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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

PART 9: IS ANY STICK GOOD ENOUGH TO BEAT AN EMPTY TOMB?

Part 1 introduces the question back here, "Did GosMark's author possibly invent the empty tomb?" While acknowledging that the idea isn't metaphysically impossible, I said I would be showing why I would answer no, the author did not possibly invent it, even if I was an atheist.

Part 2 refers back to a previous series which (in a systematic argument, starting from extreme scepticism about the sources) decisively indicated that Jesus of Nazareth existed, had disciples, had made enemies of the Sanhedrin, was buried somewhere tomb-like after death and guarded by his enemies, shortly after which his body mysteriously disappeared, and the guards (for a brief period) publicly testified with Sanhedrin support that they all fell asleep allowing Jesus' disciples to steal the body. (Whether their claim about body theft was correct or not was outside the scope of the argument, so far.) Thus the idea equivalent to an empty tomb far predates GosMark's composition.

Part 3 observes that so far as the topic of any fate of the body is explicitly mentioned in early material, a tomb burial is the only option and is readily accepted (by the authors and communities involved with the texts) without any problems in itself.

Parts 4, 5, and 6 discuss several details of the reports surrounding the tomb, which would have been difficult and embarrassing for proponents of the tomb (even though the tomb itself as a story detail wasn't), thus counting (with various strengths) against the idea that the tomb per se, and its emptiness, were literary inventions of anyone, especially the GosMark author.

Part 7 observes that the canonical Acts of the Apostles demonstrates that Christian authorities (both the author of the text and the authorities as characters within the text) could easily and commonly ignore talking about the tomb, even when they (the author and the characters in the text) clearly know about the tomb and think the tomb (and its emptiness) is important. Paul of Tarsus is an especially important example of this point, since he's the only person in Acts to explicitly mention the tomb (and its emptiness) -- Simon Peter heavily implying it in his first reported sermon but not happening to mention it explicitly -- but does so exactly once (early in his preaching career) and never again in the text.

This leads logically, in Part 8, to considering the main text of Paul's epistles, 1 Corinthians (considered genuinely Paul's by even most sceptics, although that isn't strictly necessary for this argument), where Paul talks about Jesus being buried and something happening to Jesus' body to result in Jesus being raised. This authoritative kerygma being passed on by Paul in chapter 15 is something his audience long ago accepted and which he himself received from earlier authorities; the point being that it substantially and significantly predates the composition of 1 Cor, even if Pauline authorship is denied. And while it doesn't explicitly use the term for a tomb, it uses a term that would normally involve being buried in a tomb. Nor is it feasible or even really logical that a previously unknown tomb story was legendarily accreted up out of this kerygma as a source, since the eventual texts (as hard facts of data in themselves) don't follow at all (or very vaguely at best) from the data in the 1 Cor 15 kerygma. On the face of it, and in relation to eventual explicit mentions of a tomb, Paul's material counts neutrally concerning a tomb, and not as evidence against it.

And yet, it's fairly common (moreso among internet sceptics than among scholars, but somewhat among sceptical scholars, too) to appeal to 1 Cor 15 as evidence counting directly against a tomb burial. And they do have something like a good reason! -- because we know that crucified rebels against Rome weren't usually allowed an honorable burial by Roman authorities. But that isn't really a weight of the 1 Cor kerygma against a tomb burial. That's a weight of details outside this kerygma which are acknowledged to be historical, even by most sceptical scholars; a weight, so far as it goes, which also fits the broad meaning of the term {etaphĂȘ} for burial -- as long as the Romans eventually take Jesus down and throw him in a compost heap.

But where did we get those details of a Roman execution? Paul talks about the cross of Christ on rare occasion, but not very often -- he doesn't here for example, where we might otherwise expect it! Which is one reason why Jesus Myth proponents like to try to claim Paul (or, since Paul often proves too historical for them, whoever anonymous mythmaking person was writing the material which was then later taken up to be used by someone pretending to be "Paul" and making some historical claims) was only talking about the mythical death of a cosmic being, not about a historical person.

