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Jeff Lowder Empty

[Note: the following article was originally published in the Journal of Higher Criticism 8:2 (Fall 2001), pp. 251-93. A substantially revised version of this essay appears as a chapter with the same title in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus, 2005).]



Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story

A Reply to William Lane Craig

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Anyone familiar with apologetic arguments for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus knows that a historical empty tomb is crucial to the entire enterprise. Although countless Christians have defended the historicity of the empty tomb, William Lane Craig is widely regarded as its foremost contemporary defender.[1] Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever directly responded to all of Craig’s specific arguments for the historicity of


[1] See his “The Bodily Resurrection” Gospel Perspectives I (ed. R.T. France and David Wenham, Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 47-74; “The Empty Tomb of Jesus” Gospel Perspectives II: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels (ed. R.T. France and David Wenham, Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1981), pp. 173-200; “The Guard at the Tomb,” New Testament Studies 30 (1984), pp. 273-281; “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): pp. 39-67, available electronically at <URL:http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/tomb2.html>; The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, Texts and Studies in Religion 23 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1985); Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 16 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1989); “On Doubts About the Resurrection” Modern Theology 6 (1989), pp. 53-75; Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (revised ed., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 272-80; “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Grand Rapids, MI: 1995), pp. 147-182; with Robert Greg Cavin, Dead or Alive: A Resurrection Debate (audiocassette, Irvine, California: Integrated Resources, 1995); “John Dominic Crossan on the Resurrection of Jesus” in The Resurrection (ed. Stephen Davis, David Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 249-271; “The Empty Tomb of Jesus” in In Defense of Miracles (ed. Doug Geivett and Gary Habermas, Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1997), pp. 247-261; with John Dominic Crossan, Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (ed. Paul Copan, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998); The Craig-Price Debate: Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? (audiocassette, Ohio State: Ohio State University Veritas Forum, 1999); and with Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? (ed. Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 2000).



the empty tomb story.[2] The purpose of this paper is to provide such a response. While I tentatively agree with Craig that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb–in which Jesus was presumably interred–was empty,[3] I shall argue that none of Craig’s arguments show that the Markan story of the empty tomb is probably historical. For reasons that will become clear shortly, I make a distinction between the empty tomb and the empty tomb story of Mark, the earliest detailed account of the empty tomb. However, I shall not argue for the opposite conclusion, namely, that the story is false. All I shall argue is that even if the story is historical, its historicity is not established on the basis of any of Craig’s arguments as they stand.


[2] This is not to suggest that Craig’s arguments have been completely ignored by his critics. Evan Fales, Keith Parsons, Robert J. Miller, Richard Carrier, and Robert M. Price have directly criticized some of Craig’s arguments for the historicity of tomb. See Evan Fales, “Review of Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas, In Defense of MiraclesPhilosophia Christi, forthcoming; Keith M. Parsons, “Why the Universe Is Not Improbable and the Resurrection of Jesus Is,” forthcoming in a book being reviewed by Oxford University Press and being edited by Stan Wallace; Robert J. Miller, The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics (Santa Rosa, California: Polebridge Press, 1999); and Richard Carrier, “Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/indef/4e.html>, 1999), spotted March 24, 2000; and Robert M. Price, “By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” (<https://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/stinketh. html>, 1997), spotted October 15, 1999. Moreover, some related criticisms may be found in G.A. Wells, The Jesus Myth (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1999); idem, A Resurrection Debate: The New Testament Evidence in Evangelical and in Critical Perspective (London: Rationalist Press Association, 1988); Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (London: SCM, 1994); and Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991).

[3] Though willing to accept the historicity of the empty tomb for the sake of argument, I am nevertheless very uncertain that the tomb really was empty. At present, I regard the odds that the tomb was empty as just slightly better than 50%, since I leave it an open question whether Paul believed in an empty tomb. Critics will sometimes deny that Paul believed the tomb was empty, on the grounds that he believed in a so-called ‘spiritual resurrection.’ However, I think the issue is much more complex than such critics typically acknowledge, and I lack the linguistic and theological expertise to assess that debate. Cf. N.T. Wright, “The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection” in Wright and Marcus J. Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999), pp. 111-127; and Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 104-136. For my estimation of Paul’s knowledge of the empty tomb, see section 1.2.



1. Craig’s Arguments for the Historicity of the Empty Tomb Story

Craig lists “ten lines of evidence” for the empirical claim that “Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Sunday morning by a small group of his women followers.”[4] Before listing his arguments, though, I want to point out that Craig’s claim requires that the relevant parts of the Markan empty tomb story be true. This is because Paul’s account does not mention the women, Craig agrees that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels, and all of the details found in the Markan story are found in the other three accounts.

Craig’s ten lines of evidence for the historicity of the story are as follows: (1) the historical credibility of the burial story supports the empty tomb; (2) Paul’s testimony implies the historicity of the empty tomb; (3) the presence of the empty tomb pericope in the pre-Markan passion story supports its historicity; (4) the use of ‘on the first day of the week’ instead of ‘on the third day’ points to the primitiveness of the tradition; (5) the narrative is theologically unadorned and nonapologetic; (6) the discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable; (7) the investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John is historically probable; (8) it would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty; (9) Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb; and (10) Jesus’ tomb was not venerated as a shrine. As I read him, it appears that Craig appeals to these facts as part of an inference to the best explanation.[5] I shall argue that Craig’s inference is inductively weak.

1.1. Is the Burial Story Historical?

Given Jesus’ crucifixion by the Romans, what happened to Jesus’ corpse after his death? This question is of the utmost importance in assessing the historicity of the empty tomb (and the various explanations for its emptiness), for two reasons. First, in order to say that the tomb became empty, Jesus must have been buried in it. Second, whether Jesus’ followers knew where he was buried depends in part on the type of burial he received (assuming he received one at all). If Jesus’


[4] Craig 1995a, pp. 146, 152.

[5] Craig says that when arguing for the historicity of the resurrection, he makes an inference to the best explanation. Presumably he does so when he argues for the historicity of the empty tomb as well. See Craig 2000, p. 179.



followers did not know the location of the body, Craig’s case for the empty tomb story (and, by extension, his case for the resurrection) is greatly undermined.

So what did happen to Jesus’ corpse? The possibilities are rather limited:

  • Jesus was not buried; his corpse was eaten by birds or dogs.
  • Jesus was buried in a common grave
  • Jesus was buried in a tomb that contained other corpses.
  • Jesus was buried in a tomb alone.

And if Jesus had been buried, reburial is a possibility, too.

Craig argues that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his (Joseph’s) tomb, which later became empty because Jesus rose from the dead. I shall refer to Craig’s position as the “temporary burial hypothesis.” Before I turn to his arguments for that conclusion, I first want to discuss the hypothesis that Jesus was never buried. I join Craig in rejecting that position; I want to focus on the reasons for rejecting the notion that Jesus was never buried. Although I will argue that the intrinsic probability of Jesus being buried at all is low, I will follow Craig in arguing that this intrinsic probability is outweighed by other factors, which make it likely that Jesus was buried. I shall then turn to Craig’s case for the temporary burial hypothesis, where I shall argue the same historical evidence that disconfirms the nonburial hypothesis also confirms a naturalistic hypothesis as the best historical explanation for the empty tomb.

The Nonburial Hypothesis

In defense of the nonburial hypothesis, proponents note that the Romans typically denied burial to victims of crucifixion,[6] a punishment normally reserved for “slaves or those who threatened the existing social order.”[7] As John Dominic Crossan writes, “It was actually nonburial that made being crucified alive one of the three supreme penalties of Roman punishment.”[8] Of course, such a practice was not absolute; independently of Jesus’ burial and the New Testament, there are documented exceptions


[6] For a comprehensive survey of references to Roman crucifixion, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

[7] Gerard Stephen Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 18.

[8] John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 542. Italics in original.



to this practice.[9] And if the Romans were willing to allow an exception in Jesus’ case, then it is likely that Jesus would have been buried, since the Jews would have been motivated to prevent the land from being defiled.[10] Thus, there is historical precedent both for the Romans to allow a crucifixion victim to be buried and for the Jews to bury the corpses of their enemies, though it must be emphasized that burial was the exception rather than the rule for Roman crucifixion victims.

However, there are some important differences between the above scenario and what we know generally about Roman and Jewish burial customs for executed criminals. Although there are documented exceptions to Roman practice, it’s not clear that those exceptions are even relevant to Jesus. The sources from antiquity that document instances of Roman crucifixion victims being buried suggest two scenarios in which a victim of crucifixion might be allowed burial: the approach of a Roman holiday, and a request from a friend of the Roman governor. While it is certainly conceivable that the Romans may have also made an exception for a Jewish festival, there is no evidence (independent of the NT accounts of Jesus’ burial) that they did. Thus, the prior probability that Jesus was given a burial of any sort is low.

Furthermore, Rabbinic law specifies that criminals may not be buried in tombs; rather, it instructs Jews to bury criminals in a common grave.[11] But would the Jews have considered Jesus a criminal? Jesus was, after all, executed by the Romans for the political crime of being the King of the Jews, not for the theological charge of blasphemy. On this basis, David Daube has suggested that the Jews may not have considered Jesus a criminal.[12] And if the Jews believed that Jesus had been crucified for an act that did not violate divine law, then there is historical precedent for


[9] Philo, In Flaccum, 83; Josephus, Life, 420-421; Plutarch, Antonius, 2; Cicero, Orationes Phillippicae 2.7.17-18.

[10] Deut. 21:22-23; Josephus, Jewish War, 4.317; Jn. 19:31.

[11] Tosefta Sanhedrin 9:8; Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5-7. See also the discussion in Thomas Sheehan, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 254-55, n. 10. Available electronically at <https://infidels.org/library/modern/thomas_sheehan/firstcoming/two.html#10>.

[12] David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1956), p. 311.



believing they would have given Jesus an honorable burial.[13] However, this is all moot given that the Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty of blasphemy.[14] Under Jewish law, such a crime was punishable by death by stoning (Num. 24:16). Daube also proposes that one of the references to the Rabbinic law in question is an “anti-Christian hyperbole” invented “to show that Jesus could not have escaped being buried in a public grave.”[15] But even if Daube were right about this, this would only explain away the reference to the Rabbinic law in the later Tosefta (circa CE 300). This would not negate the independent confirmation of the Rabbinic law in the earlier Mishnah (circa CE 200). But it is far from obvious that Christianity is even the context of the passage in the Tosefta. And therefore Daube has not shown that the reference to the Rabbinic law in the Tosefta is an anti-Christian hyperbole. So the prior probability that Jesus was permanently buried alone in a new tomb is even lower still.

