Many atheists whom I have encountered on social media dispute the accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb by women, and the owner of the empty tomb, Joseph of Arimathea. One such atheist refers to himself as Kaimatai on social media. Kaimatai is a word that means “biologist” or “specialist,” which is likely Kaimatai’s occupation. The following blog is a response to Kaimatai’s blog with respect to the aforementioned topics, followed by his original blog.
Kaimatai presents four general arguments against the authenticity of various events in the New Testament. He questions (1) the timing of the writing of the New Testament, calling into question its authenticity; (2) inconsistencies in the accounts of the empty tomb and the number of women discovering same; (3) conflicts with Roman practices; and (4) whether Joseph of Arimathea was a real person. I will address each of these.
1. Timing (and authenticity of the New Testament and Empty Tomb)
Timing and Authenticity of the New Testament
The overarching premise that Kaimatai has adopted is that the New Testament was written as a propaganda tool, used to “convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and of divine origin.” To fully understand this premise, we must unpack some of the context of early Christian history.
To do so, we first note that until 313 A.D., Christians practiced illegally. Those who were exposed by zealots such as Saul (when he was a Christian persecutor) risked being tortured, burned, crucified, or jailed (cf. Tacitus, Paul, and Luke), so the motivation to practice in the open and intentionally create a propaganda tool was not there.
Similarly, the difficulty associated with transcriptions presented challenges because (1) transcriptions were costly, as they were written either on parchment, which is stretched and smoothed leather, or papyrus from a reed plant; (2) the risk of being identified for practicing Christianity illegally was significant; (3) most of the population (~ 97% according to some estimates) was illiterate, so the oral tradition was revered and perhaps preferred; and (4) scribes were often needed and used to record oral traditions (Bar-Ilan, 2017).
Such challenges help to explain why we do not have hundreds of extra-Biblical sources within 150 years of 33 A.D. when Jesus was crucified. However, despite significant challenges, we do have 42 extra-Biblical sources confirming biblical events within this time period (including nine non-Christian sources, along with the independent sources from within the New Testament (Habermas & Licona, 2004). As an example, we have five non-Christian sources who confirm Jesus’ death via the crucifixion. These are Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and Talmud (Habermas & Licona, 2004). We have seven sources pointing to multiple, very early and eyewitness testimonies to the disciples’ claims of witnessing the risen Jesus who all note that early disciples were willing to suffer for their beliefs in Jesus: Luke – in Acts, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen (Habermas & Licona, 2004). Finally, we have eyewitness testimonies from disciples Peter, Mark, Matthew, Paul, James and Jude, along with the testimony of Luke, who authored the book of Luke and Acts. In Acts, Luke refers to himself in the first person when traveling with Paul (who knew Peter and James), which suggests he was well-aware and had first-hand knowledge of the testimonies of (at least) Peter, James, and Paul.
Kaimatai makes the assertion that the Gospels were written in sequence from Mark to Luke and Matthew to John over a period of thirty to forty years. This assertion is in conformity with Christian estimates. He adds that the Gospels were written after the fall of Rome in 70 A.D., which is not consistent with Christian estimates.
J. Warner Wallace offers the following evidence for earlier dating of the New Testament: (1) The New Testament fails to describe the destruction of the temple during the fall of Rome in 70 A.D.; (2) The New Testament fails to describe the siege of Jerusalem; (3) Luke said nothing about the deaths of Paul and Peter in 64 A.D. and 65 A.D., respectively; (4) Luke said nothing about the death of James in 62 A.D.; (5) Luke’s Gospel predates the Book of Acts, as noted in its words to Theophilus; (6) Paul quoted Luke’s Gospel in his letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:17-18) and his letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-25); (7) Paul echoed the claims of the Gospel writers (1 Corinthians 15:3-8; Galatians 1:15-19; Galatians 2:1); Luke quoted Mark and Matthew repeatedly (Luke 1:1-4). Furthermore, Luke refers to Mark’s Gospel when he notes that “it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order” (Luke 1:3). J. Warner Wallace suggests the following timeline for the authorship of the New Testament:
- Mark 45 – 55 A.D.
