(This posting is part of a book in progress, tentatively titled What Really Happened to Jesus? A Lawyer Reexamines the Evidence, and What It Means for Christians and Christianity.)
Why was Jesus’s tomb empty?
- The classic Christian account is that Jesus was raised from the dead. But that explanation is problematic in view of the evidence, as discussed in Chapter(s) __ [in progress — ed.].
- At the time, some claimed that Jesus’s disciples had simply moved the body, and that he was as dead as ever. But if that were true, it’d be difficult to explain why so many of the disciples later died willingly for their belief that in fact Jesus returned to the living.
On close examination, the evidence suggests still another possibility: After the Sabbath, someone other than the disciples secretly moved Jesus’s body to an undisclosed location, without deigning to inform the disciples or anyone else.
An obvious suspect is Joseph of Arimathea. He had motive. He had opportunity. And he had already demonstrated the self-confidence to boldly take action he deemed necessary, without consulting the Eleven or even Jesus’s family.
Background: The Twelve Were Not Jesus’s Only Friends
Unsurprisingly, the Gospels portray the twelve apostles as Jesus’s main men — his privy council, as it were, the foundation of the church despite their humble origins.
But the Gospel evidence shows clearly that Jesus’s friends and admirers also included other influential, well-off people, who did not necessarily have anything to do with, and may have paid little attention to, the Twelve.
The Gospels Tell of Influential People in Jesus’s Circle
In the Gospel stories, a variety of influential people make cameo appearances. Several of them owed big debts of gratitude to Jesus. For example, there were:
- The royal official in Capernauam whose son was ill [Jn 4.46-54];
- Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, whose twelve-year-old daughter Jesus declared was not dead but sleeping [Mt 9.18-25, Mk 5.22-23, 35-42];
- the rich young man (or ruler) who went away sad after an unsatisfying conversation with Jesus [Mt 19.16-22, Lk 18.18-23];
- Lazarus and his family, who evidently were quite well-to-do;
- Joanna, wife of Herod’s household manager, who seems to have been no pauper and who provided Jesus with financial support;
- Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both members of the Jewish ruling council and secret followers of Jesus.
It’s also likely that “important” people followed Jesus as part of the great crowds described in the Gospels. These crowds came from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyong the Jordan [e.g., Mt 4.25]. Thousands turned out to see Jesus on the occasion that he reportedly performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that these crowds were made up exclusively of poor people.
Jesus told lots of parables featuring rich and powerful people. That doesn’t prove anything about his social connections. But it’s not implausible that he came up with these parables, and with sayings such as the one about camels and the eye of a needle [e.g., Mk 10.25], in part because he had first-hand experience with such folks.
On some occasions, Jesus may well have told parables about the rich and powerful because that's just whom he was talking to. Good communicators tailor their message to their audiences. Jesus may well have phrased his message in terms that would catch the ears of a well-to-do elite.
Lazarus & Family Were Clearly Well-Off
According to John’s Gospel, Lazarus and his family were important in Jesus’s life. Jesus loved Lazarus and his family and wept at his death. He restored Lazarus to life [Jn 11] and dined with him just before his (Jesus’s) triumphal entry into Jerusalem [Jn 12].
Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha must have been pretty well off. When Jesus dined with them, Mary just happened to have on hand a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages, which she poured on Jesus’s feet! [Jn 11.2, 12.2-5; cf. Mark 14.3]. It’s hard to imagine how anyone other than the well-to-do would (or could) have offered such an extravagant gesture.
Strangely, the New Testament documents do not list Lazarus among the followers of Jesus. You’d think Lazarus might well have been among the most devoted to the man who rescued him from death. We might expect Lazarus to have worked alongside the Twelve; to have shared in the Last Supper; to have been there for Jesus during his agony in the Garden. And wouldn’t Lazarus have played at least some role in the early life of the church that the Twelve founded?
Maybe the wealthy Lazarus did all these things. Maybe he was right in there with the Twelve during Jesus’s ministry and in the early days of the church.
But if so, the New Testament is silent about it.
Joanna, Wife of Herod’s Steward, Was No Pauper
Then there’s Joanna, one of the women who provided financial support for Jesus "out of their own means" [Lk 8.3]. Luke’s phrasing suggests she was unlikely to have been poor.
Joanna’s husband Chuza was of some importance himself. He served as household manager for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee whom Jesus belittled as “that fox” [Lk 13.32]. Such a man also seems unlikely to have been a pauper, and presumably was not without influence.
(Chuza is not recorded as having been a follower of Jesus. One wonders whether he might have been an inspiration for Jesus’s parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16. Luke reports that Joanna was one of the women who discovered the empty tomb on Easter Sunday [Lk 24.10]. It’s hard to know what to make of that fact.)
