Women at the Tomb Are Weak Evidence for the Resurrection

Resurrection Easter WomenLet’s consider an incident from that first Easter. All four gospels say that women were the first to discover the empty tomb. (Of course, who was actually at the tomb varies by the gospels, as do many other important details about the resurrection, which makes the gospels unreliable as history. But let’s ignore that for now.)

Many apologists point to the women as an important fact arguing that the gospels are reliable. Greg Koukl says:

Women, disrespected in the ancient world, are the first to witness the risen Christ. Why include these unflattering details if the Gospels are works of fiction?

I don’t know who argues that the gospels are fiction. I don’t think they’re history, but I certainly don’t think that they were deliberately invented. But let’s set that aside as well.

William Lane Craig says:

The discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable. Given the low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses, the most plausible explanation … why women and not the male disciples were made discoverers of the empty tomb is that the women were in fact the ones who made this discovery.

That is, having women make this momentous discovery is embarrassing.

This is an application of the Criterion of Embarrassment, which argues that you’re likelier to delete something embarrassing than add it to your story. And if a story element is embarrassing, that points to its being historical fact.

The trick to using this criterion is knowing what’s embarrassing. Things that look embarrassing to us may not have been so to the author. For example, all four gospels show Peter denying Jesus three times. That’s pretty embarrassing … or is it?

Not if that story was written by someone who didn’t like Peter. Paul’s lenient approach in converting gentiles conflicted with the more traditional approach of Peter and James. Supporters of Paul might have strengthened their case by circulating a story to undercut Peter, and this story became part of the canon.

So our question becomes: is it embarrassing to have women discover the empty tomb? These apologists certainly think so, and historical records agree on women’s unreliability. Josephus, a first-century historian, stated, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted because of the levity and boldness of their sex,” and the Mishnah (a Jewish legal text written in 220 CE) concurs.

However, this flimsy argument is much more popular than it deserves to be.

Give the original authors credit for being good storytellers. As plot twists go, having women make the discovery instead of men isn’t particularly shocking. I find it hard to imagine an early Christian evangelizing an unbeliever and having the unbeliever say, “Whoa—hold on. You say women found the body? That’s a whole new ball game! I wasn’t on board before, but your story is sounding a lot more compelling now.”

But if you find it a powerful argument for the truth of the story, then you can imagine why that element might have become attached to the story.

The gospel story wasn’t made up. The point that women were unreliable witnesses is relevant only in rebutting the charge that the story was deliberately invented, a claim I don’t make. I’ve never heard this hypothesis except by apologists. Instead, what best fits the facts for me is that the story documented in the gospels is the result of forty or more years of oral history. Each gospel is a snapshot of the tradition of a different church community in widely different places (perhaps Alexandria, Damascus, or Rome?) and over decades of time.

Believers might demand, “Well, how do you explain the empty tomb?” But of course, that assumes the accuracy of the gospel story to that point. It’s like saying, “How do you explain Jack’s cutting down the beanstalk any other way than that there really was a giant climbing down after him?”

Who cares about women’s “unreliability”? Women discover the empty tomb, they tell men, the men verify the story, and then the men spread the word. If you don’t like women as witnesses, you’ve got the men.

That women were less reliable as witnesses in court doesn’t matter because there is no court in the story! The women were trustworthy where it mattered—in conveying the story to people who knew and trusted them.

Tending to the dead was women’s work in this culture. Instead of women discovering that Jesus had risen, imagine that the Bible had this incident:

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, Simon Peter and James entered the kitchen to prepare bread for the community. In the darkness of the kitchen, a voice called out to them saying, “Why do you tend to minor matters when there is the LORD’s work to be done?” And they took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.

What’s wrong with this story? It’s that preparing bread is women’s work in this culture. It makes no sense to have men come across Jesus in the kitchen. And the same is true for men dealing with the dead. According to the Women in the Bible web site:

It was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. … Tombs were visited and watched for three days by family members. On the third day after death, the body was examined. … On these occasions, the body would be treated by the women of the family with oils and perfumes. The women’s visit to the tombs of Jesus and Lazarus are connected with this ritual.

The Bible also gives clues to women’s role in mourning in Jer. 9:17–20 and 2 Sam. 14:2.

Mark focuses on reversals, and the other gospels followed Mark’s lead. Richard Carrier gives a detailed discussion of this topic and argues that a philosophy of “the last shall be first” led Mark to add this touch.

Given Mark’s narrative agenda, regardless of the actual facts, the tomb has to be empty, in order to confound the expectations of the reader, just as a foreign Simon must carry the cross instead of Peter, a Gentile must acknowledge Christ’s divinity instead of the Jews, a Sanhedrist must bury the body, and women must be the first to hear the Good News.

