FRDB Archives

Freethought & Rationalism Archive

The archives are read only.

Go Back   FRDB Archives > Archives > Biblical Criticism - 2001
Welcome, Peter Kirby.
You last visited: Today at 05:55 AM

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Old 04-13-2001, 10:38 AM   #1
Senior Member
Join Date: Jun 2000
Location: Pacific Northwest (US)
Posts: 527
Thumbs up New Paper on the Empty Tomb

Just in time for Easter! We've just published a new paper in the library entitled "The Empty Tomb Story " by Jeffery Jay Lowder.

Lowder provides a point-by-point rebuttal to Craig's case for the empty tomb. Along the way, Lowder defends a naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb. He concludes that historians should be agnostic about the empty tomb story.
James Still is offline  
Old 04-14-2001, 10:03 PM   #2
Posts: n/a

To begin, here is a quote from the referenced article:

Jeffery Jay Lowder: "Polemical rumors need neither a basis in historical fact nor even sincere belief among those who spread them."

That seems a fitting summary of the recently-released article by Lowder, which advances some theories about the empty tomb that have no direct evidence and which, after reading, I am unsure whether he sincerely believes.
When Lowder wrote, "All I shall argue is that even if the story is historical, its historicity is not established on the basis of any of Craig's arguments as they stand," I wondered whether to reply. Itís a tame enough topic, and as Mr. Lowder demonstrates, even some Christian scholars find a couple of Craigís specific points to be overstated, while the other points are more solidly historical. But surely Mr. Craig can stand up for himself, and my main reason for replying is to participate in the ongoing conversation with some skeptical friends of mine on the topic at the heart of Christianity: Christís resurrection from the dead.

1.1. The Burial Account Is Historical

Lowder tries to make a case that Jesusí burial was itself improbable because itís not the typical Roman practice. The argument from generality is weak. To take another example, we would not say that, because few American presidents have been assassinated, because assassination has not been the general practice, and because assassination is frowned upon, that therefore Lincoln was not assassinated. The exception is not so unusual or unthinkable as to cause doubt, and the evidence that it happened overcomes the fact that itís not typical. The simple fact of Jesusí burial gives us no cause for doubt. It is plausible enough that someone who enjoyed popularity and reputation could have had someone bury him, and at any rate all the historical evidence on Jesusí burial confirms that he was buried in the tomb of one Joseph of Arimathea.

Lowder also notes that Paul recorded the fact of Jesusí burial without any specific information on where, when, or by whom Jesus was buried. Lowder acknowledges that "Paul did not even need to know the details of Jesusí burial in order to assert that Jesus was "buried"; Paul could have declared that Jesus "died" and was "buried" even if Jesusí corpse had been buried in a common grave or buried in a tomb with other corpses." While it is true that the word "buried" could apply to either of those situations, that does not change the fact that Paul independently documents the fact that Jesus was buried. Lowder also asserts that the word Paul used for "buried" was ambiguous because it does not specify tomb or common grave; however our English word "burial" is equally subject to the charge of "ambiguity"; it too is silent on whether someone is buried in a tomb or common grave. It is not that Paul is ambiguous; it is that he doesnít address a question that he might never dream needed to be addressed in the first place, and was certainly beyond the scope of his topic as we see that he did not give details on the burial.

Lowder speculates that "Joseph may have formally buried the two thieves in the criminalsí graveyard on Friday and then ran out of time, forcing him to leave Jesusí body in the tomb until Saturday night. Then again, for all we know, all three bodies have been buried temporarily in Josephís tomb. And it is that issue--whether Jesusí burial place contained any other corpses--which is relevant to the historicity of the Markan burial story and in turn the empty tomb story." Here we see polemical rumors at their best, with "neither a basis in historical fact nor even sincere belief among those who spread them" as far as I can detect. For while there is positive evidence that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, there is no evidence that he buried anyone else. Would Lowder have us believe that three corpses were buried, three corpses were later reburied, but only one was supposed to have been raised from the dead and the absence of the other two didnít make people wonder?

Lowderís argument also requires us to believe that the body simply being moved didnít occur to the women at the tomb. On the contrary, we find from Johnís account that that was the first thought that Mary Magdalen had. "They have taken my Lord away and I donít know where they have put him," and again "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." It was only when she turned toward the person she had spoken with and saw that it was Jesus himself, alive again, that she realized the truth.

