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Peter Kirby Tomb Improbabilities

Improbabilities in Mark

I will start with those objections to the plausibility of the story that have little merit and proceed to those that are more serious. As always, I am not declaring any of these to be insuperable, but I do think that some provide a degree of evidence against the story.

It is sometimes said that the anointing of the body could have been performed by the women on the sabbath, and thus that they would not have needed to wait until Sunday. Craig writes in his essay: “It is true that anointing could be done on the Sabbath, but this was only for a person lying on the death bed in his home, not for a body already wrapped and entombed in a sealed grave outside the city. Blinzler points out that, odd as it may seem, it would have been against the Jewish law even to carry the aromata to the grave site, for this was ‘work’ (Jer 17. 21-22; Shabbath 8. 1)!” To which it may be added that the women may not have known the intracacies of rabbinic laws concerning the sabbath.

It is sometimes said that decomposition would have already begun in the Eastern climate. Craig writes in his essay: “Actually, Jerusalem, being 700 metres above sea level, can be quite cool in April; interesting is the entirely incidental detail mentioned by John that at night in Jerusalem at that time it was cold, so much so that the servants and officers of the Jews had made a fire and were standing around it wanning themselves (Jn 18. 18). Add to this the facts that the body, interred Friday evening, had been in the tomb only a night, a day, and a night when the women came to anoint it early Sunday morning, that a rock-hewn tomb in a cliff side would stay naturally cool, and that the body may have already been packed around with aromatic spices, and one can see that the intention to anoint the body cannot in any way be ruled out.” Although the details mentioned in the gospels may not be correct, I don’t believe that the weather on a particular weekend nearly 2000 years ago can be divined.

It is sometimes said that women would not have been permitted to anoint the body of Jesus in Jewish society or that only men prepare the bodies of men. While it may be true that it was more common that men would prepare the bodies of other men for burial, there is no evidence that women would be prohibited from doing so, and indeed there exists a statement in a minor tractate of the Talmud to the contrary.[49]

It is sometimes said that the shroud could not be purchased on a holiday. Currently, I have no idea whether or not any business was done in Jerusalem on a holiday, so I can’t evaluate this argument. It is also sometimes said that the burial could not be completed before sundown. This consideration tends to imply that Joseph of Arimathea must have gone to a bit of trouble or included his servants in the project, but this does not directly imply that the story is false.

Somewhat more troublesome is the statement that the women observed the tomb being covered by a stone yet that they seem to realize that nobody would be there to move the stone only while on the way there. Craig states in his essay, “This same devotion could have induced them to go together to open the tomb, despite the stone. (That Mark only mentions the stone here does not mean they had not thought of it before; it serves a literary purpose here to prepare for v. 4). The opening of tombs to allow late visitors to view the body or to check against apparent death was Jewish practice, so the women’s intention was not extraordinary.” Craig does not succeed in emptying this objection of all force. Certainly, nobody would state that tombs were never opened for visitors. Yet in allowing the likelihood that the women would have thought about the opening of the tomb before, Craig does not address the problem, if they had thought of this, why did they go to the tomb alone? It would seem more likely that they would have inquired at the house of Joseph for permission or assistance, or at least that they would have brought someone who would be able to help, rather than acting like the fools that Mark depicts them as. This tends to lower the likelihood of the story.

Richard Carrier describes what is most likely an anachronism in the story:


There is another reason to doubt the tomb burial that has come to my attention since I first wrote this review: the tomb blocking stone is treated as round in the Gospels, but that would not have been the case in the time of Jesus, yet it was often the case after 70 C.E., just when the gospels were being written. Amos Kloner, in “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sep/Oct 1999, pp. 23-29, 76), discusses the archaeological evidence of Jewish tomb burial practices in antiquity. He observes that “more than 98 percent of the Jewish tombs from this period, called the Second Temple period (c. first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), were closed with square blocking stones” (p. 23), and only four round stones are known prior to the Jewish War, all of them blocking entrances to elaborate tomb complexes of the extremely rich (such as the tomb complex of Herod the Great and his ancestors and descendants). However, “the Second Temple period…ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In later periods the situation changed, and round blocking stones became much more common” (p. 25).