Seeing the gospel story as no more supernatural than any other myth from the past best explains the facts.

Religion—it’s like Wikipedia. 
Anyone can write something in.
— Bill Maher

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 4/8/12.)

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About Bob Seidensticker
  • Greg G.

    Mark ends with the women being afraid to tell. If the apologists are correct that women’s testimony is not worthy of belief, that would be the perfect ending. The other gospels didn’t like that ending so they added men to the story but they were still stuck with women making the discovery. Mark’s ending explains why the “pillars” did not go to Galilee but would have been swept up in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    • wtfwjtd

      Leaving Mark’s original ending as-is, at v 8, and how would anyone else have known about the resurrection? Mark has women making the discovery, and then not telling anyone. So, the other 3 gospel writers, seeing the problems with this, have to add their own embellished endings so that the word gets out. Matthew embellishes even further, and adds in a nice straw man conspiracy story of paying large sums of money all around to say the disciples stole the body and other nonsense.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I read recently that Mark’s bizarre short ending (“The angels told them to spread the word, but they didn’t. The End.”) might’ve been an attempt to explain why no one had heard of the incredible story until this moment (sometime after 70CE). Well, you see, it was hushed up; that’s why this amazing story didn’t spread.

      • Greg G.

        It could be one of the reversals from the Carrier quote. You expect the women to tell but they don’t. Throughout Mark, Jesus tells people not to tell but they do and when they are supposed to tell at the end, they don’t.

      • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

        That contradicts later claims of 500 witnesses, of course. It’s always problematic for Christians to explain why more Jews didn’t convert. Assuming that so many people saw what the Gospels portray, far more would be expected to. That was not what happened, though-mostly it’s gentiles who became Christians. So even if you’ve used Mark’s ending, it falls short of explanation for this, since the Gospels portray Jesus doing things before the resurrection that had attracted many people’s notice.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          The argument for 500 witnesses is crap, according to the gospels. Those authors either hadn’t heard it or thought it was a bad argument. Either way, not much of an argument.

        • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

          It’s probable that they knew the story wouldn’t stand up, as clearly that many witnesses didn’t see any resurrected Jesus. So the Gospel writers wisely didn’t repeat it, but only claimed a few witnesses who (conveniently or not) were unavailable.

        • UWIR

          It’s amazing to me that people seriously present this obviously circular argument, that the Bible is true because there are 500 witnesses, and we know about 50 witnesses because of the Bible. And it’s not just once that I’ve seen this; Dinesh D’Souza and someone else have made this argument.

        • Greg G.

          Maybe Mark 2:1-2 is a representation of the 500. Mark uses the Twelve but Paul doesn’t include Cephas and James as part of that group as Mark does. Mark uses information from Paul but alters it sometimes. The idea just popped into my head as I read your comment.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          But the 500 are witnesses after he rose. Yes, Jesus spoke to crowds while he was alive, but not after he rose (according to the gospels, anyway).

        • wtfwjtd

          And Paul says the 500 only saw what he saw, which, apparently, the gospel writers didn’t think was worth a mention.

  • MNb

    “Peter denying Jesus three times. That’s pretty embarrassing … or is it?”
    Not even if the story was written by someone who liked Petrus. The meaning of the story is to show how flawed man is, even if he is Jesus’ most faithful follower, in contrast to the impeccable character of Jesus himself. The author didn’t mean to make Petrus look especially bad, he meant to make Jesus look especially good. Note that Jesus even predicted that Petrus would deny him, making it a very powerful story about the human condition. I remember btw this was my first intuitive reaction when I read it in an adapted version: if we cannot fully rely on our closest friends (the other apostles remained silent), then whom can we fully rely on?

    Wikipedia offers a third explanation:


    “A further limitation is the possibility that what could be classed as embarrassing could also be an intentionally created account designed to provoke a reaction. For instance, Saint Peter’s denial of Jesus could have been written as an example of the consequences of denial.”
    There is nothing embarrassing here either.

    The best example of the Principle of Embarrassment (PoE) I know is still Herodotus showing his ignorance:


    “Sailing on their westerly course, they must have observed that they had the sun on their right. (Something that Herodotus, who was unaware of the earth’s spherical shape, was unable to believe.) ”
    The only possible explanation is that those Phoenician sailors indeed observed it, because it doesn’t make any sense that either they or Herodotus made it up. So when applying the PoE you have to convincingly show this, which in this example is very easy. Then it’s very powerful, but only then.

