This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
Your answer to Q and A #676 about the conspiracy theory and your excellent refutation of that outdated theory got me thinking about another issue. It pertains to the case for the historicity of the empty tomb.
One of the powerful pieces of evidence offered in favor of the empty tomb has been that the male disciples (or Gospel writers) wouldn’t make up women as the discoverers of the empty tomb. Recently, I came across a blog post by Bart Ehrman on his blog (dated October 22, 2019) on that piece of evidence (he has repudiated his prior view that the empty tomb is historically factual) and I am wondering how I might refute it.
He asks why anyone would invent the story of the women at the tomb and offers several possibilities. The first thing he observes is that while women were not witnesses in Jewish courts of law, the Gospel accounts didn’t appear in a Jewish court. Additionally, he thinks one possibility is that women storytellers would have invented the story of the women finding the empty tomb. He cites several pieces of Biblical evidence that women held important roles in the ministry of Jesus and in the early Church, so that the idea that women storytellers making up the story might not be far-fetched. He also states that women witnesses made the most historical sense, as it was the job of women to prepare the body for burial, so the story that they found the empty tomb as they came to anoint the body would be a reasonable one. He then argues that it is likely the male disciples all fled during Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion, so the invention of women discovering the empty might have reflected that memory of desertion.
The first thing that I thought when I read this blog post was that a minimal facts approach to establishing the historicity of the Resurrection doesn’t need to have the empty tomb as one of the facts. Dr. Michael Licona’s excellent book on the historicity of the Resurrection has made that clear to me. So, even if Dr. Ehrman’s objections are compelling reasons to doubt the historicity of the women’s discovery of an empty tomb, it does nothing to substantially damage the case for the Resurrection itself.
Unlike the questioner in #676, I think the case for the Resurrection is so strong that a single objection to a single piece of evidence, even if potent, doesn’t undo the soundness of the overall case. Additionally, having read over and considered Dale Allison’s list of reasons in favor of the empty tomb in his book, “Resurrecting Jesus”, I must say that there are other good reasons to think the empty is historically factual. In particular, the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, and your defense of the historicity of that honorable burial, is a very strong piece of evidence.
That said, as I have found the women witnesses to be a very strong piece of evidence, I’ve considered some possible refutations of Ehrman’s reasoning. As I thought more about Ehrman’s specific reasons, I think I see some of the flaws. The first flaw is that even if women storytellers made up the story about women discovering the empty tomb, it was most likely a male scribe that had to eventually write down the Passion narrative and the story of the empty tomb. Since Paul’s list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8 excludes any women, why should we think the literate male Christians in the early Church would have written down this story of women storytellers, especially since it included women on as witnesses to the empty tomb and the Resurrection?
His other two objections, that women would be expected to be the first to visit the tomb and that the male disciples fled only seems to add credibility to the historicity of the women disciples being the ones to discover the empty tomb. It was the norm for them to go to a tomb for anointing of bodies and, at any rate, the menfolk ran and hid. Combined with the other pieces of evidence in favor of the empty tomb (e.g. the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, etc.), I think it is far more likely that the women really did discover the empty tomb. I can’t really think of a more powerful objection than that, but it still seems like a good one.
So, my questions for you are: do you think these are effective refutations of Ehrman’s reasoning for rejecting the historicity of the empty tomb and how might you respond to Ehrman’s reasons? While this has produced no crisis of faith for me, I would like to be able to offer a solid answer when engaging in apologetics, should it ever come up. Thank you.
William Lane Craig's Response
It’s so heart-warming to me, Brandon, to get a letter from someone, who, instead of collapsing into doubt or despair over an objection he’s encountered, responds with critical thinking, analyzing the objection for weaknesses and weighing its consequences even if true. This is the kind of Christian critical thinking that the church needs to exemplify today!
I think I have a couple of helpful observations to make in addition to your careful analysis.
First, you’re quite right to point out that even in the worst case scenario, this objection does nothing to dispute the historicity of the empty tomb (or even the women’s discovery of the empty tomb). It would at most remove one positive piece of evidence in a cumulative case for the empty tomb, which would still remain intact without it. Indeed, in a cumulative case, such as is presented in a court of law, no single piece of evidence may be sufficient for conviction of the accused, but the cumulative force of all the evidence may be sufficient for conviction beyond reasonable doubt. So although you’re right that some have argued for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection even without appeal to the empty tomb, you don’t even need to go there, since this objection doesn’t cast doubt on the historicity of the empty tomb. It doesn’t even deny the fact of the women’s discovering the empty tomb; it merely claims that the women’s role in the story is not an indication of the story’s historical credibility, as most scholars maintain.
