Revisiting the Empty Tomb

Revisiting the Empty Tomb April 1, 2018

I am long overdue to blog about Daniel Smith’s book Revisiting the Empty Tomb. The delay is largely due to the fact that it seemed as though I ought to blog about it sometime around Easter, and each year since 2010 when the book came out, I missed the window of opportunity – and then unwisely postponed the undertaking, thinking that I would do better the following year.

Smith’s book explores the possibility that there are two separate strands of tradition in the New Testament which relate to Jesus’ post-mortem vindication by God, which become intertwined fairly rapidly, but which nonetheless are distinguishable, and indeed, more importantly, if we recognize the existence of those two strands and the tensions between them, it helps us to understand the dynamics that drove the crafting of the Easter stories that we find in the New Testament and elsewhere in early Christian literature.

Two threads that are sometimes distinguished are the assumption tradition – Jesus is taken from the tomb to heaven – and the empty tomb tradition that has Jesus emerge in bodily form on Earth. Smith configures things in a related yet slightly different way, as the two separate traditions that he detects are one focused on Jesus’ disappearance and another focused on his appearance. Some examples may come immediately to mind for those familiar with the New Testament material – Paul shows no interest in an empty tomb but focuses on Jesus’ exaltation (even while introducing in a powerful way an eschatological interpretation of what happened to Jesus as the start of the general resurrection from the dead) and appearances of the exalted one which are never said to have anything to do with a physical presence. Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, deliberately has Jesus remain on Earth bodily and only later depart to the sky. Because there was an existing Greco-Roman tradition about people being snatched away from the tomb and taken to the dwelling place of the gods, and even appearing from there, it is very easy for a modern reader to fail to notice the distinctions between these two traditions. But, like uneven kerning in typography, once pointed out to you, you will probably begin to notice it everywhere you look!

Smith mentions the work of Byron McCane arguing that Jesus was dishonorably buried, which has also influenced my own view of that matter. Other particularly noteworthy elements include his work on Q, in which he detects the assumption-return strand, and writes, “Q seems to know and approve of the idea of resurrection, but only as a corporate event in the eschatological future and not as a mode of Jesus’ individuL vindication or exaltation” (p.80). There is a helpful chart on p.168 that facilitates comparison between the canonical Gospels and extracanonical works. He also talks about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as part of the developing tradition, making for a refreshing change in a domain in which texts alone are often the sole focus of attention. Smith’s view of the Gospel of John as weaving together disparate threads represented in other NT sources may have a bearing on how we view its relationship to the written forms of those works (p.181). His choice to explore Luke before Matthew was an interesting one, and has the nice effect (for one reading through the book sequentially) of freeing Luke somewhat from Matthew’s shadow, as it should indeed be read and appreciated if its author drew independently on Mark and Q just as Matthew did.

Smith’s book is a fascinating one, and I regret having taken so long to read it. I expect that it will form the basis for a lot of interesting further research into the development of Easter-related traditions in earliest Christianity.

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  • John MacDonald

    Happy Easter everyone! While not religious myself, I believe Christianity is an important part of our pluralistic society, and I hope it continues to flourish in the future as it has in the past. From the atonement point of view, concerning Jesus’ resurrection, while the Caesars escaping death really accomplished nothing for the world, in Mark’s gospel Jesus overcoming death seems to show the resurrected Jesus as greater than the resurrected Caesars in a clever play on the rags to riches story: An itinerant backwater preacher from a nowhere place like Nazareth and his band of peasants save mankind in Jesus’ death/resurrection by reconciling mankind to God (the tearing of the veil, Mark 15:38) and Jews to gentiles (the words of the gentile soldier – “truly this man is the son of God”). From a different point of view, if you don’t ascribe to the atonement theory of Jesus’ death, Jesus escaping death is still thought of as greater than the Caesars escaping death because while the Caesars being resurrected really doesn’t accomplish anything, Christ’s resurrection is put forth by Paul as the “first fruits catalyst” for the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age (see 1 Corinthians 15:23). In either case, Jesus death is a classic example of mimesis/imitation of the Caesars escaping death, showing Jesus in his resurrection as greater than the Caesars in their escaping death, and specifically in Jesus’ resurrection as a slap in the face of Rome’s attempt to exercise their “mighty power” and destroy him. Mimesis or imitation is common in the New Testament, showing the imitation as greater than the model, such as Matthew inventing material about Jesus to present Jesus as the New and Greater Moses.

  • Richard W. Fitch

    I self-define as “a Christian, Post-Theistic, liberal Episcopalian”. Much of my theological musings over the past 20 years have centered around the writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong. His most recent book to be published, “Unbelievable: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today”, may well be seen as his magnum opus; it is probably also his last after 40 years of being a teaching bishop. What the writers of the Gospels were trying to say and what Roman Imperial theology was trying to say are no longer credible to denizens of the 21st century. I finished reading the evening of ‘black Saturday’ which seemed appropriate. It shines a light on new hope for Christianity in the darkness of growing disbelief and the falling numbers of church membership, esp in Europe, but in America as well. I give it a 5-star recommendation. If you wish more information, it is available on Amazon and should be available in many public libraries soon.

    • I appreciate a lot of what Spong writes, but he has also been a major influence in disseminating a misunderstanding of Jewish midrash as a genre, and giving many people the impression that it is a widely-held scholarly view that the Gospel are written as creative writing commentaries on liturgy. And so I have significant reservations as well, especially since I think that others make many of the same positive points, without the negatives.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    So…just what are you trying to say about all this? I don’t really understand…

    • That I recommend the book to academics who work on the Easter traditions in earliest Christianity.

      • The Mouse Avenger

        Oh, OK. 🙂

  • John Thomas

    Thanks for introducing this book. That is kind of my own intuitions too about this. There seems to be an earlier tradition where Jesus was given a dishonorable burial, but disciples believed that God will not abandon his righteous ones in final scheme of things and raised him from dead in three days (Hosea 6:2) into his right hand at heaven. So their earliest narrations about Jesus’ life included an empty tomb to describe that faith, by narrating that one or more of the followers who visited the tomb found it empty and concluded that God raised him from dead remembering what he taught about his fate based on the fate of all righteous ones (Matthew 12:40; Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:22; Luke 24:7). The later traditions would have had added post-mortem appearances and pushed ascension to a later event either because they experienced it or further strengthen the narrative due to the oppositions from the skeptics to the earlier narrative (like disciples stole the body etc.) Just my take.