The Upper Room’s Owner Must Have Been Well-to-Do
There’s a hint of intrigue about the unnamed Jerusalem householder who hosted the Last Supper. This man was sufficiently well-off to afford a house in the city itself, one with a large guest room upstairs. Jesus seems to have known the man well enough to borrow the upper room to celebrate the Passover [Mk 14.13-16] — a time when Jerusalem was normally jam-packed with “the great crowd that had come for the Feast” [Jn 12.12], and space presumably was at a premium.
The householder’s family doesn’t appear to have used the upper room for its own Passover feast. This may suggest that the family didn’t live there. Perhaps the house was a rental property. If true, that would tend to confirm that the householder was reasonably well-to-do. That he was willing to let Jesus use the upper room at high season, and apparently for free, says something about their relationship.
Jesus’s disciples evidently didn’t know this householder. Before the Passover feast, Jesus told two of the disciples (according to Luke 22.7, it was Peter and John):
As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there. [Lk 22.10–12]
Note that Jesus didn’t tell Peter and John, “We’re doing Passover at so-and-so’s house; go set it up.” Instead he told them how to find a man who would lead them to the house. He also told them what to say to the house’s owner — it almost has a ring of a secret password to it — so that the owner would allow them into the house to prepare the meal.
Both this householder and the man carrying water to his house were clearly strangers to the Twelve (and vice versa). But not, apparently, to Jesus.
Jesus Had Friends in High Places
Two of Jesus’s most intriguing relationships were with members of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
- Nicodemus is mentioned only in John’s Gospel. That document recounts that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council who came by night to visit and converse with Jesus [Jn 3.1–21]. John’s Gospel also says that on one occasion Nicodemus objected when the chief priests and Pharisees berated the temple guards for not arresting Jesus [Jn 7.50–51].
- According to all the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, a member of the ruling council, a good and upright man, and a secret disciple of Jesus [Mt 27.57–60; Mk 15.42–47; Lk 23.50–55, Jn 18.38–42].
It was those men — not any of the Twelve — who cared for Jesus’s body after his death.
Another Possible Narrative
As the Sabbath Begins, Joseph of Arimathea Takes Charge of Jesus's Body
Jesus died on a Friday afternoon. Sunset was approaching; the Sabbath would be starting. “So, as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea . . . went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body” [Mk 15.42–43; emphasis added].
With only Pilate’s permission, and with Nicodemus’s help, Joseph took the body down from the cross. He wrapped it in linen cloth.
Joseph's own, new tomb was handy [Mt 27.60, Jn 19.41]. He laid Jesus's body in it [Mt 27.57–60; see also Mk 15.42–47; Lk 23.50–55; Jn 19.38–42].
Evidently Joseph was sufficiently self-assured to take this initiative on his own, without consulting anyone except Pilate. According to John's Gospel, both Jesus’s mother and the beloved disciple had been standing by the cross as Jesus was dying [Jn 19.26]. Joseph apparently claimed and buried Jesus's body without so much as a by-your-leave to either of them.
Purely by coincidence, Jesus’s disciples learned what Joseph had done: Two of Jesus’s women friends “followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how [Jesus’s] body was laid in it” [Lk 23.55; see also Mk 14.47, Mt 27.61]. The women watched as Joseph “rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away” [Mt 27.60–61; see also Mk 15.46–47, Lk 23.54].
One wonders: Who was this guy? What gave him the notion that he could come in from out of nowhere and claim Jesus's body?
Joseph of Arimathea is nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament, not before, not after. It was the Eleven who had accompanied Jesus in his ministry for three years. They were the ones who were like Jesus's family. They should have been the ones making decisions about the body. At the very least, they should have been informed about what was done with the body. Right?
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the Twelve didn't play quite the central role in Jesus's life that the Gospels all suppose. Maybe some of Jesus's other, well-connected friends — such as Joseph of Arimathea and NIcodemus — had reason to assume that they were the ones who could stand in as the Teacher's "next of kin" after his death.
Did Joseph of Arimathea Move Jesus's Body After the Sabbath?
There seems no doubt that Jesus’s tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning. All the Gospels record that on the morning after the Sabbath, one or two of the Twelve (now Eleven) and some of Jesus’s women followers went to his tomb. The Synoptic Gospels variously recount that an angel, or a young man, or two men, advised the women that Jesus was not there, because he had risen from the dead [Mt 28.2–6, Mk 16.4–7, Lk 24.2–6].
Perhaps. But a simpler explanation for the empty tomb comes to mind: After the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea returned to the tomb (which was his own, remember). He rolled the stone away from the entrance, just as he had rolled it up to block the entrance on Friday. He removed Jesus’s body and took it to an undisclosed location. He kept this information to himself, not telling Jesus’s disciples what he had done.
