Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Women at Empty Tomb

We often hear the criteria of “embarrassment” being utilized when attempting to determine a claim’s historicity. The idea being, if the statement was not general knowledge and embarrassing to the person writing, it is more likely to be historical.

For example, if I wrote an autobiography and admitted cheating during law school, this would have a greater probability of being historical as it is embarrassing and not general knowledge. Obviously what is embarrassing to one person may not be to another. My admitting to an affair would fulfill this criterion, whereas an NBA player’s claim may not. My admitting to voting for Obama may not; if Rush Limbaugh admitted to doing so—it is very likely to be true.

It must be a claim against my self-interest. My profession of you having an affair would not be embarrassing at all. Especially if I did not care for you.

Additionally, a person may be forced to admit something not true, simply because it is already generally assumed or stated, and to disclaim it takes more effort than embracing it. Therefore, we need three criteria for embarrassment:

1) Stated by the person whose self-interest would be harmed;
2) Derogatory or disfavorable to that person or their interests;
3) Not previously made generally known.

We often see Christian scholars utilize this method when defending historicity within the Gospel accounts. I want to focus on one such claim—the women at the empty tomb.

The earliest account we have is Mark 16:1-8:

Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, "Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?"

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away--for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples--and Peter--that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you."

So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

I will let William Lane Craig explain why this fits the embarrassment criterion:

Given the low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses, the most plausible explanation, in light of the gospels' conviction that the disciples were in Jerusalem over the weekend, why women and not the male disciples were made discoverers of the empty tomb is that the women were in fact the ones who made this discovery. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that there is no reason why the later Christian church should wish to humiliate its leaders by having them hiding in cowardice in Jerusalem, while the women boldly carry out their last devotions to Jesus' body, unless this were in fact the truth.

In a debate, one might succinctly respond, “Mark enthusiastically embraced role reversals. He had the foreigners Pilate and the Centurion unwittingly recognize who Jesus really was; whereas his own people—the Jews—did not. Mark wrote of Jewish Religious leaders accusing Jesus of being the Messiah—and He was!—whereas his disciples were the ones betraying him to the executioner! Mark would like nothing better than have the lowest in the Jewish society play the greatest honor of discovering the empty tomb.”

There is much more to unpack, but when pressed for time, this concisely states the response.

The first question is whether this would be against the author’s self-interest. This is written by the Gospel of Mark’s author. (I will call him Mark for convenience.) The only possible candidate for an older record is 1 Corinthians 15, and that makes no mention of a tomb, let alone its whereabouts or discovery. This is our first record of occurrence.

You may hear claims there was a pre-Markan source, or this was consistent with oral tradition—but without those sources, we must work with what we have. [We often hear claims the persons writing these accounts would dare not make untruths, because they would be “checked out” by readers, looking to confirm what was said. Nonsense. In 2010, we have amazing resources to check out claims, yet we still receive mass e-mails about dead people removing religious broadcasting and people are too lazy to check out the truth for themselves. Indeed, the only thing access and technology has done is speed myth and legends spreading! Additionally in Galatians 1:6 (50 CE) Paul is concerned about how quickly the people were turning away to “another gospel.” Apparently they were NOT verifying Paul’s statements or fact-checking what was said.]

According to Papias (circa 130 CE), Mark was Peter’s companion, and wrote down what he remembered Peter had said. Unfortunately, Papias does not tell provide a source for this claim, and appears to be defending Mark against attacks as to its authenticity. Scholars have retreated to claiming a Peterine influence at best, rather than Peter being the sole source of the Gospel.

Which raises the interesting issue—was Mark writing FOR Peter, or AGAINST Peter? Many Christians envision an early church that was united in thought, deed and doctrine throughout the First Century. Perhaps a minor difference between immature and mature Christians or how to integrate Jewish practice with gentiles joining this new faction.

However, Paul states in 1 Corinthians1:11-12, less than 20 years after Jesus’ death, “For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe's household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’” Paul is concerned about growing factions, following individuals—this is not the description of a united church body!