Of course, Craig could offer various scenarios for how Jesus could have been buried.[16] Concerning the documented exceptions to Roman practice, perhaps Passover coincided with a Roman holy day. Or maybe the Jewish Sanhedrin bribed Pilate to allow Jesus’ burial. Or Craig could reply that, prior to the Jewish War, the Romans may well have been respectful of local holy days in the provinces. (Consider, for example, Pilate’s removing the legionary standards from Jerusalem out of respect for Jewish religious law.) I, for one, would not be surprised if it turned out that local magistrates treated a local holy day as a high holy day. And if Jesus had been buried by Jews who wanted his corpse interred before nightfall (and the ensuing Passover), they might have been forced to place the body in a nearby tomb,[17] even an unused tomb.

The crucial question is whether the specific evidence for Jesus’ burial is sufficient to overcome its initial improbability. And one’s answer to that question will in turn hinge upon what sort of general presumption, if any, one has about the general reliability of the texts which contain this specific evidence.


[13] See Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 47a-47b and the discussion in Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 1210.

[14] Mk. 14:64.

[15] Daube 1956, p. 311. Daube is referring to Tosefta Sanhedrin 9.8.

[16] Cf. Craig 1997b, p. 250: “We can only speculate about how Joseph managed to obtain Jesus’ corpse from the Roman authorities.”

[17] Cf. John 19:42.



Obviously, if one believes that the relevant texts are generally empirically accurate,[18] one will accept the references to Jesus’ burial in those texts as prima facie evidence for Jesus’ burial. But, given the low prior probability of a buried crucifixion victim, those of us who lack a general presumption for historicity will reject the claim that Jesus was buried until a convincing argument can be made specifically for Jesus’ burial. And if one wants to consider the further, specific question of whether Jesus was buried permanently, alone, and in a tomb, then one will have to similarly assess whether Mark alone is sufficient evidence to overcome the prior improbability of the Markan burial story.

I believe that the specific evidence in Mark for Jesus’ burial in a tomb is sufficient to overcome the intrinsic improbability of a crucifixion victim being buried. Like Craig, I think it is much easier to accept the historicity of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea than it is to explain away the burial story as pure legend. But that is where my agreement with Craig ends. Unlike Craig, I also consider it much easier to suppose that Joseph was merely a pious Jew than it is to suppose that Joseph was a sympathizer of Jesus. But if Joseph’s only motivation for burying Jesus were compliance with Jewish law, surely Joseph would have also complied with the Jewish regulation that criminals must be buried in a common grave. Thus, the same historical precedent that disconfirms the nonburial hypothesis also confirms the reburial hypothesis as the best historical explanation. I shall defend the reburial hypothesis against Craig’s arguments below.

Craig’s Case for the Temporary Burial Hypothesis

Craig argues for the reliability of the Markan story of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. (I deliberately refer to this tradition as “the Markan story” and not “the pre-Markan story” since, as I discuss in section 1.3, I do not assume the existence of a pre-Markan passion story that included an empty tomb tradition.) Craig offers numerous arguments in defense of the Markan burial story, many of which are redundant with his later arguments for the empty tomb and shall be


[18] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (5th ed., Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1960); and Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1987).



discussed later. His arguments and assertions unique to the burial tradition are that: (a) Paul’s testimony provides evidence of burial by Joseph of Arimathea; (b) as a member of the Sanhedrin, it is unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea is a Christian invention; (c) Joseph’s laying the body in his own tomb is probably historical; (d) Jesus was buried late on the Day of Preparation; and (e) no other burial tradition exists, not “even in Jewish polemic.”[19] Given the reliability of the burial story, he argues, “both Jew and Christian alike would have known where the tomb was. But in that case, the tomb must have been empty, when the disciples began to preach that Jesus was risen.”[20] If the tomb were not empty, Craig argues, no one would have believed the resurrection; furthermore, Jewish authorities would have decisively refuted the resurrection by simply pointing to Jesus’ (occupied) tomb.

Yet even if Jesus were buried, that fact would still not bolster the credibility of the empty tomb story. First, one could believe that Jesus was buried and yet justifiably reject the claim that no other corpses were buried in Jesus’ tomb. If Jesus had been buried with others–possibly the two thieves or lestai allegedly crucified with him–then the unambiguous identification of Jesus’ corpse would be problematic, since prior to his resurrection neither his followers nor his enemies were expecting his resurrection. As A.J.M. Wedderburn writes, “Such a fate for Jesus’ body would at any rate also explain how neither the disciples nor the Jewish authorities could subsequently prove anything either way by investigating graves: the relevant one would have held the remains of others, so that it would not be empty; equally, however, the fact that it was not empty would not disprove the Christians’ claims unless Jesus’ remains could be identified.”[21] Second, even if the Markan burial story were reliable, in that Jesus was buried alone, that story would still not increase the likelihood that Jesus’ tomb was empty. As I shall argue below (see 1.8), there is no evidence that the Jewish authorities even cared to refute Christian claims.

But in fact I think there is no good reason to accept the Markan burial story. Concerning (a), as E.L. Bode writes, “‘Buried’ stands in parallel with ‘died’; this confirms the notion that ‘died’ and ‘buried’ are to be taken together. They emphasize the reality


[19] Craig 1995a, pp. 147-49.

[20] Craig 1994, p. 272.

[21] A.J.M. Wedderburn, Beyond Resurrection (Peabody, Massachussetts: Hendrickson, 1999), p. 62.



and apparent finality of Jesus’ death.”[22] If Bode’s interpretation is correct, Paul would not even have to believe that Jesus was buried, much less know it. (I’m not suggesting that Paul actually believed Jesus was left on the cross to rot; I’m merely pointing out that such a scenario is consistent with his statement.[23]) But even if one supposes, as I do, that Paul really did believe Jesus was buried, his statement that Jesus was buried is neutral with respect to all of the specific burial scenarios I listed earlier (e.g., that Jesus was buried in a common grave, that he was buried in a tomb that contained other corpses, etc.) Paul did not even need to know the details of Jesus’ burial in order to assert that Jesus was “buried”; Paul could have declared that Jesus “died” and was “buried” even if Jesus’ corpse had been buried in a common grave or buried in a tomb with other corpses. Moreover, Paul provides no details whatsoever about the burial: he says nothing about Joseph of Arimathea, when the burial happened, the nature or location of the burial site, whether anyone guarded it, or what the Jews had to say or do in the matter. Finally, the very word Paul used for ‘buried’ in the original Greek (‘etaphê‘) is neutral: it is just as compatible with burial in a tomb as it is with burial in a common grave.

As for (b), that Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention, I find Craig’s argument persuasive. But as Crossan writes, the question is not, “‘Did Joseph of Arimathea exist?’ The question is whether Jesus was buried as described in Mark 15:42-47.”[24] One may grant that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus without accepting the Markan claim that Jesus was buried in a favorable manner unusual for criminals (e.g., alone and in an unused tomb, wrapped in linen, etc.). After all, if the Jews were motivated to bury Jesus because of Jewish regulations concerning crucified criminals and because of the upcoming Sabbath, it is probable that they would have been just as eager to bury the two lestai or bandits crucified alongside him. But in that case it is unlikely that Jesus would have been buried alone for any other reason than practical necessity, since it is doubtful that


[22] Edward Lynn Bode, The First Easter Morning AB 45 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), p. 98.

[23] Note that this possibility has nothing to do with a so-called “spiritual” resurrection. If Paul believed that Jesus was never buried, he still could have believed in a fleshly resurrection of Jesus by believing that Jesus’ cross became unoccupied.

[24] Crossan 1998, p. 553.



Joseph was a sympathizer of Jesus. For all we know, Joseph may have formally buried the two thieves in the criminals’ graveyard on Friday and then ran out of time, forcing him to leave Jesus’ body in the tomb until Saturday night. Then again, for all we know, all three bodies have been buried temporarily in Joseph’s tomb. And it is that issue–whether Jesus’ burial place contained any other corpses–which is relevant to the historicity of the Markan burial story and in turn the empty tomb story. This is Wedderburn’s insight: if Jesus was buried with others, then it would have been problematic at best for either side to try to prove something by pointing to Jesus’ burial place, even if they had been so inclined.

Turning to (c), Joseph’s laying the body in his own tomb, this point just might be true. If Joseph was forced to bury three bodies quickly before the Sabbath and if his tomb was nearby, Joseph may well have been forced to bury at least one body in his own tomb as a matter of practical necessity. But whether Joseph would have intended to leave Jesus’ body there permanently is another matter entirely. As Amos Kloner points out, “During the Second Temple period and later, Jews often practiced temporary burial…a borrowed or temporary cave was used for a limited time.”[25] Once the Sabbath had passed, surely Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, would have moved the body out of his own tomb and into a permanent location more suitable for a criminal.[26]

If Joseph reburied Jesus in the criminals’ graveyard, the question arises as to whether the disciples would have known where the body had been permanently buried. Here must we be careful to distinguish a criminals’ graveyard from a mass grave or burial pit. As Raymond Brown points out, “the common burial place provided by the court is not thought of as an indistinguishable common grave or charnel house where corpses


[25] Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archeaology Review 25:5, Sept/Oct 1999, p. 29, available electronically at <URL:http://www.bib-arch.org/barso99/roll1.html>, spotted April 8, 2001. Kloner cites ancient Rabbinical writings: “Whoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave,” for example “Rabban Gamliel had a temporary tomb in Yabneh into which they bring the corpse and lock the door upon it,” just as Joseph does with Jesus (Semahot 13.5, 10.8, translations by Dov Zlotnik, The Tractate “Mourning”, Yale Judaica Series 18 [New York and London, 1966], p. 84, 74).

[26] Cf. Oscar Holtzmann, The Life of Jesus (trans. J.T. Bealby and Maurice A. Canney, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1904), p. 499.



could be confused, for the bones had to be recoverable.”[27] Joseph could have identified the exact location of the body within the criminals’ burial place. But the much more problematic issue is whether the disciples would have known that a reburial had taken place and, if so, where. If Joseph did rebury the bodies, it is likely that he would have done so Saturday night, in which case the reburial would have been unobserved by the disciples. Moreover, I see no reason to believe that Joseph, on his own initiative, would have notified the disciples of the reburial. Thus, for the disciples to know the permanent location of the bodies within the graveyard, they would have had to first suspect a reburial and then ask Joseph the location. Thus, the crucial issue is how the disciples would have reacted upon discovering the empty tomb. Maybe one of the disciples expected a reburial (cf. Jn. 20:2); if so, they could have asked Joseph about the fate of the body. Or perhaps they simply interpreted the empty tomb as the final insult against Jesus by the Jews. Unfortunately, that matter is terribly uncertain. Nothing in our background knowledge suggests that either of these reactions is more likely than the other. But in that case it must remain doubtful that the disciples knew the location of the bodies.

In response to the reburial scenario described above, the only objection Craig offers is that if one accepts the above scenario, “then one seems to be at a loss to explain what happened to the two thieves crucified with Jesus (Mk. 15:27, 32). Why were they not also deposited in the tomb with Jesus?”[28] But this is rather easily answered. Even if Joseph only secured Jesus’ body and no one else came to dispose of the two lestai before nightfall, this does not deny that Jesus’ burial in Joseph’s tomb would have been only temporary. Craig’s objection is a non sequitur. But in fact the lestai were probably buried alongside Jesus. Again, if a Jew were motivated to bury Jesus, that same Jew would have been motivated to bury the two lestai.[29] Given Jesus’ ultimate


[27] Brown 1994, p. 1210.