As a digression aside: it is indisputably true that from at least Bardaisan the Syrian/Persian Christian philosopher in the mid-late 100s onward, there is a strong tendency among Christian theologians, including ones still much more well-known today than Bardaisan, to discuss the importance of the cross in mystical and cosmic language, especially among theologians who, like Bardaisan, emphasized the total scope and power of the cross to save sinners from sin. The cross, put simply, shows for these thinkers across the centuries, the total scope of how far God's arms stretch to save, whether in the heavens or across the earth or into hades/sheol, and how totally far God is willing and able to go to get salvation done. (Eventually different soteriolgoical sides among Christianity began emphasizing one such meaning more than, or even denying, the other, but that's beside the point.) But these theologians (from at least Bardaisan onward) are also opposing the idea that this is only a cosmic myth, not least because their opponents who emphasize the myth and also de-emphasize or even deny the historical reality, are denying along the way the practical expression of the assurance of this scope and effective persistence in salvation. Oversimply-speaking, in the dispute on whose Christ is the biggest Christ, the theologians arguing for the biggest Christ theologically (fully God Most High, not any lesser lord or god) were connecting this claim to the importance of the historical reality of what God suffered as a man a few or several generations ago, over-against a tendency among both Gentiles and Jews to disassociate ultimate deity from interaction with the natural world.

Now, these thinkers among the orthodox and proto-orthodox party (broadly speaking) certainly appeal to Pauline language about the importance of the blood of God's son on the cross (reconciling all things to God which, being in rebellion against God, need reconciliation, whether things in the heavens or things on the earth, and if we have been reconciled to God by the blood of the cross how much moreso shall we be saved into His life, etc.) And they're also appealing to the historical crucifixion of Jesus as reported in the canonical Gospels (sometimes also with appeal to what we'd now call extra-canonicals, but along the same line as the canonicals).

But the canonical Gospels don't go that far in the cosmic meaning of the cross. Or rather the Synoptic Gospels don't (Matt, Mark, Luke), GosJohn being the first to kind-of approach the cosmic significance of the cross (with the Son and the Father dragging all persons toward the Son by the Son being lifted up, and a few other things along that line via Passover lamb parallel concepts -- which are only parallel because Passover lambs were hung in death before cooking and eating in a way somewhat similar to crucifixion). And even Paul (and/or pseudo-Paul among the canonicals, such as in Ephesians and Colossians, if you prefer) doesn't go nearly as far as the Patristic authors from the second century onward, in stressing the cosmic significance of the cross: you won't find anything in Paul like, to give an early example, Bardaisan's appeal to an Indian statue he has heard about in a cave which recapitulates all creation, crowned with God, in the shape of a standing human outstretching arms as if on a cross.

A mythical cosmic cross theory requires that, from this wildly rich and suggestive thematic imagery, the by-far most popular and detailed early exponents of it ditched either all or almost all the conceptual themes (only slightly recovering it later on standard GosJohn dating theories relative to standard Synoptic Gospel dating theories) for a politically dangerous re-imagining of the mythical cross as an actual execution by the same inescapable authorities who would thus have a natural tendency to lethally persecute, at their convenience, anyone following such a crucified rebel; and that this radical reinvention was so popularly accepted by those who originally cared about the rich thematic imagery that they dropped the rich thematic imagery for this fatally dangerous innovation that was proportionately likely to get them and anyone they loved killed in the most excruciating ways imaginable by the omnipotent state authorities; and that only about a hundred years later did these people start recovering the rich thematic imagery (despite cues from Paul and John at least) of the cosmic significance of the cross and Jesus' death on it, while still insisting on the dangerous historical reality of that execution -- an ostensible historicity which, on this theory, was only fadged up at a relatively late date (even in the 2nd century?!) for some other (inscrutable?) reason.

As a sceptical theory, I can't accept it having historical plausibility in itself. But that's the kind of theory required for Paul to only be talking in poetic not historical terms about an execution of Christ on a cross -- an idea that he himself (in another letter to the Corinthians) acknowledges is foolishness and blasphemy to both Gentiles and Jews. But the crucifixion could only be so inconveniently difficult for non-Christians to accept, so far as it's being promoted historically, even by Paul.

To be blunt, sceptics who acknowledge that Jesus was slain by Roman government on a cross, get it from the same sources Christians do: from the canonical New Testament Gospels and Acts, and very secondarily from Paul, and very distantly after that from a few scattered historical references outside the NT, plus the general thrust of post-apostolic Christian authoritative tradition -- not authoritative for sceptics, of course, but still people making historical claims that even many sceptics think they'd be this accurate enough about: because of how those authorities were situated and because of the kinds of claims they were daring to make in that culture. Following a literally crucified rebel was asking to be zorched the same way!