Why would Joseph have moved Jesus’s body from the tomb? There are a couple of obvious possibilities:
- It was one thing to give Jesus's body a temporary resting place; the Teacher should not hang dead on the cross during the Sabbath.
But leaving the body there permanently, in Joseph’s own tomb? That would have been another matter entirely.
- We can assume Joseph saw Jesus’s women disciples watching him as he laid the body to rest. So Jesus's resting place was known, and Joseph knew it.
If Joseph had left the body in the tomb after the Sabbath, it might have become a rallying point for dangerous civil unrest. That was something the chief priests and scribes had feared in the first place [Mk 14.1–2; Jn 11.47–53]. As a member of the ruling council (not to mention someone whose fortune gave him a vested interest in social stability), Joseph would have wanted to avoid that risk.
It's not difficult to imagine Joseph taking matters into his own hands again, just as he did on Friday afternoon: Go back to the tomb. Move Jesus's body to a secret location. Problem solved.
Why didn’t Joseph of Arimathea tell the Eleven what he had done? The better question is: Why would he have told them? After all —
- The wealthy Joseph didn’t ask permission from the Eleven, nor even from Jesus’s family, before claiming Jesus's body. Neither, apparently, did he deem it necessary to go to the disciples to tell them what he had done with the body. (In fact, there's no indication in the New Testament that Joseph ever had any contact with the disciples at any time.)
- The Eleven were fishermen and others of no particular social standing. In contrast, Joseph was a rich man, a member of the ruling council — he was "somebody."
- If Joseph's purpose in moving the body was to prevent Jesus's resting place from being a focal point of civil unrest, then telling the disciples where to find the body likely would have been self-defeating.
From what little we know of Joseph, if he did remove Jesus’s body from the tomb, it would have been in character for him to keep his own counsel about it.
Joseph thereafter goes unmentioned in the New Testament. Apart from legends that he journeyed to Britain and founded the Celtic Church, we have no evidence that he — or any other of Jesus's influential friends — played any role in the church founded by the hoi polloi Eleven.
What About Jesus's Post-Mortem Appearances?
Suppose Joseph of Arimathea did secretly move Jesus's body from the tomb. If we are to credit the New Testament writings at all, we still must accept that at least some of Jesus’s disciples “encountered” the Teacher in the days and months after his death.
Not only that, many of these disciples willingly went to their own deaths — usually violent ones — believing that Jesus lived. How can we explain that, if not by a resurrection?
We will explore some evidence relating to these questions in the next chapter [in progress — ed.]
You should know that even in this country if someone is executed you can not just go and ask his mother for the body. It has to be released by the proper athority.
Maybe you should find a subject that you know something about.
Posted by: Frank | October 30, 2005 at 03:14 PM
Some interesting thoughts. First off, I'm wondering what your method of interpreting scripture is. On the one hand you're prepared to believe that the ressurection, Jesus' subsequent appearances, etc. were fabrications or misunderstandings, and on the other, you form theories based on fairly obscure references to various people in the same books. If you're looking to cast doubt on the historicity of the ressurection, isn't it easier just to say the whole New Testament is a sham?
You seem to be saying that the followers of Jesus found the tomb empty and jumped to the conclusion that Jesus was alive, and then founded the Christian religion on this misunderstanding. Since it clearly occured to someone that the body may have been moved (a far more likely explanation, voiced by Mary as well as the enemies of Jesus) I can't see all of Jesus' followers instead coming to belief that he had risen from the dead. I'm also interested to hear your explanation for their conviction that Jesus repeatedly appeared to them.
Also, is it likely that the guards would have permitted Joseph (or anyone else) to break the seal on the tomb and move the body to an unknown place? Would Joseph really be concerned about the cowardly disciples making a rallying point out of a dead body guarded by soldiers? And if so, would he have been foolish enought to think an empty tomb would be less of a rallying point than a sealed tomb under heavy guard? Once the Christians began to kick up a fuss, wouldn't there have been a more thorough investigation into the resurrection claim? And if Joseph (or anyone else) was trying to avoid civil unrest, wouldn't he have produced the body when the Christians started to clash with the Jews? Even if he didn't forsee the talk of resurrection, wouldn't he have realized that his plan had backfired and tried to correct it?
Posted by: Jacob | October 30, 2005 at 05:35 PM
Thanks for commenting, Jacob. To answer your question, I try to read Scripture in the same way I'd read any other written account of past events. I don't assume a priori that people are deliberately lying. But neither do I assume they've necessarily gotten it right.
To the extent that the scriptural stories are internally consistent and don't conflict with what else we know about how the world works, I'm fully prepared to credit them. On the other hand, when scriptural stories are internally inconsistent, or when there's no indication that the authors were in a position to know what they were talking about, then I regard them skeptically.
