Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (2) – The Empty Tomb is not Historical

Casey - Jesus of NazarethReview of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.

Part 2: The Empty Tomb is not Historical

The four Gospels each include a story about the burial of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb, belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, and the astonishing discovery a day and a half later, by a woman or group of women, that the tomb was empty. Casey concludes that neither the burial in a rich man’s tomb nor the story of an empty tomb are historically true. The familiar Easter Sunday image of Jesus coming out of a tomb, with its stone rolled away, is a late fiction.

Against Dominic Crossan, Casey maintains the dead body of Jesus may have been buried in a common tomb rather than becoming dog-food

Casey begins his discussion with the story of Jesus’ burial, before discussing the story of the discovery of the “empty tomb”. He does not go so far as to accept the widely cited proposal by Dominic Crossan in which the latter argues that Joseph of Arimathea was “a total Markan creation”. Crossan has argued that, consistent with the majority of cases involving the crucifixion of a criminal, Jesus was in fact more likely to have been buried in a common grave, where his remains may even have been eaten by dogs (Who Killed Jesus?,1995: 172). While Casey acknowledges that this was indeed the regular fate of crucified criminals, he notes evidence that Romans sometimes granted bodies of dead crucified criminals for burial. Further, as Casey argues, a man like Joseph (if he existed) would have motivation not to leave a dead body hanging overnight due to the relevant purification laws on the matter (Deut. 21.22-23), and other aspects of the story are not consistent with the story’s wholesale invention. Casey makes out a feasible case for the essential historicity of Joseph of Arimathea, and his arrangement for the burial of Jesus’ body in a common tomb (cf. m. Sanh. VI, 11). However, for Casey, the details about Jesus being buried in Joseph’s own very expensive and lavish tomb should be understood as Mark’s exaggeration of the tradition.

However, it should also be pointed out that the narrator had a strong motivation to present his hero Jesus as receiving a noble rather than a shameful burial, consistent with tendencies in ancient biography. Moreover, the tradition looks as though it has been invented by a literalistic interpretation of Isaiah 53.9a (“He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death”). Other literalistic interpretations of Hebrew parallelism as though they were twofold prophecies of Jesus are evident in Matthew 21.5 (cf. Zechariah 9: two donkeys!); John 19.23-24 (cf. Psalm 22.18: two different treatments of clothing versus garments!); and Acts 4.25-27 (cf. Psalm 1: two different rulers!). The evidence which Casey presents is not conclusive, and does not seem any more likely than the hypothesis that the tradition of burial in a rich man’s tomb is simply invented “wholesale” by Mark or his sources. Furthermore, Mark may have wished to include such a spurious tradition in order to create a narrative connection to the more important empty tomb story. The tradition concerning Joseph of Aramathea is reminiscent of other Christian traditions which invent secret sympathisers among the Jerusalem elite, who, it is claimed, disagreed with the decision to crucify Jesus (cf. Acts 13.28-29). As Casey points out, Mark presents Joseph of Arimathea as “a distinguished councillor”, not a disciple of Jesus, not somebody who the women thought they could approach but could only watch from afar, somebody who was able to deal with Pilate while Jesus’ own disciples had fled – yet, as conveyed by his description as someone who was “expecting the kingdom of God” (Mark 15.43), somebody broadly sympathetic with Jesus’ message. This very convenient tradition of the secret elite Jewish disciples of Jesus culminates in John’s Gospel, where Nicodemus, who John purports to be a Jewish leader who secretly sought Jesus’ teachings by night, even makes an appearance alongside Joseph of Aramathea at Jesus’ burial. In John, the dead body of Jesus is apparently tended to by such a cabal of Jewish leaders who were secret Jesus-movement sympathisers, that it is remarkable that there were any leaders around who wanted to crucify Jesus in the first place! Therefore, it seems that the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea is far from secure, and, as Crossan concludes, seems more likely to be a wholesale invention by Mark or the sources he adopted.  

What is more certain about these traditions is that, as Casey notes, the later rewritings of the Joseph of Arimathea story by Matthew and John were made in order to deliberately alter the story and also to redefine Joseph’s identity. Matthew changes Joseph into a “disciple” of Jesus (27.57). John makes him into “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because of fear of the Jews” (19.38). If Joseph of Arimathea had any historical involvement with removing Jesus and burying him in a tomb, it seems that the traditions about him lacked any solid details. As a result, Joseph of Aramathea’s identity could float between that of a Jewish leader but not a disciple (Mark), a disciple of Jesus (Matthew), and – in a mixture of the two – a secret disciple of Jesus (John). While Casey makes a case for some kernel of historicity here, I am more suspicious that the whole story is a creative attempt to extol the innocence of Jesus by inventing a pro-Jesus faction among those who had condemned him.