[28] Craig 1989a, p. 175.

[29] Craig (Ibid.) even suggests that perhaps the two thieves were not buried after all, since “there was nothing in the law that required that the bodies be buried immediately, and the Jews may have been content to leave that to the Romans”! Not only does this contradict what he wrote earlier (Ibid., p. 171) about Jewish regulations concering the handling of executed criminals and burial procedures, but this ad hoc conjecture would also eliminate an avowed Sanhedrist’s motive for burying Jesus as well. I address the issue of whether Joseph was a sympathizer of Jesus below.



(and permanent) dishonorable burial in the criminals’ graveyard, it seems likely that the author of Mark would have been embarrassed by that discomfiting fact. So instead Mark has Joseph permanently bury Jesus in his own tomb.[30] Yet the Markan story is rather unlikely, given Joseph’s membership in the very council that condemned Jesus. Indeed, it is incredible that Craig can expect us to believe that a prominent member of the Sanhedrin would have permanently buried Jesus alone in his own family tomb, and an expensive one at that![31]

However, Craig has a ready answer for this obvious objection. He argues, “it seems possible that Joseph was a disciple or at least a sympathizer of Jesus.”[32] How convenient! But historians should view such a self-serving claim with suspicion. Craig is certainly correct that it is “possible” that Joseph was a sympathizer of Jesus, but the issue is whether it is probable that Joseph would have done the sorts of things Mark says happened. Evidentially, the claim that Jesus was buried favorably by a Sanhedrist sympathizer of Jesus is akin to the claim that, say, Ted Bundy was buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery by one of the very judges who upheld his execution. While I can imagine historical evidence which (if it existed) would make the historicity of Bundy’s honorable burial more probable than not, historians would certainly demand better evidence than a report circulated by one of Bundy’s followers (if there were such a thing) 30-40 years after the event. In a similar manner, the Markan evidence is too weak to overcome its inherent implausibility.

If Joseph was not a sympathizer of Jesus and instead was a pious Jew who buried (and then reburied) Jesus, the question arises as to whether Joseph would have prevented the spread of


[30] And even this may have been too embarrassing to later Christians, as evidenced by Matthew’s and Luke’s revisions to Mark’s basic storyline. For instance, Lk 23:51-52 states that Joseph was a “good and righteous man… who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action,” while Mt. 27:57 claims that Joseph had become “a disciple of Jesus.” Contrary to what Craig (2000, p. 167, n. 9) asserts, it is far from obvious that “Matthew, Luke, and John merely make explicit what is already implicit in Mark.” For all we know antecedently, Mark’s statement (15:43) that Joseph “went boldly to Pilate” may be indicative of the fact that crucifixion victims were rarely buried. Or, as Brown points out, there may be other reasons why it required courage on Joseph’s part to approach Pilate. Cf. Brown 1994, pp. 1217, 1232.

[31] Cf. Craig 1989a, p. 175: “Joseph lays the body in a rock tomb of the most expensive variety, a tomb that was probably his own.”

[32] Craig 1989a, p. 176; cf. Craig 2000, p. 167, n. 9. Italics are mine.



Christianity. Certainly, in the scenario I have described (where Jesus was buried and then reburied), Joseph of Arimathea would have known that Jesus was not resurrected. But, as I argue in 1.8, there is no evidence that Christians began to preach the resurrection until at least seven weeks after the resurrection. And after that length of time, Joseph would not have been able to silence the disciples by simply pointing to the body. The location of the body in a common grave, combined with the advanced state of decomposition, would have made unambiguous identification impossible. Joseph could have produced the body, but the disciples could simply have denied it was Jesus.

Craig’s assertion (d), that Jesus was buried late on the Day of Preparation, is not much of an argument as it stands. Indeed, it begs the question by assuming that Jesus was buried. And although Craig appeals to “what we know from extrabiblical sources about Jewish regulations concerning the handling of executed criminals and burial procedures,”[33] extrabiblical sources also document that the Jews usually buried executed criminals in a common grave.[34] Indeed, Craig himself seems to admit this when he speculates that the two lestai crucified alongside Jesus may have been “taken down and immediately dumped into some common grave.”[35]

Finally, (e) is irrelevant. Even if there were no competing burial tradition, that would not make the Markan tradition probable. Craig’s argument is an argument from silence (concerning the alleged lack of competing burial traditions). Of course, some arguments from silence are inductively correct. But, in this instance, Craig’s argument is at best incomplete. Just because alternative accounts are possible does not mean they are probable;[36] Craig has not shown that the alleged lack of competing burial traditions is unlikely on the hypothesis that some alternative to the Markan tradition is true. Indeed, as I argue in section 1.8, there is no evidence that the Jewish authorities were even interested in the matter.

In sum, then, Craig has not shown that the Markan burial story is probably historical. Of course, if Joseph of Arimathea did


[33] Craig 1995a, p. 148.

[34] Sheehan 1986, pp. 254-55, n. 10.

[35] Craig 1989a, p. 176; see also Craig 1997b, p. 250.

[36] Contrast with Craig 2000, p. 170, who writes, “… in the absence of any check by historical facts, alternative legendary accounts can arise simultaneously and independently” (my emphasis).



move the bodies of Jesus and the two bandits, the tomb would indeed have been empty. Yet, in direct contradiction to the explanation offered in Mark 16:6, the cause of that emptiness would have been that Jesus and the two bandits had been reburied somewhere else. (Paradoxically, then, if one accepts that Jesus was only temporarily buried in Joseph’s tomb, there would have been an empty tomb and yet the Markan empty tomb story would be false.) And since the Markan burial and empty tomb stories say nothing about a reburial by Joseph of Arimathea, they do not provide any evidence that Jesus’ permanent burial place was empty.

This is significant, for two reasons. First, given the alleged failure of naturalistic explanations of the empty tomb, Craig has argued that the empty tomb alone “might cause us to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation.”[37] I agree with Craig that the conspiracy theory, apparent death theory, and the wrong tomb theory are unlikely. But the reburial hypothesis is not equivalent to (or entailed by) any of those theories. The reburial hypothesis is not equivalent to the wrong tomb theory proposed by Kirsopp Lake. On the wrong tomb theory, the women were lost and never went to Joseph’s tomb. In contrast, the reburial hypothesis is consistent with the women going to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Nor is the reburial hypothesis equivalent to the conspiracy or “theft” hypothesis, since reburial by Joseph would not constitute theft and Joseph was not a disciple of Jesus. Thus, Craig’s discussion of naturalistic explanations for the empty tomb is, at best, incomplete.

Second, he routinely appeals to the historicity of the empty tomb along with two other alleged facts as part of an overall inference to the resurrection as the best explanation.[38] Yet if Joseph’s tomb was empty and Jesus lay in some other grave, Craig’s inference is greatly (if not fatally) undermined. Not only is it doubtful whether the disciples would have known where Jesus was buried, but, more importantly, Jesus’ body would have remained in the grave.


[37] Craig 1994, p. 280.

[38] E.g., Craig 1994, pp. 295-298; Craig 1995a, pp. 163-165; Craig 1998, pp. 159-167; Craig 2000, pp. 184-185.



1.2. Did Paul Know that Jesus’ Permanent Burial Place was Empty?

The historical value of 1 Cor. 15:3-8 cannot be overemphasized. Not only is it an account of the resurrection written by someone who claimed to have personally seen an “appearance” of Jesus after his death, but also it is the earliest of all extant resurrection accounts. Both of these points have special importance with respect to the historicity of the empty tomb. If Paul did not believe the tomb was empty, then that would be strong evidence that the story is legendary. If, on the other hand, Paul knew that Jesus’ tomb was empty, then that would be strong evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb. Thus, whether Paul knew, or even believed, there was an empty tomb is a watershed issue for the historicity of the empty tomb.

At first glance, it seems terribly uncertain whether Paul knew of an empty tomb. In stark contrast to the gospels, which depict in some detail women visiting an empty tomb, Paul does not even mention an empty tomb and instead simply says that Jesus “was buried.” Indeed, as we saw in 1.1, Paul is even ambiguous about the nature of Jesus’ burial. Yet the implications of that reference have provoked considerable debate. On the skeptical side, Uta Ranke-Heinemann argues that Paul’s silence about the empty tomb shows that Paul didn’t believe there was one and therefore the story is a legend.[39] On the historicist side, Craig argues that Paul knew there was an empty tomb. To save space, I will comment only on Craig’s argument.

Craig’s argument from Paul’s testimony has two stages. The first stage appeals to various phrases in Paul’s testimony in an attempt to show that Paul believed Jesus’ tomb was empty. However, as Craig recognizes, even if Paul believed that Jesus’ burial place was empty, it does not follow that Paul knew it was empty.[40] Therefore, the second stage of his argument is designed to show that Paul did not just dogmatically believe it was empty, but that he knew it was empty. Again, to save space I will discuss only the second stage.


[39] Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things (trans. Peter Heinegg, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), p. 131. Cf. G.W.H. Lampe, “Easter: A Statement” The Resurrection (ed. William Purcell, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), p. 43.

[40] Craig 1989a, p. 86.



According to Craig, Paul knew Jesus’ burial place was empty from two sources: (a) his conversations with various Christians who knew it was empty, and (b) his own alleged visit to Jesus’ burial place, prior to his conversion.[41]

Regarding (a), unless Paul was a total “recluse” (which I agree seems unlikely), it is quite probable that Paul would have talked with other Christians about the resurrection. As C.H. Dodd wryly noted in an oft-quoted statement, “We may presume that [the disciples] did not spend all their time talking about the weather.”[42] But the crucial issue is whether the disciples knew where Jesus was buried, which, as we saw in section 1.1, is doubtful.

As for (b), note the nature of Craig’s claim: he simply suggests that Paul may have visited the empty tomb before his conversion, not that Paul probably did. Yet even if some Jews had checked Jesus’ burial place, that doesn’t make it probable that Paul would have visited that location himself. The pre-Christian Paul would not have had to personally go to Jesus’ burial place in order to believe his fellow Pharisees who stated that, say, Jesus’ corpse was rotting. Moreover, (b) presupposes that the Jews investigated the Christian claim of an empty tomb prior to Paul’s conversion, but that is unlikely for various reasons (see 1.8), the most important of which is that early Jews probably did not take Christian claims seriously. So even if Paul believed Jesus’ burial place was empty, it is quite unlikely that he knew it was empty.

In summary, Craig has not shown that Paul’s scant account of the resurrection of Jesus is evidence for the empty tomb story.

