The Empty Tomb: Arguments against Historicity

I’m glad to see RBL book reviews of Dale Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus. Michael Licona summarizes Dale’s assessment of the empty tomb:

Allison first takes a look at seven common arguments against its historicity and finds that only two carry weight. He then takes a look at seven common arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb. He concludes that there exists a “decent” case for the empty tomb and a “respectable” case against it (331). Notwithstanding, he judges the position that the tomb was empty to be “the slightly stronger possibility,” since the best two con arguments are “hypothetical and suggestive,” while the best two pro arguments are “concrete and evidential.” Nevertheless, the empty tomb remains a “tentative” historical fact, and its cause is even more so (332).

In weighing the seven arguments for and against, Dale finds only two in each case that carry weight. Let’s list them. We’ll start with the arguments against:

(1) The account is only singularly attested; it comes from Markan creativity. (pp 300-302)

(2) The account is inspired by Dan 6. (pp 302-303)

(3) The words about the women fleeing the tomb, “they said nothing to anyone” (Mk 16:8), is a literary explanation for why no one had heard of the empty tomb before. (pp 303-304)

(4) The account involves the miraculous. (pp 304-305)

(5) Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb, so the account must have originated after him. (pp 305-307)

(6) If people had visions of Jesus and had come to believe in his resurrection, it’s easy to see how an empty tomb legend would have arisen; human beings create religious fictions to justify beliefs all the time. (pp 307-308)

(7) There is remarkable precedent for — indeed, an overwhelming abundancy of — legendary stories about empty tombs and disappearing bodies. (pp 308-311)

After considering each argument individually, Allison concludes:

Of the seven arguments just introduced, the first five are, like Jesus’ tomb in the Gospels, empty. But the sixth cannot be dismissed without a guilty conscience: early Christians did have the imaginative ability to fabricate a fiction on the basis of theological convictions. Similarly, the final argument is formidable and should give its proponents some assurance: people have indeed constructed legends about missing bodies. (p 311)

I agree with most of Allison has to say about the individual arguments, but (2) needs more serious consideration. It’s not nearly as weak as (1), (3), (4), and (5). I’m not saying I think Mk 15-16 necessarily derives from Dan 6, but a good case has been made for it. As noted by Allison, Randel Helms listed the following parallels:

* The law demands the death of God’s chosen. (Dan 6:6-10; Mk 15:1-5)

* The ruler is reluctant to enforce the law but does so. (Dan 6:14-16; Mk 15:6-15)

* Late in the day a sympathetic leader puts the chosen one in a pit or cave and covers it with a stone. (Dan 6:17-18; Mk 15:42-46)

* Early in the morning those who care for God’s chosen one approach the pit or cave. (Dan 6:19; Mk 16:2)

* There is angelic intervention. (Dan 6:22; Mk 16:5-7)

* The hero is not dead but lives. (Dan 6:19-23; Mk 16:1-8)

Allison is unimpressed with these parallels (p 302) and says they are best viewed as “the upshot of happenstance” (p 303). On the other hand, he allows that Dan 6 may have influenced Matthew’s embellishments to the Markan story (see footnote 408 on p 303). I’m unclear as to why Matthew’s embellishments can be safely viewed as haggadic fiction, but Mark’s cannot. The above parallels, after all, are numerous, and hardly forced or contrived.

So despite my leanings to the empty tomb as history, I think argument (2) is much stronger than Allison allows and would accord it as one of three (along with (6) and (7)) which carry weight on the “against” side of the debate. In the next post we’ll look at the “for” side.


5 thoughts on “The Empty Tomb: Arguments against Historicity

  1. Aside from that obvious difference, the parallels are too dense for me to dismiss entirely. I wonder if it’s time for someone to do a Goodacre-like analysis of the parallels, and look for a balance between “history remembered” and “prophecy historicized”?