I'm not per se looking to cast doubt on the resurrection. As the crime lab people on the TV series C.S.I. would put it, I'm looking for the story that the evidence tells, which is not necessarily the same story that the scriptural authors are trying to tell.
I certainly don't say that the New Testament is a sham. What it is, is a record of how certain people perceived and interpreted certain events some 2,000 years ago. It's data, and it's never a good idea to dismiss data as a sham unless you've got pretty solid proof that it's been faked.
An analogy comes to mind. In the book The Hunt for Red October, one of the characters takes pictures of a Russian submarine. He gives the CIA not just the film, but the camera; the book says that lab techs, by shooting laser beams through the lens, can do image-compensation to correct for the lens's distortion. I try to do that with the scriptural stories.
We certainly don't know that all of Jesus's followers did conclude he had been raised from the dead. We know nothing of what Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, or Lazarus thought, to name just three examples. None of the three appears in any of the New Testament narratives after the crucifixion.
I don't give a lot of weight to the story of the guards at the tomb. Remember, Jesus wasn't that big a deal to the Romans. As Paula Frederiksen points out, the Romans didn't round up and crucify Jesus's disciples, which they almost surely would have done if they had regarded Jesus as a genuine threat. Moreover, assuming Pilate did post a guard — and Matthew is the only Gospel that says he did — he didn't do so until he was importuned by the chief priests and Pharisees [Mt 27.62-66], the same people who had agitated for Jesus's death in the first place.
But suppose for the sake of argument that Pilate did order that guards be posted. For anyone who has ever served in the military, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that this was not a high-priority mission. Let's face it, guarding the tomb of an executed "criminal" on a holiday weekend is a s**t detail.
If someone important had come up to the guards and demanded to be let into the tomb — especially if it was his tomb — chances are the guards would have gone along. Remember, Joseph of Arimathea was not bashful about going to Pilate to claim the body; it's not hard to imagine that he invoked Pilate's authority again with the guards to be allowed to go back into the tomb and retrieve the body. (Or perhaps he simply bribed the guards to look the other way.)
First, there wasn't much of a fuss for some time. (Acts doesn't tell us how long.) Second, remember that Joseph of Arimathea is said to have been a secret follower of Jesus. For him to have produced Jesus's body to refute the resurrection claims, he would have had to go public that he had the body, and then explain how and why that came to be. Finally, it's easy to imagine that the wealthy Joseph simply didn't care whether the hoi polloi disciples thought Jesus was alive, that it was of no consequence to him one way or another.
Jacob, I appreciate your having taken the time to write. These are good questions, which will help in the revision of this chapter.
Posted by: D. C. | October 30, 2005 at 08:27 PM
It is forty days or so from Passover to Pentecost, where Acts recounts rushing winds, tongues of flame, glossolalia and mass conversions, not to mention Peter's recovery of courage. The clear context of Acts is that it is within days, weeks at the very most, when Peter defies the Sanhedrin. We're given no reason to believe that Joseph of Arimathea is not very much alive and influential, perhaps seated on the Sanhedrin itself. Again, the context of Acts indicates that the martyrdom of Stephen occurs shortly thereafter, in the presence of one who will soon be a major persecutor of Christians, Saul of Tarsus.
Joseph is thus faced with the fact of the very civil unrest he supposedly feared. His well-intended action has backfired. And he does nothing?
C'mon. He doesn't even have to put himself on the line. Then and now, information can be leaked and one's butt covered. And, though it's possible that Roman soldiers might be so softhearted as to let someone roll the stone and view the body, letting someone take it is something else entirely. Sh-t detail it may have been, but even in today's forces they get done because it's easier to do what Sarge says than to risk military justice which, we are lead to believe, did not in those days involve Article 15's. It takes a heavy bribe to make a flogging worth it. Heavier when multiplied by twelve. If instead Pilate is in on the plot, it's very much in his interest to retrieve the body. He already has troubles enough with the Zealots, and serves an emperor who, whatever his faults, wants peace within his realm.
In-credible as the Gospel accounts are to many, and even allowing for inconsistencies in them, they are cohere overall and, in my view, establish not a mere preponderance of, but clear and convincing evidence which you have not effectively rebutted. Beyond a reasonable doubt? First, I don't think you have a criminal case here. Second, that's where faith comes in. The Creator of the Universe at some point created life from inert matter. He cannot do so again? In the case of his own Son? That Son as co-Creator cannot do it on his own? Science, as opposed to Scientism, can only say that the answers to these questions are beyond its legitimate realm.
Posted by: BobW | October 30, 2005 at 10:40 PM
Good questions, BobW; I had to think about them. Let me tackle some of them.
1. Your civil-unrest argument doesn't take into account the fact that the situation was very different at Pentecost than at Passover.