    “It was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial.”
    Exactly. So the PoE could have been applied if the earliest version of the story (which is Marcus, iIrc) had specifically told about men going to the tomb to prepare the dead body.
    In short: the PoE applies when the author writes something down that puts himself, his hero or his story in a bad light. That’s not the case with women finding the empty tomb, on the contrary.
    You should adapt the title: Women at the Tomb are no evidence for anything at all.

    • smrnda

      The problem with the ‘principle of embarrassment’ is that in any narrative, it’s quite common for the main characters to be less than perfect; Peter fails to stand up for Jesus and they later reconcile, which is pretty standard drama fare. What would be implausible is a story with no such happenings; totally, in spite of the arrest of Jesus all the disciples would behave in a totally courageous fashion all the time.

      • MNb

        Well, yes. Once again I refer to Herodotus’ story of the Phoenician sailors rounding Africa. The Principle of Embarrassment is here related to our modern knowledge that you’ll see the Sun where these sailors according to Herodotus claimed to have seen it. So the option of the sailors being imperfect on this issue doesn’t work either.

  • MNb

    “Why include these unflattering details if the Gospels are works of fiction?”
    Btw 21st Century apologists seem to be very fond of false dilemma’s. Yeah, Koukl, either the Gospels are completely made up (Jerusalem didn’t exist, Pontius Pilatus is a fictional character) or every single detail is historically 100% reliable.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Even better, you can apply math to this: you’ve got 2 possibilities, so that means that it’s 50/50 for each one.

      There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
      — Mark Twain

    • wtfwjtd

      And, most of these details are only unflattering in the apologists’ mind. As Bob explained, what to an apologist is an embarrassment, is just a normal cultural occurrence to most. Nothing special or unusual at all.

      • MNb

        I addressed that one underneath.

    • Nemo

      I call it the Geisler and Turek Tactic: if some of the minor setting details are accurate, what more proof do you need? Magic is real!
      Named, of course, after the guys who literally state in their book that minor setting details justify swallowing all the bold claims of the Bible.

      • smrnda

        Then I guess Leopold and Molly Bloom are real people?

    • UWIR

      I don’t think that the term “fiction” is inconsistent with parts being true, or the story not being deliberate deception. Certainly, fictional works tend to include true facts, and a product of cultural narrative accumulation can be reasonable called “fiction”.

      • smrnda

        Good point. Some fictional books are almost encyclopaedic in their attention to details about setting – something like Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ combines incredibly realistic details with fictional elements.

        There’s also an issue of a narrative based on true events to become fiction if adequately embellished. Truman Capote’ “In Cold Blood” is listed in the fiction section.

        • UWIR

          Strangely, though, I found The Mousetrap in the nonfiction section.

  • wtfwjtd

    This part of the story always bothered me, even as a died-in-the-wool fundie. Why *didn’t* Jesus appear to more people? Why all the cloak-and-dagger secrecy? Wouldn’t the story have been a lot more readily acceptable if a lot more people would have seen Jesus? Forget the 500 nonsense–how about thousands and thousands? I always figured as a kid, if Jesus could fly off into the clouds at the end of the story, why didn’t he hover over Jerusalem for awhile, and let everyone get a good, long look?(even kids can see through a bluff). It would have been at least something for the historians to record, and there wouldn’t be all this contradiction and confusion. But no, we get nuttin’… and I can only logically conclude that’s because nothing was all there was, and it didn’t really happen.

    • Greg G.

      Instead of visiting his followers, why didn’t he go to each house of the members of the Sanhedrin to show them what happened. I bet they would really rip their garments, then.

      • wtfwjtd

        Great idea! I always thought he could pull that “appear in the room” trick, say “hey” to a few folks–maybe some soldiers, or Pilate, or ,yes, even some of the Sannedrin–and then, *poof* disappear. It may or may not have changed anybody’s minds, but at least it would have gotten some folks to really thinking.

        • Greg G.

          If he could let Thomas touch his wounds to prove he was alive, why can’t he do it for everyone? He could multiplex himself to be in many places at once. That is if he really cared about our immortal souls.

        • wtfwjtd

          Now that you mention it, that’s another thing that’s always bugged me about John’s account. First, he appeared to “all the disciples”. Then suddenly, we’re told it was “all the disciples except Thomas”. Then, it’s Ok for Thomas to touch him, but he tells others not to, and does the magical pass-through-the-walls trick. Was he human after the resurrection or not?Could people actually touch him or not? John never really can make up his mind on these rather important little points.

    • Nemo

      Jesus to his disciples: Oh, don’t worry about spreading the word. Dad’s got dozens of giant televisions being set up in major cities all over the world to broadcast the event, as well as give out the “turn or burn” theology.
      Disciples: What’s a television?
      Jesus: Don’t worry about it.

