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Rebuttal to Tomb Burial by Joseph of Arimathea

In order to present the arguments for the empty tomb in a fair way and in order to comment on these arguments in full detail, I have chosen to quote and to respond to an essay by Craig in a manner made popular through Usenet and e-mail in which it is poor form to "snip" any words written by the other person. Yet in order to make the discussion comprehensible, I will begin with an outline of the logical structure of Craig's apologetic.

To accept the empty tomb story requires that one accepts both that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and that this tomb was discovered empty three days later. With this in mind, there are two types of argument for the historicity of the empty tomb.

  • A. Evidence for both tomb burial and subsequent discovery
  • B. Two-Step Argument
    1. Evidence for tomb burial
    2. Evidence that tomb burial implies subsequent discovery

Craig makes use of both types of argument. In order to refute these arguments, it is necessary to refute all evidence of type A. Further, it is necessary to refute either B1 or B2, but it is not necessary to refute both. I am willing to grant the existence of good evidence of type B2. However, I believe that the evidence for B1 is not good. In this way, the arguments for the empty tomb can be refuted.

In the essay that will be quoted, William Lane Craig does not provide much evidence of the type B1. For this reason, I will begin by examining the evidence specifically for the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea presented in Craig's book Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 352-256. Craig brings together nine considerations, each of which will be examined in turn.


(a) Paul's testimony provides early evidence for the historicity of Jesus's burial. We saw that in I Cor. 15:4 the pre-Pauline formula received and delivered by the apostle refers in its second line to the fact of Jesus's burial. The four-fold oti, the chronological succession of the events, and particularly the remarkable concordance between the formula and the preaching of Acts 13 and the narrative of the gospels concerning the order of events (death--burial--resurrection--appearances) make it highly probable that the formula's mention of the burial is not meant merely to underscore the death, but refers to the same events related in the gospels, that is, the laying of Jesus in the tomb. If this is so, then it seems very difficult to regard Jesus's burial in the tomb as unhistorical. . .

Craig takes Paul as testimony not only to the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea but also the discovery of the empty tomb by women three days later. The issue of Paul's testimony will be considered in more detail below.

At the present, I will state that Craig seems to fudge between burial and burial in the tomb. Paul's statement is perfectly consonant with a dishonorable burial by enemies. Just as Paul's ambiguous testimony should not be taken to deny the gospel narratives of tomb burial, neither should Paul's ambiguous testimony be taken to affirm the gospel narratives of tomb burial.

Craig seems to think that the narrative in the canonical gospels should be retrojected onto the mind of Paul. Such a procedure is entirely invalid. If Paul doesn't mention or at least imply the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea, Paul does not provide testimony to the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea. If Craig believes that the gospel narratives provide evidence for the empty tomb, that is fine, but Craig should then be considering the testimony of the evangelists instead of the testimony of Paul.

If this is not clear enough, Dan Barker explains the basic fallacy as follows: "Now, if you think he did [believe in the empty tomb], you're committing a historical no-no here. What you are doing is you're committing a kind of 'Back To The Future' kind of historical analysis. You think you know what is in Paul's mind because you know what the later Gospel writers in the 80s and 90s, you think you know what they said. . . so you are imposing that, back in time, on to Paul's mind because you think you know better. Paul was just kind of simple, but you know what he really meant."[92]

Since Craig also believes Paul to provide testimony to the discovery of the empty tomb, this issue will be taken up again below.


(b) The burial story was part of the pre-Markan passion narrative story and is therefore very old. It is universally acknowledged that the burial account is part of the pre-Markan passion story, the narrative of the crucifixion and burial being a continuous unity. This gives good reason to accept the burial as historical, on grounds similar to those listed above. . .

