The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave

Robert Price’s The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave is a collection of essays from the skeptic’s corner, containing much to agree with, much to dispute, as each contributor deals with the resurrection inquiry in some way. Peter Kirby has an essay refuting the authenticity of the empty tomb; Richard Carrier has a lengthy essay, also arguing that the empty tomb was a legend coming later than Paul’s two-body doctrine of the resurrection, and then a shorter article arguing that if the empty tomb were authentic it is plausible to assume Jesus’ body was stolen. Keith Parsons writes about the plausibility of hallucination theories; Jeffrey Jay Lowder argues for the relocation of Jesus’ corpse to a second tomb. Then there is an extremely polemical piece by editor Robert Price — called “By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” — bemoaning the influence of neo-conservative scholarship, insisting that William Lane Craig is a menace both to scholarship and the commonweal.

There are more essays (fifteen total), but for now I’ll focus on four which particularly grabbed my attention: two by Richard Carrier, one by Keith Parsons, one by Robert Price. It’s a sizeable enough agenda for one review/post.

“The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” (Richard Carrier)

Carrier’s first essay on the legend of the empty tomb is unconvincing as it is long, propped up by an unlikely hypothesis of Paul’s view of the resurrection: that Jesus rose in a different body completely distinguished from the old. I want to focus on this two-body idea, because Carrier offers the most thorough treatment of it I’ve ever read. He begins by trying to pinpoint the source of the Corinthians’ objections and concerns:

“If the corpse of Jesus remained on earth, it is easy to see how some [of the Corinthians] might [have] come to believe his resurrection was peculiar, in a way ours could not be. It is possible some decided his resurrection was only metaphorical or that it was simply a necessary consequence of his divinity — just as God lived without a body before the incarnation, so obviously he would afterward. And we are not gods, so we cannot count on the same fate. Whatever their particular interpretation was, like these, it must have made our own resurrection somehow dubious. Only that would make any sense of Paul’s reply. So now their specific worry becomes explicable: If Christ didn’t get back his old body, how are we going to live without ours? Paul’s answer is: We get a new body.” (pp 121-122)

Carrier, in other words, has the Corinthians worrying about a bodiless fate. But this was compatible with the things they’d always believed. Even more to the point, Paul’s answer (“we get a new body”), in its simplest and unelaborated form, would have already been taught to them. It’s simply incredible that Paul wouldn’t have initially mentioned anything about the “new body”, whether that of Jesus or those of believers.

I think it’s clear from Paul’s language that the Corinthians accepted Jesus’ resurrection from the old corpse, yet wondered, on the basis of old-beliefs-die-hard, if this would really end up being true for themselves. After all, he says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (I Cor 15:12), presupposing that everyone already accepts Christ has been raised — and raised “from the dead”, or from the old corpse.

Carrier, as expected, leans heavily on the two passages which have been pressed into service of sharply distinguishing a new spiritual body from the old physical. Taking the first, “It is sown a natural body, and it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cor 15:44):

“There are two subjects in that last clause, hence two bodies. That two distinct bodies are meant is clear in 15:46 and the final clause of 15:44. Paul is saying the earthly flesh that is sown is dishonorable and weak and subject to decay, but what rises is glorious powerful, and immortal. And he captures all this in his concluding dichotomy between two fundamentally different bodies: a biological body and a spiritual body… If Paul meant that one body would be changed into the other, he would say so. He would not use analogies that he has, which all entail different things, not changes from one living thing into another. Likewise he would use appropriate grammar (e.g. “that which is sown is raised”), but he doesn’t.” (pp 127-128)

Too many commentators have pointed out, however, that the metaphor of a seed sprouting (I Cor 15:38ff) supports the idea of an old body transforming into a new one. The two subjects (“it, it”) refer to the same essential entity.