During Passover, things were tense. Jerusalem was filled with the seasonal "great crowds." Some of the crowd shouted hosannas to Jesus. According to John's Gospel, the chief priests and Pharisees feared that, if the people came to believe that Jesus was the Anointed One, then Rome would ruthlessly suppress any perceived threat of insurrection [Jn 11.46.50]. The chief priests and Pharisees wanted to get rid of Jesus, "[b]ut not during the Feast," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people." [Mt 26.5]
Contrast that with the situation 40 days later, at Pentecost. Jesus has been very publicly executed. The Passover crowds have gone home [cf. Lk 2.43]. Things have calmed down.
Sure, some of Jesus's followers are now claiming he was raised from the dead. They say he is in heaven awaiting the time to return and rule the world.
But no crowds are shouting hosannas to Jesus's followers, the way they did to The Man himself just weeks earlier. The chief priests and Pharisees aren't scrambling to placate the Romans. Some Sanhedrin members want to put Jesus's followers to death, but Gamaliel is able to talk them out of it merely by saying, in effect: Relax, God will sort things out [Acts 5.33-40]; the apostles get away with "just" a flogging.
If Joseph of Arimathea had in fact reburied Jesus's body, the evidence doesn't indicate there was any urgency for him to go public with that fact. The threat of civil unrest had largely passed. True, there was some controversy about the fantastic claims being made by some of Jesus's followers. But the followers in question were uneducated, of no particular standing in the community. As Gamaliel suggested, the kerfuffle about their claims would soon blow over. It was just not that big a deal.
Even before the crucifixion, Joseph had felt the need to keep his relationship with Jesus a secret. We have no evidence to indicate that this situation had changed. Assuming Joseph knew where Jesus's body was, there seems to have been no compelling reason for him to break his silence.
* * *
2. Speaking of Joseph of Arimathea:
Suppose you're trying a lawsuit. The evidence makes it clear that Person X was a crucial player in the events in question. The odds are very high that you're going to want to put Person X on the witness stand. If you don't, you'd better have a convincing explanation for Person X's absence. Otherwise, the jury will wonder — and your opposing counsel will certainly prompt them to wonder — whether you're really telling them the truth, or whether instead you're trying to hide something. This is sometimes called having an empty-chair problem.
IMHO, the New Testament accounts of the post-crucifixion period has several significant empty-chair problems. Not least of these is the absence of the witness of Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Lazarus.
* * *
3. You mention the great wind, tongues of fire, and mass conversions of Pentecost. For the time being I'll merely point out that the hearsay rule didn't come about by accident. It was based on hard-won lessons about story mutation and storyteller reliability, lessons we re-learn every day.
* * *
4. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree whether the Gospel accounts are coherent, let alone rising to the level of clear and convincing evidence. I think that, read carefully, the New Testament reinforces the rationale for following the religion of Jesus. But when it comes to supporting the main pillars of the religion about Jesus — which I would list as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, and the Trinity — IMHO the New Testament is an incoherent mess.
Christianity has classically defined itself primarily as the religion about Jesus, and only secondarily as the religion of Jesus. It's not a coincidence, I submit, that throughout history, Christianity has failed to be accepted by the majority of the world's population.
* * *
Thanks for writing up your comments; they gave me a lot to think about.
Posted by: D. C. | October 31, 2005 at 08:01 AM
For now, I'll reply only to your remarks as to the absence of Lazarus, Nicodemus and others as being absent from the record by noting that in your initial post you set out to address only the empty tomb, not the post-Resurrection appearances. You say you will raise that issue in your next, and as you are the author and I only the critical reader it seems only fair to let you make your case before I respond to it.
It does not bother me that Christianity has never been believed by a majority of the world's people. What religion has? Given how it has as often as not been spread by sword rather than by Word, by bullets as much as by Bibles, one doubts that it bothers Christ. (As a corrolary to this, I am sure [and a bit frightened] that Christ knows better than I do whether I love him or not; and that many who had been given every earthly reason to loathe his very name have found that "This day ye shall be with me in Paridise.")
To the extent that your remark about people seeing Christianity as "about" Jesus rather than "of" him is true, and it is quite true indeed, it may be that this is where the faith has gone astray. Jesus does not say that he walks the way but that he is the way, he doesn't shine the light but is the light itself, and his answer to Pilate's "What is truth?" is simply to stand there. Indeed, we might do well to recall that Christ is himself the embodied church, and we the members of that body.
Posted by: BobW | October 31, 2005 at 12:09 PM
If you present someone taking the body of Christ, you have to take into consideration the fact that the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders were all against Jesus and did not want Him to be raised from the dead. If someone took the body, you would have to demonstrate that they could outwit the numerous Jewish sects against Christ as well as the powerful religious leaders. The Roman government also did not need a disappearing body. Matthew 27:63,64 shows both Pharisees and Roman rulers discussing Jesus' prediction of His resurrection. One small group would have to outwit huge numbers of people. Something to consider to cover your bases.