This historical context, of the historical crucifixion of Jesus as a historical reality, not an ahistorical cosmic myth (thematically mythical though the concept of even a historical crucifixion can be after the fact), is ultimately what grounds any attempt at appealing to a mere lack of tomb language in Paul's epistles (whether in 1 Cor 15 or elsewhere) as some kind of positive evidence that originally there was no tomb.

Because under normal circumstances he'd be talking about a Jewish burial, in a tomb; and the only reason we might even suspect otherwise is because of implications in Paul himself, and strong tradition in the canonical Gospels, that Jesus was literally, not figuratively, crucified under the Roman governor's authority with all that that implies.

Except those texts don't have Jesus ending up in a compost heap and/or hanging on a pole until he decomposes. They have him put, with the governor's permission, in a tomb. And that tradition is necessarily just as strong as the execution tradition.

I won't argue that Paul counts positively as more evidence in favor that Mark didn't invent the empty tomb -- someone could say that scattered references to Jesus' crucifixion in Paul plus a non-specific burial word which could in theory apply to a common grave as well as to a tomb, fits a Markan invention theory just as well as a historical tomb theory. And as far as those go by themselves, I don't think I could disagree with that.

But the Pauline non-tomb theory can only get going if the broad testimony to a tomb is first eliminated while keeping the execution testimony. If there is no execution testimony, the term would normally imply being buried in a tomb. Even if the execution detail is supposed to be a cosmic myth detail, there is no good reason to call in such a purely mythical detail as evidence over-against the normal expectation to what being buried would imply. Any strength of the execution detail over a normal expectation of being covered-over in a tomb, depends proportionately on the execution itself being accepted as a historical fact, thus substituting a broadly-normal expectation of something else happening to the body -- because Romans, very broadly speaking, didn't normally bury crucified rebels in tombs.

But the most contemporary sources (the canonical Gospels and Acts) which point to historical tradition about the execution, point just as strongly to Jesus historically being buried in a tomb, and (in the Gospels) provide complex interlocking cultural reasons for this which can at least be discussed pro or con. Certainly I don't see why I would regard the situation explained (and culturally implied) in the Gospel accounts as inherently implausible on the face of it, if I was an atheist.

So appealing to Paul as being supposedly anti-tomb testimony doesnt work; and I have argued that other historical plausibilities point solidly away from the tomb, and even its emptiness, being a literary invention by the author of John Mark, and even away from the empty tomb being a literary invention at all.

True, the variant details around the tomb stories aren't unanimous (a topic I haven't addressed in this series). I guarantee sceptics would consider much unanimity a sign of fictional collusion -- I don't have to make guesses about this, because that's how they often have treated Synoptic verbal agreements. They will often go very far trying to argue that the overlapping details between Gospel texts are only source echoes from previous texts, instead of independent source testimony! Granted, for some people the variations between texts weigh more one way, and for other people agreement between texts weighs more one way. But since we have both variations and agreement, I sometimes get the impression (and sometimes find explicit appeals) that both factors count somehow against the tomb story being real; which starts to look like any stick being good enough to beat an empty tomb with! (To pull an example semi-randomly out of a hat, I can see Bart Ehrman trying both ways, treating the agreements and the differences as simply evidence in themselves of non-historicity, during his famous debate with William Lane Craig.)

The peculiar mix of variation and overlap happens to open the door to historical harmonization theories of various kinds; which even as an atheist I'd be prepared to accept attempts at in principle, even if I didn't always think the explanations worked, and even if I couldn't (as an atheist) accept certain classes of divine explanation.

But even if I thought those variant details couldn't be plausibly harmonized, I'd still find the empty tomb itself standing there like a rock around which the other details swirl. The GosMark author (be that John Mark, per unanimous tradition, or much less some anonymous Mr. Nobody) didn't invent that detail: theories about his invention of it just don't match the facts of the resulting data.

And while I might be stuck for an atheistic explanation, I would even believe, on the evidence, once all the factors are counted in, that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth vanished unexpectedly from its guarded tomb.

3 comments:

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Also, this would be a good time to reiterate an earlier commenter's link to Glenn Miller's in-depth article on cultural contexts for Jewish burial during this period (so far as they can be reconstructed, which is more than a little difficult).

