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Peter Kirby Tomb Assessment

Assessment of the Evidence


As the postmodernists would urge us all to do, I will begin with a confession of my interest in this matter, of biases that operate on levels seen and unseen, from the motivation to make my efforts in writing appear worthwhile to my general disbelief in the Christian religion.

There are three things that prevent these biases from making my assessment a futile effort. The first thing is that I have identified them in order to correct them consciously if possible. The second thing is that it is not necessary to believe in Christianity in order to believe in the historicity of the empty tomb; or, contrarily, that it is not necessary to disbelieve the empty tomb in order to disbelieve Christianity. The third thing is that the reader is permitted to take my assessment with a very large grain of salt. Hopefully, I have been fair enough in the preceding arguments that the reader may come to his or her own informed conclusion.

I follow the method laid down by Benjamin Franklin in coming to a reasonable decision. Franklin recommended that a list of the “pros” be set on one side of a paper, while a list of “cons” be set on the other. I am adapting that method and placing a value from 0 to 5 to represent my opinion of the strength of each argument. The value 0 represents an argument that is totally vacuous, and the value 5 represents an argument that is very powerful, nigh conclusive.

I will make two more notes. In my assessment, the values for the “Arguments Against the Empty Tomb” are relative to the values for the “Arguments For the Empty Tomb” and vice-versa. In other words, when I assign a “3” to an argument on one side and a “3” to an argument on the other, the most important thing that I am stating is that these arguments are equal in weight. So it would be misleading for someone to substitute their own values in one column but leave my values in the other column as something that I would readily agree to. (In other words, please don’t decide to run 0’s down one column and suppose you’ve done something meaningful.) The other thing is that, again, I do not ask anyone to accept this assessment uncritically. In other words, you can play along at home.

I will grant to Craig a probability that the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea implies the discovery of an empty tomb. Thus, my assessment of his evidence will lie in the evidence that supports either the tomb burial in particular or both the burial by Joseph of Arimathea and the discovery of the empty tomb. By converting what is just a probability of the implication of tomb burial to empty tomb into a virtual certainty in my assessment, I am in effect giving Craig a handicap. (Which is only fair since, after all, I’m making up the numbers.) In any case, if an argument is not mentioned, it is because I saw its only intent as establishing an implication from the burial by Joseph of Arimathea to the discovery of the empty tomb.


Arguments Against the Empty Tomb

1 The Silence of Early Christians

3 No Early, Known Interest in the Tomb

1 Testimony of Paul

0 Dependence/Expansion on Mark

1 Parallels to Lion’s Den

0 Pre-Christian Empty Tomb Stories

1 Theme of Discipleship

3 The Ending of Mark in 16:8

0 Anointing Possible on Sabbath

0 Decomposition in Eastern Climate

0 Only Men Prepare Bodies of Men

0 Can’t Buy Cloth on a Holiday

0 Not Enough Time for Burial

1 The Women and the Stone

1 Anachronism of the Round Stone

2 No Second/Late Anointings

2 Crucifiers Wouldn’t Allow Honorable Burial

2 The Enigma of the Pious Jew/Secret Admirer

2 Alternative Burial Traditions

3 Primacy of Galilean Appearances

1 Arimathea = Best Disciple Town

Arguments For the Empty Tomb

0 Paul’s Testimony

0 Part of Pre-Markan Passion Story

2 Relatively Theologically Unadorned Story

1 Story Relatively Nonapologetic

0 Unlikely to Pin False Story on Famous Sanhedrenist

1 Unlikely to Pin Nice Story on Despised Sanhedrenist

0 Details About Tomb Confirmed Archaeologically

0 Incidental Details Dovetail One Another

0 Burial Had to Happen before Sundown

3 Only Women Named As Witnesses in Mark

0 Almost Contradictory Intention of Anointing

1 Present at Crucifixion, Present at Burial

0 Unlikely to Pin False Story on Well-known Women

0 No Traces of Conflicting Burial Traditions

0 Graves of Holy Men Preserved

0 Primitiveness of “The First Day of the Week”

0 The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple

0 Men Would Check Out the Empty Tomb Too

1 Body Would Be Known/Produced by Authorities

1 The Jewish Polemic Presupposes the Empty Tomb

Sum of Points Against the Empty Tomb: 24 Points

Sum of Points For the Empty Tomb: 10 Points

With that done, I will make a few comments that I consider to be more objective, or at least, that I believe both Christians and non-Christians can accept. Indeed, Archbishop Peter Carnley of Perth, Australia reached very similar conclusions in his own assessment of the historical evidence.[124]

There is no conclusive historical argument that will prove or disprove the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus.

There are a few historical considerations, evidence, or argumentation that tend to make the historicity of the empty tomb somewhat more likely. However, these are no stronger than the historical considerations, evidence, or argumentation that tend to make the historicity of the empty tomb less likely.

The balance of the evidence is not “overwhelming” either way. It is historically rational to doubt the statement that the empty tomb story is false, just as it is historically rational to doubt the statement that that the empty tomb story is true.

Since this essay is limited in scope to the assessment of the historical evidence concerning the empty tomb of Jesus, I will not be considering any of the ramifications of these conclusions on the larger debate concerning the resurrection of Jesus or the veracity of Christianity. I will leave those implications to be explored elsewhere.


[124] Carnley, ibid., pp. 60-61: “For, try as we may, and with all the positive good will in the world, we simply do not have sufficient evidence to say for certain whether the tomb is a very primitive story whose kernel is factual, or whether in fact it is a later development, the product of faith, given a particular set of theoretical presuppositions about what might necessarily be involved in resurrection belief. Given the meagreness of the evidence it is difficult to see that the logical shortfall can be overcome by purely rational argument, using only the critical techniques of scientific historiography.”

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