Moving to the story of the discovery of the empty tomb on the morning of Easter Sunday, Casey, as with many before him, considers a significant factor against its historicity to be the fact that Paul makes no mention of it. As with many before him, Casey considers a significant factor against the historicity of the Gospel narratives to be the fact that Paul makes no mention of it. This is the case, significantly, even where, as in 1 Corinthians 15.4, he would have been expected to mention such a central feature of the resurrection if it were indeed a part of early Christian tradition. In this, Casey opposes a host of recent conservative apologetic scholars who are keen to read an empty tomb into Paul’s account, in particular because Paul’s account is very early (ca. AD 54) and is itself derived from earlier tradition.  Paul recounts the ascension of Jesus in this way: 

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15.3-5).  

If we follow the logic of Paul’s line of thought, corroborated by what Paul says elsewhere and even in the summaries of Paul’s preaching in Acts – but without prematurely reading into his words the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb – Paul’s understanding never includes the Gospel progression in which Jesus was first raised to the Earth, but only later raised all the way to Heaven. The conception in Paul that Jesus was “raised” envisages nothing more than a simple one-step process, from Jesus’ death to his glorified post-mortem existence. As Paul explains elsewhere, Jesus died, then was raised to be at the right hand of God in Heaven, where he will act as a divine intermediary at the final judgment (e.g. Rom. 8.34; Eph. 1.19-23; 2.6-7; Col. 3.1-4; Phil. 2.8-9). This conception – that Jesus ascended directly from death to Heaven – has often been termed “exaltation Christology”, the belief that Jesus went straight “from grave to glory”. As A.W. Zwiep summarises the belief (in Ascension of the Messiah, 1997: 130): 

the general conviction in the earliest Christian preaching is that, as of the day of his resurrection, Jesus was in heaven, seated at the right hand of God. Resurrection and exaltation were regarded as two sides of one coin… 

Without knowledge of the two-stage Gospel accounts in Matthew, Luke and John, we would have no reason to interpret “raised” otherwise.  One of Casey’s observations in respect of 1 Corinthians 15.3-8, and one made in some detail by Gerd Lüdemann (Resurrection of Jesus,1995), is that Paul does not distinguish, and in fact equates, his much later and personal vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road with each of the other resurrection appearances. That is, Paul does not indicate any difference in quality between the post-resurrection appearances to the twelve disciples and to him some years later. Yet, from Acts 9.3-8; 22.6-11; 26.12-18 we know that Paul’s Damascus Road experience was something “which other people present at the time did not see or hear properly” (p. 457). The startling conclusion is that Paul does not distinguish a resurrection “appearance” to Cephas/Peter and the other disciples from a personal vision that only Paul himself claims to have had access to. For Paul, a resurrection experience can be entirely subjective, without any shared, objective, public basis; Paul’s understanding of the post-resurrection “appearances” of Jesus to his disciples only requires their visionary experience of subjectively “seeing” Jesus. In Paul’s understanding of these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, it does not matter if he “appears” to somebody immediately, or many years afterward; if Paul knows of a tradition of a vision of Jesus, no matter how subjective or late, he simply records it as a fact.

This, incidentally, explains some unusual aspects of the other “visions” of Jesus: how the two men walking on the Emmaeus Road did not recognise their vision of Jesus (Matt. 24.15-16); how some of the disciples to whom Jesus “appeared” in Galilee still doubted that their vision was really of him (Matt. 28.16-17).  This failure to distinguish visions from real life also occurs in the descriptions of Peter’s experience of visions, which are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul names Cephas (Peter) as the first recipient of a “vision” of the post-resurrection Jesus. In doing so it is significant that Paul omits any mention of the women, even though they were the first to see Jesus in Matthew, Luke, and John. But this omission is quite consistent with Paul’s failure to mention Mark’s story about Jesus’ empty tomb – due to the fact that the story of the women and the story of the empty tomb are intimately connected only in Mark’s later Gospel. In Acts 10.10-17; 11.5-10, Peter is recorded as experiencing visions, understanding his subjective experience as a real message from God. Conversely, in Acts 12.9, the reverse occurs: when Peter receives what Acts claims is “real” assistance from an angel, he misunderstands the “real” help as a vision! Clearly Jesus’ earliest disciples, such as Peter who experienced a post-resurrection vision of Jesus, did not share our modern, rigid distinction between objective reality and subjective vision. The sighting of Jesus in a vision was just as “true” for Peter and Paul as the sighting of Jesus in ordinary, waking life.