Lowder also concerns himself with whether Joseph of Arimathea would have intended to leave Jesusí body in his tomb permanently. While the records we have are silent on that topic, the point is moot; the women came back at the first daylight after the holy day. Lowder imagines Joseph of Arimathea coming back after sunset on Saturday to rebury three corpses in the dark of night. As unlikely as this seems, Lowder is forced to this improbable timeline by the womenís arrival at the tomb at dawn on Sunday. For Lowderís usubstantiated hypothesis to work, weíd also have to believe that not only are all the appearances fabrications, but also either Joseph of Arimathea was never asked about the bodies, or that if he heard the accounts of the empty tomb that he didnít make his activities known. If Lowderís argument were correct, consider the implications: if anyone could have stopped Christianity in its tracks, it would have been Joseph of Arimathea, whom Lowder argues was no friend of Christís but supported his execution. According to Lowderís argument, Joseph of Arimathea had the knowledge, the power, and the motivation to stop Christianity in its tracks Ė but didnít.
Lowder argues, "Given Jesusí ultimate (and permanent) dishonorable burial in the criminalsí graveyard, it seems likely that the author of Mark would have been embarrassed by that discomfiting fact. So instead Mark has Joseph permanently bury Jesus in his own tomb." This statement begs the question of whether there was a reburial and of whether Jesusí burial was permanent. At the same time he hints that Mark may have deliberately falsified what he wrote. How likely is it that Christianity is a deliberate hoax, a conspiracy, but that no one ever broke their silence on this supposed secret?

Lowder argues again that if a Jew were motivated to bury Jesus, that same Jew would have been motivated to bury the two lestai. But this presupposes knowing the motive. Given that Roman crucifixion usually stemmed from Roman charges, itís less likely that the Sanhedrin had any special interest in the other two crucifixion victims that day.
In sum, then, Lowder hasnít shown any reason for thinking that the burial account is improbable, or for thinking that the reburial polemic is factual, and does not provide any evidence that such a place as Jesusí "permanent" burial place actually exists.

1.2. Did Paul Know that Jesusí Permanent Burial Place was Empty?

Lowderís phrasing "permanent burial place" implies that there was more than one burial place, subtly begging the question. Also Lowder is factually incorrect to assert that 1 Cor 15:3-8 is "the sole account of the resurrection written by someone who claimed to have personally seen an "appearance" of Jesus after his death." The author of the Gospel of John claims to have personally seen Christ after his resurrection. That the account purports to be an eyewitness account is true whether or not we accept traditional authorship of John.

Lowder also asserts that it is "terribly uncertain whether Paul knew of an empty tomb" Ė Paul simply refers to Jesus being raised from the dead after burial. On the skeptical side, Lowder admits an argument from silence that since Paul didnít mention an empty tomb (just a burial and resurrection) that Paul must not have known of any empty tomb. This ignores the meaning of being raised from the dead. Also I doubt Lowder would admit an argument from silence for someone supporting the historicity of the accounts.

Lowder also takes advantage of his "polemical rumor license" to state that "the pre-Christian Paul would not have had to personally go to Jesusí burial place in order to believe his fellow Pharisees who stated that, say, Jesusí corpse was rotting." If any such thing had actually happened, itís unlikely Paul would have become a Christian. But Lowder wisely skips over saying it had actually happened and settles for planting an idea that has no demonstrated basis in fact.

1.3. Was the Empty Tomb Story part of Mark's source material?

What an odd question. Unless someone were to say that Mark entirely fabricated the account of the empty tomb and that therefore Christianity is based on a deliberate lie, then he had source material for it. Based on textual criticism, we have strong evidence for a pre-Markan narrative in the Aramaic language that was used as a common basis for both Matthew and Mark. It is likely that this pre-Markan narrative included what the angel said at the tomb. To be fair to both sides, it is also possible, given the briefness of the angelís speech, that it might have been carried on in a common oral tradition which Matthew and Mark produced separately. But textually, the odds are against them sharing only an oral tradition and in favor of them sharing a common written source. The pre-Markan source in the Aramaic language is solidly established by comparison of the Greek texts, and is more than the "hopeful speculation" that Lowder would make it out to be.

Interestingly, Lowder notes that, since Mark doesnít give the identity of the women in question, the value of their testimony is suspect. However, Lowderís own theory is advanced without any witnesses at all. While a complete lack of witnesses does save the trouble of having people think your witnesses are out for personal gain or some-such, it is still much weaker than actually having witnesses. Since we donít possess the text of the pre-Markan account, Lowder also faults Craig for "speculating." But this implies that there is no validity to textual criticism and that it is all sheer speculation; this is not the case. Itís also interesting that Lowder would fault someone for speculating, given his line of argument.

1.4. Is the Markan expression, "the first day of the week," evidence that the empty tomb story is primitive?

On this one, Lowder documents that the argument is not widely viewed as conclusive within Christianity itself. Iíd have to agree.