For the infamous second statement, “Neither flesh nor blood can inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (I Cor 15:50), Carrier declares:

“Flesh and blood goes away, to corruption and decay. Period. Flesh does not receive immortality. It cannot receive it. That is why there must be a new, different body, one capable of immortality… Christ is now a pneuma and has a pneumatic body, unlike the body of Adam, which was made of the flesh and blood formed from the dirt of the earth… Paul says such things are perishable, and they cannot enter heaven, so they cannot have any place in the resurrection. And he clearly says, contrary to Luke, that the risen Christ is a spirit.” (pp 134-135)

Furthermore, says Carrier, against Wright’s claim that Paul was using spirit as an adjective of relation as opposed to material — that Paul was speaking of a pneuma-driven, or pneuma-powered, body:

“Contra Wright, the distinction between -ikos (adjectives of relation) and -inos (adjectives of material) is not so clear-cut, especially in Koine, as even he admits… The context decides, and our context clearly indicates substances are the issue: sarx versus pneuma, different kinds of flesh, astral bodies versus terrestrial ones… We can therefore reject all gospel material emphasizing the physicality of Christ’s resurrection as a polemical invention.” (pp 129, 135)

It’s true that Paul didn’t express himself well in I Cor 15:50, but Carrier’s “period!” shouldn’t come at the end of this verse, rather three verses later, when Paul qualifies with the idea that the perishable body itself “must put on imperishability” (15:53), again implying continuity. “Flesh and blood” is simply a loose (and admittedly confusing) way of referring to an ordinary human body as yet unchanged. Wright gets a lot of things wrong, but he’s at least somewhat on the right track about this.

From this point Carrier proceeds to the second half of his essay and argues that the empty tomb was a legendary development after Paul, made to square with later gospel reports of a more physical resurrection. I don’t think Carrier is any more persuasive here than he is with Paul’s supposed two-body hypothesis, but I’ll leave it alone and proceed to Carrier’s second essay, about which I can say good things.

“The Plausibility of Theft” (Richard Carrier)

In this shorter essay Carrier assumes the opposite conclusion of what he argued previously: if the empty tomb were historical, then Jesus’ body may have been stolen.

Indeed, it may well have been. Grave-robbing was common enough in antiquity, and necromancers especially valued the body parts of holy men and/or crucified men; Jesus was both. There’s obviously no way to rule out other ideas (Jesus’ corpse being moved to another tomb, the disciples stumbling on the wrong tomb, etc.), but the grave-robbing explanation remains a strong candidate. Carrier makes interesting analogies to the rumor of theft reported in Mt 28:15, suggesting that Matthew blames the rumor on conspiracy (“the Jews’ desire to conceal the truth”) in the same way that the Heaven’s Gate cult blamed the argument against their imminent spacecraft on a conspiratorial earth traitor (pp 356-357). And just as Matthew accuses Jews of paying off guards, the survivors of Jonestown accused the government of fabricating evidence and paying off forensic doctors to fabricate evidence which made them look bad.

The upshot is that Carrier’s short essay on “the plausibility of theft” is a better piece than his lengthy article preferring legend which rests, in turn, on an incorrect interpretation of Paul’s view of the resurrection. Less is more with Carrier, though Michael Turton evidently prefers the argument for legend.

“Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory” (Keith Parsons)

Keith Parsons accounts for the New Testament appearances of Jesus in terms of visions, or as he prefers, hallucinations. In responding to Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli’s thirteen objections to the hallucination hypothesis (argued in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics), he successfully refutes ten arguments, but not three.

(1) Kreeft and Tacelli: “There were too many witnesses; hallucinations are private.” Parsons says this ignores the phenomenon of mass delusions (pp 435-438).

(2) K&T: “The witnesses were qualified — simple, honest, and moral, who had firsthand knowledge of the facts.” Not only do the gospels portray the disciples as disloyal and dense, it’s equally true that honest and moral people are perfectly susceptible to hallucinations (p 439).

(3) K&T: “The five hundred saw Christ together, at the same time and place.” But this may have been a collective vision (see (1)) (p 440).

(4) K&T: “Hallucinations usually last a few seconds or minutes; rarely hours. Jesus hung around for forty days (Acts 1:3).” This naively assumes a literal forty-day period in which “Jesus” was continuously present (p 441).

(5) K&T: “Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane.” This claim is simply unfounded (p 441).

