A favored tactic of John Loftus is to try and play Christian scholars off against each other. Consistent with this tactic, in his book, Why I Became an Atheist, John Loftus leads off his assault on the empty tomb with this assertion:
Several mainline Christian scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, argue against the empty tomb, including C.H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Raymond Brown, Reginald Fuller, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, D.H. Nineham, along with many others.
Ibid., page 365.
Loftus provides no citations to support this assertion. When I read this passage while thumbing through his book, the listing of Raymond Brown quickly caught my attention. A moderate Catholic scholar, I seemed to remember that he was at the very least sympathetic to the empty tomb story. I did some research and confirmed my initial reaction, but because I had not read everything written by R. Brown and scholars sometimes modify their positions, I e-mailed John Loftus in April 2009. I asked for his basis in listing Raymond Brown.
Loftus responded that he would check on his information and get back to me. When I did not hear back from Loftus for over two months, I e-mailed him again and asked if he had found a source regarding Raymond Brown. By this time I had also become curious about his inclusion of C.H. Dodd on the list, another moderate Christian scholar who I was surprised to see listed as someone who "argued against the empty tomb." Accordingly, I also asked Loftus if he could provide a source for C.H. Dodd. Loftus replied that he could not find any support for listing either on the list but insisted that "[a] reliable source led me to mention their names, but I failed to research it myself."
I asked Loftus who the reliable source was and why he trusted this source so much that he did not research himself the claims he was making in his book, but Loftus has not responded to my query. I did some google searches to see if anyone else had made such a claim and the closet I found was an assertion by J. Shelby Spong:
If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed except by assenting to the fantastic descriptions included in the Gospels, then Christianity is doomed.... If that were the requirement of belief as a Christian, then I would sadly leave my house of faith. With me in that exodus from the Christian church, however, would be every ranking New Testament scholar in the world--Catholic and Protestant alike: E. C. Hoskyns, C. H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Reginald Fuller, Joseph Fitzmyer, W. E. Albright, Raymond Brown, Paul Minear, R. H. Lightfoot, Herman Hendrickx, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Phyllis Trible, Jane Schaberg, D. H. Nineham, Maurice Goguel, and countless others.
John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity, page 238 (as cited by a couple of skeptical online articles).
All of the pertinent scholars are mentioned as is the claim about "Catholic and Protestant" scholars being represented. However, the assertion does not address the empty tomb but the resurrection as recounted in the gospels and it includes scholars that Loftus did not mention by name. So this is suggestive but perhaps there was a mediating "source" for Loftus. Only he can say. In any event, whether originally descended from Spong or elsewhere, the question is whether there is substance to Loftus' particular assertion.
I have spent more time reviewing the claims packed into the statement at issue and believe it contains two significantly problematic assertions. The first is that all of these scholars argue "against the empty tomb." I take this to mean, as it plainly states, that these scholars are not advocates for the empty tomb nor are they agnostic on the issue. That is, for Loftus to be right in his characterization, each scholar must affirmatively argue that the empty tomb was a legend or has no historical basis. It is not sufficient that they say that we do not or cannot know whether the empty tomb story is historical. The second problem is Loftus' assertion that all of the scholars listed are "mainline Christian scholars" of the Protestant or Catholic variety. I take this to mean that they are at least loosely orthodox in their adherence to either tradition, though not necessarily inerrantists or conservative in their doctrine.
So far as I have been able to tell, at least three of the scholars listed by Loftus advance arguments in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb though they may not think such a conclusion is certain: R. Brown, C.H. Dodd, and Reginald Fuller. A fourth, Karl Rahner, contends that the empty tomb tradition is very early but is less than specific about his ultimate conclusion on its historicity. In any event, he does not seem to argue "against the empty tomb." I am open to correction, of course, and would appreciate any clarifying citations from any of these scholars.
R. Brown adduces many arguments in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb in The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Brown rejects the notion that the empty tomb was invented for apologetic purposes, observes that "our earliest traces of Jewish apologetics against the resurrection do not reject the empty tomb," and contends that "were the story entirely an apologetic invention, women would not have been chosen as the ones to discover the tomb, since their testimony would have less public authority." Ibid., page 122 n. 204. The meat of Brown's case is his contention that it is "reasonably certain that either the tomb was not known, or that, if known, it was empty." Ibid., page 126. The answer to R. Brown is the latter because he spends a substantial amount of time -- in this book and in his later epic work The Death of the Messiah -- arguing that the tomb of Jesus was known because the story of Joseph of Arimethea is historical in its essentials. As he states in The Virginal Conception, Brown notes that "an almost insuperable obstacle" to the notion that the location of Jesus' burial was unknown is "the person of Joseph of Arimathea who appears in all four gospels. It is virtually certain that he was not a figment of Christian imagination...." Ibid., page 113.