Craig's claim that the burial account is "universally acknowledged" to be part of a pre-Markan passion story is, quite simply, false. Marion L. Soards catalogues thirty-four different reconstructions of a pre-Markan passion narrative. Soards notes that even this list is not complete. But the following persons in this list do not include anything beyond Mark 15:40 in the pre-Markan passion narrative: Bultmann, Czerski, Dibelius, Donahue, Grant, Johnson, Klostermann, Mohn, Peddinghaus, Schneider, and Schreiber.[93]

If we cannot rely on a scholarly consensus, does Craig provide any reasons for believing the burial story to be a part of a pre-Markan passion narrative? The affirmation that the crucifixion and burial narratives are a "continuous unity" is either debatable or question-begging. In a footnote of his essay, Craig argues that the inclusion of 15:40-41 in the passion narrative makes the inclusion of later verses probable. But this argument is irrelevant to reconstructions of the pre-Markan passion narrative that stop before 15:40.

Since Craig also considers the empty tomb narrative to be a part of a pre-Markan passion story, this issue will be taken up again in the body of the refutation.


(c) The story itself is simple and in its basic elements lacks theological reflection or apologetic development. Most scholars would concur with Bultmann's judgment in this regard. According to Bornkamm, "The report of Jesus's burial is kept concise and matter of fact, without any bias [Tendenz]." We appear to have a primitive tradition recounting Joseph's begging the body of Jesus and his laying it, wrapped in linen, in a tomb, a tradition which has not been significantly overlaid with either theology or apologetics. This seems to be confirmation that the story is basically a factual report of what happened.

For this argument to be effective, it would have to be argued that a person around the year 70 would not have told the story of the burial and empty tomb in the manner it is found in Mark, and thus that the "primitive" nature of the story can only be accounted if the story was cribbed from an early pre-Markan passion narrative. However, there is no reason to think that a person at the time of Mark would have invented a different story. Indeed, the reason for an apparent simplicity to the story may be that the story itself came into being recently. This would explain why there is not yet much "theological reflection" on the story or much "apologetic development" in response to objections to the story. Indeed, if the story was one that went back to history, and if the polemic about the stolen body was made early on in Jerusalem (as Craig believes), then it is difficult to understand why the author of Mark would not have any apologetic details in response to such allegations. That apologetic details such as the guard at the tomb were only found later in the Gospel of Matthew may easily indicate that the polemic was recent because the empty tomb story was recent!

This issue will also be addressed in the body of the rebuttal.


(d) The person of Joseph of Arimathea is probably historical. Even the most sceptical scholars, such as Broer and Pesch, agree that it is unlikely that Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, could have been a Christian invention. To this may be added the fact that the gospels' descriptions of Joseph receive unintentional confirmation from incidental details; for example, his being rich from the type and location of the tomb. His being at least a sympathizer of Jesus is not only independently attested by Matthew and John, but seems likely in view of Mark's description of the treatment of Jesus's body as opposed to the body of the thieves.

It is clear to see that we have to divide the argument between evidence that there was a certain Joseph of Arimathea and evidence that this person laid Jesus in his tomb. Craig states, "It is unlikely that the Christian tradition would invent a fictional character and place him on the historical council of the Sanhedrin."[94] This argument provides limited evidence that there was a person named Joseph from Arimathea on the Sanhedrin. But even this evidence is inconclusive if it is allowed that the narrative in the Gospel of Mark was composed over 40 years later, after the destruction of Jerusalem, possibly in a setting of diaspora Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, even if there were a considerable number of Palestinian Jews with strong traditional ties, it is difficult to suppose that their memory would be so strong that they would be able to remember the names of those on the Sanhedrin so as to be able to argue for the exclusion of any fictional name. There were about seventy people on the Sanhedrin, and forty years later most of them would died and been replaced at one point or another, not to mention that most people at the time that Jesus died would have also died, making it nearly inconceivable that the average Jew knew all the names of the Sanhedrin c. 30 well enough to spot a name that doesn't belong. At the very least, the assumption cannot be granted that there were a considerable number of such sagacious people that would pose a threat to gospel writers. Although the analogy is not perfect, the fallacy of the argument may be understood by the comparison of expecting the average American to be able to recall the names of the senators in 1960. Perhaps a few of the most memorable ones stuck in the general consciousness. But I seriously doubt that the author of Mark would have feared that someone would have been able to produce a list of all the Sanhedrin members c. 30 or, generally, would have been able to argue that there never was a Joseph of Arimathea on the Sanhedrin. To argue that Joseph was described as "distinguished" and that this would raise eyebrows is inadequate, for who is to say that any person who is on the Sanhedrin is not a distinguished or influential member? Indeed, a natural reaction would not be to think that there was no Joseph but rather that he perhaps was not so influential as to be remembered forty years later. Besides, a translation in the sense of "prominent" is tendentious when the word can refer to wealth or nobility. However, let it be accepted on this inconclusive evidence that there was a historical Joseph of Arimathea as one of the seventy-one Sanhedrin members. If it can be argued that people may not have remembered the names of all the members, how much more so may people not have remembered the entire life and times of each member! It cannot be simply supposed that the actual activities of a certain Sanhedrin member on a certain day would be common knowledge. Thus, this is not good evidence that Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus in a tomb.