(6) K&T: “Hallucinations come from within, from what we already know and expect. Jesus did unexpected things, like a real person and not a dream.” A bizarre claim: in dreams and visions many unexpected things occur (p 442).

(7) K&T: “Not only did the disciples not expect this, they didn’t believe it at first; they initially thought he was a ghost.” This not only begs the question by assuming a vision cannot overcome skepticism, it’s a common rhetorical tactic of religious believers to claim they began as skeptics until later convinced of the “truth” (p 443).

(8)/(9)/(10) K&T: “Hallucinations do not eat.”/”Hallucinations cannot be touched.”/”Hallucinations cannot be heard.” All are unfounded claims (p 444).

(11) K&T: “The apostles could not have believed in the hallucination if the corpse had still been in the tomb.” A smoke-and-mirrors (ultimately empty) objection (pp 445-447).

(12) K&T: “If the apostles had hallucinated and then spread the story, the Jews would have stopped it by producing the body.” That depends on the corpse’s state of decay (p 448).

(13) K&T: “A hallucination would explain only the appearances; it would not explain the empty tomb; only the resurrection explains both.” Point-counterpoint: that’s like saying only real ETs explain all phenomena associated with UFO sightings (p 448).

For full elaborations on these rebuttals see the pages cited. Most of them are solid, save (3), (8), and (13). Objection (3) is more valid than Parsons allows, since documented cases report less than ten people experiencing the same hallucination at the same time; certainly not crowds of hundreds. Objection (8) also appears to be valid; reported apparitions do not eat or drink. Parsons may be conscious of the difficulty since he tries dealing with (8) (9) and (10) all as a single objection, but while testimony abounds for tangible and audible visions, that’s not true for eating/drinking visions. Objection (13) carries weight only on the assumption that there was no cognitive dissonance in place which could have (easily) caused the disciples to make any outlandish claim they wanted, regardless of whether or not there was an empty tomb. But without cognitive dissonance (i.e. if, for the disciples, expectations hadn’t yet been shattered) the objection is more valid than Parsons allows. [When I originally wrote this review, I’d finished proof-reading Dale Allison’s manuscript for Resurrecting Jesus, in which he raises similar counters to these three objections and deals with them better than Parsons does. Now, of course, Allison’s book is available.]

On the whole, I agree with what Parsons is getting at. There is nothing unlikely about the appearances of Jesus being “hallucinations”, whether those described by Paul or the more explicitly tangible ones by the gospel writers. I would use the term to refer to apparitions occasioned by grief or trauma over the recently deceased. Gerd Ludemann has been the champion of this view, and Dale Allison explored the possibility by going even deeper into this territory.

“By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” (Robert Price)

Price’s diatribe against William Lane Craig will amuse the irreverent and anger the pious. For me it was mildly off-putting. Price declares that biblical scholarship is in dire straits, with the ever increasing influence (as he sees it) of the more conservative wing: “Craig may well be correct that NT scholarship is more conservative than it once was. This has more than he admits to do with which denominations can afford to train the most students, hire more faculty, and send more members to the SBL…Is this trend toward neo-conservatism an enlightenment? Rather, I regard it as a prime example of what H.P. Lovecraft bemoaned as the modern failure of nerve in the face of scientific discovery.” (p 412). This strikes me as paranoid, and I don’t quite see neo-conservatives dominating the field of NT scholarship to the extent Price does. What about the influence of the Jesus Seminar? Burton Mack and Jonathan Smith? More feminist scholars? Biblical studies, if anything, seems to be more diversified than ever these days.

Furthermore, the rise of neo-conservative influence in some quarters has brought as much good news as bad. The early Christians had many beliefs conducive to “conservative” thinking, for better or worse, and scholars like (say) Bauckham and McKnight can certainly appreciate this more than a quaint Bultmannian.

To top it off, Price concludes his screed against Craig with the worst topic he could have chosen — by going down the same avenue as Richard Carrier with a quasi-gnostic interpretation of Paul’s view of the resurrection, laced with trademark rhetoric and contempt for his dialogue partner. I don’t particularly like being a defender of William Lane Craig, but here Emperor Price has no clothes. Others, however, may think Price’s rhetoric and idiosyncratic ideas make for some entertaining reading (like Michael Turton).


