Did GosMark's Author Possibly Invent the Empty Tomb? (Nope 4 of 9)


At this point rather than providing a summary, it's probably better to just start back at Part 1 with the introduction of the question, or Part 2 with the first decisive reason why I answer, "Nope, I don't think it's possible that GosMark's author did invent the empty tomb," and why I would argue that even if I was an atheist.

But in Part 3, I ended by pointing out that even though the tomb story was clearly accepted by Christian groups broadly without any known early competition against it and without any evident problems in itself, tomb stories did still tend to come with associated problems. And those associated problems, I'll be arguing, add to the evaluation.

One such problem, mentioned back in Part 1, is that, whenever GosMatt was written, at least some Jewish opponents were appealing to a very early accusation, with authoritative force, of disciples having stolen the body; an explanation that, despite its own associated problems and consequently thin weakness, the author thought important enough (evidently due to its authoritative weight) to answer in his account. (Whether we regard his answer as being itself a sheer invention, is irrelevant to the implications of what he and his opponents were evidently agreeing on.)

Another much more standard problem for the tomb story was:

3.) The empty tomb is found by some group of women. This detail comes with (overlapping) variations in all four canonical accounts.

That this is a serious social problem, can be eventually seen when early counter-Christian opponents mention the women! The women are universally a liability whenever (surviving reports of) opponents mention them, never merely a neutral detail, much less treated with a grudging respect that the opponents then have to get around somehow.

Inventing women at the tomb doesn't help Mark's invention of a tomb; and inventing an empty tomb doesn't really help having to deal with a previously existent idea of the women having been associated somehow with the initial return of Jesus, especially in GosMark where Jesus will be appearing to the apostles but doesn't appear to the women.

It makes more sense to never introduce the women, unless for some reason the women can't be gotten around. But there they are, strongly connected to the tomb discovery in all four eventual Gospel accounts, and I think that weighs strongly against Mark having invented the tomb. The implication is that if he's telling a story about the discovery of the tomb, not merely mentioning the empty tomb as a fact, he feels like he has to include the women.

And there's only one obvious reason why he would feel that way: because they were the first allies of Jesus to find the tomb empty. That importance of detail is clear enough on the page. Any other importance for them being there is, at best, an educated guess, and I personally don't know of any, or any combination of other reasons, that would even slightly justify why Mark would invent women being at an also invented empty tomb, in the face of huge anti-acceptance problems those women would provide.

I will add that I don’t think it makes sense for Mark to invent women for an empty tomb tradition he’s receiving either; although somehow Crossan, for example, thinks so. Is it supposed to deflect attention from early authoritative counter-Christian accusations (surviving down to GosMatt somewhere) that the disciples stole the body? -- how, by putting allies at the tomb who will be knee-jerk dismissed by cultural bias on a regular basis?! Maybe the refuge in audacity is supposed to deflect suspicion, but GosMatt shows how relatively weak the authoritative charge was (the guards all fell asleep and that's when the disciples stole the body). And Matthew provides a perfectly reasonable explanation for both the guards' explanation (disciple theft) and why they would promote it despite its glaring weakness (the guards supposedly all fell asleep allowing an opening for body theft): the authorities who promoted the guards' testimony, namely the Sanhedrin, bribed the guards. (It doesn't matter for this analysis whether Matthew invented that counter-charge.) Matthew doesn't need the women at the tomb at all, not even to deflect suspicion! -- but there they are anyway, and not only that but in Matthew they, not the apostles or any other authoritative disciples, get the first visit by Jesus personally. That's a detail not found in GosLuke, and which GosMark's truncated narrative doesn't seem to lead to by any extension of narrative logic. That's doing nothing but doubling down on cultural problems with the women being initial witnesses.