The "incidental details" that Joseph was rich and a secret disciple are most easily understood as the result of later writers reading between the lines of Mark's story. Indeed, a laudatory picture of Joseph is not so much "incidental" as it is the progression of a legend that develops even further in the apocrypha. This is no more evidence for the historicity of the tomb burial than the story in the Acts of Pilate in which the incidental detail is related that the Jews imprisoned Joseph for the crime of burying Jesus.[95]


(e) Joseph's laying the body in his tomb is probably historical. The consistent descriptions of the tomb as an acrosolia or bench tomb and the archaeological discoveries that such tombs were used by notables during Jesus's day makes it likely that Jesus was placed in such a tomb. The incidental details that it was new and belonged to Joseph we have seen to be quite probable, since Joseph could not lay the body of a criminal in just any tomb, especially as this would defile the bodies of any family members also reposing there. The dovetailing of all these incidental details gives the narrative an aura of credibility.

It is no stretch of the imagination to think that legend makers or fiction writers would be aware that there were and are tombs hewn out of rock and that some of these tombs had benches. This does not make these legends or fictions into history. The only thing that might be remarkable would be if the description of the tomb matched the tombs of the early first century but not the tombs of a later period. However, there are no details about the tomb that could not be provided from the author's experience with tombs in his own time. Indeed, when the author could have specified that the stone sealing the tomb was not round and thus demonstrate knowledge of tombs in the Second Temple period, the author does not do so. The bare description of the tomb hardly improves the credibility of the story.

Once again, the idea that the tomb was new and belonged to Joseph are most easily understood as the result of later writers reading between the lines.


(f) Jesus was probably buried late on the day of Preparation. If the foregoing is probable, then the time of Jesus's interment, given what we know from extra-biblical sources about Jewish regulations concerning the handling of executed criminals and burial procedures, must have been Friday before the evening star appeared. The body could not have been allowed to remain on the cross overnight without defiling the land, and since the sabbath was impending the body had to be buried before nightfall. With help, Joseph should have been able to complete a simple burial prior to the breaking of the sabbath, as the gospels describe.

I agree that it is likely that the body of Jesus was given some kind of burial on the day of crucifixion, assuming that Jesus was executed on a Friday near the beginning of Passover. Like the testimony of Paul, this argument can only be used to support the idea that Jesus was buried somewhere. It does not specifically support burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. It only opposes the idea that the body of Jesus was left to hang on the cross. I have already provided consideration of Roman crucifixion practices and Jewish burial customs.


(g) The observation of the burial by women is probably historical. The women are used as witnesses of the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb. Unless they actually were the witnesses, it seems inexplicable why they should be used and not the disciples themselves (see below). Moreover, their roles in the burial and empty tomb traditions seem to be mutually confirmatory. If their role in any one of these events is historical, their role in the others becomes likely as well. For example, if they witnessed the crucifixion, they would probably have remained for the burial, in which case the grave site would have been known, making the fact of the empty tomb likely, as explained above. If they witnessed the burial, they were no doubt present at the crucifixion, since they would not suddenly show up at the entombment. And again, the grave site would have been known, making likely the fact of the empty tomb. Finally, if they discovered the empty tomb, they must have been at the burial so as to know its location. But then they were probably at the crucifixion as well. So, if any of the lists of witnesses seems reliable, the others probably are, too. That the role of the women is historical is made likely by these traditional lists of names, for it is difficult to see how the names of people known in the early Christian fellowship could be associated with such events unless this were in fact the case.