Posted by: jeff | November 01, 2005 at 06:36 PM
Given the nature of a lawyers purpose to represent his client and what is best for him regardless of innocence or guilt, it is understandable that you are looking at both sides but with a slanted view towards your clients best interest. I can't help but wonder what your presentation would be if Jesus hired you to prove that He is God. In summary, it seems like you hired yourself and your quest for truth is hampered by your bias to your client.
Posted by: ken west | November 02, 2005 at 09:33 AM
What you write makes no sense. An EMPTY tomb of someone who had foretold that he would rise up after 3 days was for sure to be a rallying point-much more than a sealed tomb with a dead body in it.
Also, exactly because of what he had foretold, there is no way that the Jewish priests who had gone to so much trouble to arrest and have him crucified quickly, would suddenly leave the tomb and his body to the control of his followers-it makes no sense, and the priests were cunning, to be sure.
There is no way they would not have thought that the tomb must be secure, so that they would not have a miracle in their hands instead of just a dead body.
The only thing that makes sense is that the tomb was guarded. Even if the soldiers fell asleep, the noise of rolling that big stone would wake them. And, why would someone who took the body sit inside the tomb and unwrap all those yards of linen, with guards outside?
Why would they unwrap a dead body, since it would be buried again somewhere else as you say? If it was Joseph that took it, how could he, a devout Jew, do it during the Sabbath??
Even his mother was not going to the tomb before the Sabbath was over.
You question why there is no reference to Nicodemus, Joseph, or Lazarus after the resurrection, as if Jesus came back from the dead to socialize and pick up life where he had left it. Makes no sense.
Judging from the profound changes the apostles underwent in a short time, his time was probably spent in expanded teaching about everything pertaining to their ministry,and all kinds of things about God, eternal life, kingdom of God, etc. that we see written in such extraordinarily cohesive way in Acts and their Epistles.
Nicodemus, Joseph, or Lazarus had no place now among them-they were not chosen to spread the gospel all over the world. Jesus had a big mission, to build a world church, and it makes sense that the greatest "building" took place after he rose, because that's when the disciples would have no doubts anymore.
Even if Lazarus did see Jesus after his resurrection, it was not essential to be written, and you must have noticed that the New Testament contains only what is needed for us, and no more.
The themes of those Acts and Epistles are often so abstract and supernatural that even a well-educated person would have trouble putting them down on paper-yet, those peasants did, in a succinct way and beautiful language.
And what makes what you say unreasonable, is that the disciples underwent a tremendous change shortly after the events-from timid, hiding peasants, they became fiery apostles, traveling and teaching, abandoning life as they knew it and suffering persecution, imprisonment, and martyric deaths-
If you say that 11 people suddeny become like this on the basis of a lie that they know is a lie, it makes no sense whatsoever. That's 11, not 2 or 3.
The only thing that makes sense is that these people had seen things that made them believe so deeply, that torture and death could not shake them. They KNEW beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Posted by: Anna | March 29, 2006 at 01:55 AM
Anna, I appreciate you having taken the time to write such a thoughtful post.
1. I apologize in advance for the offense I'm sure to give here, but in the end, the arguments you cite amount mainly to (i) wishful thinking, (ii) being in denial that the wishful thinking might be off-target, and (iii) imaginative efforts to paper over the holes in the argument. When an argument is founded on categorical, brook-no-disagreement phrases such as "[it] was ... sure to be" and "there is no way that" and "the only thing that makes sense," that's a pretty good indicator.
2. It's indeed impressive that members of the early church were so convinced of the truth of their beliefs that they were willing to die for them. But this doesn't establish that their beliefs were factual. If it did, we'd have to give similar credence to the beliefs of the followers of other prophets — for example, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite, to name but a few — because those followers, too, were willing to die for their beliefs (and in the case of Islamist suicide bombers, to take other people with them).
3. I don't think you've offered a satisfying explanation of the absence, from the post-resurrection record, of Nicodemus, Lazarus, and Joseph of Arimathea. If we're to believe the gospels, those three men played important roles in Jesus's story. I have a hard time imagining why not one; not two; but all three of those men are completely MIA from the story of the early church. Something's not right here.
4. It's beyond dispute that unfactual stories can sprout seemingly out of nowhere, and/or they can evolve by mutation of originally-factual accounts. Such stories can quickly spread and put down deep roots, stubbornly resisting all attempts to correct them. Urban legends are modern examples. (Google-search this blog for urban legends or story mutation to see some examples previously discussed here.)
