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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth


Part 1 of this series is way back here. Recently I've been looking at curious problems surrounding the empty tomb narratives in the Gospels and how they point away, in one or two categories I think quite decisively, from GosMark's having invented the empty tomb.

But enough about the Gospel accounts. How about some disappearing Acts? No, not the Ascension account in Acts. I'm talking about the tomb!

7.) The canonical book of Acts is quite notable, not only for having some seriously primitive(-seeming) language in talking about the risen Jesus, but in a lack of detail during reported preaching about the empty tomb.

And by a lack of detail, I mean almost no mention of the tomb at all!

To begin with, it's important to notice, and to keep in mind, that regardless of whether Acts and GosLuke were written by the same guy, and regardless of any redactional theories of Acts' composition; whoever put Acts together in its final form, explicitly intended it to be accepted as a sequel to GosLuke -- which has a well-developed empty-tomb and post-tomb set of appearance stories.

And yet, the empty tomb quickly disappears, not only from the Acts narrative (which wouldn't be unreasonable, since the story picks up several weeks past the empty tomb), but also from evangelical preaching reported in Acts.

It arguably disappears in the very first public sermon, in Acts 2! Peter draws attention to the tomb of David which is still among them to this day, with the comparison that while David's body is still in his tomb Jesus is... well, raised up.

That comparison implies an empty tomb and a different fate for the body (which doesn't see corruption unlike David's). But there is no explicit mention of the empty tomb in that sermon, or even by implication for long afterward in the book!

This omission makes some sense if Acts is reporting early Christian preaching with fair accuracy as to the contents. It also makes sense if, as noted in the Gospel accounts of the tomb, the empty tomb has practically nothing to do with the authority of the apostles!

It also makes sense in that, while the tomb might be revered (and there are early traditions that it was indeed revered until an Emperor put an end to that after the Jewish rebellion in the early 2nd century), it would quickly be of no apologetic value. Oh hey, look, it's an empty tomb!... so what?! Even in that side-implication of comparison in Peter's first reported sermon, 50(ish) days after the fatal Passover, no one suggests people go look at where Jesus isn't, compared to where David still is -- which would be stupid. For that matter, back in the Gospels, only Peter and the Beloved Disciple are mentioned as even bothering to go look at the empty tomb once they hear about! -- and one of those two reports is a late insertion into GosLuke's text! And in GosJohn, Peter and the BD go due to an expectation that the body was moved for unknown but mundane reasons! It isn't even the tomb's emptiness that convinces the BD, but the way the shroud was dealt with. Peter goes away with no understanding that Jesus has come back at all.

So a near total lack of tomb appeal for apologetic purposes in Acts, and that only early, and only sort-of-implied, fits just fine with a (near) total lack of the importance of the empty tomb for the apostles in the canonical Gospels.

There is, however, one (and exactly one) explicit mention of Jesus being buried in a tomb per se, in the Acts preaching: and it comes from Saul of Tarsus in Acts 13, during his first missionary journey. Perhaps coincidentally, Acts reports that Paul's aide known as John (by implication later, John Mark) had just departed from Paul's group (apparently for the first time, not yet causing the split between Barnabas and Paul), before this sermon which Paul gives to a synagogue at Pisidian Antioch as a traveling guest preacher.

So the Acts author presents Paul, the former persecutor of Christians, as knowing about the tomb and its emptiness! -- in a text where the tomb is hardly mentioned, even in Christian preaching, including not by Paul afterward!

Of course, strictly speaking Paul doesn't say Jesus came bodily out of the tomb, but he uses technical terminology that would have been recognized by a Jewish audience (which is who he is preaching to in this scene) for a resurrection, not a mere vision of being raised, and moreover he goes on to connect this raising, just like Peter does back in Acts 2, to the prophecy of God preventing the body of His Holy One from seeing decay, whereas (by the comparison made by both Peter and Paul) David did decay after he was buried. So Acts doesn't only present Paul in an early Pauline sermon (the first one reported from Paul in Acts, although there are snippets of his preaching before then) knowing about the tomb, but preaching a bodily resurrection and, by consequence, an empty tomb. (This sermon, as usual in Acts, features arguably primitive terminology, too.)