I will answer the argument concerning "mutually confirmatory" traditions first. There are at least two plausible alternatives. The first alternative is that the women historically were not at the crucifixion, the burial, or the discovery of the empty tomb. False traditions are not mutually confirmatory. The second alternative is that the women historically were at the crucifixion but were not present at the burial (and, of course, did not discover the tomb empty). If "enemies" under the approval of Pilate gave Jesus dishonorable burial, it is plausible that the women at the crucifixion did not observe the burial. It is plausible that the women were not permitted to follow and observe where Jesus was buried or that the women were simply too scared to follow and to reveal their allegience to the crucified one. It is interesting to note that the author of Mark states that the women were "looking on from a distance" (Mk 15:40), which could be understood as an indication of fear.

The second alternative would also help to make sense of why the women came to be associated with the burial and discovery of the empty tomb as well. Somebody had to be stated as being present at these events, and if the women were present at the crucifixion, then it is understandable to assume that the women were also present at the burial and subsequent events, as Craig has illustrated. If the empty tomb story came into being in the 60s or 70s after the women had passed away, then it is not difficult at all to see how their names could be associated with the so-called events. There is not sufficient evidence that the women were well-known figures in early Christianity, especially since none of them appear in any first century writings outside of the four gospels.

The argument that the testimony of women was considered worthless is closely tied to the argument that Craig later makes that the women must have been the historical witnesses of the discovery of the empty tomb (as well the burial). I will discuss this argument now, and this discussion extends to the later argument.

There are three ways to answer this argument. These involve rejection of the premises that the male disciples could easily have been used by Mark, that a woman's testimony was worthless to Mark's audience, and that the story about the burial and empty tomb serves as an apologetic with the women as witnesses.

In The Structure of Resurrection Belief, Peter Carnley argues that the male disciples may not have been available to Mark for use in the burial and empty tomb narrative.[96] On this view, the author of Mark was constrained by the strong tradition that the male disciples came to believe in the resurrection solely on the basis of the appearances (which were in Galilee). Thus, while the male disciples could not be used to discover the empty tomb, there may also have been a tradition that women stayed nearby Jesus during the crucifixion. The detail that the women observed the tomb burial goes hand in hand with the detail that the women found the tomb empty. In this explanation, the author of Mark could not use the men to find an empty tomb because they believed in the resurrection on another basis entirely, but the author of Mark could take the women who watched the crucifixion and have them also watch the burial so that they can find the empty tomb. The women were the best that were available in the traditions that the author of Mark reworked.

Farrell Till has pointed out that Mark's audience may be understood as consisting of Hellenistic Jews and converted Gentiles.[97] For this reason, Till believes that the emphasis on the worthlessness of female testimony, which is usually supported on appeal to rabbinic statements, may be misplaced. Till believes that the Mark's Hellenized audience may not have been as unilaterally dismissive of female testimony. To the end of showing that Hellenistic society did not have a simple negative view of women, Till produces several examples of goddesses and heroines revered in Greek culture including Hera, Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite. Moreover, Till argues that the first century Hellenistic Jews who wrote the Sibylline Oracles could not have been Jews who placed no credence in the testimony of women because the sibyls were, after all, female. According to Till, it would be presumptuous to assume that the rabbinic opinion of women applies to the first century Hellenistic Jews in Mark's audience.

I would point out that the assumption behind this argument is that the narrative of the burial and the discovery of the empty tomb has an apologetic purpose in the Gospel of Mark, that it is intended to convince people of the resurrection on the basis of the witnesses, namely the women. Certainly, some critics such as Bultmann have suggested as much. However, it is not necessary to see the story as apologetic or persuasive in purpose. Indeed, I would suggest that ending of Mark at 16:8, in which the women tell nobody, stands against such an interpretation. Regardless of whether we would see the silence as temporary or permanent, this does not accord with the view that the author of Mark is appealing to the testimony of the women. Unless it is demonstrated that the author of Mark is writing with an apologetic purpose to convince or assure people of the resurrection on the basis of the women's testimony, this argument fails. Indeed, this argument stands in tension with the argument made by Craig that the story does not have apologetic intent.