- Luke 50 – 53 A.D.
- Paul quotes Luke 53 – 57 A.D.
- Luke writes Acts 57 – 60 A.D.
Some claim the Gospels were anonymous, yet “no one in antiquity ever attributed the Gospels to anyone other than the four traditionally accepted authors” (Wallace, p. 172). Papias, who lived in the 1st century and early 2nd century is an example of a person who attributed authorship to the four traditionally accepted authors. Furthermore, the Gospels are not the only ancient documents that do not identify the author, as evidenced in Tacitus’ Annals.
Authenticity of the Empty Tomb Account
According to Kaimatai, accounts of the empty tomb are only present in the Gospels, yet we have evidence suggesting Paul was well aware of the empty tomb and the Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. In 1 Corinthians 15 3b-5, Paul cites an old Christian formula, which originated in the Jerusalem church within the first five years of Jesus’ crucifixion (Craig, 1985):
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve.”
Kaimatai is correct in his assertion that Paul does not specifically mention the empty tomb, yet does this omission mean that the tomb was not empty? If I knew that Suzie left her house to join me for lunch, yet I only said that Suzie joined me for lunch, does it mean that she did not leave her house? If I said Justin came home from college to stay with us for the weekend and I knew that he left his single-occupancy dorm along the way, yet did not mention that he left his dorm in my account of the weekend, can I assume that Justin’s dorm would be without Justin over the weekend? Such simple logic suggests that while Paul did not mention the empty tomb specifically, he was well aware of the empty tomb.
As for the Jewish polemic, Matthew’s account about the guard at the tomb (Matthew 27: 62-66; 28: 11-15) was written to refute the widespread assertion that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.
Matthew 28:11-15 “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among Jews to this very day.”
Further information on these arguments can be found here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-historicity-of-the-empty-tomb-of-jesus
2. Inconsistencies (in accounts of the empty tomb)
All four Gospels identify Mary Magdalene as one of the persons to first discover Jesus’ empty tomb. Yet the Gospels appear to vary in accounts of those who accompanied her in this discovery. Mark (16:1) says that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb. Matthew (28:1) says that Mary and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. Luke (24:10) says “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James, and the others with them who told the apostles.” John (20:1) only mentions Mary Magdalene, yet includes her statement referring to “we:” (20:2) “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him.”
Does failure to mention all of the women who discovered the empty tomb suggest that all of the women weren’t present? If I said, “Peyton Manning threw a touchdown pass and the Colts won the football game,” does it imply that Peyton Manning was alone on the field? No, it instead suggests my emphasis on Peyton Manning and his role in the game. The same can be said of John’s reference to only Mary Magdalene and the other disciples’ references to various women.
Reconciling the Accounts
The following takes the four accounts of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb and marries them into a single account. Very minor discrepancies have been eliminated.
There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes were as white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise,* Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, Joanna, and Salome took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. While they were on their way to the tomb, they asked each other ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.
They entered the tomb while they were wondering about this, when suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. One of the men, who was dressed in a white robe and on the right side of the tomb, said, “Don’t be alarmed, for I know you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where they laid Him. Then go quickly and tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He has risen from the dead and He is going ahead of you in Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.”
In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen! Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee; ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered His words.
Now Mary Magdalene stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw the two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put Him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking He was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him and I will get Him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’
So the women hurried away from the tomb afraid, yet filled with joy, and ran to the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” He said. They came to Him, clasped His feet and worshipped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
When they came back from the tomb, the women told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. Mary Magdalene said, “I have seen the Lord!” But the disciples did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb and the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead). Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
*A note must be made about the Gospel of John. John reports that when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, it was still dark. Given the timing in the early hours of the morning, it seems reasonable to assume that the darkness turned to light while on her journey at some point undisclosed. The Gospel of John further offers an overall summary of the empty tomb account, which included Mary Magdalene’s visit to the empty tomb and subsequent visit to the disciples (John 20: 1-10), followed by a detailed account of what occurred at the empty tomb during Mary Magdalene’s visit (John 20: 11-18).
