Exploring Our Matrix
The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis
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Over on his blog Reading Acts, Phil Long has posted a review of my book, The Burial of Jesus. Thanks, Phil, for taking the time to read the book and to blog about it!
James, I too read it on Kindle. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I think my enjoyment was more about the title content than the subtitle content, if you know what I mean.
In terms of the title content, I was quite taken with your Joseph of Arimathea theory, which I had never heard before. The range of what I’ve heard is “he’s a Jesus sympathizer” or “he didn’t exist (since there was no burial).” The theory you presented is completely outside of those options and seems eminently reasonable to me. In fact, right after reading it, I read in the Washington Post about a man who is fulfilling your proposed Joseph of Arimathea role in Afghanistan as we speak.
In terms of the subtitle content, I have to say I don’t agree with you separating the question of the resurrection from the historical enterprise. To understand my perspective, imagine for the sake of argument that we could travel back in time and set up a whole array of sensitive scientific instruments in the tomb, to see if anything unusual happens to the body. Then imagine that these instruments all record the body disappearing in a flash of light, while emitting various exotic energies. At that point, I think we’d be safe in saying that the body disappeared by non-normal means. Of course, we don’t have that data, but it’s possible in principle, and your argument is one of principle, not one of insufficient data.
Jesus’ body, obviously, was an object of history, and whatever happened to that body was an event in history. If we can’t turn to historians to give us their considered conclusions about what happened, then where do we turn? “To faith,” I think, is not a comforting answer. People believe all sorts of crazy things by faith.
I’m not coming at this from a conservative Christian standpoint (I’m not even a Christian), but more from a parapsychological standpoint. Some of the comments you made (e.g., “extraordinary claims require extrarodinary evidence”) sound like ones that are used to justify looking solid parapsychological evidence in the face and dismissing it with a wave of the hand.
I don’t want to come across as hostile about this issue. There is a sincerity and reasonableness with which you write that makes it impossible to begrudge you your positions. But I did want to register my disagreement, along with the benefits I took away as well. (If the link works for that Washington Post article, you’ve got to check it out. The similarites are remarkable.) Thank you for making the book available on Kindle. I’m very glad I read it.
“he didn’t exist (since there was no burial).” I think there was no burial, but that does not prevent Joseph of A to have existed as a prominent Jew waiting for the Kingdom of God. That Joseph could have been heard from Jesus’ followers, too happy to show some elite Jew were sharing their belief (about the Kingdom to come soon). Later that Joseph of A got enlisted (literarily speaking) for the fictional Empty Tomb passage. Joseph of A was not invented 40 years later because introducing the new character “waiting for the kingdom of God” would have made him look like a fool (and not a good example for Christians then waiting for the Kingdom also!). If he had been invented then, he would be presented as a follower of Jesus, which is exactly what “Matthew” & “John” did (but “Luke” remained close to gMark).
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Not as controversial as The Caesar’s Messiah
Shannon Underwood, I think the word you were looking for is “ludicrous.” What I say in my book is not ludicrous like Caesar’s Messiah.
Thank you for this book. I’ve read through the first sections of the book, dealing with historical methodology, the crucifixion, and the tomb. I enjoyed your discussions of historical method, and I’m about to embark on your chapter on the resurrection.
You make good arguments for the crucifixion: outside sources such as Tacitus, the unlikelihood that disciples would have invented the crucifixion story …
… but I don’t really see a good argument for the empty tomb.
- You make the point yourself that the gospel accounts are not eyewitness accounts.
- There aren’t sources outside the gospels to confirm an empty tomb.
- Unlike the crucifixion, the story of an empty tomb is exactly the sort of thing one would expect Jesus supporters to invent.
- The gospel accounts all conflict drastically in their empty tomb accounts.
- In every gospel account, we see more than just an empty tomb story. Depending on the gospel, there are men (or one man) in white, earthquakes, Jesus appearing immediately (or not), frozen guards, and other details of a miracle story. A miracle story on which the gospel writers can’t seem to agree.
Regarding the tomb, you say that the gospels “only claim that Jesus’ body was not found there. And this is indeed the most likely historical scenario.” Your argument seems to be that this is, in principal, like the resurrection story, something unlikely for the disciples to invent. In this case, unlikely since they would want to boast about their success in giving him a proper burial.
But that assumes the disciples even made such an attempt in the first place (a rather big assumption, it seems to me). As I understand it, the gospels were written well after the tradition of the resurrection had been established (by Paul’s letters, if by nothing else). Isn’t the empty tomb story a logical interpolation to support this tradition, a tradition, which, after all, helps to explain the “embarrassment” of the crucifixion?
One crucifixion evidence that you state earlier in the book is “the consideration that Jesus’ followers were willing to give their lives in later years for their conviction that Jesus had not simply survived death, but had been raised from death and seated at God’s right hand.” I’ve heard apologists such as William Lane Craig use this as evidence of the empty tomb, but where is the evidence (beyond traditions) that alleged witnesses of the resurrection were willing to die for this fact.
