Review: The Resurrection of Jesus (The Empty Tomb Revisited)

This 400-page monograph is a reworking of a 177-page essay (that filled half a book, Resurrecting Jesus, 2005), and worth making time for if you have it. It amounts to the best treatment of Jesus’s (alleged) resurrection I know of, and covers a lot of interesting ground, but in this post I’ll restrict myself to chapters 6 and 8 (from a total of 18 chapters) which focus on the empty tomb. Allison has revised his arguments, some for the better and others for the worse, though the overall conclusion remains intact.

By way of preface, it’s interesting that Allison describes himself a multiple personality: “pious” (a church-goer who thinks theologically), “critical” (a historian who knows how intrusive theology can be), “skeptical” (about almost everything; a fan of Socrates who knew that he knew nothing), and a “Fortean” (holding that reality is full of surprises and things that resist reasonable explanation) (pp 4-5). But he wrote this book chiefly as a critical historian, trying “to be led to his conclusions rather than being led by them”, and it’s hard to find scholars with this level of integrity on the subject of the resurrection.

The empty tomb as pure legend

Allison weighs eight arguments against the empty tomb as follows:

  1. The account is only singularly attested; it comes from Markan creativity. (pp 117-119)
  2. The account is inspired by scripture, especially Dan 6. (pp 119-125)
  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 125-127)
  4. The account involves the miraculous. (p 128)
  5. Paul knows nothing of an empty tomb, so the account must have originated after him. (pp 129-136)
  6. Mark’s original ending was not about an empty tomb. (pp 136-137)
  7. 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 137-138)
  8. There is remarkable precedent for — indeed, an overwhelming abundance of — legendary stories about empty tombs and disappearing bodies. (pp 138-140)

After going through each one, he concludes (with typos):

“Of the seven eight arguments just introduced, the first five six are, like Jesus’s tomb in the gospels, empty. The sixth seventh, however, cannot be blithely dismissed. Early Christians had the imaginative ability to fabricate fictions on the basis of theological convictions, and on more than one occasion they did so. One of them made up the story in Mt 27:51b-53 (the walking zombies). We can also be fairly confident that the narrative about the guard in Mt 27:62-66 is sheer fiction. The seventh eighth argument impresses me as even more formidable.” (p 140)

(The typos: In Resurrecting Jesus (2005), Allison had considered seven arguments, not eight. Now he includes the one about Mark’s original ending (#6), but didn’t revise the summary to reflect the expanded list.)

I basically agree with how he assesses the eight. The first six are unpersuasive, and I would say that (1), (4), (5), and (6) hardly merit attention at all. Arguments (2) and (3) should be taken seriously, however, and it’s nice to see that Allison has expanded his original rebuttals against them. The obvious difficulty with argument (2) — Dan 6 as the inspiration for the empty tomb — is that Daniel was still found in the den in the morning, while Jesus was not. But Allison demonstrates at length how bankrupt this sort of “parallelomania” is, not least through a personal exercise: as he was editing his work on IV Baruch, for the fun of it, he went hunting for parallels between Mark 14 and IV Baruch 5. He found nine striking similarities. “Seek and you will find. The parallels prove nothing except how simple it is, because of the far reach of coincidence, to compile parallels.” (p 123)

With regards to argument (3) — that the women in Mk 16:8 “said nothing to anyone” is an explanation as to why the tradition of the empty tomb was not well known — Allison points out that “they said nothing to anyone” trails not a command to proclaim the empty tomb but a command to tell the disciples about Jesus going before them to Galilee (p 125). The angel simply says that Jesus has been raised and his tomb is empty (Mk 16:6); it orders the women on another account entirely (Mk 16:7), and that’s what their saying nothing (Mk 16:8) is linked to. He notes further (again, expanding his original rebuttal) that Mk 16:8 is probably analogous to Mk 1:44, where Jesus tells a healed leper to “say nothing to anyone”, even though the leper will obviously have to explain himself to the temple establishment where Jesus orders him to go. “Just as 1:44 means ‘say nothing to anyone (except the priests)’, so 16:8 may well mean ‘said nothing to anyone (except his disciples)’.” (p 127)

Allison is right that arguments (7) and (8) are the only decent ones against the historicity of the empty tomb — and they are indeed perfectly plausible. Amusingly, he footnotes the evangelical William Lane Craig: “It is shocking to me that Allison could construe such a priori possibilities based on general background knowledge as constituting a respectable case against the fact of an empty tomb.” (p 140) It is not shocking to me at all, nor in the least bit surprising that Craig would react like this; he probably speaks for many evangelicals.