In summary, when taken together, the accounts offer a more vivid picture of the events surrounding the empty tomb. As pointed out by J. Warner Wallace, the gospels fit together like a puzzle.
3. Jesus’ burial conflicts with Roman practice
According to Bart Ehrman, criminals considered “enemies of the state” were not allowed decent burials. However, at least one source (a Jewish philosopher called Philo of Alexandria, Egypt) stated that Romans had a practice of allowing burials under “various circumstances.” Furthermore, such an allowance is consistent with Jewish beliefs, as per Deuteronomy 21:22-23, and Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, which was predominantly Jewish.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 “If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.”
It is likely an insurrection would occur if a Jewish person were left on the cross since they believed firmly their land would be cursed.
Josephus explains Jewish ethical obligations as follows: “We must furnish fire, water, food, to all who ask for them, point out the road, not to leave a corpse unburied…show consideration even to declared enemies (Against Apion, 2:29; 211; cf., 2:26; 205) (Evans, 2017). Given the fact that Jesus was crucified (1) in Jerusalem, a hub for the Jews; and (2) during peacetime on the eve of the Passover in which thousands of Jews would be visiting the next day, it seems unlikely that Jesus’ body would be left on the cross for all men, women, and children traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday to see.
Kaimatai states “As far as we can tell Romans did not normally allow crucified victims to get buried in tombs.”
Jesus was not a “normal” sort of victim, so how can one assert that He should be buried as one? Kaimatai’s assertion suggests that Jesus was not unlike the thieves who were at either side of Him on crosses. Unlike such thieves, Jesus presented such a significant threat to the Jewish high priests that they traded Him for Barabbas, who was mentioned in all four gospels and who had been imprisoned on death row for “an insurrection in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19). Jesus’ significant following, likely a product of His bold and knowledgeable teachings, His miracles, and the fact that He forgave people, were likely what threatened the Jewish high priests who did not want their own power to be infringed upon. They labeled Him the “King of the Jews,” which posed a threat to Roman power, helping to justify their decision to crucify Him.
Furthermore, we have at least four independent sources attesting to Jesus’ burial: Luke in Acts (2:29; 13:36); Paul (1 Corinthians 15:4), Matthew, Mark, and John. Historians have documented much of early history with one or two sources, so having four sources enhances the validity and historicity of the burial account.
4. Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph of Arimathea is described as a wealthy man who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which was located in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish high court, which consisted of seventy of the leading authorities on Judaism. Given that the Sanhedrin was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, early Christian views on the Sanhedrin were likely quite hostile. Given that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, all of whom (according to Mark) voted to condemn Jesus, Joseph was the last person Christians would “invent” if the account were merely fiction. According to the late New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “very probable” since it is “almost inexplicable” for Christians to make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus. Even Bart Ehrman affirms that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea.
In conclusion, the evidence presented above serves to diffuse readers’ “problems” with (1) the timing and accuracy of the accounts of the empty tomb, (2) the “inconsistencies” between the Gospel accounts of same, (3) the conflicts with Roman practices, and (4) the doubts about Joseph of Arimathea.
Thank you for investing the time to read this article.
Bar-Ilan, Meir (2017). Illiteracy in the land of Israel in the first centuries c.e. Accessed May 20, 2017 at https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/illitera.html. References include: J. Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1968; J. Baines, ‘Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society’, Man (ns), 18 (1983), pp. 572-599 (includes bibliography); Rosamond McKitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989.
Craig, W.L. (1985). The historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus. New Testament Studies, 31: 39-67.
Evans, C. (2017). Jewish burial traditions and the resurrection of Jesus. Accessed May 20, 2017 at http://craigaevans.com/Burial_Traditions.pdf
Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004). The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.
Wallace, J.W. (2013). Cold Case Christianity. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook
Well, Easter has come and gone again. That seems to be a good time to talk about the resurrection. Because many Christians have been talking about it. How else can we explain the empty tomb if Jesus wasn’t magically resurrected via the power of an ancient bloodgod? It’s the only explanation that makes sense! (rolls eyes). The problem with the question is its loaded nature. The empty tomb is presented as a fact. This has some major credibility problems.