(h) No other burial tradition exists. If the burial of Jesus in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea is legendary, then it is very strange that conflicting traditions nowhere appear, even in Jewish polemic. That no remnant of the true story or even a conflicting false one should remain is hard to explain unless the gospel account is substantially the true account.

I do not agree with Craig's statement that "no remnant of the true story or even a conflicting false one" appears. I have argued for the probability that there were conflicting burial traditions. Moreover, even if Craig would dispute this evidence, the sources presented should be enough to belie the claim that there is no "remnant" of a different tradition. As Raymond Brown states, "With effort all the following are capable of being explained in another way, but their wording favors a burial of Jesus by Jews condemnatory of Jesus rather than his disciples."[98] To state categorically that there is no trace of an alternate tradition and to use this premise for an argument suggests that Craig should show not only that a harmonizing interpretation of these references is possible but also probable or necessary.

Furthermore, I don't believe that it would be too difficult to explain. Suppose that the story of tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea is the invention of the author of Mark. Where should we expect to find the true story or a conflicting one? Because the authors of Matthew and Luke are dependent on the author of Mark, I don't think it is reasonable to suppose that they would correct the story. Even if we would like to see the Gospel of John as literarily independent, the author could have been influenced by liturgical readings or oral traditions that have their source with the Gospel of Mark. It is well worth keeping in mind that the story of tomb burial in the Gospel of Mark is a relatively nice story, and it is not reasonable to assume that it would be contradicted with a story that is worse, such as shameful burial or nonburial. The only kind of source that should be expected to preserve a different tradition is one that is not dependent on the canonical gospels. Yet none of these sources speak of the tomb of Joseph at all.


(i) The graves of Jewish holy men were carefully preserved. During Jesus's time there was an extraordinary interest in the graves of Jewish martyrs and holy men and these were scrupulously cared for and honored. This suggests that the grave of Jesus would have also been noted so that it too might become such a holy site. The disciples had no inkling of any pre-eschatological resurrection, and they would probably therefore not have allowed the burial site of the teacher to go unnoted. This interest makes very plausible the women's lingering to watch the burial and their subsequent intention to anoint Jesus's body with spices and perfumes (Lk. 23:55-56).

The necessary assumption for this argument is that the disciples had some control over the preservation of the gravesite of Jesus. This assumption is not only unproven but, as I have argued, improbable. It is not the disciples but rather those who had Jesus crucified who would have control over the burial of the body. The very fact that the disciples would have been interested in preserving the grave of Jesus is a good reason to think that those who had Jesus executed would not have allowed the burial site of the teacher/leader to be noted. At the least, if such a scenario is plausible, then this argument fails.

Two additional arguments have been made for the historicity of the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea. First, the mention of "Arimathea" tends to confirm the account because the town has no theological significance. Second, a positive story such as Joseph's would not have been attached to a member of the Sanhedrin because it does not fit with the anti-Sanhedrin emphasis in the Gospels.

Concerning the first, there is a plausible significance to the name Arimathea. Richard Carrier speculates, "Is the word a pun on 'best disciple,' ari[stos] mathe[tes]? Matheia means 'disciple town' in Greek; Ari- is a common prefix for superiority."[99] Since commentators have seen the burial by the outsider Joseph of Arimathea as a contrast to the failure of the disciples and intimates of Jesus, the coincidence that Arimathea can be read as "best disciple town" is staggering. Indeed, it is good evidence that Joseph of Arimathea is a fictional character and that the tomb burial story in the Gospel of Mark is also fictional.

Concerning the second, this argument has the assumptions that Mark intends to portray the Sanhedrin negatively, that Joseph is on the Sanhedrin in Mark, that Mark could have easily used another character, and that the story about Joseph does not fit with a negative portrayal of the Sanhedrin. With these assumptions, the argument asks the question, why would the burial of Jesus be attributed to a member of the Sanhedrin? The argument hinges on the premise that the author of Mark included this detail in spite of himself, because it is historical even though he would rather the truth had been otherwise. As such, this is an argument that calls for an alternative explanation of the author's intention and for the origin of the story, one other than historical incident. If this story can be understood in a way that is aligned with the author's motives, then this argument is defeated. Alternatively, it might be accepted that there is a traditional element in the story but rejected that the traditional element includes the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea narrated in Mark.