1.3. Was the Empty Tomb Story part of Mark’s source material?

Craig argues (a) that “the pre-Markan source probably included and may have ended with the discovery of the empty tomb,” which (b) implies that “the empty tomb story is very old.” Citing Rudolph Pesch, Craig states that “at the latest Mark’s source dates from within seven years of Jesus’ crucifixion.”[43]


[41] Craig 1989a, pp. 112-14.

[42] C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (3rd ed., London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967), p. 26.

[43] Craig 1994, p. 275.



Yet even if we assume that there was a pre-Markan passion story,[44] what reason is there to believe (a), that it included the empty tomb story?[45] After all, the pre-Markan passion story, if there was one, was presumably about the passion, not the passion and the burial. Furthermore, according to Brown, “the majority of scholars” believe the Passion Narrative was once independent of the empty tomb story.[46]

As I read him, Craig presents two supporting arguments: (i) the two stories are linked by grammatical and linguistic ties, forming one smooth, continuous narrative; and (ii) the passion story is incomplete without victory at the end.[47] However, I think both of these points are inconclusive. Concerning (i), for all we know, these features could just as well be the product of the late author’s editing. As for (ii), this point can be turned on its head: if the passion story did not include victory at the end, this would have been a motive for embellishing the story. Indeed, if there were doctrinal reasons to assert a physical resurrection (perhaps to combat Gnostic or other heresies),[48] then there would be an obvious motive for creating and adding an empty tomb story to the pre-Markan passion story.

However, just as Craig’s arguments on this point are inconclusive, so are arguments for the opposition conclusion, namely, that the passion story was once independent of the empty tomb story. The main argument for the latter position appeals to the disagreement between the lists in Mk 15:47 and 16:1.[49] Brown, for example, sums up this position well when he writes, “The names might be expected to agree if the narrative


[44] Craig 2000, p. 164. For a critique of the existence of a pre-Markan passion story, see Werner H. Kelber, ed. The Passion in Mark: Studies on Mark 14-16 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976); and Lüdemann 1994, p. 115. For a summary of the state of the question, see Marion L. Soards, “The Question of a Premarcan Passion Narrative” The Death of the Messiah 2 (ed. Raymond E. Brown, New York: Doubleday: 1994), pp. 1492-1524.

[45] See J.B. Green, The Death of Jesus, WUNT 2/33 (Tübingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1988), 311-13; A. Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 117; idem, ‘The Genre of the Passion Narrative’, Studia Theologica, 47/1 (1993), 18-19, all of which are referenced in Paul Rhodes Eddy, “Response” in The Resurrection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 276, n. 8.

[46] Brown 1973, p. 117.

[47] Craig 1989a, pp. 198-199; Craig 1994, p. 274.

[48] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage, 1979), pp. xiii-27.

[49] Cf. Lüdemann 1994, p. 115.



were consecutive.”[50] Yet, as Craig rightly points out, the disagreement between the two lists can also be explained by treating “one list or the other as an editorial addition.”[51]

If there was a pre-Markan passion source but that story did not include the empty tomb story, then there is no reason for dating Mark’s reference to an empty tomb to within seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Since the idea that there was a pre-Markan source and the idea that it contained a visit to an empty tomb are both hopeful speculations, then so is Craig’s attempt to use these hypotheses to backdate the empty tomb story. Since Paul never mentions such a source, nor anything to do with the women or Joseph of Arimathea or tombs or angels, or anything at all to do with the empty tomb, not even the supposedly Jewish polemic against the disappearance of a body mentioned in Matthew (28:11-15), there simply is no ground for back-dating the empty tomb story to a Pauline date.

But suppose there was a pre-Markan passion source that included an account of the discovery of the empty tomb by women. Even on that assumption, we do not know the identity or reliability of those women, so the value of their testimony is likewise uncertain.[52]

As for (b), Craig argues that “the high priest” must have been Caiaphas since the pre-Markan passion story never mentions the name of “the high priest as Caiaphas.” Thus, since Caiaphas was high priest from 18-37 CE, Craig argues the tradition cannot be later than 37 CE.[53] Yet this argument is multiply flawed. First, for all we know, the reason the high priest is not named could be that Mark was written so late that he does not know it, thus making a pre-Markan story less likely. Second, even if we assume the existence of a hypothetical pre-Markan passion narrative, there seems to be no reason for assuming that it did not mention the name of the high priest as Caiaphas. Again, since we don’t


[50] Brown 1973, p. 117.

[51] Craig 1989a, p. 198.

[52] If one accepts the authenticity of Luke 8:2, that verse suggests that Mary Magdalene may have been mentally ill. And if that were the case, then her testimony would not even be prima facie evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb, even if Mary was completely in sound mind at the time of her testimony to the resurrection. But I do not want to place much weight on this point, since the authenticity of Luke 8:2 is questionable and since it is not even clear that Mary Magdalene was in fact one of the female witnesses listed in the pre-Markan passion source (assuming there was one).

[53] Craig 1989a, p. 361.



have the original source, Craig is simply speculating. Third, even if we assume the pre-Markan passion story did not mention the name of the high priest, Craig’s argument is another argument from silence (concerning the name of the high priest). And he makes this argument after scolding New Testament scholars who “too rashly conclude from silence that Paul ‘knows nothing’ of the empty tomb”![54] Again, Craig’s argument is at best incomplete. Craig has not shown that the lack of mention of the high priest’s name is unlikely on the hypothesis that the pre-Markan passion source was written after the high priest’s reign had ended. Indeed, Craig has not even shown that the name of the high priest was important to the story!

1.4. Is the Markan expression, “the first day of the week,” evidence that the empty tomb story is primitive?

Craig’s fourth argument for the historicity of the empty tomb is that Mark’s account (16:2) contains the expression “the first day of the week” to describe the day on which the women discovered the empty tomb. According to Craig, that expression must “be very old and very primitive because it lacks altogether the third day motif prominent in the kerygma, which is itself extremely old, as evident by its appearance in I Cor. 15:4.”[55] Furthermore, although the expression

is very awkward in the Greek, when translated back into Aramaic it is perfectly smooth and normal. This suggests that the empty tomb tradition reaches all the way back to the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves.[56]

Thus, Craig insists, the empty tomb tradition is too early to be legendary.

However, I do not think Craig has been able to show that the empty tomb story is early. Although Craig is correct that the kerygma uses the third day motif, the kerygma uses that motif in reference to the resurrection, not the empty tomb. Furthermore, the gospels also employ the third day motif when referring to the resurrection itself (Mk 9:31; Mt 16:21, 20:19; Lk 9:22). In contrast, Mark and the other gospels use the expression, “the first


[54] Craig 1989a, p. 86.

[55] Craig 1989a, p. 363.

[56] Craig 1994, p. 275.



day of the week,” to refer to the day the women the visited the tomb (Mk 16:2, Mt 28:1, Lk 24:1, Jn 20:1). As Peter Kirby writes, “The introduction of this new phrase may very well parallel the introduction of the new idea that women visited an empty tomb.”[57] Moreover, Kirby notes, the phrase may be an “implicit explanation” for why the women visited the tomb when they did: namely, that they had rested on the Sabbath. Such an explanation is made explicit in Lk. 23:56. Finally, Kirby points out that Mk. 16:9, which is universally regarded as a later addition to the text, employs the first day motif. Thus, contrary to what Craig asserts, it seems that legendary material could avoid “being cast in the prominent, ancient, and accepted third day motif.”[58]

Furthermore, the expression “the first day of the week” is not too awkward in Greek to be original with Mark. What Craig forgets to mention here is that this is the exact same language spoken by Paul and by numerous Christian converts throughout the first century, thus it does not make probable an origin with the first disciples. Moreover, Craig’s contention that “on the first day of the week” is “very awkward in the Greek” is not relevant–it is a Hebraic form commonly used by Greek-speaking Jews in Hellenistic times. It was not awkward to them. Indeed, the exact same phrase appears in Acts 20:7 (tê miai tôn sabbatôn, “on the first day of the week”), and a similar expression in a bit of advice Paul gives to his congregation in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:2, kata mian sabbatou, “every first of the week”). Thus, Craig has simply given no reason to believe that “on the first day of the week” is more probable on the hypothesis of a historical empty tomb than on the hypothesis that the story is legendary.

So why did Mark refer to the “the first day of the week”? Given that the structure of Mark’s narrative sequence is based on what day of the week it is, it seems to me that Mark used the expression simply to complete the sequence of his narrative. Mark was probably just following up on his account of the burial, which implies that the women were unable to prepare the body before the Sabbath, the last day of the week.[59] This is confirmed by the wording found in the late addition to Mark (16:9) which repeats the first day motif, not the third day motif which Craig says is typical of late additions.


[57] “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus” (<URL:http://home.earthlink.net/~kirby/xtianity/tomb/rebuttal2.html>, 2001).

[58] Craig 1989a, p. 363.

[59] Mark 15:42-47; cf. 16:1.



In sum, then, Craig has not shown that “the first day of the week” is evidence for the primitiveness of the empty tomb story. Evangelical Stephen T. Davis, who accepts the conclusions of Craig’s fourth argument, nonetheless is forced to admit that he does “not wish to place great emphasis on this point; it is, after all, hard to prove that such expressions could not or would not have been used in, say, a late first-century Diaspora text.”[60]

1.5. The Story Is Simple and Lacks Legendary Development

Fifth, Craig argues that the Markan account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development. He compares the Markan account to two accounts widely recognized as legendary, the Gospel of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah. Whereas the latter “are colored by theological and other developments,” he argues, the Markan account “is a simple, straightforward report of what happened.”[61] Thus, Craig concludes, it is unlikely that the empty tomb story is legendary.

Craig is certainly correct that the Markan account of the empty tomb story is relatively simple, especially when compared to accounts like the Gospel of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah. But this hardly makes it likely that the Markan empty tomb story is true. On the contrary, it seems to me that there are good reasons to reject Craig’s a priori assumptions about what an empty tomb story would have included if it were legendary. First, even on the assumption that the empty tomb story is legendary, the story would still be older than the Gospel of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah. We would expect the Markan story to contain less fantastic elements than second century legends. Second, and most importantly, the Markan empty tomb narrative is solely an empty tomb narrative. Not only is the resurrection itself not described, but Mark lacks post-resurrection appearances. In contrast, the Gospel of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah are complete accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, including a description of the resurrection itself, an empty tomb narrative, and an appearance narrative. And most of the “theological and other developments” in the latter documents are found precisely within the sections that the Markan account of the resurrection lacks. Most of the motifs listed by Craig as legendary–including a


[60] Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), p. 71.