The article is specifically about the question of intentional reburial after a few days of temporary burial, but also covers many other topics along the way.

JRP

Also, for more information than you ever wanted to know about Bardaisan.... um... well, good luck finding Ramelli's Bardaisan of Edessa for less than $150 nowadays (1st edition or otherwise). But it covers literally everything available in depth, with references to more work such as by the Drijvers family (whose 2014 tome runs itself more than $50 nowadays).

But he was an interesting fellow who, along with his friend the Roman Christian historian Julius Africanus (who managed and engineered the production of Rome's new aquaduct for that era), and Origen his late contemporary in Alexandria, helped raise the estimate of Christianity at Imperial and other royal levels despite persecutions. He was probably also the beloved Syrian teacher who sent the wandering Clement, in his days of studying philosophy, to Alexandria to be converted to Christianity and work with Panneus in establishing the first Christian catechetical university. Bard had a reputation for being a genius archer, too!

Not long after his death, his reputation for orthodoxy was tarnished hard by disciples who went to Gnosticism and, typically for syncretists, brought his name into their systems, leading Ephrem of Syria to write not only prose refutations of (ostensibly) him and (ostensibly) his disciples, but also to compose a whole set of actual hymns as refutations -- based apparently on hymns a follower of his, Honorius, had invented in the process of introducing metric poetry to Syrian verse for the first time! He was jumped on subsequently as a habit by pretty much every heresy hunter, although Epiphanius took the time to read his works and came away glowingly impressed not only with his orthodox theology but also with Bard's refusal to cave to pressure to renounce Christianity in the last year of his life under threat from the new Emperor of that day. (This didn't stop Epi from denouncing him as a heretic, since he found him that way in his sources; but it lead Epi to come up with a ridiculous harmonization where in his very final days Bard went to Valentinian Gnosticism after all, after fighting against it his whole life, and taught others to do the same!)

Anyway, he's an early exponent of using cosmic imagery and themes for the cross -- and since I'm finally getting around to reading Dr. R's extended monograph on him, I thought I should put it to some topical use somewhere! {g}

JRP

Further addendum regarding the paragraph about Jesus Myth theories requiring that the rich suggestive cosmic Christ imagery and themes should be dumped (at GosMark per the "Mark invented empty tomb" theory combined with JMyth theory) for a dangerous innovation of a historical crucifixion and then slightly recovered about 30 years later (in GosJohn on standard dating theories) and then more fully 100 years later as Bardaisan and company made use of them again while still insisting on the dangerous historical innovation that was likely to get them killed or brutally tortured (and even the well-connected Bard was threatened with death late in life refusing to recant)...

...that's really the more charitably plausible version of this grossly implausibly theory! -- because it's more common among JMyth proponents to present the canonical Gospels (and even Pauline letters per se) as being created in the early-mid to mid 100s. In which case the Gospel writers, in the face of about a hundred years of various levels of Imperial persecution already, completely dumped the safe cosmic Christ imagery (from which Gnostic Christians never seemed to get persecuted) for the historical rebel executed by Rome story, and then recovered the cosmic Christ imagery again around 30 years later (in the days of Bardaisan and Clement of Alexandria et al) despite their newly accepted historical story, which they're promoting as importantly primitive over-against other newly invented stories (with plenty of culturally safe cosmic Christ imagery), having mostly (for GosJohn) or entirely (for the Synoptics) dumped that imagery.

Super-late Gospel compositions, while convenient for Jesus Myth theories in some regards, create a lot of stumbling blocks in other regards! I'd have to believe it's more plausible that the historical Gospels were collected and composed much earlier (whether standard dating or pre-70 dating -- and I'd tend to go for the latter, even as an atheist, for various reasons having nothing to do with theology) but not popularly promulgated for various reasons (having to do with the logistic problems of text production under the shifty eye of Imperial government, plus the internal cultural importance among Christians of eyewitness authority as a source control on content until that becomes unfeasible after the second generation) until the mid-2nd century.

There are JMyth theories which can work with that (sort of), although they still have problems in other regards: I'd have to reject their basic overall thrust (no historical Jesus at all) due to the GosMatt polemic characteristics at least.

But of course acknowledging some historical reliability to the key texts, opens up an increasing avalanche.

JRP

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