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.


7 thoughts on “The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave

  1. Thanks for the excellent review, Loren. I agree with you that Allison’s treatment in “Resurrecting Jesus” is the best on the subject. I’m also glad to see you dismissing the oft repeated argument that in 1 Cor.15 that Paul is dealing with two totally different bodies such that the spiritual body is indepdent of the body that was “sown.”

  2. ‘ with the idea that the perishable body itself “must put on imperishability”‘Of course, Paul deliberately does *not* use the word body there.But hey, if Paul does not say that the perishable body must put on perishability, then why not rectify his ommission? After all, 2000 years ago there were no proof-readers to catch these little slips of Paul.It is about time that the text of the Bible was corrected….And how exactly does a body ‘put on’ imperishability? The same way the disciples ‘put on’ the Holy Spirit?When Jesus rose from the grave, had his perishable body ‘put on’ anything, so that a perishable thing was underneath an imperishable thing?Or his Paul claiming that our perishable, invisible soul (or spirit) will enter into an imperishable body at resurrection?After all, this is what he says happens in 2 Corinthians 5, where the earthly body is destroyed and we get a spiritual body.Which is hardly ‘continuity’…

  3. Re-occuring hallucinations by many people, over many days; not bloody likely. How often does it occur that that people vividly hallucinate there loved ones after death? I would think this to be be a relatively rare phenomena. Combine this with a multiple of observers and this hypothesis becomes much less likely.

  4. Comparing Pauline statements, such as “flesh and blood shall not… the stomach shall be destroyed…” with later views of the resurrected Jesus found in the last two written Gospels (Luke and John, where Jesus insists he’s not a “spirit” and “eats” to show them he’s not) raise questions concerning increased corporality over time.As for mass hallucinations, I suspect legends, and the willingness of someone in the same little group to agree that they “saw what someone else saw” can account for so-called “sightings by over 500.” Might even account for so-called stories of “all” the apostles seeing Jesus. But there remain so many questions inherent in the texts themselves, all written by and for believers, and there remain so many unconvincing harmonizations offered by today’s apologists (who seem to forget that they believe God to be the author of language and the inspirer of Scripture, yet God couldn’t get matters straight, so apologitsts have to harmonize for Him and explain what God “really” meant, including Wright and his dismal attempts at harmonizing together everything, including Luke’s complete change concerning words spoken at the tomb that contradict the commands in Mark and Matthew that “He has gone before you to Galilee, THERE ye shall see him.” Let alone the fact that judging from the Gospels alone (all anonymous works and written by and for believers), and which taken chronologically continue to increase the “raised Jesus'” verbiage (number of words allegedly spoken by the raised Jesus continues to increase from Mark to Matthew to Luke and John), I think there’s plenty of reasons to doubt the stories found in the Bible. Google: Babinski resurrection

  5. I'm a bit skptical of the claim that the “risen Jesus” ate food. If memorty serves, aren't tales of supernatural beings (often angels) somewhat common in antiquity. Furthermore, we know nothing of the appearance to the 500, or why the appearance suddenly vanished from tradition. For all we knew, only a few people within a large crod actually saw something (akin to a marian sighting). I agree with you on the third point though- that an empty tomb is hard to squeeze out of taking into account all the facts.

    The thing that most concerns me, however, is just what the early apostles would've accepted as an “appearance” of Christ. Did they mean jesus appeared to them all, like the stories say he did, talking and eating with them? Did they just kinda see him for a second before he vanished? Were some appearances really complex while others were dull? In the caseof group appearances, did they all even have the same types of experiences. Many (probably all) modern cases of group hallucinations are caused by people reporting their experiences years later, whilst allowing excitment to alter their memories. Could this have played a role? What about the disciples apocolyptic expectations. ould these have caused the disciples to interpret non physical visions as physical for theological reasons? What abouut in conjunction with the empty tomb? What about in conjunction with the empty tomb and a few individual appearances that were tactile? Their are a lot of questions one could ask in regard to the quality of the disciples experiences- yet almost every scholar i've read feins ignorance on the topic.

  6. *If memorty serves, aren't tales of supernatural beings (often angels) somewhat common in antiquity*

    I meant to say “angels eating food”.

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