[61] Craig 1995a, p. 151.



description of the resurrection itself, reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, quotation of fulfilled prophecy, or a description of the risen Jesus–are not found within the empty tomb stories of the Gospel of Peter or the Ascension of Isaiah.[62] In other words, while the resurrection stories in both the Gospel of Peter and the Ascension of Isaiah are “theologically adorned,” the empty tomb stories in both accounts do not appear to be significantly more theologically adorned than that of the Gospel of Mark. Thus, on the assumption that the empty tomb story was legendary, we would not expect it to contain most of the motifs listed by Craig. The only motif listed by Craig that is even found within the empty tomb narrative of either second-century document is the Gospel of Peter’s use of the christological title, “Lord.” And it would be a weak argument from silence indeed to say that the Markan empty tomb story is probably historical on the basis that Jesus is not described there using christological titles. While the story certainly could have included a christological title, it is far from obvious that, on the assumption that the story if legendary, the author would have inserted one. Indeed, in a passage declaring Jesus’ resurrection, the author may have regarded Jesus’ Lordship as too obvious to mention. Moreover, given that the rest of Mark’s gospel is relatively sparse, the lack of christological titles may simply be typical of the writer’s style.

Does the Markan empty tomb story contain any legendary elements? It is sometimes suggested that the reference to the “young man” is legendary. Given that the story has the women learning of the empty tomb from the “young man,” his role is clearly integral to the story.[63] In Bode’s words, the young man’s proclamation “explains and provides the heavenly meaning of the empty tomb.”[64] So if the “young man” is legendary, that would be a significant legendary development in the story.

But is the “young man” legendary? About the only reason ever given for believing so is that this “young man” is actually an angel, and the appearance of an angel with a divine message is legendary. Let’s consider this argument in detail. Although Mark never explicitly identifies this young man as an angel, many commentators, apparently including Craig, nevertheless identify


[62] Cf. Craig 2000, p. 174.

[63] Cf. Craig 2000, p. 174: “There is no reason to think that the [Markan empty tomb] tradition ever lacked the angel.”

[64] Bode 1970, p. 28. Italics are mine.



this “young man” as an angel.[65] I shall assume, then, that that identification is correct. The crucial issue is whether the angelic appearance is historical. And while historians who are deciding that issue will have to take into account their own beliefs about the existence of angels,[66] other factors must be involved as well. Clearly, if angels do not exist, then the Markan story of the angelic appearance at the tomb cannot be historical. But even if angels exist, that does not entail that the story is historical. That would simply make it possible for the story to be historical. The historian would still need to consider the story according to its individual merits. But this entails that a historian may accept the existence of angels and yet deny the historicity of Mark’s angelic appearance on historical grounds, not philosophical or theological ones.

One such historian is E.L. Bode, on whom Craig relies heavily in his writings on the resurrection. As a Roman Catholic, Bode believes in the reality of angels and therefore has no axe to grind against the supernatural. But for historical reasons, Bode regards the Markan story of the angelic appearance as a legendary embellishment:

Rather our position is that the angel appearance does not belong to the historical nucleus of the tomb tradition. This omission does not call into question the existence of angelic beings. This stance is taken for two reasons: (1) the kerygmatic and redactional nature of the angel’s message and (2) the omission gives a better insight into the tomb tradition and its development.[67]

Bode’s second point is especially interesting given his belief that the empty tomb story is rooted in an ancient, historical tradition. Nevertheless, he argues, the angel cannot belong to the historical nucleus of the Markan empty tomb story, since that would be “opposed to the silence of the women in Mark,” among other things.[68] In response to Bode, Craig objects that “the


[65] Craig 1989b, p. 59; cf. Craig 1989a, pp. 222-25. For a defense of identifying Mark’s “young man” as an angel, see Bode 1970, p. 27.

[66] Cf. Eleonore Stump, “Visits to the Sepulcher and Biblical Exegesis”, Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989), p. 377, n. 19.

[67] Bode 1970, p. 166.

[68] Bode 1970, p. 167. Bode also objects that the angelic appearance is opposed to the rejection of the angel’s message by Luke, and the tradition that the apostles were commissioned directly by the Lord.



women’s silence was not permanent or we should have not any story at all.” I shall have more to say about the permanence of the women’s silence below, but for now I simply want to note that, ironically, Craig’s objection simply substitutes one legendary embellishment for another. Craig may defend the historicity of the angel by denying the historicity of the women’s silence if he wishes, but he cannot maintain that the Markan story is free from legendary development. And if we say that the women’s silence is legendary, then that would be a significant embellishment to the story, for reasons I discuss below. I agree with Bode that the angel is a typical literary motif used to introduce a desired divine message.[69] But that entails the Markan story of the empty tomb contains at least one major legendary embellishment.

1.6. The Discovery of the Tomb by Women

Craig’s sixth argument for the historicity of the empty tomb is that the story has women discovering the empty tomb. He writes, “Given the relatively low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses,” the discovery of the empty tomb by women would have been highly embarrassing to the Christian church.[70] Thus, if the empty tomb story were a legend invented by the church, we would expect the story to have men, not women, discover the tomb. Therefore, the discovery of the empty tomb by women is much more probable given a historical empty tomb than a legendary one.

The discovery of the empty tomb by women is perfectly compatible with reburial by Joseph of Arimathea; moreover, there is nothing about the women’s discovery that makes such a reburial unlikely. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Craig’s argument from the role of the women in the story, against the hypothesis that the empty tomb is a legend, is overstated. Having women discover the empty tomb may have been somewhat embarrassing to the church, but, if so, that would have been for reasons that had nothing to do with their qualification to serve as legal


[69] Ibid.

[70] Craig 1995a, p. 151.



witnesses, since the women are not portrayed as legal witnesses in the story.[71] Besides, women were qualified to serve as legal witnesses if no male witnesses were available. Even no less an Evangelical than J.P. Moreland rejects Craig’s absolutism, when he writes, “A woman was not allowed to give testimony in a court of law except on rare occasions.”[72] Evangelical scholar John Wenham quotes the Rev. R.T. Beckwith as follows:

Siphre Deuteronomy 190 is the oldest work which disqualifies women from acting as witnesses, and it does so on the rather curious grounds that witnesses are referred to in the Old Testament in the masculine. However, the rabbinical lists of persons disqualified to give testimony do not normally include women, and it is clear from three passages in the Mishnah (Yebamoth 16:7; Ketuboth 2:5; Eduyoth 3:6) that women were allowed to give evidence on matters within their knowledge if there was no male witness available. Applying this to the resurrection appearances, it would mean that Mary Magdalene was on rabbinical principles entitled to give witness to an appearance of Christ which was made only to her or to her and other women.[73]

Thus it is no surprise that we find Josephus citing women as his only witnesses of what happened inside Masada or at the battle at Gamala.[74] And, according to Pliny the Younger’s famous letter to the emperor Trajan, women Deacons were the highest-ranking church representatives he could find to interrogate.[75] That women could serve as witnesses is even documented in the Gospels: according to John 4:39, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Finally, note that there is no evidence of any anti-Christian polemic that criticizes the church for having women serve as the first witnesses.


[71] If women could not serve as legal witnesses and yet they were supposed to serve as legal witnesses in the various accounts of the empty tomb, then why would the disciples be portrayed (in Luke and John) as taking their claim seriously enough to warrant an investigation?

[72] J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), p. 168. Italics are mine.

[73] John Wenham, Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict? (Second ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), pp. 150-51, n. 26.

[74] See Jewish War, 7.389 and 4.81, respectively.

[75] Pliny the Younger, Epistles, X.96.



Nevertheless, for all we know, the church may have already been in an embarrassing situation: namely, why there was no detailed story to the empty tomb prior to Mark. As I have argued, Craig has not been able to show that Paul knew of an empty tomb. Thus, Mark contains the earliest known story of the empty tomb. Furthermore, Craig admits that “Mark 16:8 represents the original conclusion to that gospel.”[76] Thus, since Mark ended his gospel at verse 8 with the women running away and telling “no one” what they had seen–in direct contrast to Matthew and Luke who allege that the women told others–this could easily be interpreted as an attempt on Mark’s part to present a plausible reason why “no one” had heard his tale of the empty tomb until some time had passed. The women were so afraid that they didn’t tell anyone what they had seen; hence, that would be why the early tradition didn’t develop. Note that there is no mention of the women in our earliest source concerning the resurrection, 1 Corinthians.

Against the claim that the Markan story of the empty tomb is legendary, Craig objects that the silence of the women was temporary.[77] He appeals to two considerations: (i) “The silence of the women was surely meant just to be temporary, otherwise the account itself could not be part of the pre-Markan passion story;”[78] and (ii) it is difficult to believe that the women would have kept silent for 30 years, whereas “the motif of fear and silence in the face of the divine is a typical Markan motif.”[79] But (i) begs the question against the possibility that the empty tomb story is legendary. Craig can conclude that the silence was not permanent only by assuming that the story is historical. If the empty tomb story were legendary, the author could simply make the account be part of the passion story even if the silence were not temporary. Indeed, one is reminded of Matthew’s story of the guard at the tomb, which relates supposedly private conversations among Jews that no Christian could have known about. Just as there is no evidence that anyone ever questioned Matthew about his knowledge of those conversations, for all we know no one may have ever scrutinized Mark’s claim that the women were silent.


[76] Craig 1989a, p. xvii.

[77] Craig 1989a, pp. 229-30.

[78] Craig 1989a, pp. 229-30. Italics are mine.

[79] Craig 2000, p. 175.



Similarly with regard to (ii), Craig seems to assume that it would have been impossible for the women to keep silent about what they knew, but this just fails to take the legend hypothesis seriously. If the Markan story were a legend, there would have been literally nothing for the women to keep silent about. Furthermore, on the assumption that the story is a Markan creation, we would expect Mark to use fear and silence as the explanation for the mystery his gospel relates precisely because that was a typical Markan motif.[80] Hence, both objections carry very little weight.

1.7. The Investigation of the Empty Tomb by Peter and John

I believe that Craig’s seventh argument, that Peter and John investigated the empty tomb, is rendered moot by my discussion in both 1.1 and 1.6. If there is no reason to believe Jesus’ followers knew where the body was permanently buried, there is also no reason to believe the disciples visited the final burial place. Likewise, if there is no reason to believe the story of the women discovering the empty tomb is historical, then there is no reason to believe that there would have been a “women’s story” for Peter and John to “check out.” But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the women did discover the empty tomb and reported that discovery to the other disciples. Craig argues that the investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John is historical because it is attested in tradition (Lk. 24:12, 24; John 20:3); the story of Peter’s denial (Mark 14:66-72) makes it likely that Peter would want to check out the women’s story; and it is attested by John himself.[81] According to Craig, this last point shows that the testimony of John “has therefore the same first hand character as Paul’s and ought to be accorded equal weight.”[82]


[80] Craig 2000, p. 175; Bode 1970, pp. 37-39.

[81] Craig 1989a, p. 368. On the identification of the Beloved Disciple as John the son of Zebedee, Howard Clark Kee remarks that “there is no evidence that this [identification] is accurate.” Furthermore, one need not postulate the reminiscences of an eyewitness in order to explain the origin of the tradition. Gerd Lüdemann points out that the tradition can also be explained as having been authored by “either Luke himself or–more probably–one of the traditions which he used.” See Howard Clark Kee, The Cambridge Annotated Study Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 81; and Lüdemann 1994, p. 139.