Most scholars think that the women’s discovery of the empty tomb is probably historical because any later legendary account would likely make male disciples discover the empty tomb rather than women, who were not regarded as credible witnesses in Jewish society and occupied a lower rung than men in a patriarchal society. This scholarly conviction is the result of the criterion of embarrassment. According to that criterion, events or sayings in the life of Jesus which would be embarrassing or counterproductive for the early Christian community are more likely to be historical than they would otherwise have been. Examples of the criterion of embarrassment at work include Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and Peter’s denial of Jesus. Similarly, a legendary story of women’s being the chief witnesses to so important a fact as Jesus’ empty tomb is not likely to have arisen.
I have elsewhere charged that Bart Ehrman consistently mishandles the criteria of authenticity. First, he misstates them, then he misapplies them. Your account of his recent blog shows that he has still not got his house in order. He confuses the probability of the story itself with the probability of the story’s being made up. These are two different things. The criterion of embarrassment does not state that the story in question is improbable. On the contrary the story itself may be entirely believable. For example, there’s nothing improbable about Peter’s denial of Jesus. Given his impetuosity and overconfidence, such a story is not unlikely to have happened. Rather what is improbable is that such a story about the apostasy of its leader would have evolved or been made up in the early church, if it were not true. Do you see the difference? What is at issue in the criterion of embarrassment is not the probability of the story but its embarrassing or counterproductive nature, which makes it unlikely to have been made up.
In fact, Ehrman seems to be confusing the criterion of embarrassment with a different criterion, the criterion of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is a fancy word for the story’s being “true to life,” given what we know of the culture of that time. What Ehrman says, in effect, is that the story of the women’s visiting Jesus’ tomb exhibits verisimilitude: Jewish women did visit the tombs of the recently deceased to anoint the corpse. Ehrman seems to think that verisimilitude is incompatible with being embarrassing.
But now we see how perverse Ehrman’s reasoning is. How can the historicity of the story be undermined by showing that it passes, not just one, but two criteria of authenticity? It exhibits verisimilitude and it is embarrassing. Thus the story is all the more credible historically.
So why are most scholars said to be mistaken in thinking that in light of its embarrassing nature, the story is unlikely to be legendary or made up? As Dale Allison, whose excellent essay you mention, points out, any conceivable reason for including women in the narrative would be better served by men.
(1) “While women were not witnesses in Jewish courts of law, the Gospel accounts didn’t appear in a Jewish court.” How silly! No one has claimed that they did. Rather given the age of the pre-Markan passion story, which included the empty tomb story, the narrative originated in a Jewish cultural setting, where the factors I mentioned were in play.
(2) “Women storytellers would have invented the story of the women finding the empty tomb.” What a laugh! No one has claimed that the story originated with men. Female story tellers would have had exactly the same motive in having men discover the empty tomb as would male storytellers, namely to enhance the credibility of the empty tomb account.
(3) “Women witnesses made the most historical sense, as it was the job of women to prepare the body for burial, so the story that they found the empty tomb as they came to anoint the body would be a reasonable one.” This claim confounds verisimilitude and embarrassment, as explained. Indeed, given that the account exhibits verisimilitude, why doesn’t Ehrman judge it to be historical? In fact, Ehrman has painted himself into a corner: either the account has verisimilitude or it is embarrassing. Either way, it is more likely historical.
(4) “It is likely the male disciples all fled during Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion, so the invention of women discovering the empty might have reflected that memory of desertion.” Oh, dear! This is an old canard which has been rightly dismissed as “a legend of the critics.” Liberal scholars wanted to deny the historicity of the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem, so they interpreted Mark 14.50 “And they all forsook him, and fled” to mean that the disciples fled all the way back to Galilee immediately upon Jesus’ arrest in the Garden! This fanciful hypothesis not only strains credulity, but it runs smack in the face of traditions that the disciples were still in Jerusalem over the weekend. I’m thinking especially of the traditions of the denial of Peter, which pass not only the criterion of embarrassment but probably also the criterion of multiple attestation. That Ehrman would adopt this hypothesis shows just how tendentious his scholarship is. In any case, as Allison explains, legends don’t care if the disciples had fled; even if they had, legends of the men discovering the empty tomb could arise. But they were pre-empted by the old traditions of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb.
So, yes, Brandon, I think some of your responses are quite good, and I commend you for your ability to think through theses issues soberly and critically.
 I hope Ehrman is not trying the old gambit of saying that the women were responsible in part for Jesus’ burial, going to finish the incomplete burial given Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea. There is no reason to think that the interment by Joseph was not complete. One of the striking features of the burial narrative that bespeaks its verisimilitude is that Jesus is not buried by his family or his disciples (as depicted in a Pietà scene) but by his enemies. As a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, Joseph had to get the body down from the cross and buried before nightfall, lest the land, in Jewish thinking, be defiled. Having Jesus buried by his enemies rather than his disciples is so embarrassing for the early Christian community that it is likely to be true, in the judgement of the vast majority of scholars. The women are going, not to complete Jesus’ burial, but, as was customary, to anoint the corpse with aromatic oils.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.