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Showing posts with label empty tomb. Show all posts
Showing posts with label empty tomb. Show all posts

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

Friday, January 15, 2016

Was Jesus' Tomb Really Empty?

The empty tomb is a huge part of the evidence arguing for the resurrection of Jesus. We know that the vast majority of New Testament scholars, from the very liberal to the very conservative, hold that Jesus's followers believed they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. "It is an indisputable historical datum that sometime, somehow, the disciples came to believe they had seen the risen Jesus,"1 claims New Testament scholar Alexander J. M. Wedderburn, cited by Michael Licona in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

Licona points to other scholars as well and highlights the work of Dr Gary Habermas who "cataloged the opinions of hundreds of scholars writing on the subject of Jesus' resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. His database divides the opinions into more than one hundred categories pertaining to the questions and subquestions related to the resurrection of Jesus. He comments 'As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus' death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord.'" 2

Dismissing Hallucinations and Groupthink

Because it's clear that Jesus' followers had some kind of experience they believed was seeing him after he rose from the dead, one must ascribe some kind of cause for their experience. Skeptics have tried to dismiss these as sincere but mistaken experiences. They've offered some kind of hallucination theory, cases of mistaken identity, a kind of "groupthink" (e.g. "I can see him, can't you see him, too?"), or dismissing these as spiritual visions instead of physical ones.

Any of the above scenarios must have happened rather quickly after the crucifixion. The gospels and Acts place Jesus' appearances no later than forty days after Easter Sunday excluding Paul's Damascus road experience. Thus, Jesus' corpse could have been produced by Jesus' foes to defeat any such claims. Yet, the corpse seems to not be available to them. In fact, it is the Jewish Sanhedrin who were worried about that very issue and asked Pilate if the tomb could be secured, a request that was granted. Even then, though, they could not counter the resurrection charge. Their claim was "the disciples came and stole the body."

There is only one reason why that story persisted and Jesus' disciples became more confident instead of less so: there was no body in the tomb. As historian Michael Grant states:
Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition [of the angelic messenger in Mark] 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 indeed found empty.3
Grant concludes that there must have been someone who had taken the body, though he doesn't know who. Still, Grant is right to say if the criteria one employ's for ancient history is leveraged, then we are left with the real historical fact that the tomb was indeed empty.

Adding the empty tomb to the knowledge that the disciples had real, sincere experiences they identified as seeing the risen Jesus, we have a much stronger case for Jesus' resurrection. The claims of hallucinations, groupthink, or spiritual visions become much less plausible since none of those can explain where Jesus' body actually went. The evidence leads to a resurrection.


1. Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove,Il.: InterVarsity, 2010. 373. Print.
2. Licona, 2010.
3. Grant, Michael. Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels. New York: Scribner, 1977. 176. Print.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Was Jesus Buried in a Tomb?

It's clear that Christianity lives or dies by the resurrection of Jesus. A central part of the resurrection account is that Jesus was buried in a tomb which was found empty on Easter morning by some of his women followers. But just how strong is the evidence for this claim?

Certain skeptics of the resurrection account have doubted that the burial account is historical. 19th century scholar Charles Guignebert claimed, "The truth is we do not know, and in all probability the disciples knew no better, where the body of Jesus had been thrown after it had been removed from the cross, probably by the executioners. It is more likely to have been cast into the pit for the executed than lain in a new tomb."1 Guignebert's conclusion was basically echoed 150 years later by John Dominic Crossan in his book Who Killed Jesus? "In conclusion, what is the historicity of the burial? From Roman expectations, the body of Jesus and many others crucified with him would have been left on the cross as carrion for the crows and for the dogs."2 In pondering whether Jesus's body would've been buried to follow the Jewish commands of Deut. 21:22-23, Crossan remarks, "Even if it was, the soldiers who crucified Jesus probably would have done it, speedily and indifferently, in a necessarily shallow and mounded grave rather than a rock-hewn tomb. That would mean lime, at best, and dogs again, at worst." 3

The Evidence for Jesus's Burial

I find huge problems with dismissals such as these for the burial of Jesus. First, we know that the Jews would demand even criminals be buried. The first century historical Josephus tells us as much in his Wars of the Jews: "Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun."4 Crossan knows of the Josephus passage but dismisses it as something done only "in theory" claiming Jesus's burial is a "maybe, but the barest of maybes."5 Yet we have the additional testimony of the soldier breaking the legs of the other two condemned with Jesus to hasten their death. This point alone shows that there was a concern the criminals would die so their corpses could be removed before sundown.

A second point is there exists archaeological evidence that burying victims of crucifixion is not simply theoretical. In 1968 Jewish archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis excavated a Jewish ossuary, which is a box that was used to keep the remains of dead. Inside he discovered a well-preserved heel bone with a nail still piercing it from crucifixion. The nail could not be removed because the tip had bent.6 Clearly this with the Josephus passage and the command of Moses in Deuteronomy would make burial a very real possibility.

A third point is one that Craig Keener argues by noting of Pilate's wish to accommodate the Jewish leaders in the story. Pilate seems honored their request for execution not because Jesus's actions are offending Roman law, but simply in order to keep the peace. Given Pilate's concern for Jewish sensibilities, their aversion to leaving the dead unburied would've been well understood.7 Add to this that the one requesting the body was Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and I think Crossan's doubts of Jesus receiving a proper burial are on shaky ground.

The Historical Attestation for Burial in a Tomb

Of course the biggest reason why a majority of New Testament scholars believe that Jesus was buried in a rock-hewn tomb is that we have multiple ancient historical sources that attest to the fact. Mark is our earliest gospel and he tells of Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for Jesus's body, having his request granted, and laying t in a rack-hewn tomb. We have the testimony from John that corroborates Mark. We also have the early testimony that Paul recited in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 claiming Jesus was buried. While the account in 1 Corinthians doesn't mention a tomb due to its abbreviated nature, the burial account is clearly very early and part of the fabric of the resurrection story.

So, when comparing the evidence for Jesus's burial, we have very early accounts of his burial showing up in multiple independent sources. What is the evidence for Jesus being left on the cross or eaten by dogs? There is none. There isn't one single document that infers such a fate. Even the Jewish leadership didn't say "The dogs must've eaten the body" when the disciples shortly afterwards proclaimed his resurrection. Instead, they claimed the disciples stole the body, which implies that the body was missing from an identifiable location, e.g. a tomb.

Given the evidence, it is much more reasonable to believe that Jesus was buried in a tomb than to believe otherwise. All the evidence we have points in only one direction. To doubt the burial of Jesus, like Crossan and Guignebert have is to read into the account additional details that are not evidence but conjecture. Conjecturing a theory that opposes the facts isn't good history, it's a sign of bias.


1. Guignebert, Charles. Jesus. New York: U, 1956. Print. 500. As cited in Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Volume 1: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith. San Bernardino, Ca.: Here's Life, 1979. Print.
2. Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Print. 187.
3. Crossan, 1995. 188.
4. Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987. Print.679.
5. Crossan, 1995.187.
6. Biblical Archaeology Society Staff. "A Tomb in Jerusalem Reveals the History of Crucifixion and Roman Crucifixion Methods." Biblical Archaeology Society. Biblical Archaeology Society, 22 July 2011. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.
7. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009. Print. 326.

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