This is an important collection of essays which should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the resurrection. Studies from the last few years have been impressive. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God (’03) is good for understanding what resurrection meant to the early Christians, though perhaps not for its apologetics. Ludemann’s Resurrection of Christ (’04) is a fair counter to some of Wright, though it doesn’t offer the most comprehensive treatment of hallucinations/apparitions. Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus (’05) is of course the best study to date. The Empty Tomb supplements the Wright-Ludemann-Allison trilogy with verve and covers a lot of important ground.

Fessing Up: What was Morton Smith’s Payoff?

Over a fun Wednesday lunch, Stephen Carlson (who was passing through town) and I talked about why Morton Smith never admitted to fabricating Secret Mark. If he created Clement’s letter for the reasons Stephen thinks, one would expect him to have fessed up in order to prove how smart he was.

Recall Carlson’s distinction between forgeries and hoaxes:

“While the circumstances surrounding Secret Mark do not support the conclusion that it is a criminal forgery done to defraud, that does not exhaust the possibilities of its being a twentieth-century fake. Secret Mark could also be a hoax. Although hoaxes share with forgeries the element of creating a document with the intention to deceive, hoaxes are done with a different motive — to test the establishment, whether to expose flaws in the gatekeepers of authenticity, to exhibit one’s skill and cunning, or to take pleasure in the failure of self-appointed experts to pass the test.” (Gospel Hoax, p 78)

On my earlier list of Top 20 Literary Hoaxes, I made no distinction between forgeries and hoaxes (since by most definitions they’re often the same thing), though I distinguished between motives involving profit, attention-grabbing, or ideological-support (Carlson’s “forgeries”) and pranking/testing (Carlson’s “hoaxes”). I confess that Stephen’s terminology has grown on me for these motive factors.

Reason being, forgers don’t want to get caught while hoaxers ultimately do. That’s their payoff: not money or ideology, but satisfaction from showing the world how superiorly clever they are. That’s why Dionysius, the “Ern Malley” authors, and Alan Sokol (#’s 6, 11, & 15 on my list) came clean. The fallibility or gullibility of others goes unnoticed unless the hoaxer eventually fesses up. But Morton Smith never fessed up. Does this undermine Carlson’s (and Donald Akenson’s) claim that Secret Mark was fabricated, above all, for the sake of testing scholars and having a good laugh?

Stephen was asked this question by Steve Shoemaker, whose radio interview is archived online (see Nov 27, ’05). Stephen’s response squares with what he hints at by way of irony on p 86 of Gospel Hoax: it was Smith’s friends who ended up “running with Secret Mark”, while his enemies refused to be taken in by it. (“If Smith was motivated partly by malice against his opponents, it is ironic that exposure of Smith’s hoax may end up hurting mainly those who trusted him.” p 86) Smith, in other words, created more of a monster than he’d ever bargained for. With fellow-liberals like Koester devoting their careers to Secret Mark, how could he have played into enemy hands by undermining their scholarly credibility?

Then too we should bear in mind that not all pranksters reveal themselves in the long run, and Smith may not be as exceptional as initially supposed. No one disputes Paul Coleman-Norton’s prank (#20 on my list), but he never fessed up either. Perhaps, in the end, Coleman-Norton and Smith had a sense of shame after all.

Christ is the Question

The new book by Wayne Meeks, Christ is the Question, has some ringing endorsements, including one from Bart Ehrman:

“Witty, perceptive, learned, and wise, this is not just another book about the historical Jesus; it is a masterly reflection by a master scholar with four decades of scholarship behind him. For Wayne Meeks, the question of who Christ is cannot be resolved by post-enlightenment scientific historical investigation (the advent of which he sketches with verve and insight). For him, this historical Jesus is the Jesus who ‘makes history’, as he has been understood by his followers over the centuries and in our own day.”
— Bart D. Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina

“Written with Wayne Meeks’s customary clarity and power, Christ is the Question will engage and benefit both the church and the academy-all who care about Jesus and about the way his image is used and misused in the world today.”
— Susan R. Garrett, Professor of New Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

