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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Problems with the Shallow Grave Hypothesis

The resurrection of Jesus is the central claim of Christianity. The entire faith hangs upon this one event being historically true. That's one reason why so many skeptics have placed the resurrection in their crosshairs; they actually agree with the Apostle Paul in holding "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless" (1 Cor. 15:17).

Of course, with every challenge to the resurrection of Jesus, there have been responses. One that seems to crop up time and again is that Jesus' body did not rise, but was simply thrown into the shallow grave of a paupers' field and was subsequently devoured by wild animals. Then, as his disciples sought to preach his resurrection, there was no body to prove them wrong.

John Dominic Crossan popularized this explanation. In his book Excavating Jesus, he explains how crucifixion victims were never buried, but left for the carrion. He then goes on to claim:
In the ancient mind, the supreme horror of crucifixion was to lose public mourning, to forfeit proper burial, to lie separate from one's ancestors forever, and to have no place where bones remained, spirits hovered, and descendants came to eat with the dead. That is how Jesus died.1
Crossan has elsewhere asserted that the account of the resurrection were originally invented in Mark and the resurrection of Jesus were interpolations of disciples seeing visions and reinterpreting them into a bodily resurrection2.

I have already explained why it isn't reasonable to see the resurrection narratives as an invention of the Gospel writers to build a following. The charge of intentional fraud fails. But what of this idea that Jesus was probably buried in a shallow grave and his body had been eaten by dogs? The theory has multiple issues against it.

1. An empty tomb is accepted by historians

For the shallow grave/carrion theory to be true, Crossan must deny that Jesus's body had a proper burial. However, this conflicts with the findings of other secular historians. Michael Grant writes:
Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition [recorded in Mark's resurrection account] as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb. True, this discovery, as so often, is described differently by the various Gospels—as critical pagans early pointed out. But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was found empty.3
Given that Grant does not believe in the resurrection. Still, he holds there was a tomb and it was found empty, which as Michael Licona points out is the most popular view by historians who study this area.4

2. Christianity's detractors assumed an empty tomb

Another point we must note is that the earliest detractors of the resurrection didn't claim that Jesus's body was cast off to suffer the ignomy of being eaten by scavengers. Matthew 28:11-15 explains:
Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, "You are to say, 'His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.' And if this should come to the governor's ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble." And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
Notice the phrase "and is to this day," which shows that explanation was what the Jews were using to counter the Christians' resurrection claims. They never pointed to a shallow grave, even when Peter was declaring the resurrectionin Jerusalem where the audience would be intimately familiar with such practices and locations.

3. No source material for this explanation

The shallow grave theory that Crossan explains suffers from the Gospel accounts in another significant way. While conflicting accounts in different documents may lead historians to argue with one another about which theory is correct, it is the record within the document itself that gives a evidential basis for the argument. In the case of the shallow grave, there is no testimony in any document from antiquity that this is what happened to Jesus's body. This is a theory made up in contradiction to written accounts (the Gospels) with no counter-testimony at all. Why should we give it equal weight in such a circumstance?

Certainly, some would side with Crossan saying there's historical evidence that this was the most common way Romans treated their victims, but that doesn't mean it is universally applicable. In fact, while trying to make the point, Crossan himself highlights the archaeological find of a man whose right ankle bone still held the bent nail of his crucifixion. IT was found in an ossuary, or Jewish burial box, which means his body was buried in accordance with Jewish custom of the day. The discovery proves not every crucifixion ended with an abandoned corpse.

In all, there's much greater evidence to believe that Jesus was buried in a tomb and not abandoned to the elements and carrion. It makes assumptions but doesn't offer any evidence as support. That the tomb was empty cries out for an explanation, and the resurrection fits that explanation the best.


1. Crossan, John Dominic; Reed, Jonathan L.. Excavating Jesus (Kindle Locations 5415-5416). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
2. See Michael Licona's summary of Crossan's view in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 2010. 523-527. Print.
3. Grant, Michael. Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print. 176.
4. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 461-463.
Image courtesy Rama, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr

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