Thanks for your comment, Beau! I hope that by the end of the book if not sooner it will be clear that I, unlike Craig, do not think that the willingness of Christians to die for what they believed indicates that their beliefs were correct, just that it makes it likely that they were sincere. Most of the evidence for the deaths of the Twelve as martyrs is late, and I do raise the possibility that the reason we do not hear from many of them again except in late legends may be because some left the movement. But on the other hand, we do have a few early references to martyrdoms, such as James the brother of John. And even some later traditions, such as Thomas having gone to India, seem to have some kernel of history, however much overlaid with legend and fiction (see my article “History and Fiction in the Acts of Thomas”).
I am open to other scenarios, and while I think it is plausible that a group of disciples (probably including men) went to the tomb in the hopes of moving it, another possibility is that the disciples fled Jerusalem after the crucifixion, and the story of finding an empty tomb was an attempt to fill in what happened in their absence. In trying to judge one scenario more probable than the others so that we can draw some sort of conclusion, I fully recognize that others may view the evidence differently, as sketchy as it is, and so I would not pretend that the scenario I deem probable is much more probable than some of the alternatives.
One reason I don’t think the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb is that it provides one plausible spark for belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. I suspect that, if the predominant initial form of resurrection belief had been one that did not require the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, but was something more spiritual, then it is hard to explain why such stories would have been created and also have managed to predominate the later storytelling. But as Bart Ehrman also points out, when it comes to the question of why the body was not in the tomb or not found by the disciples, there will always be more likely explanations than “God raised him from the dead.” But the desire to undo the dishonor of Jesus’ criminal execution and burial, only to be unable to retrieve the body and accomplish this, might have been enough to spark some early Christians’ belief that God had vindicated Jesus in a way that they had been unable to.
Thank you for fleshing this out, Jim, and a good reminder that the tomb was likely not “empty”, whether or not Jesus was there (I’m afraid I was picking up on the popular evangelical jargon).
One thought about resurrection traditions (spiritual vs bodily):
You say (and I’ve heard before) that “the predominant initial form of resurrection belief had been one that did not require the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb, but was something more spiritual”. Are you referring to a predominant Jewish belief?
It seems relevant since (as evidenced by Paul’s letters), the Christian population by the time of the gospel writings would have been predominantly Greek and Roman. The gospels were written in Greek. Certainly, they were influenced heavily by Judaism, but wouldn’t a resurrection of the body have been a more common resurrection belief among gentiles.
If you look at the tomb stories as originating at the time of Jesus death, then I can see how you might toss about a few scenarios to figure out “the real story” behind the story. But if the tomb stories originate much later, as part of the tradition of Greek churches, then plausible scenarios are unnecessary – the stories are just stories pleasing to Greeks.
I think this is the premise of the Dag Øistein Endsjø book “Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity”, though I haven’t read it yet.
OK, so I just scrawled these thoughts out quickly, in my reading break from “The Burial of Jesus”. Your best answer may simply be to say, “finish the book!”
OK I finished “The Burial of Jesus”! It was good for me, and I’ll be revisiting it to “unpack” some of your ideas. The resurrection sections were far more speculative than the sections on the crucifixion and the tomb; but then you admit as much in the text.
The resurrection sections deal to some degree (and some vacillation) with the spiritual/bodily resurrection traditions. You suggest that early Christians may have been drawn to believe in the bodily resurrection, in part, to avoid the doctrine that creation was an evil to be escaped through spiritual resurrection – something contrary to Genesis 1.
But I’m intrigued by the idea, I mentioned in an earlier post, that the physical resurrection was a more satisfying concept to gentile Christians.
I understand what you mean when you say :
“What a historian can, indeed must, say is that Christians did not simply invent beliefs to suit their tastes or their presuppositions. They must have had experiences that convinced them of something which would have seemed implausible based on beliefs that they already had …”
But the invention of story details (if not entire stories) to support these beliefs (however sincere) most certainly took place. There seems no reason to believe that the conflicting “missing body” tales are any more authentic than the sayings on the cross, or than Jesus’ predictions of his own death.
Thanks for the book. Very thought provoking. Quite worthwhile for me.
Sorry for taking so long to reply. Just one quick point. I think that, if anything, it would probably have been for Jewish rather than Gentile Christians that the idea of physical resurrection would have been more appealing. At least some Jews viewed the afterlife in terms of bodily resurrection, while in the Greco-Roman world, the idea of a spiritual disembodied afterlife was more common.
I just noticed your reply to me.
I’ve been busy with professional projects and so I haven’t made much more progress into Dag Øistein Endsjø’s “Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity”. However, I’ve read far enough to see what he is arguing (with lots of ancient historical evidence). He notes first the long-held scholarly notion that Hellenistic Greek culture would have found a bodily resurrection an alien idea. He believes that this idea is based on the false assumption that Hellenistic Greek philosophy (so familiar to us now) was the pervasive ideology of Hellenistic Greek culture.
He then shows with sources that this notion is false. In fact, he argues that Platonic (and other) philosophies did not represent the masses of Hellenistic Greeks, who, with their pagan beliefs in a pantheon of gods, would have found the idea of a bodily resurrection appealing and similar to stories of the deification of mythological heroes such as Hercules.
So far, I recommend the reading.
Sounds fascinating – thanks for the recommendation!
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