    • UWIR

      You died in the wool?

      • Castilliano

        Died in the wool so he could be reborn by the Lamb.
        It’s not a misspelling, it’s a revelation.
        (Or so I imagine a fundie spinning it.)

        • wtfwjtd

          Uh, yes, that’s it! Thanks for clarifying!

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Or: why didn’t he stick around for more than 40 days (Acts) or 1 day (Luke) or ? days (Mark)? He could’ve gotten a lot done.

  • Greg G.

    For example, all four gospels show Peter denying Jesus three times. That’s pretty embarrassing … or is it?

    Tim Widowfield points out a couple of interesting bits in How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 2) showing that both authors sandwiched Peter’s denials around Jesus testifying before Annas. While Jesus was admitting to being the Son of Man, Peter was denying being a follower. When Jesus was being beaten and told to prophesy, his prophecies were being fulfilled.

    In GJohn, Peter was always the runner-up to the “disciple Jesus loved best”. In GMark, Peter’s wavering is a main point of the story. It would only be embarrassing after the Book of Acts made a hero of Peter and the church adopted him as a saint.

    • wtfwjtd

      Robert Price in “Shrinking son of Man” discusses how various mentions of characters in the gospels at key points in the story are primarily designed to give a “hat tip” to favorite characters and leaders of different factions, rather than recording actual or purported events. He specifically mentions the incident in which Jesus’ supposed family is listed to illustrate this point. This was likely a “laundry list” of revered personages of specific traditions, in an attempt to reconcile various factions with each another, rather than actual listing of blood siblings. He also says the rather odd list of characters we get in the famous I Cor 15 passage is also a list of this type,and this is the reason it has an awkward, cobbled-together feel.
      No doubt, these Peter mentions are also probably an attempt at pacifying or possibly ingratiating certain early factions, rather than recording any supposed event.

  • UWIR

    If the presence of embarrassing details make the story more credible, then the presence of embarrassing details is completely consistent with someone putting in embarrassing details to make it sound more credible. The only way embarrassing details distinguishes between two hypotheses is if one of the hypotheses is that the author had no understanding of human nature, or if the details would have been more embarrassing back then. The presence of women has a prima facae case of being in the latter category, in that it now not embarrassing to have women as witnesses. The Peter story, however, does not fall under that category. Any arguments we can now make about it being convincing due to the Principle of Embarrassment, someone thousands of years ago could have also made.

  • Brian Murtagh

    Speaking of embarassing details, why do all these paintings of the tomb have a round rock for sealing a square hole?

    • Greg G.

      I think the stone door is round so the tombs could be opened. When the flesh decayed, the bones were placed in an ossuary. I don’t know why the tomb opening would be square.

      • Pofarmer

        I just read an article/blog post that was talking about the issue of the tomb doors. It seems that round stones were common after about 100 A.D. Before 100 A.D. it seems like most all the tomb stones were square. The only tombs that had round stones were the tombs of the very wealthy. Family tomb complexes. Wish I could remember where I read it.

        • Greg G.

          That sounds familiar. Now that you’ve jostled my memory, I recall that the round seals became more popular in the second century.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

        We see the output of a painter, not a historian or archaeologist. Perhaps well educated about the times; perhaps not.

  • R Vogel

    I am less surprised from the like of Koukl and Craig, who strike me a mostly clowns, as I was to read a similar argument put forth in the beginning of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. He is one of the darlings of the progressive christian movement which I assumed would not engage is such a transparently poor argument. In addition to your criticisms I would add that a good story teller would do exactly what they say they wouldn’t, using an unusual figure at the climax of the story, and there is plenty of biblical precedent for the literary twist: David was a shepherd boy, Amos was a bumpkin, Moses has a speech impediment, Judith was the savior of Israel. It is an argument that only someone beginning with belief thinks is valid.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      The professional apologists puzzle me. I suppose you could say that they’ve got a good thing going, which might explain things, but they do seem to honestly believe.

      I think you’re right. Perhaps if you start with an earnest belief, you’ll pull together whatever arguments are at hand. Since they all point to the truth, whether they’re actually strong or not may not much matter.

      But, yeah, I’d be embarrassed to put forward such a weak argument.

  • hector_jones

    These arguments assume that the gospels are basically historical accounts, albeit embellished, from which real facts can be drawn by the application of these criteria. More and more, however, analysis of the gospels shows that they are not historical accounts in the least, any more than are the Iliad or the Odyssey.