William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig's arguments for reading entombment into 1 Cor. 15 are "extraordinarily weak" and require "ludicrously over-literalistic" interpretations

Therefore, Paul understood the post-resurrection appearances as visionary appearances  of a Jesus already glorified in Heaven. This is not only different from that of the later Gospels -where Jesus is seen on Earth before his final ascent into Heaven – but it demonstrates that the tradition of earthly post-resurrection appearances is a secondary development. For the earliest Christian belief in Jesus’ ascension involved God resurrecting Jesus directly to Heaven, and this conception is mutually exclusive of the Gospel tradition that Jesus was first resurrected to Earth (where he appeared to his followers) and only later was he resurrected to Heaven. Casey justly concludes that the better historical conclusion must be: 

Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind. (p. 497) 

This distinction between Paul and the Gospels has not dissuaded the more apologetic biblical commentators from arguing that, despite any mention of an “empty tomb” in Paul’s writings, the story of the empty tomb is somehow “implied” here in Paul’s words! At this point, Casey marshals a number of arguments against such a harmonizing interpretation (pp. 457-461). Casey rightly dismisses William Lane Craig’s arguments to this effect (in Resurrection of Jesus, 1989: 88) as “extraordinarily weak”. In that work, Craig attempts to argue that the resurrection must have been a bodily resurrection, and by implication, must have involved the bodily resurrection from the empty tomb – just as it is narrated in the Gospels. Craig’s specious method is to maintain that the meaning of the Greek word for “raised” (egēgertai) must mean “to raise upright”, that is “to erect”, and therefore can only apply “to the body in the grave”! Casey points out that such a distinction is impossible given the probable Aramaic Vorlage of egēgertai: qum, which simply cannot be given such an exclusive meaning. As Casey summarises, Craig’s argument is a “ludicrously over-literal” intepretation of egēgertai: 

Craig’s arguments illustrate the extent to which he thinks logically only within his ideological convictions, and their function is to remove one of the most important pieces of evidence in the primary sources: neither the earliest kerygmatic formulation, nor Paul himself, mentions the empty tomb. (p. 459) 

Moreover, the earliest Christian belief in the afterlife did not require the physical, buried body of Jesus to disappear from his grave, in order that Christians might believe in the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul distinguishes the spiritual body which is raised to the afterlife from the natural body which decays in the ground. For Paul, while the righteous lived in “bodies” of some sort, they were of a quite different nature to their earthly bodies. As Jesus is Paul’s exemplar for every person’s resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, we can conclude that Paul’s distinction between the decaying earthly body and new spiritual body would apply to Jesus too. Therefore, in Paul’s conception of resurrection, Jesus’ physical body would have rotted in his grave; Jesus was resurrected in a new, spiritual body. 

Reviewing the variety of Jewish beliefs about life after death, the only thing that is clear is that there was not great consensus on the matter. For example, resurrection was sometimes believed to involve bodies after a final judgment (2 Bar. 50-51.3), but sometimes believed to involve souls passing on immediately after death and before any final judgment (Pharisees, in Jos, Ant. 18.14). Casey discusses further examples which make it clear that it is unwise to demand early Christian belief in the resurrection of an earthly body, and the example of 1 Corinthians 15 suggests that the conception underlying the “empty tomb” stories was a later development. Therefore, Casey concludes:

The process of going to heaven after death has no necessary connection with a person’s tomb being empty. (p. 469)

James DG Dunn
James Dunn follows the tactic of conservative Christian apologists in his attempt “to circumvent” the clear inference to be taken from the fact that no tomb of Jesus was venerated by early Christians

As a further argument against the historicity of any empty tomb, Casey also observes that the site of Jesus’ alleged tomb is not known in Acts – nor in any other early source. The problem with this fact for those who would hold the empty tomb as an historical fact is that typical Jewish and Christian practice was to venerate the tombs of the dead. Therefore, the lack of evidence for the veneration of Jesus’ tomb is good evidence that there was no such tomb. Again, in making this clear argument, Casey is forced to counter “[t]he attempts of conservative Christian apologists to circumvent this aspect of the primary sources”. Casey cites James Dunn, who admits the lack of evidence for the veneration of Jesus’ tomb, and who acknowledges that it is “striking”, but attempts to explain the discrepancy by appeal to the Christian belief that there would be no remains of Jesus left to venerate. However, as Casey points out, Dunn’s explanation just side-steps the issue with the red herring of Jesus’ “remains”. For the issue of veneration does not even concern “remains”, but of honouring the site of Jesus’ burial.  Casey concludes: 

We should again infer that Jesus was probably buried in a common tomb for criminals. The earliest form of belief in his Resurrection was that God had vindicated him by taking him up to heaven, where he sat at God’s right hand. (p. 461) 

In summary, Casey provides very persuasive evidence that the tradition found in Mark 16.1-8, with its account of women finding Jesus’ tomb empty, was a secondary development from the earliest Christian belief that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were visionary appearances from Heaven which occured after his ascension. 

Next part: (3) The Gospel of Mark’s Missing Ending
Previous part: (1) Countering the dominance of conservative apologetic works in New Testament studies

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