mythology would have been meaningful to Jews living in rural Palestine. However, as I have noted in my presentation, no such evidence exists. Returning to Bart Ehrman, the atheist scholar pleads: “Can anyone cite a…source…that…indicates that people in rural Palestine…worshipped a pagan god who died and rose…? You can trust me, if there was a source like that, it would be talked about by everyone interested in early Christianity. It doesn’t exist.” [4] However, you are saying that such a contrast would have been meaningful to a religiously broader audience. Fine. Let’s go with your argument for hypothetical reasons. Assuming that your argument is sound, how would that argument disconfirm the four facts I have mentioned, particularly, the disciples willingness to suffer for the Easter faith? 

 

In closing, our discussion has covered the evidence for the empty tomb as well as the inability of inter-religious borrowing to explain the post-Easter faith. Permit me to ask: If the conversation continues this way, would you be more open to reconsidering your atheism? Again, thanks for your recent interaction, Kamil. I look forward to hearing any additional comments soon.

 

Sincerely,

Ben Fischer <>< 

 

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End Notes:

 

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth (Harper Collins Publishing, New York 2012), 293.

[2]. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth (Harper Collins Publishing, New York 2012), 290.

[3]. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 188-91.

[4]. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument For Jesus of Nazareth (Harper Collins Publishing, New York 2012), 224.

 

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