1.5. The Story Is Simple and Lacks Legendary Development

Here Lowder argues for legendary development based on the appearance of an angel with a message. However, since the saying of the angel can be traced to the Matthew/Mark source document with a high degree of probability, that makes the legendary development either very early or Ö not legendary at all. If ever news deserved an announcement from heaven, this would be it. For those who do not rule out angels a priori, both the textual evidence of a prior source and the fittingness of the event lend probability to the account.

Lowder, in an interesting twist, tries to make the silence of the women "legendary," as if there were anything remarkable about people being scared upon leaving a graveyard, especially if the body werenít there. But basically, the womenís silence need not have been permanent to be factual, and so Lowderís argument is not a convincing argument in the first place.

1.6. The Discovery of the Tomb by Women

Here again we find that not all Christians are convinced by Craigís line of reasoning on this point. As Lowder records, "Even no less an Evangelical than J.P. Moreland rejects Craigís absolutism, when he writes, "A woman was not allowed to give testimony in a court of law except on rare occasions.""

1.7. The Investigation of the Empty Tomb by Peter and John

Here Lowder leads in by stating, "If there is no reason to believe Jesusí followers knew where the body was buried, there is also no reason to believe the disciples visited the (final) burial place." However, according to the accounts, the disciples did know where the body was buried. Instead, what there is no account of is any other burial place. He also argues that the women discovering the empty tomb was not historical, but this without solid evidence to dispute it. He further argues that Luke 24:12 is an interpolation, a position which he later admits is "controversial to say the least." He then attempts to argue from silence that, since 2 gospels mention only women, therefore the men checking the womenís story may not have happened. However, as Lowder has already acknowledged, the earliest of all surviving written resurrection accounts (by Paul) focuses on the men. Also, the disciplesí not checking such a thing for themselves would be hard to imagine from a standpoint of normal human motivation.

Lowder also tries to cast doubt on whether the disciples actually entered the empty tomb, since he provides evidence that this was illegal. But it is antecedently very improbable that the disciples would have taken an account like an empty tomb and an angel at face value without investigating it, especially when it concerned someone whose disciple they had been for years.
Surprisingly, Lowder also argues that "Jesus was probably buried with the two lestai who were crucified alongside him. If I am right about this, then the disciples could not have verified the absence of Jesusí corpse simply by peering into the tomb and counting bodies." But really, if they had opened the tomb and seen 3 corpses then they would know that nobody was raised. If there were 2 corpses then one is missing according to Lowderís theory (realistically two corpses would be one more than expected and there would be no reason at all to suspect a resurrection). The disciples in question may have been fishermen, but they could tell if the body was there (or all the bodies were there), or whether the tomb was in fact empty.

Lowder also makes a fairly unfounded assertion, that "the only way to maintain the historicity of the disciplesí visit, it seems, is to regard the silence of the women as a wholesale fabrication, created by Mark to suit his redactional purposes." Not only does he not demonstrate that fabricating the womenís silence would have served any suitable purpose in Markís account, he also overlooks a much simpler alternative: that like most silences, it is eventually broken, and the more impressive the news, the sooner it is broken. So we are left with good reason to believe the accounts that Peter and John visited Jesusí grave, and also, according to the accounts of the topic, that they found the tomb empty.

1.8. Could first-century non-Christians preach the Resurrection in Jerusalem if Jesus lay in the grave?

Here Lowder argues from a presumption of the indifference of people towards the ultimate fate of Christ, reasoning that perhaps no one else was interested in the topic. But this is in sharp contrast to the known facts of people going to all the trouble to get Jesus executed in the first place, even having to involve the Romans. Given that the ruling council had condemned Jesus, a rumor of his being alive would logically be expected to produce at least an investigation among those who had worked so hard to arrange his death.

But what of Lowderís reburial polemic? Crucifixion is a public execution. When Joseph of Arimathea took the body as the records show, it was done in public. If the body had later come up missing, it would have been very natural for those who had arranged Jesusí death to investigate, and probably incumbent upon them by their duties. If Joseph had reburied Jesus, it would have been known, and Christianity would likely never have survived its first year.

And again Lowder argues that opening the tomb would have proved nothing and that "since they were buried in the same tomb as Jesus, neither side could prove anything by simply counting the number of corpses in the tomb." But if all 3 were buried in a single tomb, counting the bodies could have proven conclusively whether all were present & accounted for.

Therefore, in light of the above considerations, the fact that the disciples preached the Resurrection in Jerusalem makes it probable that not only was the tomb was empty, but also that there was no reburial. The usual reason cited for rejecting the resurrection is philosophical. A philosophical bias against the events in the account prevent a fair evaluation of the texts.

