Book Club: Was There An Empty Tomb?

Andrew Sullivan —  May 1 2014 @ 2:10pm


A reader challenges a part of Ehrman’s book we haven’t discussed yet:

Reading your thoughts and the reader responses so far, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Ehrman’s claim, in Chapter Four, that Jesus most likely wasn’t given a proper burial, meaning there was no tomb for his resurrection to leave empty – nor an actual body left to be resurrected, as theological orthodoxy would seem to demand. An excerpt from this chapter was recently featured on The Daily Beast, in which Ehrman makes this explicit: “Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised.” And clearly, as Ehrman shows in his book, the “empty tomb” features prominently in Christian apologetics on this issue. The idea that Jesus really was buried allows Christians to ask, “Well, then what did happen to Jesus’ body?” If he wasn’t eaten by dogs, then we need to somehow account for his body, which people certainly would have been looking for after his followers started saying he was raised from the dead. Or so the argument goes.

bookclub-beagle-trAs it happens, the chapter on this issue by Craig Evans in the evangelical response to Ehrman’s book was the one I actually found perhaps most persuasive, and your readers should be aware of it. Evans cites a variety of ancient texts – including passages from Philo, Josephus, and Roman legal documents – that give us good reasons to think Roman authorities were tolerant of Jewish religious customs. It would take too long to go through all of Evans’ evidence, but their cumulative force is striking, and he makes clear that his argument especially concerns what the Romans allowed in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, where religious demands for performing certain rites, like the burial of the dead, would have been especially forceful (Jews in other places, such as Alexandria, seemed to fare worse).

Even Ehrman’s own book unwittingly offers evidence for this. Recall the account he gives of Pontius Pilate erecting images of the Roman emperor in Jerusalem, which violated Jewish beliefs about “graven images.” What happened after the Jewish uproar over this? They were removed.

Evans also makes clear that tolerance for Jewish burial customs extended, in various circumstances, to those who were crucified. Most interestingly, in my view, is the archaeological evidence he marshals on this point.

He walks the reader through examples we have of tombs and (more frequently) ossuaries containing the remnants of those crucified or nails of the kind used in crucifixions covered in calcium, meaning they were once in human bones. In short, not everyone who was crucified, and certainly not all Jews, were simply left for the wild dogs or carrion birds to eat. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist at Ehrman’s own UNC-Chapel Hill, who summarizes the matter this way:

Gospel account of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

And speaking of Joseph of Arimathea, Evans argues that even that story has some real credence. Because the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Council, delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities, they would have been responsible for arranging a proper burial. So whether or not Joseph actually existed, the broad outline of the story he figures in is, according to Evans, reasonably consonant with the customs of the day.

Lastly, Ehrman makes a big deal of the fact that in the early creed Paul cites in his first letter to the how-jesus-became-godCorinthians, it merely says “And he was buried” rather than “And he was buried in a tomb.” When I read Ehrman’s book, I couldn’t understand quite why that mattered. Being buried implies a tomb, or a grave of some kind, but regardless being buried is not the same as being left to the dogs. Evans makes exactly the same point. And as for the supposed lack of symmetry in the creed – the line corresponding to the one just mentioned says “And he appeared to Cephas,” which leads Ehrman to think Joseph should be noted as the one who buried Jesus – Evans makes the reasonable point that naming who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection would be a far more important detail to include than the name of who buried Jesus, so the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Of course, maybe Joseph wasn’t named because that particular tradition arose later, but even if it did, the lack of knowing exactly who buried Jesus does nothing to alter the other contextual evidence that leads Evans to argue that it wouldn’t have been unusual for Jesus, a Jew in Jerusalem, to be given a proper burial.

Overall, then, this is one point where my layman reading of both sides of the argument makes me lean toward Ehrman’s evangelical critics.

Agreed. Another critical point worth reiterating in this context: perhaps the most striking thing in the book is that Ehrman explicitly states he has changed his mind as to when the belief in Jesus’ divinity arose. He used to think it came about decades later, but is now convinced by the evidence that the resurrection was a very early Christian belief. So the empty tomb is a real possibility and the resurrection was claimed by the earliest Christians. Sometimes religious beliefs are weakened by historical evidence; but sometimes they are actually strengthened.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Email any responses to rather than the main account, and please try to keep them under 500 words. Painting: The Resurrection Of Jesus by Piero Della Francesca.)