We have no reason to think that, a mere 2,000 years ago, the urban-legend phenomenon was any different. We have no way of getting to the bottom of the amazing tales we read in the Bible, e.g., by cross-examining eyewitnesses to find out what they really saw and heard, decades before the tales we have available were written.
Consequently, if we're going to rely on those tales to make important decisions affecting our lives — and, more importantly, the lives of others — it's only sensible to be very cautious in doing so. In this regard too many traditionalist Christians have unfortunately thrown caution to the winds.
Again, thanks for stopping by.
Posted by: D. C. | March 29, 2006 at 06:29 AM
Thank you very much for your own thoughtful answer. I hope it's not out of place to write you here about it!
1. Please forgive my expressions of "sure to be.." and similar-I am just a simple psychologist, who goes by what is most possible, most probable, based on how most people think and feel most often-I am not a legal person used to cases being thrown out due to "technicalities".
2. I was not speaking in general about "members of the early church", but specifically about the Apostles. Their writings are extraordinarily intelligent and contain figures of speech that a well-trained lawyer would make. Their writings tell me that these were mentally sophisticated men-hardly the peasants they once were, which makes me see them as very capable of questioning whether they just believed an "urban legent". Jesus was also very sharp, as shown in his arguments that left Pharisees angry, but speechless.
Followers of Jim Jones, or Marshall Applewhite, or Koresh, have not left behind them a written record such as the Apostles' proving their perfect mental faculties. And they were 'followers', not teachers spending decades tiressly suffering and sticking to the spread of their gospel.
We have no proof that Jim Jones' followers were willing to die; they were murdered by Jones when they drank the poisoned punch he made them drink. Koresh was born "Vernon Wayne Howell" and filed for a name change for "publicity and business purposes." His name is connected with guns and a murder trial, and there is nothing left as a legacy of his teachings.
It is sophistry when you bring up criminals with followers in order to discredit Jesus, not wisdom. Why, Bonnie and Clyde had some followers. Osama has followers. Stalin had followers, and so did Hitler, and his legacy still lives in the neo-Nazis. You're free to relegate them in the same place as Jesus, if your mental faculties allow it.
Islamist suicide bombers do not teach nations-they don't die for their faith-they are young, naive, maladjusted folk seething with cultivated anger, who die while murdering others, in their twenties, so their family can receive praise and $25000. They have a monetary benefit to die and kill, and a political benefit, since it's militant politicians who recruit and train them. Their death is quick and instant-their faith is not tested over decades of struggle and persecution. Mohamet sure didn't die for his faith, nor Jim Jones, neither Osama. Joseph Smith died after firing his gun trying to save himself-we can hardly say he was willing to die for his faith!
Marshall Applewhite had a small cult, and they all died by deliberate suicide-they were not persecuted. Their death was pointless, yet voluntary and self-inflicted-major difference with Jesus and the apostles.
3. You are willing to use the ABSENCE of the 3 names of Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus as evidence of something amiss, but you're unwilling to use the PRESENCE of so much more as evidence. These 3 men were not vital in the creation of the church. We know that Nicodemus was a secret believer. This means he did not dare reveal his faith. What makes you think he did not continue being afraid? He had much at stake.
Joseph does not appear at all until the death of Jesus. From his action, we can deduce he loved Jesus, but what makes you think that he would throw away his position and life to follow him after the ressurection? And if he did not, why should he be written about in the last few pages of the gospel? And Lazarus? What do we have to make us think he joined the team that followed Jesus after Jesus raised him? Nothing. He may well have been a believer who stayed at his home.
4. Yes, of course urban legends and story mutations spring about constantly. You are free to believe that Jesus' is such a story. Neither he nor the apostles ever tried to give unassailable proof of their truth, because there can't be any. They did not try HARD to convert anyone-they spoke, answered questions, healed people, and let whoever could believe, do so-they were content with that, and there was nothing more they could do. Jesus himself said often in different ways that many would hear and see miraculous things, but few would understand and believe. He did his part, the apostles did their part-the rest is up to the people.
Even if his miracles were faithfully recorded, someone could always say "Oh, the historian who wrote this was a secret Christian". Even if Jesus had been videotaped rising up from the slab and shedding the linen he was wrapped with, someone could say "The video is doctored" or "They used someone else to play the dead body".
Heck, the Soviet Union used to erase every trace of an undesirable person, all the way down to street names and any records of his existence! They knew human nature well: Some would believe that so-and-so was a bad person, or did not exist at all. Some others would not. Well, they were interested in the ones who would believe the state's version. Was the Sovier Union in those cases interested in the truth?