  2. Hi Loren,I love your blog. It looks cool and you do great book reviews.On the Daniel 6 parallel, I don’t really see this as an argument against the empty tomb at all, as it doesn’t rule out or argue against historicity if a pericope is modeled on OT precedents. I would be surprised to see anything theologically significant in the gospels that was not framed in terms of the OT. But in this instance, I’m not sure the parallel is really there at all. Having studied typology for quite some time, I’ve come to see all of this kind of pattern-seeking as dangerously subjective, and in need of rigorous analysis and controls. There are always core elements we’re going to find in a certain cultures’ narratives. In instances of Jewish stories concerning a famous “chosen one”, we can usually expect rejection by the masses or the establishment, suffering/trials on the part of the prophet, and eventual divine vindication (Daniel, Joseph, Job, Israel as a nation, etc.). Let’s look at Helms’ examples:<>*The law demands the death of God’s chosen. (Dan 6:6-10; Mk 15:1-5)<> This one is a stretch. Why are we even dipping into the trial? Does this argue against the historicity of Jesus being a prophet who was convicted by the Sanhedrin (which are both attested elsewhere)? I doubt it. As is, this one doesn’t count at all for me. The focus in the Markan acount is not really on any particular law as far as I can see anyway. Its a setup. I would restate it as “those envious of God’s chosen plot to have him killed.” And even here, this is such a common theme throughout the Bible, there’s no need to go to Daniel for it. <>* The ruler is reluctant to enforce the law but does so. (Dan 6:14-16; Mk 15:6-15)<> Seems more like Pilate’s taunting the crowd in Mark (15:10). I don’t see any expressed desire on the part of Pilate to save Jesus here in the text, certainly not on the order of the King in Daniel . He simply refers to a custom of release. With Daniel, the King is completely distraught, does what he can to secure Daniel’s release, and fasts all night when he cannot according to the law. He is first to the cave early in the morning, hoping to find Daniel there safe. There seems to very little in common between Pilate’s behavior (which is ambivalent at best) and the King’s. <>* Late in the day a sympathetic leader puts the chosen one in a pit or cave and covers it with a stone. (Dan 6:17-18; Mk 15:42-46)<>If Mark fabricates a somewhat dignified burial here, surely better reasons can be thought up than that he does so to mimic the Danielic account. This just doesn’t strike me as an impressive explanation for Mark’s burial in a tomb. I think Mark is either relating it because it is true, or he wanted Jesus buried in a marginally honorable manner and to set us up for the empty tomb narrative. Since these latter reasons would make it likely for Mark to give us a burial in a tomb with a stone used to cover it (a commonplace with tomb/cave burial), Daniel is really superfluous as an explanation here. This is also a classic example of using generalized language at a high level of abstraction to blur distinctions. The term “a sympathetic leader” is used to describe both the King in Daniel and Joe of A. Putting aside the fact that it is debatable whether or not Joe of A. in Mark is simply doing his duty as a Sanhedrinist (Brown) and hardly the explicit sympathizer or secret disciple we see in the later synoptics, we are able to blur out the fact that the King in Daniel is now parallel to *two* roles in the Markan account (Pilate and Joe). Were Daniel really being imitated here, I’d expect Pilate to perform the burial. <>* Early in the morning those who care for God’s chosen one approach the pit or cave. (Dan 6:19; Mk 16:2)<>Another sneaky blurring — this time by omission. Its not “early in the morning” of the next day in Mark, as it is in Daniel, and its for very different reasons by people in very different positions, with different expecations. I suppose I would count the “early in the morning” aspect as the strongest parallel in this whole series though. <>*There is angelic intervention. (Dan 6:22; Mk 16:5-7)<> Since we can pretty much expect angels to accompany events like this in the OT and NT, its too much of a commonplace to be a strong parallel. Were there no angels present, I’d be surprised. Further, when we look at the details of the “angelic intervention”, they’re very different. Mark’s isn’t even explicitly an angel, he actually appears to the visitors and makes an announcement. In Daniel, we have no appearance to the visitor; we just get Daniel’s verbal account. <>* The hero is not dead but lives. (Dan 6:19-23; Mk 16:1-8)<> Again, not really. The hero <>actually died<> in Mark, and is missing from the tomb. An angel/messenger announces that he lives on and everyone runs away scared. In Daniel, he’s in the tomb and the King rejoices. Huge difference here. This is another classic example of using intentionally vague generalities to cover over differences. So I just don’t see anything strong here. I’m surprised this one has even caught on. Is Helms even a biblical scholar? Were there less mundane/typical commonalities and some that were striking (e.g. in both accounts a rainbow-colored light emanated from the cave/tomb as the stone was rolled back), I could be convinced of dependence, but even then, not necessarily fabrication of core elements of an account. This kind of pattern-seeking is just too easy to do if you’re even a little bit creative. Let’s do the same thing with Joseph (forgive the lack of citations here, I can give them if needed but anyone familiar with the stories should be fine): *The chosen one was the favorite son of his father.*He was chosen by God to be exalted over his brothers.*His brothers envied him to the point of hatred.*The chosen is sent by his father on a mission to seek out his brothers.*His brothers do not accept his claims to exalted status and plot to kill him. *They stripped him of his garments. *They sold him into the hands of the gentiles, to be treated as a slave. *One named Judah/Judas is chiefly responsible in planning to sell him off for the “price of a slave.”*The chosen one is thrown into a dark cavernous area.*When those who care about the chosen one most return to visit this dark cavernous area, he is nowhere to be found.*Those who care about the chosen one most are distraught at his death.*They soon come to find out he is not dead but alive and greatly exalted.*The chosen one is given all power and authority over the people.*The trials and sufferings of the chosen one are revealed to have been part of a divinely ordained plan to secure salvation for the people, even for some who betrayed and abandoned him.*He is referred to as ‘the one who gives life’ (Zaphenath-paneah) (Gen. 41:45)We could even find Passion parallels in Joseph’s imprisonment in Egypt:*Though he was righteous and had done no wrong, he was falsely accused and declared guilty. *He was placed with two malefactors, one of whom was released to life, the other to death (just as Jesus delivered a message of life to only one criminal beside him on the cross)*In due course he was exalted and set up at the right hand of the king. *He was presented by the king with a bride. *He gave life-saving bread to a perishing world. *He became the instrument for the salvation of the gentiles. *His brothers did not recognize him the first time they saw him; but he recognized them. *He sent his brothers out to tell of his newfound glory at the right hand of power. We could go on and on here….Now, I like many of these parallels much better than Helms’. And of course, as I hope you’d agree, this is all a whole lot of fudge. All to prove the point that when we can pick and choose what level of generality or abstraction we want to operate at, have vast storehouses of narrative detail to pull from, and multivalent universal categories that guarantee core commonalities (chosen one/hero, king/leader, envy/hatred, persecution/death, salvation/exaltation, etc.), we are operating an easy-bake oven. The point is not just to reiterate the warnings against parallelomania, but also to stress that it is extremely easy to give a somewhat historically accurate account of one story within the framework of another.

  3. Ryan — Those are good counters to the Dan 6 parallels. You’ve more or less written an essay refuting the argument. (Whether or not Helms is a formally-trained biblical scholar is irrelevant.)

  4. The parallels between the empty tomb narrative and Daniel 6 are IMO weaker if John’s account is regarded as independent of Mark’s with them both going back to a common source. This common source would probably not have contained an explicit reference to the stone being rolled over the door of the tomb which we find in Mark but not John (and which in this scenario may well have been added by Mark to parallel Daniel)

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