The inclusion of the women, therefore, weighs toward Mark passing along an empty tomb story and including the women because that was expected as a pressure on him from his source and/or from his immediate audience -- they already knew about the women and Mark knew they would want the women in the story. And I don't think any tomb-invention theory gains in plausibility connected to those women by pushing the invention(s) farther back before GosMark by any degree. There are good reasons why even modern sceptics (less biased about women) often treat the women the way ancient sceptics didn't treat them when accounting for them: as weight, even if not decisive weight, in favor of the historicity of the tomb (and even sometimes in favor of its emptiness, in a sceptical way of course).

While I'm passing nearby, Joseph of Arimathea may not seem like a problem for early Christians, but in relation to the tomb he kind of is: he's an admission, whether historical or fictional, that Jesus couldn't be honorably buried by his family or best disciples (and specifically not by the disciples who went on to positions of ultimate authority being supported, to some substantial degree, in those early texts). Which is why a common sceptical position (Crossan included, since I referenced him earlier for comparison), is that Mark invented JosArim to deal with apologetic problems for how and why Jesus got buried in a tomb after all (whether the sceptical theory involves Mark inventing the tomb, as in Mack's theory, or someone else inventing it and its emptiness in some fashion prior to Mark, as in Crossan's theory.)

But the GosMatt polemic indicates someone like him must have been in charge of the body, neither Jesus' enemies in authority, nor his family or disciples; and again there is no variation in the eventual shape of the tradition. Nor is the character of Joseph, per se, needed to match the prophecy about being buried in a tomb. Granted, it's plausible enough in itself that Christians might invent a tomb to meet that prophecy, but the polemic shows a tomb-situation existed after all; even if Christians hoaxed the emptiness somehow, the tomb and its emptiness existed. They didn't have to be fudged up later to meet a prophecy requirement. What JosArim as a character could have been invented for, is a new tomb requirement -- the GosMatt polemic implications might be satisfied by convenience tombs located near the execution ground (but not so near as to be unhallowed) where the Romans could allow a committee to bury bodies for purity law purposes (or even do it themselves). The concern to minimize the chance of revolt is crucial (somewhat literally!) to the motivation of Jesus' final enemies in all four canonical Gospel accounts after all.

I grant, since the topic would probably come up anyway, that Joseph's inclusion doesn't add to the likelihood of an empty tomb being historical, nor even add to the likelihood that its invention predates GosMark; but the strength of the tomb story in other regards does strengthen either the historicity of Joseph or, at worst, his invention at a much earlier date than GosMark: someone like him predates GosMark, and there's no one else but him like him in the eventual shape of the data (unless Nicodemus in GosJohn is supposed to count!) The Gospel authors show that they're glad to report enemies of Jesus honoring him occasionally, not least that soldier at the cross confessing him to be (at least) a son of (at least a) god. Had the Roman soldiers buried him with some degree of tact, why would this be dropped completely out of the account and replaced with JosArim? Is a new tomb really that important? -- it would be just as easy, maybe easier, to claim one of the temporary tombs happened to be newly created!

But I can allow that my argument, so far as it goes, doesn't count decisively against Joseph's character being invented to satisfy a perceived prophecy about one characteristic of the empty tomb. That doesn't mean scepticism about JosArim needs to be the default position necessarily -- I'm just doing that as an exercise for how far a sceptic can go with the data -- it only means the topic is outside the scope of my argument. But on the other hand, someone could decide as an induction based on an established general reliability of the accounts, that JosArim might as well be accepted as historical, too: it isn't like his character and plot function are nonsensical. They're plausible in themselves; a plausibility granted in a backhanded fashion by sceptical theories that he was invented as a plausible way of solving a subtle apologetic problem. But by tautology, a plausibly historical charater is plausibly historical. Thus scepticism about JosArim (whether as a character or for a narrative function) tends to be associated with various much more important scepticisms.

Enough of JosArim, then. Back to those women!

Next up: release the oblivion-gush!!


Jason Pratt said…
If you haven't read it already, there was also some discussion of Joseph of Arimathea in the comments for Part 3, written after this entry (although posted before it).

Also, registering for comment tracking.


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