[82] Ibid.



At the outset, note that talk of an “investigation of the empty tomb by Peter and John” begs the question by presupposing the historicity of the empty tomb. I presume, then, that what Craig meant to say is the following: “the investigation of Jesus’ tomb by Peter and John is historically reliable.” I would therefore like to discuss four related issues.

First, are the relevant verses authentic? Recall that Craig appeals to three verses–two Lukan, one Johannine–in order to show that Peter and John visited Jesus’ burial place. Whereas the Johannine verse (20:3) lists both John and Peter, the two Lukan verses (24:12, 24) do not mention John. And although one of the Lukan verses (v. 12) explicitly refers to Peter, that verse is absent from some Western manuscripts. Given this textual variation, some scholars have argued that v. 12 is not Lukan and is instead an interpolation (or a ‘Western non-interpolation’ in the terminology of Westcott and Hort).[83] And if v. 12 is set aside as an interpolation, then the remaining, authentic text of Luke would no longer contain an unambiguous reference to a visit by the disciples, since v. 24 does not mention Peter and Cleopas isn’t one of the disciples.[84] In other words, the only authentic, clear-cut story of Peter’s and John’s visit to Jesus’ burial place would be found in the latest canonical gospel, John.[85] Yet even if that were the case, the Johannine story cannot be dismissed out of hand simply because it appears only in John. As Eleonore Stump points out, “the tradition may be ancient even if the witnesses are late.”[86]


[83] E.g., Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 212-217; Robert Mahoney, Two Disciples at the Tomb (Bern, 1974), pp. 41-69; Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (New York: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 969, 1000; and H. von Campenhausen, Der Ablauf der Osterereignisse und das leere Grab (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1958), p. 35, n. 139 (referenced in Fuller 1971, p. 103).

[84] Cf. Brown 1970, p. 1000 who writes, “for the original composer of ch. xxiv did not know that the ‘some of those who were with us’ included Simon Peter.”

[85] Again, cf. Brown, who argues that Lk. 24:24 “constitutes an independent witness to the story of a visit to the empty tomb by the disciples.”

[86] Stump 1989, p. 367. Ironically, if one accepts Craig’s view that the Johannine story represents an early tradition, then I think the story would actually support my argument in 1.1 that Jesus had been reburied elsewhere. According to John 20:2, the women told the disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” But I don’t use this as evidence for my position on Jesus’ burial because I reject Craig’s view that the Johannine story is an early tradition.



However, the above discussion assumes that Lk. 24:12 is an interpolation, a position which is controversial to say the least.[87] I won’t attempt to assess that debate here, since I lack the relevant expertise. Instead, I shall assume that the verse is authentic.

Second, why is the story of the visit not reported in Mark and Matthew? Remember that Craig believes that women in the first century were not legally qualified to serve as eyewitnesses under Jewish law. If Craig were right about this, then I believe that would render the historicity of the disciples’ visit to the tomb very unlikely. If (male) disciples did decide to verify the women’s story, then why do two of the earliest gospels mention only the discovery by women? Why isn’t the alleged visit of the disciples to the tomb mentioned in all of the gospels? Craig may continue to argue that women were not legally qualified to serve as eyewitnesses or that the disciples’ visit to the tomb is historical, but he cannot plausibly maintain both positions. Suppose, then, that Craig abandoned his position that women were not legally qualified to serve as eyewitnesses.[88] Even so, one might still wonder why the story was omitted from Mark and Matthew if it were historical. I find it somewhat odd to believe that if this particular story were historical, it would be missing from two of the earliest gospels. However, I want to emphasize that I am not arguing that the story is unhistorical because it is missing from Matthew and Mark. Indeed, I am willing to concede the historicity of such a visit in


[87] For recent defenses or affirmations of the verse’s authenticity by liberal scholars, see Lüdemann 1994, p. 139; Gregory J. Riley, Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 81, n. 40; Barnabas Lindars, “The Resurrection and the Empty Tomb” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (ed. Paul Avis, London: Darton, Longmann, and Todd, 1993), p. 134, n. 1.

[88] Incidentally, critics of the story of the disciples’ visit to the tomb need not assume the story was invented to “shore up the [allegedly] weak witness of the women” (Craig 1989a, p. 246). Although the disciples initially thought the women’s story was “an idle tale” (Lk. 24:11), what was “idle” about their story was not the fact that women were telling it. Rather, what was “idle” was their report (Jn. 20:2) that Jesus’ body had been removed. (“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”) Lüdemann points out that the origin of the tradition can be explained as a harmonization of the Markan empty tomb story with a tradition of the first appearance to Peter (cf. Luke 24:34). As Lüdemann explains, “The author’s idea could then have been that if the women reported that the tomb was empty and if Jesus appeared to Cephas, he must himself have been convinced of the empty tomb and therefore must have gone there.” See Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 37. Cf. Lüdemann 1994, p. 139; Carnley 1987, p. 19; Fuller 1971, p. 103.



part because I think the evidential value of women’s testimony was greater in the first century than Craig supposes.

Third, did the disciples actually enter the tomb, as depicted in Jn. 20:6-8, or did they simply peer into the tomb, as stated in Luke? It is doubtful that the disciples actually entered the tomb, as depicted in John 20:6-8, since that would have been a crime under Roman law, subject to harsh penalties. We know that the disciples would have been subject to Roman law because Judea was under Roman authority. And under Roman law, entering the tomb of someone else without permission would have been an act of sacrilege, an extremely serious crime.[89] The punishment for such a crime was severe, ranging from “deportation to an island” to execution.[90] It is unlikely that the disciples would have risked such severe consequences, especially if one believes, as Craig does,[91] the gospel reports that they were all hiding in fear after the crucifixion. (While it seems reasonable to believe that the disciples would not have been afraid of the consequences once they had come to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, the story portrays the disciples as entering the tomb before they came to believe Jesus was resurrected.) Thus, it is antecedently very improbable that the disciples would have entered Jesus’ tomb. It is much more likely that the disciples simply peered into the tomb, as reported in Luke.

Fourth, when did the disciples visit the tomb? As E.L. Bode notes, the story of the disciples’ investigation of the tomb presupposes “the report of the women, which according to Mark does not seem to have taken place at least for some time.”[92] Remember that Craig believes the women’s silence (reported in Mark) was only temporary, though he never says just how long they remained silent. Yet even if Craig were right that the women eventually broke their silence, surely the author of Mark meant to convey that the women were silent for a longer period of time than it took them to return from the tomb to the disciples. But that would undermine the credibility of the story of the disciples’ visit to the tomb. About the only way to maintain the historicity of the


[89] Gaius, Institutes 2.2-10; Marcian, Institutes 14. For a detailed discussion of Roman law and disturbing graves, see Richard Carrier, “The Nazareth Inscription” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/nazarethlaw.html>, ©2000), spotted November 21, 2000.

[90] Ulpian, Duties of the Proconsul (7; D. 48.13.7).

[91] Craig 1989a, p. 244.

[92] Bode 1970, p. 171.



disciples’ visit, it seems, is to regard the silence of the women as a wholesale fabrication, created by Mark to suit his redactional purposes.[93] But this would contradict Craig’s argument that the Markan empty tomb story “is a simple, straightforward report of what happened.” So, again, it seems that Craig has some decisions to make. He can either continue to insist that the Markan empty tomb story is an unembellished, historical account (and thereby accept the historicity of the women’s silence) or he can retain the historicity of the disciples’ visit to the tomb (and admit that the Markan empty tomb story is not a “straightforward report of what happened”).

None of the above four considerations provide any evidence against the historicity of the disciples’ visit to the tomb, nor are they intended to do so. But the reburial hypothesis is perfectly consistent with such a visit, since the reburial hypothesis presupposes an empty tomb.

1.8. Could first-century non-Christians preach the Resurrection in Jerusalem if Jesus lay in the grave?

Eighth, Craig argues that the location of the original resurrection claim is itself evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb story. The fact that the original proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection took place in Jerusalem–“the very city where [Jesus] was executed and buried”–is highly significant because hostile eyewitnesses would have had easy access to any disconfirming evidence, if such evidence existed.[94] Craig explains thusly:

If the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection were false, all the Jewish authorities would have had to do to nip the Christian heresy in the bud would have been to point to his tomb or exhume the corpse of Jesus and parade it through the streets of the city for all to see. Had the tomb not been empty, then it would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem as they did.[95]

Craig takes this to be evidence for the historicity of the empty of tomb.

However, I think this argument is multiply flawed.


[93] So Bode 1970, p. 172.

[94] Craig 1995a, p. 152.

[95] Craig 1994, pp. 276-277.



First, to claim that the enemies of Christianity did not produce Jesus’ body, therefore the body was missing (and presumably resurrected), presupposes an interest in Christianity which first-century non-Christians may not have had. Because of Christianity’s status in the twentieth century as a world religion, it is easy to forget that Christianity in the first century was not the center of attention in religious matters. Robert L. Wilken, a Christian historian, points out that “For almost a century Christianity went unnoticed by most men and women in the Roman Empire. … [Non-Christians saw] the Christian community as a tiny, peculiar, antisocial, irreligious sect, drawing its adherents from the lower strata of society.”[96] First-century Romans had about as much interest in refuting Christian claims as twentieth century skeptics had in refuting the misguided claims of the Heaven’s Gate cult: they simply didn’t care to refute it. As for the Jews, Jewish sources do not even mention the Resurrection, much less attempt to refute it.[97] As Martin writes, “This hardly suggests that Jewish leaders were actively engaged in attempting to refute the Resurrection story but failing in their efforts.”[98] Of course it is possible that the Jews wanted to keep the Resurrection story quiet precisely because they couldn’t refute it, but in order for Craig’s argument to have any force, he has the burden of proof to show that that mere possibility is probably what happened. Craig has shown nothing of the sort.[99]


[96] Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), p. xiv.

[97] The text of Josephus’ Antiquities (18.3.3 § 63-64) might seem to contain an authentic reference to Jesus’ resurrection, but there are clear signs of Christian tampering with the text. Moreover, even the New Testament does not claim that the Jews ever bothered to check the tomb.

[98] Martin 1991, p. 91.

[99] Indeed, one cannot help but notice a parallel between first-century Jews’ interest in refuting the Resurrection and contemporary New Testament scholars’ interest in refuting apologetic arguments for the empty tomb. In the course of writing this paper, I contacted for peer review several New Testament scholars who reject the empty tomb story. Few felt apologetic arguments were worth serious consideration. One prominent critic thought it was a “waste of time” to provide a detailed response to Craig. Another exegete criticized me for taking apologists like Craig “too seriously!” One cannot help but wonder if first-century Jews held a similar view. Cf. Craig Blomberg’s complaint that liberal scholars have ignored theological studies by evangelicals. According to Blomberg, “In fact, the wealth of detailed, nuanced evangelical scholarship that writers of Crossan’s bent simply ignore altogether is astonishing.” See Blomberg, “The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith: Harmony or Conflict?” Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? (ed. Paul Copan, Grand Rapids: Michigan, Baker, 1998), p. 111.