“In this explosive book Wayne Meeks shows the way beyond both liberal and conservative readings of the New Testament. This book is an intervention that does what all truly important books do: it entirely changes the conversation.”
— Cyril O’Regan, Huisking Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Meeks apparently wants us to dispense with the historical quest, believing that Jesus is lost and unfixed to the extent that he can only be located as “a figure whose identity continues to emerge as contemporary persons engage him in their daily lives” (publisher’s description). Meeks may find William Arnal to be an ally of sorts. In The Symbolic Jesus Arnal recently concluded that the search for the historical Jesus should be abandoned because the “symbolic Jesus” is what ultimately matters, even in historical research, whether or not people realize it. I’ll have more to say about this after I read Christ is the Question, and I may review Meeks’ book alongside Arnal’s if there are enough commonalities for comparative purposes. I don’t accept that the quest for the historical Jesus should be abandoned, even if Meeks and Arnal light on plenty of reasons to make us wonder if reasonable objectivity is attainable.

The Luminous Dusk

Eerdmans is releasing Dale Allison’s The Luminous Dusk at the end of June.

“For millennia humans knew the stars as well as they knew their own backyards. Yet many of us have lost both this and other vital connections with our natural world, and so have in many ways lost our sense of wonder.

“In the thoughtful, genre-bending nonfiction tradition of Wendell Berry and Walker Percy, Dale Allison charts the effects of loss of wonder in Western society. Drawing on insights from ancient creation myths to the popularity of cartoon animals, he highlights our ongoing disconnection from the cosmos, tracing its spiritual and philosophical impact. In eight elegant and profound essays, The Luminous Dusk calls readers to a life of sustained wonder, open to the divine and connected to the creation, a life that chooses divine ascent over our culture’s reflexive mediocrity.”

Anything by Dale Allison is something to look forward to, no matter what your philosophical leanings are. Just added to my summer reading list.

Success and Disintegration in Biblioblogdom

Prompted by Jim West’s concern about a “disintegration of the biblioblogging community”, Chris Heard, Chris Weimer, Ed Cook and Mark Goodacre each address the situation as he sees it. Jim seems to be more concerned about a decline in the interactivity between bloggers than in biblioblogdom per se.

To an extent, the two are inversely related. Many have mentioned the exponential growth of our biblioblogging community, and it does seem that for everyone who goes on blogging sabbatical (like Michael Turton and Alan Bandy) there are three or four new faces who come along to fill the void. I myself haven’t noticed a major decrease in the interactions between bloggers, but some is no doubt due to this astronomical growth. The rise of biblioblogdom makes it harder to keep up with everything going on. “Victims of our own success”, Mark? Too true.

More on Secret Mark

Stephen Carlson calls attention to yet another rebuttal of Secret Mark coming out this September: The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals of Sex, Death, and Madness in a Biblical Forgery, by Peter Jeffery. According to Adela Yarbro Collins of Yale University:

“Peter Jeffery’s book proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Morton Smith forged the discovered text. It demonstrates that he had the scholarly expertise, the wit, the sense of humor, and above all the motivation to do so.”

Evidently some of the book’s arguments complement those in Stephen’s Gospel Hoax, though Jeffery approaches the hoax from a musician’s angle, which is curious. Stephen cites an article from The Daily Princetonian:

“Jeffery… approached the text from his perspective as a musical historian and conclusively refuted it. Because ‘everything it says about the early Christian liturgy is utterly nonsensical, it can’t be made to fit into the history,’ he said. [He] said that it took more than 30 years to debunk the text because the study of rituals is complicated, involving a high degree of non-textual interpretation.”

It will make for interesting reading, that’s for sure. Poor Morton Smith: only in death does his last laugh really pay off.

Interesting post-script to the article: Jeffery apparently sued the Smashing Pumpkins for damaging his hearing at a concert. For some reason that doesn’t surprise me. When I used to listen to the Smashing Pumpkins on a walkman I remember having to turn the volume way down. Great band, but painful at high decibels.