The empty tomb as historical

Allison weighs eight arguments for the empty tomb as follows, and in this case he ranks them from least to most persuasive:

  1. The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty. (pp 141-142)
  2. The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration. (pp 142-145)
  3. Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 144-145)
  4. Visions of Jesus without an empty tomb would not trigger a resurrection belief. (pp 145-146)
  5. The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty. (pp 146-150)
  6. Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed. (pp 150-152)
  7. The empty tomb account of Mark 16:1-8 (like Jesus’ baptism in Mk 1:9-11) undergoes so much apologetic glosses and expansions in the other gospels, that it looks a historical memory that couldn’t be ignored, rather than something invented. (pp 152-153)
  8. In a culture where women were seen as inferior to men, and the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb. (pp 154-162)

Again, Allison includes a new argument (#7) for a total of eight, and concludes:

“Of our two options — that a tomb was in fact unoccupied or that a belief in the resurrection imagined it unoccupied — the former, as I read the evidence, is the stronger possibility. The two best arguments against the tradition — the ability of the early Christians to create fictions and the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies — while powerful, remain hypothetical and suggestive, whereas the best two arguments for the tradition are concrete and evidential: (a) the short enigmatic story in Mk 16:1-8, which invited so much revision and expansion, looks like a memory Christians sought to upgrade, and (b) the involvement of Mary Magdalene and the women commends itself as nonfiction.” (p 162)

I don’t know about this. I would rank the eight arguments much differently. The two that impress me the most are (3) and (4), not (7) and (8). Let’s go through them (and simply acknowledge that (1), (2), (5), and (6) hardly deserve attention).

Regarding argument (3): The testimony of Paul counts more in favor of an empty tomb than Allison allows. The fact that Paul mentions a burial — “that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures (I Cor 15:3b-4) — implies to me an allusion to the empty tomb. If Paul believed that Jesus had died and ascended into heaven without his body being resurrected, then Jesus’s burial is irrelevant and intrusive. (Paul would have probably just said, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures”.) To go from “burial” to “resurrection” evokes a tomb being filled and then emptied.

Regarding argument (4): It’s strange that Allison has backpedaled and relegated this to (4), where in Resurrecting Jesus (2005) it was high on his list of persuasive power. He actually still does believe in its persuasive power and argues for his own variant of it; he just doesn’t like the way it’s been deployed by its chief advocate, Tom Wright. He says, “I wish to be perfectly clear here. At the end of the say, I am not far from Wright on this matter. Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was the upshot of three stimuli: pre-Easter eschatological expectations, encounters with the postmortem Jesus, and the empty tomb. That is, I do not believe that the appearances themselves did the trick. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that Wright’s argument, in the form that he offers it, should carry the day.” (p 146) I agree that Wright’s logic is flawed (as it almost always is), but Allison acknowledges the idea itself — that post-Easter appearances alone would have doubtfully triggered a resurrection belief — is solid, and so it deserves to be ranked higher. Allison just wants to distance himself from Wright as much as possible (and who can blame him).

As for arguments (7) and (8), I’m nonplussed. They depend on the criterion of embarrassment, and we all know how slippery that goes. (7) is actually the stronger one, on which Allison writes:

“We have here a phenomenon found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition, in places where a memory invited embellishment because a fact seemed problematic. That Judas, one of the twelve, betrayed Jesus was a source of potential embarrassment and so begged for elucidation. We accordingly find texts emphasizing that Jesus was not surprised, that the devil must have possessed Judas, that everything happened in accord with scripture, and that the betrayer came to a miserable end.

Matters are similar with Jesus’s baptism. That Jesus [the “sinless savior”] submitted to a ritual of repentance and forgiveness under the Baptist’s supervision raised uncomfortable questions. The tradition rose to the challenge…

What we find in Jesus’s baptism and Judas’s betrayal is what we find with the story of the empty tomb. Everywhere we discern attempts to head off possible objections and answer difficult questions. It is natural to suppose that, in all three cases, we have a historical memory that invited apologetic massaging.” (p 153)

Maybe. But this business is tricky. “Apologetic massaging” can occur over something that was invented to begin with. What was embarrassing decades after Jesus’s death (when the gospels were written) might not have been as difficult to accept at earlier stages of the movement. I lean towards the view that “embarrassing” accounts in the gospels — rare as they are — may slightly reduce the likelihood that the accounts were invented out of whole cloth, but I’d never rest my case on it without stronger supplements.

And argument (8) is not stronger by a long shot, though Allison has certainly doubled down on it. He sees the testimony of the women who saw the empty tomb to be revealing, in a male-dominated world like the ancient Mediterranean where women had little credibility. It’s thus difficult to believe the gospel writers would have invented “inferior women” being the star witnesses at the empty tomb. But I don’t think the two Marys and Salome would have been embarrassing in the least.

A patriarchal culture can be very welcoming of female heroes. Witness Judith (who decapitated Holofernes, for Christ’s sake), Deborah, Ruth, and other scriptural legacies. The Christian movement was generally favorable to women (by contemporary standards); for every “misogynist” text in Paul’s letters there is one praising the proactive roles of women in his church. It’s true that the legal testimony of women was often deemed worthless in antiquity, but a courtroom setting has no relevance to the empty tomb stories. I see no reason to suppose the accounts of women at the tomb were much embarrassing, if at all.