1.9. Does Jewish propaganda provide independent confirmation of the empty tomb story?

On Matthewís account of Jewish polemic that the body was stolen, Lowder tries to argue from silence that, since we have no (other) Jewish documents confirming or denying this, that we canít assume itís true. Granted that multiple sources are better than single sources, still we do have a source that mentions it, and it is not inherently improbable that those who did not follow Christ would have said such a thing.
Lowder also asserts that the date of this polemic is uncertain and that "the author of Matthew does not give us any useful clues." On the contrary, the author of Matthew states that this happened the same day as the resurrection itself.

As something that perhaps characterizes Lowderís article better than anything else, he argues that "Jewish polemic was just that -- polemic. Polemical rumors need neither a basis in historical fact nor even sincere belief among those who spread them." Indeed, Lowder seems to see the issue of the resurrection not in terms of seeking the truth, but in terms of "a tit-for-tat counter to the Christian claim of an empty tomb." Iíve been in enough conversations with enough skeptics to know how often the discussion degenerates into a tit-for-tat effort to counter each claim rather than evaluate it. Really, we come bringing good news: God has redeemed his creation. Some will ask, "You say Jesus saves us, but saves us from what?" From death, from meaninglessness, from not knowing why we are here, from ourselves at our own worse moments, from not knowing whether God loves us or if he even cares: that he came is proof that he does care, and loves us deeply. By becoming man and dying, he destroys the power that death has over us. He gives us the sureness of knowing that there really is something beyond death: the resurrection is proof that, in Christ, there is. Knowing Godís love towards mankind starts at the empty tomb. Perhaps thatís why itís such a point of contention. Jesusí empty tomb is Godís promise to us that he has not abandoned his creation.

1.10. Jesus tomb' was not venerated as a shrine

Here Craig makes an argument from silence, and one that cuts both ways. It is an argument that perhaps not all Christians would support.

2. Conclusion

By way of summary, then, I would say that Lowderís hypothesis is without basis in the historical accounts pertaining to Jesus. His key points, the burial of multiple people & reburial, are not supported by the documents and are not plausible given either the timeline or the events that followed. From time to time Lowder argues that some things were common or uncommon, but what is common is much like a bell curve: we would not even expect everything to lie exactly at the mean. It is an observable fact that many non-typical things do in fact happen. The burial of a crucifixion victim who enjoyed a popular following, or the breaking of a silence about an unusual event, or the investigation of a claim when someone was passionately interested in knowing what happened Ė these things are not in themselves extraordinary and cause for disbelief. Quite the opposite: these things are well within the responses expected from human nature.

Jesusí empty tomb is Godís promise to us of our own empty tombs at Christís return. It is Godís pledge to creation that he will not let his creation be undone, and he will not let us come to nothing. In contrast to polemics against the resurrection which Lowder says "need neither a basis in historical fact nor even sincere belief among those who spread them," we bring historical evidence and sincere belief in the reality of what we say: that in Christ, death itself is defeated, and he promises to raise us up at the last day. It is good news.


Take care & God bless

Old 04-14-2001, 10:07 PM   #3
Posts: n/a

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by James Still:
Just in time for Easter! We've just published a new paper in the library entitled "The Empty Tomb Story " by Jeffery Jay Lowder.

Lowder provides a point-by-point rebuttal to Craig's case for the empty tomb. Along the way, Lowder defends a naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb. He concludes that historians should be agnostic about the empty tomb story.
Here is a link to my Bible board, where if you scroll down you will see my response, in four parts, real long. "The Lowder they Protest." Please look for it.

The Lowder They Protest

Old 04-15-2001, 09:14 PM   #4
Posts: n/a

<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by James Still:
Just in time for Easter! We've just published a new paper in the library entitled "The Empty Tomb Story " by Jeffery Jay Lowder.

Lowder provides a point-by-point rebuttal to Craig's case for the empty tomb. Along the way, Lowder defends a naturalistic explanation of the empty tomb. He concludes that historians should be agnostic about the empty tomb story.
According to Earl it's just against Craig's arguments, so I guess it doesnt' affect the Resurrection, so we don't need to defend it.
Old 04-15-2001, 10:13 PM   #5
Posts: n/a


You don't need to defend what, the resurrection? If you would defend the resurrection on the basis of Craig's arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb, then yes you would need to defend the resurrection from Lowder's paper on Craig's arguments. There's no mystery here. The problem with your four-part reply, Metacrock, is that it doesn't address in detail the effectiveness of Lowder's attack on Craig's 10 arguments for the empty tomb tradition. "Do I appeal to the sorts of arguments Craig uses in support of Jesus' resurrection (through the credibility of the empty tomb tradition), and if so do I think they withstand Lowder's criticisms?" Those are the questions a critic of Lowder's paper should ask herself.

Thread Tools Search this Thread
Search this Thread:

Advanced Search

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 01:05 PM.


This custom BB emulates vBulletin® Version 3.8.2
Copyright ©2000 - 2015, Jelsoft Enterprises Ltd.