Second, even if a non-Christian had been motivated to produce the body, it could not have been identified by the time Christians began to publicly proclaim the resurrection. According to Acts 2, Christians did not begin to publicly proclaim the resurrection until seven weeks after Jesus’ death. And by that time the body would have been far too decomposed to be identified without modern forensics, as evidenced by John’s statement (11:39) that Lazarus had already started to decompose after just four days. It was precisely for this reason that bodies were wrapped in linen, perfumed, and buried quickly. According to Gerald Bostock, after seven weeks, “the corpse would not have been easily demonstrated to be the body of Jesus. The time-lag would have made the production of the body a futile exercise, even if its production could have proved anything of significance.”[100] I confirmed Bostock’s objection by contacting John Nernoff III, a retired pathologist, and asked him about the decomposition of a body at 65 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Nernoff, a face will become nearly unrecognizable after several days at 65 degrees Fahrenheit.[101] Of course, for all we know, the temperature inside Jesus’ tomb may have been much colder than 65 degrees Fahrenheit. As Craig points out, “Jerusalem, being 700 meters above sea level, can be quite cool in April.”[102] Unfortunately, given the lack of meteorological records from the time, one can only speculate on what the temperature would have been inside Jesus’ tomb. But even if it were cold inside the tomb, Jesus’ corpse still would have been unrecognizable after seven weeks of decomposition. Again, I contacted Nernoff, but this time I asked him to suppose that the average temperature was 45 degrees Fahrenheit.[103] Nernoff stated that even that temperature could not entirely prevent decomposition of the body; molds and some bacteria grow at that temperature. Furthermore, additional changes in appearance would be caused by dessication (drying), rigor and its relaxation, and settling of blood in the dependent


[100] Gerald Bostock, “Do We Need an Empty Tomb?” The Expository Times, 105 (1994), p. 204.

[101] John Nernoff III to Jeffery Jay Lowder, October 1999.

[102] Craig 1989a, p. 204.

[103] I asked Craig in private correspondence (May 1, 2000) what he thought the average temperature was inside Jesus’ tomb after his death, but he did not provide a temperature in his reply (June 27, 2000). Instead, he simply reiterated the altitude of Jerusalem and the fact that caves can be cold even in the summer. True, but the issue is whether the temperature in a cave at the time would have been cool enough to keep the body recognizable.



tissues.[104] So even if we assume that Jesus’ corpse had been kept cool, seven weeks is still plenty of time for the corpse to become decomposed and disfigured. Indeed, in the Jewish Midrash, we find a passage stating that the facial features of a corpse become disfigured in three days:

Bar Kappara taught: Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons [the body].[105]

Given this disfigurement, the Midrash is emphatic that the identity of a corpse can only be confirmed within three days of death. Consider the pronouncement of one Midrash:

You cannot testify to [the identity of a corpse] save by the facial features together with the nose, even if there are marks of identification in his body and garments: again, you can testify only within three days [of death].[106]

But suppose a member of the Sanhedrin attempted to identify Jesus’ corpse anyway. In private correspondence, Craig stated that Jesus’ corpse would have had “identifying marks on it that would make its identity obvious.”[107] Although Craig did not list the identifying marks, presumably he has in mind the telltale remnants of Jesus’ crucifixion: nails (or holes where the nails had been), unbroken legs, etc. I think this argument would be a plausible one if Jesus had not been reburied. However, if the reburial hypothesis is true, none of Jesus’ followers would have witnessed the reburial. They would not have known the exact location of Jesus’ corpse within the criminals’ graveyard. Thus, even if Joseph had unearthed Jesus’ body, the disciples would not know that it was Jesus’ body.

Third, suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Jews took the resurrection seriously, violated the tomb, removed the body, and paraded the rotting corpse of Jesus “through the streets of the city for all to see.” It is doubtful that such disconfirming


[104] John Nernoff III to Jeffery Jay Lowder, November 7, 2000.

[105] Midrash Rabbah Genesis C:7 (994).

[106] Midrash Rabbah Genesis LXV:20 (595). See also Midrash Rabbah Genesis LXXIII:5 (669-670), Midrash Rabbah Leviticus XVIII:1 (225-226), and Midrash Rabbah Leviticus XXXIII:5.

[107] William Lane Craig to Jeffery Jay Lowder, June 27, 2000.



evidence would have “nipped the Christian heresy in the bud.” For all we know, the early Christians would have denied that the body was Jesus, or they would have found some way to explain it away, perhaps by modifying their doctrines directly. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Craig himself is a paradigm example of a Christian whose faith in the resurrection is impervious to disconfirming historical evidence. Elsewhere, Craig writes, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.”[108] It is unclear why first-century Christians could not have engaged in a similar rationalization had, say, the Jews produced Jesus’ corpse.

Therefore, in light of the above considerations, the fact that the disciples preached the Resurrection in Jerusalem does not make it probable that the tomb was empty.

1.9. Does Jewish propaganda provide independent confirmation of the empty tomb story?

Craig’s ninth argument for the historicity of the empty tomb is that Jewish polemic (in Matthew 28:15) presupposes the empty tomb. Craig writes, “Jewish opponents of Christianity … charged that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.”[109] However, that Jewish explanation presupposes the historicity of the empty tomb. Although the Jews could have denied the historicity of the empty tomb, they instead chose to explain it away. Thus, Craig argues, Jewish polemic provides independent confirmation of the “highest quality” for the empty tomb story “since it comes not from the Christians but from the very enemies of the early Christian faith.”[110]

However, the historicity of the Jewish polemic should not be assumed. For all we know, the Jewish polemic may be a literary device designed to answer obvious doubts that would occur to


[108] Craig 1994, p. 36. Commenting on Craig’s position, Wedderburn 1999, p. 252 n. 29 writes, “Such absolutist claims for the Spirit seem to me to be dangerous in the extreme. How can one be so sure that it is the Spirit that convinces one of this truth (rather than, say, one’s own preferences or wishful thinking)?” For a detailed critique of Craig’s epistemology, see Michael Martin, “Craig’s Holy Spirit Epistemology” (<URL:https://infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/holy_spirit.html>, 1998), spotted October 23, 1999.

[109] Craig 1995a, p. 152.

[110] Craig 1994, p. 277.



converts. Or, supposing that there is some sort of historical basis to the polemic, it may be that the polemic originated with a non-Jew and then later on Matthew attributed the polemic to the Jews. Given that the polemic is not recorded in any contemporary Jewish documents, we can’t assume that Jews actually responded to the proclamation of the Resurrection with the accusation that the disciples stole the body.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, the Jewish polemic is historical. In that case, is there any reason to think the Jews actually accepted the Christian claim of the empty tomb? Craig assumes that the Jews would have accepted the empty tomb story only after verifying it for themselves. But this assumption is multiply flawed.

First, there is no evidence that Jewish knowledge of the empty tomb presupposed by the polemic was based upon direct, first-hand evidence of an empty tomb. This is especially problematic because the date of the Jewish polemic is uncertain. For all we know, the polemic may not be earlier than 70 CE when the first known story of the empty tomb, Mark, was written.[111] By 70, Jerusalem had been sacked and the body had decomposed, so no one could really “check the tomb.” Carnley presses this point well:

there would have been no alternative for Jewish polemicists than to concede the possibility of the bare fact of the grave’s emptiness and then go on to point out that, in any event, the emptiness of the grave, even if it could be demonstrated, would not prove anything more than that the body had been stolen or deliberately removed by the followers of Jesus themselves.[112]

As Davis admits, if the empty tomb story was not invented until during or after the Jewish war, “[b]y that time the location of the tomb could have been forgotten and verification would have been difficult.”[113]


[111] Though inconclusive, it is also worth noting that the absence of the polemic in the Markan account is consistent with the polemic originating after Mark.

[112] Peter Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 56.

[113] Davis 1993, p. 74.



In direct response to this objection, Craig counters that there is a “tradition history” behind Matthew’s story of the guard at the tomb,[114] which he reconstructs as follows:

Christian: ‘The Lord is risen!’

Jew: ‘No, his disciples stole away his body.’

Christian: ‘The guard at the tomb would have prevented any such theft.’

Jew: ‘No, his disciples stole away his body while the guard slept.’

Christian: ‘The chief priests bribed the guard to say this.'[115]

But Craig assumes without argument that the Jewish polemic arose directly in response to the initial Christian proclamation of the resurrection, rather than in response to the later story of the empty tomb. And the issue is when the Jews knew the story of the empty tomb. For all we know, the Jewish polemic did not arise until after the first detailed story of the empty tomb. So the date of the Jewish polemic is still uncertain and therefore the polemic does not increase the likelihood of the empty tomb story.

Second, Jewish polemic was just that — polemic. Polemical rumors need neither a basis in historical fact nor even sincere belief among those who spread them. Although the Jews were hostile to the theological claims of Christianity, they would not have been hostile to the empirical claim of an empty tomb (even if the former were based on the latter). The Jews were only interested in denying that God performed the miracle; as believers in the supernatural, they were not interested in denying the historicity of the miracle. An analogy should make this point clear. The claim that first-century Jews accepted the empty tomb story is akin to the claim that Romans and Jews “presupposed” that Joseph was not Jesus’ father because Mary had conceived Jesus with a Roman soldier named Panthera. Just as no scholar uses Celsus and the Talmud as evidence for the claim, “Joseph didn’t father Jesus,” there is no reason to believe that Jews actually believed their polemic. The Jewish polemic is clearly a response to whatever Christians said at the time, a tit-for-tat counter to the Christian claim of an empty tomb. Thus, the Jewish polemic should be understood as a hypothetical response to the empty tomb story: “Even if we assume for the sake of


[114] Craig 1997b, p. 258.

[115] Craig 1989a, p. 207.



argument that Jesus’ tomb was empty, how do we know the disciples didn’t steal the body?”

In the absence of evidence that the Jewish polemic was based upon an independent knowledge of the alleged empty tomb, the polemic cannot count as independent confirmation of the empty tomb story, even if it is hostile.