In The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, Fuller accepts that there is a historical element to the burial story in Mark or at least an earlier tradition that the author of Mark is reshaping. The original tradition may have been that "the burial of Jesus was 'the last act of the crime,' the final insult done to him by his enemies."[100] The original tradition may have been that those responsible for the death of Jesus were also responsible for the burial of Jesus. Thus, the author of Mark may have been embarrassed by this tradition, while at the same time keeping it of necessity, as reflected in that Joseph is a member of the council that decided for the execution of Jesus. But certainly the author of Mark is not embarrassed about the story that Jesus was properly prepared for burial and laid in a rock-hewn tomb. What we may have in Mark is not the invention of the who, as in who performed the burial, but of the how, as in how the burial was done. The earlier tradition may have stated that the burial of Jesus was an ignominious and shameful carried out by the enemies of Jesus. The author of Mark could understandably change this tradition to an honorable tomb burial while retaining the element that someone responsible for the crucifixion carried out the burial of Jesus.

This may not be the whole account, but it does help to explain why the person who buried Jesus in Mark was on the council that condemned him. There are other factors that may have played a part in the shaping narrative. One factor is that the author of Mark may have considered anyone other than someone on the council to be unable to persuade Pilate to hand over the body, given that it was the council's decision that Jesus be crucified and that Pilate was passively in cooperation with them. Another factor is that the author of Mark may have realized that the disciples, who are from Galilee, would not have had a tomb in the vicinity of Jerusalem in which Jesus could be buried that day. Another factor is that the author of Mark may be emphasizing themes such as the failure of the disciples in that a stranger buries Jesus. If these factors are taken along with the theory that Mark was constrained by an earlier tradition of burial by enemies, the story about Joseph of Arimathea becomes nearly a narrative necessity.

Now that the arguments for the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea have been considered, an assessment of the effectiveness of any "two-step argument" for the empty tomb can be made. The arguments in (a), (b), (c), and (g) are parallel to arguments made by Craig for the historicity of the empty tomb story in general, and thus they might be more properly considered part of evidence type A, as evidence for the total story of tomb burial and discovery of the empty tomb. Yet all the arguments have been answered, and the evidence of type B1 has been found to be wanting. For this reason, any subsequent arguments that argue with the tomb burial as a premise are considered to be unsound.


[92] Dan Barker and Michael Horner, "Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/dan_barker/barker_horner.html>, 1996), accessed 14 Dec 00.

[93] Published in Brown, ibid., pp. 1516-1517.

[94] William Lane Craig, The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus during the Deist Controversy (Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1985), p. 674.

[95] The Acts of Pilate, ch. 12: "When the Jews heard that Joseph had asked for the body, they sought for him and the twelve men who said that Jesus was not born of fornication, and for Nicodemus and for many others, who had come forward before Pilate and made known his good works. But they all hid themselves, and only Nicodemus was seen by them, because he was a ruler of the Jews. And Nicodemus said to them: 'How did you enter into the synagogue?' The Jews answered him: 'How did you enter into the synagogue? You are an accomplice of his, and his portion shall be in the world to come." Nicodemus said: 'Amen, amen.' Likewise also Joseph came forth (from his concealment?) and said to them: 'Why are you angry with me, because I asked for the body of Jesus? See, I have placed it in my new tomb, having wrapped it in clean linen, and I rolled a stone before the doore of the cave. And you have not done well with the righteous one, for you did not repent of having crucified him, but also pierced him with a spear.' Then the Jews seized Joseph and commanded him to be secured until the first day of the week."

[96] Carnley, ibid., p. 60.

[97] Farrell Till, "Still Standing on Sinking Sand" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1997/1/1sink97.html>, 1997), accessed 14 Dec 00.

[98] Craig, ibid., pp. 1218-1219.

[99] Richard C. Carrier, private correspondence.

[100] Fuller, ibid., p. 54.