Problem 1: Timing
The empty tomb isn’t used as proof of Jesus’ divinity and resurrection until we get to the gospels. The (genuine) letters we have from Paul do not mention it. Nor is it present in other early NT letters. For something that’s supposed to convince us all that Jesus was divine and resurrected, its absence for decades in early Christianity literature is astonishing. The gospels are generally reckoned to be written after Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans (70 CE) because they’re not referenced in earlier Christian documents. Paul seems completely unaware of them. And prophecies of Jerusalem being sacked are always easier to make after the event… The sequence for the gospels is usually reckoned as Mark, followed by Luke and Matthew, and finally John. This spans around 30-40 years. And all are long after the alleged event. The gap between when the empty tomb alleged occurred and when it’s first mentioned is extraordinarily large.
Problem 2: Inconsistencies
Despite the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) patently using the same sources, they can’t keep the empty tomb story straight. Throw in John and it gets worse. The number of women who went to the tomb, when they went, what they saw at the tomb, what they did afterward, whether they were believed or not are all inconsistent across the gospels. The Apologist gambit is to assert that this is what we expect with eye-witness accounts. No. It’s consistent with a bunch of people who didn’t balk at making things up to sell their religion.
Problem 3: It conflicts with Roman practice
As far as we can tell Romans did not normally allow crucified victims to get buried in tombs. Crassus left thousands of ex-slaves rotting on crosses after the suppression of the Slave revolt. Normally crucified victims were left aloft to be picked clean by birds and the like. To be buried, and buried ceremoniously instead of in a common pit, is a deviation that begs for explanation.
Problem 4: Joseph of Arimathea
It has always struck me how much of a Deus ex Machina Joseph plays. In order to get Jesus from the cross, into a tomb and in the time available, requires a very powerful and capable character. There’s nobody in the disciples capable of pulling this off. Enter Joseph. He fixes all the problems with the plot. First, he’s politically powerful. He’s part of the council that condemned Jesus. But like all superhero fiction, he has a secret identity. He’s also a disciple of Jesus. He’s influential enough to persuade Pilate to take the body off the cross. He’s also rich. This is also necessary for the plot. They have to buy linen cloth and 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe that evening. He’s also already got a tomb ready. Every plot-hole (bar one) is immediately fixed. Evening might be approaching when he asked Pilate for the body, but Jesus is lying in a shroud, in a tomb, with a stone covering the entrance in time for his resurrection. Phew! The remaining plot hole of course, is there isn’t enough time to get this all done in the time available. Joseph’s appearance in the story is dramatic. He’s not mentioned in the gospels before this. And he disappears just as dramatically. He’s never mentioned again. He’s not mentioned in Acts, he’s not mentioned in any of the letters preceding the gospels. Paul, Peter and James have no recollection of him at all. He’s a powerful and connected guy with massive influence, and nobody mentions him?! Amazing. Joseph only has one job. He appears at exactly the right time to fill in a bunch of critical plot-holes, and then disappears. He has the traits of a literary invention that appears decades later when the empty tomb story gets added to the Jesus legend- not the traits of an historic person. (If you want a much deeper analysis of Joseph of Arimathea, I recommend John Loftus’ blog).
I don’t feel that I need to explain the empty tomb, because I don’t think there was one. Early Christendom was plagued with doctrinal problems. Hints of this are preserved in the letters of Paul, James and others. This also created a range of heretical sects, such as the Arians. The gospels weren’t written to be histories. They were written to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and of divine origin. And by drawing on the authority of Jesus and the early disciples, they could be used to resolve doctrinal disputes. Was the resurrection a mostly spiritual or personal visionary event? Or was it a physical event? For anyone who believed in a physical resurrection, the canonical Gospels make a perfect argument. And they get more elaborate the later the gospel is composed. It’s the last gospel, Johns, that introduces Thomas as the clincher for the physical resurrection. So either major scientific laws were broken to miraculously bring the offspring of an ancient god and virgin back to life. Or the belief that the resurrection was a physical event evolved slowly in a community that was willing to add embellishments that showed this, in retelling, over decades. It’s not really difficult deciding what’s the least plausible.