So here’s how I would re-rank Allison’s eight arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb, from least to most persuasive (the numbers in parenthesis are his rankings):

  1. (8) In a culture where women were seen as inferior to men, and the testimony of women was viewed as unreliable, the early Christians would not have invented female witnesses to the empty tomb.
  2. (1) The view combated in Mt 28:11-15 — that the disciples robbed the tomb — shows that everyone agreed the tomb was empty.
  3. (2) The early Christians gave no attention to the tomb of Jesus, which is strange in light of Jewish veneration for the burial places of prophets and martyrs. Only an empty tomb accounts for this lack of veneration.
  4. (5) The early Christians could not have gotten away with preaching the resurrection of an individual (a wacky idea) in Jerusalem unless, at the very least, the tomb of that individual was known to be open and empty.
  5. (6) Apologetic interests, if present in the resurrection narratives, are undisclosed.
  6. (7) The empty tomb account of Mark 16:1-8 (like Jesus’ baptism in Mk 1:9-11) undergoes so much apologetic glosses and expansions in the other gospels, that it looks a historical memory that couldn’t be ignored, rather than something invented.
  7. (3) Paul’s language in I Cor 15 assumes an empty tomb. (pp 144-145)
  8. (4) Visions of Jesus without an empty tomb would not trigger a resurrection belief.

What Allison considers the strongest argument I think the weakest (red), and what he considers second strongest I hold to be a moderately fair argument (bold italics). Two of the ones he regards as unpersuasive I do find persuasive (bold) — and so does he, actually, or at least the last one (“visions without a tomb”), as soon as he comfortably distances himself from Wright’s version of it. Here’s how he unpacks it in a later chapter, in a manner different from Wright.

Allison vs. Wright

Allison asks: If Jesus preached apocalyptic woes (which I agree he did), and if at some point he expected to suffer and even die during the eschatological trial (which I think likely), and then, on the last day, to participate in the resurrection of the dead at the same time as everyone else (agreed, only logical), then what might we expect his disciples to think in the days immediately following the crucifixion?

He suggests that some followers of Jesus simply gave up the cause (as often happens in failed millennial movements), while others, especially his closest circle of disciples, revised their expectations to fit what happened (as also often happens in failed millennial movements). But it was a re-interpretation laid over real-world circumstances: “Once they had the report of an empty tomb, and once a few had reportedly seen Jesus, they could begin to believe that God raised him, and that the general resurrection had commenced.” (p 203)

Prior to Jesus’s execution, this is what Jesus and the disciples expected:

1. Present and immediate future: Eschatological tribulation; suffering and death for the saints, including Jesus

2. Further future: Resurrection of the dead, including Jesus; triumph of the Son of Man; judgment; eternal kingdom

Soon after Easter, this is how the disciples now saw the salvation scheme:

1. Past: Suffering, death, and the resurrection of Jesus

2. Present: Tribulation, suffering, the persecution of saints

3. Future: Resurrection of the dead; return of the Son of Man; judgment; eternal kingdom

In other words, though there was a mismatch between events and expectations, the disciples forced a fit between the two to their satisfaction. Out of real-world circumstances they created two resurrections: their messiah’s a few days after his martyrdom, and the general resurrection later on. It took the empty tomb and postmortem visions to trigger this revision — not because people are incapable of dramatic revisionism without such triggers (as Wright claims), but because people usually resort to such creativity (without real-world triggers) to cope with broken dreams.

And that’s really the point, as I see it: that the disciples’ dreams hadn’t been broken. Maybe the ones who fell away and returned to their homes felt crushed, but for the core group, the crucifixion, while demoralizing, would have been taken as part of the apocalyptic drama: suffering/death had to precede the kingdom, just as Jesus taught them. They would have gone on hoping for the apocalypse, at which point they and Jesus would have been resurrected together. The empty tomb (coupled with visions) threw a wrench in the works, and caused them to conclude that Jesus had been resurrected prematurely.

Modest Results

Like Allison I don’t think we can be too confident about this stuff, and he’s right that a decent case can be made for the empty tomb as legend or history (the epileptic seizures this causes to pious Christians notwithstanding). For me, the latter is more persuasive by a small but healthy enough margin… though I don’t know that it really means anything. That Jesus’s tomb was empty, historically, could just as easily mean his corpse was stolen or moved, regardless of what fantastical event the disciples ascribed to it. Whatever happened to the body, thanks to the empty tomb, we have this thing today called Christianity.

One thought on “Review: The Resurrection of Jesus (The Empty Tomb Revisited)

  1. Regarding women finding the empty tomb.

    (1) The author of Mark (aka “Mark”) expects his readers to believe that women found the tomb empty because he,> i.e., Mark, says that women found the tomb empty. He doesn’t present the women as sources for the information. Mark writes from a third person omniscient point of view. He doesn’t tell us how he knows what Jesus did in the wilderness, what Jesus prayed in the garden, or what Jesus said to Pilate. He just knows. He’s not asking the women to testify to his stories in court.

    (2) The women were a necessary plot device. The creed in 1 Cor. 15 implies that Paul believed in an empty tomb, but it doesn’t imply that Paul knew any story about anyone finding the tomb empty. In order to have the tomb found empty, Mark needed a reason for someone to go to the tomb. Since anointing the dead was women’s work, he had women do it.

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