1.10. Jesus tomb’ was not venerated as a shrine

Finally, Craig argues the absence of veneration for Jesus’ burial place is evidence that the tomb was empty. Although the graves of prophets and holy men were typically venerated as a shrine, there is no evidence that this happened with Jesus’ burial place. If Jesus was resurrected from the dead, there would have been no reason for the disciples to have venerated Jesus’ tomb as a shrine. Thus, Craig argues, the reason that Jesus’ burial place was not venerated is that it was empty.[116]

But is it really probable that Jesus’ burial place was not venerated as a shrine? I, for one, am undecided; I have yet to find a good argument for that conclusion in any of the secondary literature on the Resurrection. Turning to Craig’s argument on the matter, Craig is once again arguing from silence. From the premise that we have no evidence of veneration, Craig moves to the conclusion that there was no veneration. Now, even if Jesus’ burial place had been venerated before the sack of Jerusalem in 70, it is far from obvious that we would have evidence of that today. And Craig provides no reason to believe that we would have such evidence. So Craig’s argument for the absence of veneration is at best incomplete. However, I do not want to rest my rejection of Craig’s argument on that point alone, as many critics accept Craig’s assumption.[117] Therefore, in the rest of this section, I shall assume that Jesus’ burial place was not venerated. Instead, I want to focus on Craig’s claim that the reason for this lack of veneration is that Jesus’ grave was empty.

We would expect a lack of veneration if Jesus’ followers did not know the location of Jesus’ permanent burial place.[118] In contrast, even if the empty tomb story were true, early Christians


[116] Craig 1995a, p. 152.

[117] E.g., Wedderburn 1999, pp. 63-65; Lüdemann 1994, p. 45; and Carnley 1987, p. 58.

[118] Wedderburn 1999, p. 64; Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (London: SCM, 1994), p. 208, n. 207; Carnley 1987, p. 58; Küng, p. 371.



would still have a reason to venerate the site, namely, that the grave was the alleged location of the Resurrection itself. As Wedderburn asks, “Was that not in itself reason enough to note and remember and cherish the site, regardless of whether it contained Jesus’ remains or not”?[119] Let’s divide Christians into two groups, the ‘earliest’ Christians and ‘later’ Christians.[120] The earliest Christians are those who had known Jesus before his death and who thought they had “seen” Jesus risen from the dead. ‘Later’ Christians, on the other hand, had not known Jesus before his death and had not “seen” him risen from the dead. It seems to me that even the earliest disciples would have venerated the site as a shrine, once Jesus was no longer physically present. But even if none of the earliest Christians had venerated the tomb as a shrine, later Christians would have done so, as demonstrated by veneration of the Holy Sepulchre Church, centuries after the Jewish War.[121] Moreover, since everyone that Paul converted would have been a ‘later’ Christian, that puts an interest in veneration to within three years’ of Jesus’ death. And it seems far-fetched indeed to suppose that the earliest disciples, who were busy running the church and proclaiming the resurrection, would have policed the tomb in order to effectively stifle veneration.

Thus, Craig has not shown that the lack of veneration of Jesus’ grave is more probable on the assumption that the empty tomb story is historical than on the assumption that Jesus was (ultimately) buried in a common grave. Greg Herrick, an Evangelical who generally accepts Craig’s arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb story, admits, “Personally, I do not find this thesis probable. It is at best a corroboratory argument for the empty tomb.”[122]


[119] Wedderburn 1999, p. 64.

[120] I owe this distinction to Robert Greg Cavin, in private correspondence about his forthcoming book Double Cross: A Logical Approach to the Mystery of Easter (co-authored with Carlos A. Colombetti).

[121] John M. G. Barclay, “The Resurrection in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship” Resurrection Reconsidered (ed. Gavin D’Costa, Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), p. 23.

[122] Greg Herrick, “The Historical Veracity of the Resurrection Narratives” (<URL:http://www.bible.org/docs/theology/christ/hisjesus.htm>), spotted March 8, 2000.



2. Conclusion

When taken individually, then, none of Craig’s ten lines of evidence show that the empty tomb story is probably historical. But perhaps Craig’s ten lines of evidence could be used to construct a cumulative case for the historicity of the story. Craig himself makes it quite clear that he does not (now?) use such an approach in arguing for the resurrection (or, presumably, for the empty tomb story alone); instead, he says, he relies on inference to the best explanation.[123] And according to Craig, “It is no part of inference to the best explanation that the hypothesis is rendered probable by the cumulative weight of considerations, which, taken individually, do not make the hypothesis probable.”[124] Nevertheless, it would be useful to consider whether such an approach to the historicity of the story would fare any better than Craig’s.

On a cumulative case approach, an apologist might admit that none of Craig’s ten lines of evidence makes the historicity of the story more probable than not. Yet that same apologist could consistently argue that collectively his ten lines of evidence do show the story is probably historical. But in that case, the cumulative case apologist must actually show Craig’s various lines of evidence taken together yield a higher probability for the story than when his arguments are taken in isolation.

Furthermore, in Swinburne’s terminology, it’s far from clear that such a cumulative case would constitute a correct P-inductive argument.[125] In other words, it is unclear why such a cumulative case would yield a probability greater than 0.5. As Craig writes, “[U]nless the Christian apologist is able to make his individual probabilities high enough, there is the real danger that they may sum to less than 0.5,”[126] in which case the claim at hand (in this case the historicity of the story) would probably be false.


[123] Contrast with Craig 1989a, p. 373: “Taken together these ten considerations seem to furnish good evidence that the tomb of Jesus was actually found empty …” (italics are mine).

[124] William Lane Craig, “A Classical Apologist’s Response” in Five Views on Apologetics (ed. Steven B. Cowan, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 179.

[125] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Rev. ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 15-19.

[126] Craig 2000b, p. 179.



But if Craig does not rely on a cumulative case approach to defend historical claims, how does he determine the best historical explanation? He employs the criteria delineated by C. Behan McCullagh in his book, Justifying Historical Descriptions.[127] By way of summary, then, I would like to compare Craig’s hypothesis (which I will call the ‘temporary burial’ hypothesis) with my own (which I shall call the permanent or ‘reburial’ hypothesis) using McCullagh’s criteria.[128]

1. Implication of other observation statements. Both hypotheses explain the empty tomb as it was reported in the New Testament. However, the two hypotheses are logically inconsistent. The temporary burial hypothesis is that Jesus’ body was no longer buried, which the women learned from an angelic proclamation. On the temporary burial hypothesis, the Markan empty tomb story is basically reliable. In contrast, the reburial hypothesis is that Joseph of Arimathea reburied Jesus (along with the two lestai) in a criminals’ graveyard very shortly after Passover. According to the reburial hypothesis, the Markan empty tomb story is a legend. Both of these hypotheses cannot be true, and perhaps neither is.

2. Explanatory scope. Each hypothesis explains additional facts besides the report that the tomb was empty. The temporary burial hypothesis explains the prominence of women in the story, the preaching of the resurrection in Jerusalem, Jewish polemic, and the lack of veneration of Jesus’ tomb as a shrine. But the reburial hypothesis also explains these facts. Moreover, the reburial hypothesis explains other facts as well: why a Sanhedrist buried a criminal in his own family tomb; the ultimate disposition of the corpses of the lestai; etc. The reburial hypothesis therefore has greater explanatory scope.


[127] C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 19.

[128] Whether McCullagh’s criteria are the best way to assess competing historical explanations is unclear and well beyond the scope of the paper. Cavin has pointed out to me a number of difficulties with McCullagh’s criteria (and Craig’s application of that criteria). Nevertheless, since Craig has adopted McCullagh’s methodology I thought it would be instructive to do so in this paper as well. If McCullagh’s methodology ultimately turns out to be flawed, then so much the worse for Craig’s historical apologetics. In my discussion of the reburial and temporary burial hypotheses, I used McCullagh’s discussion of the death of William II as a guide. See McCullagh 1984, pp. 21-25.



3. Explanatory power. Both hypotheses confer probability upon the facts they do explain quite strongly. If Jesus had been quickly buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea in order to beat the Sabbath, then it is quite probable that detailed Christian reports of the burial would have said so. And if the body was moved after the Sabbath to a criminal’s graveyard, then the other details of the burial, which I discuss in 1.1, were quite probable. Thus, both hypotheses are equal with respect to explanatory power.

4. Plausibility. Given our background knowledge, it is unlikely that a criminal would have been permanently buried in the family grave of a Sanhedrist. This makes the temporary burial hypothesis implausible and the reburial hypothesis plausible.

5. Ad hocness. The temporary burial hypothesis requires numerous new suppositions: that a member of the Sanhedrin would be a sympathizer of Jesus, that the Jews would be motivated to bury one executed criminal (Jesus) but not others (the two lestai), that a prominent member of the Sanhedrin would not permanently bury a criminal like Jesus in the criminals’ graveyard, etc. In contrast, the reburial hypothesis requires none of these dubious assumptions.

6. Disconfirmation. None of the specific evidence disconfirms the temporary burial hypothesis. And although it might seem that the explanation provided in Mark 16:6 is incompatible with the reburial hypothesis, the reburial hypothesis can explain the Markan story of the empty tomb. If Jesus had been reburied, permanently and dishonorably, in the criminals’ graveyard, this would have been embarrassing to early Christians. The author of Mark would want to deny that such a thing had happened to Jesus.

7. Relative superiority. The reburial hypothesis is clearly superior to the temporary burial hypothesis according to the other criteria. It is plausible; has much greater explanatory scope; it is not ad hoc; and it is not disconfirmed by accepted beliefs. However, the reburial hypothesis does not so far exceed its rivals that there is little chance of a rival hypotheses exceeding it in meeting these conditions. It would not take much specific counter-evidence–such as a first-century Jewish text specifying that criminals like Jesus and the two lestai did not have to be buried in the criminals’ graveyard, combined with an account by



Joseph of Arimathea himself stating he was a sympathizer of Jesus–to make the temporary burial hypothesis more acceptable than the reburial hypothesis. But this entails that, according to McCullagh’s methodology, we should suspend judgment on the reburial hypothesis since we lack direct evidence for it.[129]

In short, there are strong, historical grounds for rejecting Craig’s arguments for the empty tomb story. And this would be the case even if there exists a God capable of raising Jesus from the dead.[130] In the absence of inductively correct arguments for or against the historicity of the empty tomb story, I suggest that the historian qua historian should be agnostic about the matter.[131]


[129] McCullagh 1984, p. 25.

[130] Paul Draper, “Craig’s Case for God’s Existence,” forthcoming.

[131] I am grateful to William Lane Craig, who engaged in private correspondence with me on numerous occasions to discuss various points in my paper. I am indebted to Richard Carrier, who graciously spent an enormous amount of time reviewing multiple drafts of this essay and who served as my tutor on Greek and ancient historiography. I am appreciative to Editor Robert M. Price for advice on the paper as a whole. Finally, in alphabetical order, I have benefitted greatly from the insightful, critical comments of Ed Babinski, Steve Baughman, Craig Blomberg, Steven Carr, Robert Greg Cavin, John Clark, John Dominic Crossan, Earl Doherty, Evan Fales, Michael Goulder, Shandon Guthrie, Steve Hays, James Keller, Peter Kirby, Doug Krueger, Jesse Kushin, Gerd Lüdemann, A.J. Mattill, Jr., Paul Pardi, Keith Parsons, Bob Sarver, Thomas Sheehan, Todd B. Vick, Mark Vuletic, and G.A. Wells.

“Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig” is copyright © 2001 by Jeffery Jay Lowder. All rights reserved.

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