  • Scott_In_OH

    Do your last two argument contradict each other? One seems to say, “Of course women found the empty tomb. Going to the tomb was women’s work.” The second seems to say, “Of course women found the tomb. Mark was big on surprise endings.” (I know the second one is from Carrier, but it sounds like you support it. Maybe I’m misunderstanding.)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Yes. This a choose-your-own-adventure thing. If you insist that women would be startling, you have Carrier’s comment. But if you’re willing to consider that they might not be, you have the fact that tending to the dead was women’s work.

      • Kingasaurus

        There’s definitely more than one reasonable objection to the apologetic in question.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    A couple other problems with the argument:
    (1) The reader relies on the credibility of the storyteller (i.e. Mark), not the credibility of the characters in the story.
    (2) We know from Paul’s letter to the Romans that many women played prominent roles in early Christian communities. An audience of pagan converts in such a community would not have cared about the status of women under Jewish law.

  • Asmondius

    ‘Of course, who was actually at the tomb varies by the gospels, as do many other important details about the resurrection, which makes the gospels unreliable as history.’

    Actually, Bob, that makes it More likely that there is some historical truth to the story from a research perspective. It’s rather hard to believe that Christians were smart enough to revise Josephus’ writings (another of your claims) but forgot to come up with a uniform resurrection story.
    This is a gross misunderstanding that you and many of your readers seem to have.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

      You could be right. Most atheists don’t realize that the Christian position is unfalsifiable.

      • Asmondius

        Nothing to do with Christianity, Bob. This same method would logically apply to any ancient tract. If you wish to discuss a similar scenario involving a non-religious text, I’ll be happy to do so.

    • MNb

      “It’s rather hard to believe that Christians were smart enough to revise Josephus’ writings”
      Josephus’ writings had to be copied once or twice a century, because papyrus is not stable. Guess who copied those writings from say 200 CE on? Indeed, christians. Who totally could read and write. Hence were smart. But weren’t obsessed by separating fact from fiction like you and me. So didn’t mind to “correct” stuff they thought wrong.
      You know who for instance takes this position?


      A well respected scholar. And totally catholic.
      The real question, Mr. Braindead, is if those revised quotes go back to an original core from FJ himself. The majority of scholars thinks so. But they all agree that the quotes have been “revised”.

      • Asmondius

        ‘Josephus’ writings had to be copied once or twice a century, because papyrus is not stable…’

        Well, then it must follow that All scribed ancient writings are suspect – right?

        The fact that different scholars disagree on an issue is a result of individual discernment, it does not decide the issue.

        Joe Biden professes to be a Catholic yet supports abortion. Does this provide insurmountable evidence that abortion is moral or that the Catholic Church supports abortion? Nope. The error of your attempt is obvious.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

          Yes, we don’t know how ancient writings were copied. They are indeed unreliable.

          You sound like an atheist.

        • Asmondius

          Yet we don’t discount them entirely – right?

        • 90Lew90

          There are degrees of motivation to alter texts. The motivation to alter religious texts, particularly when the institutions purveying the texts are so bound up with political power, is far greater than the motivation to alter, say, Plato. The motivation there would be greater to maintain the rigour of his thought and method. That both are readily accessible is testament to their integrity. That the New Testament is such a jumble of bunk is testament to its having been cooked many times over.


        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

          No, we don’t.

          I’m happy to say that the lunatic’s manifesto might be accurate, though there is a very low a priori chance of that.

          Maybe the NT is accurate, but there’s a mountain of evidence necessary for that conclusion, and I’m not seeing much of that.

        • MNb

          “Well, then it must follow that All scribed ancient writings are suspect – right?”
          Right. That’s why historians of Antiquity – ie scientists – have developed methods like Testis Unus Testis Nullus.
          Only Mr. Braindead can see what Joe Biden, abortion and morality have to do anything with the widely acknowledged facts I mentioned above. Please explain – I’d like to have some more fun with you.

        • Asmondius

          Then there is no reason to believe the New Testament is any different form other ancient writings.


        • 90Lew90

          Wrong again. Screamingly so. Do you think before you write this stuff? That Geneva case…?

        • Pofarmer

          The NT is basically religious Hagiography and theology. You have to critique it within it’s context. You also have to realize that there were additions, and possibly subtractions, for theological reasons, just like it looks like there were additions to Josephus, for theological reasons.

        • MNb

          Right. It’s christians who demand a different treatment, not the scientists called historians of Antiquity. None of them accept supernatural events in the case of Alexander the Grat, Julius Caesar, Constantine the not so Great, you name them. So none of them accept supernatural events as described in the NT either.
          The Resurrection was not a historical event. The (other) miracles as described in the Gospels were not historical events either.
          Now that was simple.