C.H. Dodd also advances arguments in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb. "I should be disposed to conclude that while the general tradition held that Christ 'rose from the dead' (commonly understood to mean that he emerged from the tomb in which his body had been laid) it preserved also a genuine memory that on that . At first the discovery was disconcerting and incomprehensible; later it was understood to mean that Jesus had in some way left his tomb. Whether this meaning was rightly attached to it, and if so in what sense, is another question, and one which lies no longer in the sphere of the historian. He may properly suspend judgment." Dodd, his tomb was found broken open and to all appearance emptyThe Founder of Christianity, Chapter 9 (available online) (emphasis added).
R. Fuller argues that the empty tomb "belongs to the primary stratum of Gospel tradition despite its absence from Paul." The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, page 179. Fuller contends that the story of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, finding the stone rolled away and the tomb empty "stands right at the beginning of the history of the tradition and is doubtless very early." Ibid., page 56. He acknowledges that Paul does not narrate or proclaim the empty tomb, but contends that "a resurrection from the grave is implied by the statement, 'God raised Jesus,' since the apocalypitic conception of resurrection is precisely resurrection from the grave." Ibid., page 49. Fuller concludes that the women thought they found an empty tomb, but whether "the women's story was based on fact, or was the result of a mistake or illusion, is in the last resort a matter of theological indifference. The historian will never known the answer to this question."
Next is Karl Rahner, a leading Catholic theologian influential at the Second Vatican Council. I have not found any evidence that he "argued against the empty tomb." He may have thought -- at times -- that it was irrelevant to the more important theological issue of its significance, whether literal or other. In Incarnation and Resurrection: Toward a Contemporary Understanding, Paul Molnar notes the following:
Rahner does not have much to say about the empty tomb. In his Theological Investigations he expresses the belief that it is part of the oldest NT tradition and he also states that the empty tomb is "an expression of a conviction which had already spread for other reasons -- the conviction that Jesus was alive." (TI:17.20).
Ibid., page 143 (emphasis added). Although K. Rahner's theological writings leave it unclear whether he believes history is required and where belief is sufficient, I have not found any reference to him arguing against the historicity of the empty tomb. Rather he thought it part of the "oldest" New Testament tradition. It appears, therefore, that Loftus' listing of K. Rahner was erroneous as well though not as egregious as the previous three scholars.
But how about the rest?
R. Bultmann and H. Kung clearly argue "against the empty tomb" in the sense that they deny there is any historical basis to the narrative. However, as Loftus should have known, neither can be called a "mainline Christian scholar" with a straight face. Not while doing any justice to those terms.
R. Bultmann was a German theologian. His goal -- notably presented in his lecture New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Message -- was to "demythologize" Christianity by stamping out any supernatural elements attributable to the primitive mythological barnacles of the first century Jewish mindset. (A helpful review of R. Bultmann's theology is provided here). This included rejecting any accounts of miracles, including the resurrection. It is clear, therefore, that Bultmann had theological reasons for denying the empty tomb. It should have been clear to Loftus that R. Bultmann, with his "Christianity" excised of all supernatural elements, could not fairly be classified as a "mainline Christian scholar."
Nor does Hans Kung qualify. Although Kung was a Catholic theologian at one point his rejection of so many basic doctrines compelled the Catholic Church to revoke his status as such and remove him from his professorship. Far from being a mainline Catholic, he rejected core Catholic and Christian doctrines and was ashamed of the Catholic Church:
[T]he Sacred Congregation waited only seventy-two hours after his trial before condemning another progressive theologian, fifty-one-year-old Hans Küng. Because of his "contempt for the magisterium of the Church" on the issue of papal infallibility—expressed most recently in his Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit?—as well as on the issues of the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary, the Congregation declared Küng barred from his chair of dogma and ecumenical theology at the State University, Tübingen, in West Germany. "I am deeply ashamed of my church," he told reporters, and a day after the decree was announced he defied the Pope by holding a public lecture in which he told two thousand cheering supporters that he would fight the Holy See's Lehrverbot.
This leaves D.H. Nineham. I have uncovered little about Nineham other than he was a British theologian described as liberal. This obviously does not mean that he argued "against the empty tomb," but it is possible. I would appreciate any information on his views on the empty tomb or even more generally about historicity and the Christian faith.
All told, it appears that Loftus misrepresented the arguments or theological positions of at least 6 out of 7 of the scholars he relies on. They either advance arguments in favor of the empty tomb, claim it is part of the earliest NT tradition, or cannot fairly be characterized as "mainline Christian scholars." Although I am open to correction or clarification of their views, it seems clear that Loftus -- at the very least -- did not do his homework. How could he get the views and dispositions of so many scholars wrong in such a short space? Who or what is the "reliable source" that provided him with this list? How many other arguments in this book and elsewhere has he accepted from such other sources without doing any of his own research?
Addendum: It is unclear whether Loftus intended to include Uta Ranke-Heinemann in his list of "mainline Christian scholars." Just after referring to "along with many others" Loftus quotes her as arguing against the empty tomb. Ranke-Heinemann was a professor of Catholic theology and there is no doubt that she rejected the empty tomb. She also rejected the virgin birth. Because of her literally unorthodox views, she was excommunicated. So she could not be fairly characterized as a "mainline Christian scholar."