I am trying to say that there is no fool-proof way to verify a controversial subject, because many of the people involved are not interested in the truth, but act in a way that will bring about their desired outcome, thus distorting the truth. that's part and parcel of human nature. Think of the persecutors of Galileo, or think president Bush, saying he did not know anything about the UAE port deal and he read it first in the papers, while he was defending it all he could by asking for a like-item veto!
If you general leaning is "I don't believe this nonsense" (as I was until I read the bible), and also "I like people to see that Im right", you may look for reasons not to believe, and you WILL find A FEW of them on which you will base your opinion.
As for me, I did not believe anything while I did not know anything. But when I started out of curiocity to read the bible, I emptied my mind from any pre-conceived notion, and read, with curiosity and interest.
Not until I read a lot of History did I start marveling at the prophesies of the Old Testament. Not until I read the history of the Old Testament did I realize that it accutately foretold in specific ways things that took place in History, and in the New Testament years. That is how I realized that the old Testament, written over 1500 years by about 40 different people, and truly existing since it was what the Jews used to read in their church for centuries before Jesus, was continued in the New Testament.
I feel sorry for the people who try to believe without knowing well what all is contained in the bible-it is a huge amount of historical knowledge, that a non-history student had no access to before the Internet. I also feel sorry for those who do not realize the depth and full meaning of what Jesus taught, reducing it to simple parables for the peasants who were hearing him. On the other hand, I envy the people who believe by faith, without knowing all that stuff.
I did not believe simply "by faith". I believed because my educated mind could not find a good enough reason not to. Because I really knew I would be stupid if I did not.
I have not stepped foot inside a church, because the highly politicized religion disgusts me. I have been inside the Vatican as a tourist, and imagined how Jesus would feel walking in his sandals and tunic in those gilded halls, on those marble floors.....
To close, it does not surprise me that you feel as you do. What I marvel at, and smile at, is that were the names of Lazarus, Joseph, and Nicodemus included in the post-resurrection story, then the whole thing would be believeable to you!
So you don't believe for a very small reason, and had you believed, you would have believed for a very small reason. Even that does not surprise me though-people have not coined the "missing the forest for the tree" for no reason, but because it's a common occurence.
Posted by: Anna | March 29, 2006 at 05:29 PM
FYI -- I also defend the theory that Joseph of Arimathea in my
article on the empty tomb, as well as in my book, THE EMPTY TOMB: JESUS BEYOND THE GRAVE (co-edited with Robert M. Price, 2005).
Jeffery Jay Lowder
Posted by: Jeffery Jay Lowder | September 05, 2006 at 06:18 PM
I just read your Web article, Jeff; it's very thorough and readable. Thanks for the link.
Posted by: D. C. | September 05, 2006 at 09:30 PM
You're forgetting the Roman guard at the tomb.
Posted by: Kate | December 10, 2006 at 02:20 PM
Kate writes: You're forgetting the Roman guard at the tomb.
Not at all.
First, it's not at all clear there really was a guard. Of the four canonical gospels, only Matthew even mentions the presence of guards — and his account has a decidedly false ring to it, a sense that some in the early church were trying to embellish their tale in the hope of standing up to credibility challenges by "the Jews." Mark, the earliest of the canonical gospels, says nothing about guards. Nor does Luke, who purported to have done a thorough investigation into the facts. Not even the author of the Fourth Gospel — whose avowed purpose was to persuade people that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God — deigns to mention a "fact" that would certainly have been noteworthy to his readers. The logical conclusion is that Matthew's tale of guards at the tomb is likely a fabrication.
Second, if Joseph of Arimathea had sufficient clout with Pilate to get the body released after the crucifixion, it's no stretch at all to imagine the (hypothetical) guard(s) letting him remove the body — after all, he would have been removing the body from his own new tomb.
Thanks for stopping by.
Posted by: D. C. | December 10, 2006 at 03:35 PM
Naturally -- and probably because that's the title of the book -- you're looking at this as a lawyer.
For lawyers, reasonable doubt is enough.
The problem is that there's already plenty of reasonable doubt to go around. (Your cases are like the "Plan B" scenarios the lawyers on "The Practice" cooked up to show that some other person could have committed the murder.)
Your stories are plausible in many instances, but they're no more factual than any of the canonical gospel accounts.
The most useful story I've read is Roger Haight's in "Jesus Symbol of God" because his posits the factual weakness and makes the point that the facts really aren't the central issue.
People apparently believed that something special had happened and they put that something into stories that would simplify and reify the experience. (He only takes about a million pages to make his case, so this synopsis is inadequate.)
The real "resurrection," in my view, was of the people who began to see God and themselves in a new light after their encounter with Jesus.
Far more important than any tomb robbing or even some miraculous physical resurrection.
But, having said that, keep at it. The discussion is part of the resurrection and focusing on it helps us to keep alive our own resurrections.
Posted by: Denis | April 09, 2007 at 08:15 AM