I will note that while several more speeches are recorded from Paul for the rest of the book, in almost every case he is in a position where Roman authorities are nearby; so, not surprisingly, while he talks about the resurrection of the dead, and of Jesus, he does not talk about Jesus having been condemned to die on a cross by the Roman governor! -- a key point in earlier speeches to Jewish audiences. That being the case, it is not too surprising that he (or the summary of his speeches provided in Acts, since it is not normal procedure in such texts to provide the whole speech but rather a topical overview) no longer mentions a tomb per se either. In a main exception, at the Mars Hill philosophical forum in Athens, he has only just introduced the topic of resurrection when, upon hearing this, he is hooted out of the forum before he goes into any detail. Which, not incidentally, is (further) evidence that the resurrection being preached by Christians in Acts is not simply a vision or dream or the spiritual return of a bodiless spirit or something else easily acceptable by educated Greco-Roman culture.

And yet, Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus looks on the surface like a mere visionary appearance of Jesus; and Acts reports Paul having explicit visions of Jesus. And yet again, conceptually the Acts author can distinguish between them, and presents Paul (and Peter who also has a dream vision) as able to distinguish between them conceptually: they aren't making claims about the importance of a merely visionary "risen" Jesus, but about something that happened to him bodily after death -- a body which Paul says, or anyway is explicitly reported to say, was put in a tomb (which Peter also heavily implies).

So, what does all this have to do with the question of whether Mark possibly invented the empty tomb?

Acts shows that a major Christian author, namely the Acts author, who definitely knows about the empty tomb detail, and who at the absolute sceptical least is pretending to write a sequel to a text where the empty tomb is treated as being important in some ways -- yet definitely not in other ways -- could choose for whatever reason to talk barely at all about the empty tomb, in lots of places where the empty tomb would seem (on the face of it anyway) topically appropriate.

And if the Acts author doesn't think the empty tomb is important enough to always be putting into speeches about the importance of the risen Christ, then other early Christian authorities don't have to think it's important enough to always be talking about it explicitly in connection to the risen Christ, even if they also think it's important. Which happens to be exactly how the Acts author presents Peter and Paul! -- Peter and Paul both know about the empty tomb, but usually skirt the topic, so far as Acts reports them. It is, at best, a partly-explicit detail in one of Paul's speeches, and an implied detail on one of Peter's speeches, and that's it.

This is no small point, even though not specifically counting in favor of an empty tomb, as I'll show later.

But to this I will add that, so far as someone judges the Acts author to be historically reliable on reporting fairly mundane data, including the gist of what his subjects believed and taught, especially where he regards himself as a companion of one of them -- and the "we" narrative sections of Acts clearly show the author is making a claim to be a companion and disciple of Paul -- then that weighs proportionately in favor of the author accurately reporting that Paul knew about the empty tomb. And since, on grounds that would take far, farrrrrr too long to cover in even a series of blog posts, I do regard the Acts author as being an accurate historian (and would still consider him that on mundane matters at least, if I was an atheist), then that counts to me as evidence that the empty tomb doesn't just predate Mark as an idea, but goes back, via Paul who is presented by the Acts author as being familiar with the situation in Jerusalem, to the first days after Christ's death.

At the absolute worst, it would mean Acts is inadvertently revealing that Paul is who invented the empty tomb, sometime in his first missionary journey, long before writing his epistles, long before the standard dating of GosMark, thus definitely before the composition of GosMark. Mark didn't invent it; and Acts says his character (the person whom the Gospel's composition was universally attributed to) happened to be serving Paul near the time when Paul gave the only speech in Acts which explicitly references the tomb (and heavily implies its emptiness). That's a topical combination, one way or another, connecting the attributed author of GosMark with the empty tomb via Paul.

But with the previous points, which sure don't depend even slightly on Paul, I can be sure by historical inference the empty tomb was a fact, not a literary invention by anyone; and so far as I otherwise evaluate Acts to be accurate at talking about Paul, then I infer Paul knew about the empty tomb -- not only because he mentions it, but because as a persecutor familiar with the Jerusalem situation he would have naturally and necessarily heard about it, from Christian foe if not from Sanhedrin friend (but there is no reason why he wouldn't have heard about it from his Sanhedrin contacts and leaders authorizing him to hunt Christians) -- even if, as Acts portrays (at Stephen's martyrdom for example, which Paul is shown attending), the Christians didn't always talk about it themselves.

Next up: last and somewhat least, like one untimely born, limping along afterward...


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