Why is this significant? Three of the four Gospels repeatedly and consistently use the word “roll” to describe the moving of the tomb’s blocking stone (“rolled to” proskulisaV, Matthew 27:60; “rolled away” apekulisen, Matthew 28:2; “rolled to” prosekulisen, Mark 15:46; “roll away” apokulisei Mark 16:3; “rolled away” apokekulistai Mark 16:4; “rolled away” apokekulismenon Luke 24:2). The verb in every case here is a form of kuliein, which always means to roll: kuliein is the root of kulindros, i.e. cylinder (in antiquity a “rolling stone” or a even child’s marble). For example, the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9:20 “rolls around” on the ground (ekulieto, middle form meaning “roll oneself,” hence “wallow”). These are the only uses of any form of this verb in the New Testament.

Kloner argues that the verb could just mean “moved” and not rolled but he presents no examples of such a use for this verb, and I have not been able to find any myself, in or outside the Bible, and such a meaning is not presented in any lexicon. His argument is based solely on the fact that it “couldn’t” have meant rolled because the stone couldn’t have been round in the 30’s C.E. But he misses the more persuasive point: if the verb can only mean round, then the Gospel authors were not thinking of a tomb in the 30’s C.E. but of one in the later part of the century. If the tomb description is flawed, this would also put Mark as being written after 70 C.E., and would support the distinct possibility that the entire tomb story is a fiction. However, even with this, there could still be a core truth about a tomb burial, with the details being added out of the imaginations of the authors or their sources, as often happened when even reliable historians described scenes in such vivid detail (there was a kind of acceptable license when painting scenes this way, provided the historian did not contradict any known facts or propose the implausible).[50]

This is correct; the author may have retrojected his experience with tombs in his own day back onto the Second Temple period, and this does not necessitate that the story is entirely a fiction. Yet it does still support this contention to a degree. It also stands in opposition to two claims made by Craig, that archaeology confirms the description of the tomb and that the empty tomb account found in Mark was part of a passion narrative written in the 30s.

Concerning the statement that the women “brought spices” on Sunday morning after observing the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, Hendrickx states that, “the embalming of a body was apparently not in accordance with contemporary custom, since there is not a single example available.”[51] If what the women were understood to be doing was not embalming, what was it? There was no such thing as a second anointing. The body was washed and anointed before the body was placed in the tomb or grave. Not only is this Jewish custom for burial, but it is also common sense that a body would be cleansed of sweat or blood before being wrapped in the cloth (usually white). Again, there is no example available for people going to a corpse after it was buried, removing the shroud, and anointing the corpse for a second time (since it would have been already washed/anointed before). This would make absolutely no sense; it would not occur to anyone, especially not in a Jewish culture, to anoint the body after it had been buried properly (and Craig does agree that there is no indication of improper burial). Craig states in his essay, “what the women were probably doing is precisely that described in the Mishnah, namely the use of aromatic oils and perfumes that could be rubbed on or simply poured over the body.” However, this obscures the fact that this was done prior to burial. Hans van Campenhausen writes, “The desire to anoint, ‘on the third day’, a dead body already buried and wrapped in linen cloths, is, however it be explained, not in accordance with any custom known to us…”[52] It comes as little surprise then that Matthew and John, who are usually thought to have more knowledge of things Jewish, do not state that the women came to anoint the body on Sunday morning.




[49] Dov Zlotnick, The tractate “Mourning” (Semahot) (Regulations relating to death, burial, and mourning). Translated from the Hebrew, with introd. and notes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 82 (XII, 10). “A man may shroud and gird the corpse of a man, but not that of a woman. A woman may shroud and gird the corpse of a man or of a woman. A man may attend another man suffering from intestinal illness, but not a woman. A woman may attend a man or a woman suffering from intestinal illness.”

[50] Richard C. 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), accessed 14 Dec 00. See also the article by Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” (<URL:http://www.bib- arch.org/barso99/barso99roll1.html>, 1999), accessed 14 Dec 00.

[51] Hendrickx, ibid., p. 44.

[52] Van Campenhausen, ibid., p. 58.

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