In fact, the New Testament is replete with edicts against those causing divisions. See Rom. 16:17, 1 Cor. 11:18, Jude 19. We must address whether Mark was within a division against Peter.

Mark indicates Jesus changing Simon’s name to Simon Peter or Simon Petras--meaning “rock.” Mark 3: 16. Mark’s first recorded parable recounts is the famous parable of the sower—who throws seed in four spots—the wayside, the stony ground, among thorns, and on good ground. Mark 4:1-9. Jesus later explains (with a note of exasperation towards the disciples) these are descriptions of people who receive the word. 4:13-20.

Follow the description of the seed on stony ground: “Immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up, it scorched and because it had no root, it withered away.” (4:5-6). Jesus explains these people, “These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.” (4:16-17)

This is an apt description of Peter! At the Last Supper, Peter says, “Even if all stumble, I will not.” (14:29) Of course we know Peter ends up denying Jesus once the heat is on, and the Gospel of Mark leaves Peter with a third denial and weeping. (14:72)

Mark writes that Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (8:29) yet almost immediately, Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him the equivalent of Satan. (8:32). At the transfiguration, Peter is described as afraid and makes a suggestion Jesus politely ignores. (9:5-6) Jesus asks Peter, James and John to be with Him when he prays in the Garden before His crucifixion, and the three fall asleep. Who does Mark indicate Jesus rebukes for it? Peter (14:37)

Given the choice between whether this is a polemic for or against Peter, a straight-forward reading would be it does not paint a favorable picture of Peter. Even Christians recognize how badly the disciples are portrayed and fashion defenses to explain it.

If we are looking for the simplest explanation, here is the situation:

1) There were factions within the church prior to Mark being written.
2) Mark displays characteristics indicating other influences besides Peter.
3) The disciples—especially Peter—are portrayed extremely poorly

The expedient conclusion is that this is written AGAINST Peter—not in support of Peter. Therefore having someone other than the disciples discover the empty tomb supports the theme of writing against the disciples. It fails the first requirement in that Mark is not supporting the Disciples’ self-interest.

But we can’t stop there. Even assuming the Gospel is written against one Christian faction (the Peterine group), the question can still be raised, “If Mark was making up the tomb discovery, then he would have men make the discovery to bolster the story, rather than use women who were of lower social caste and not used as legal witnesses.” Rather than use the disciples, Mark would have utilized other men.

There is a bit of bait-and-switch happening here. Notice the first clause—the initial premise, “IF Mark was making up the tomb discovery…” The problem I often see, when this is raised, is that the Christian first addresses it as if Mark was making up the story, but then uses Mark as historical fact. No, no, no—if we are going under the presumption Mark is making it up, we must address it as if Mark was making it up!

In other words, the Christian claims, “Why would Mark make up women?” after claiming Pilate did this, and Joseph of Arimathea did that, and the Jewish leaders did this…and so on. The better question is where did history stop and myth come in? If we are looking at Mark making up the women—where else can we look to see if Mark made up part of the story?

Let’s look at an example. Mark records a person, Joseph of Arimathea—a Sanhedrin member—requesting the body of Jesus. Joseph then performs burial rites and places Jesus in a tomb. (Mark 15:43-46)

[A minor excursion here is helpful to demonstrate how myth development is demonstrated in the gospels. In Mark, Joseph is a council member, “waiting for the Kingdom of God” and puts Jesus in a tomb. Matthew removes Joseph’s status as a Sanhedrin member, refers to him as a rich man, but now Joseph has become a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus is laid in Joseph’s personal tomb. (Matthew 27:57-60) Luke reinstates Joseph as a council member, adds he was a “good and just man” as well as indicated Joseph dissented from the conviction of Jesus. Luke states the tomb had never been used. (Luke 23:50-53) John also agrees the tomb has never been used, agrees with Matthew (against Mark and Luke) that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, and adds Nicodemus as a co-conspirator with Joseph. (John 19:38-41) By the Gospel of Peter Joseph was both a disciple of Jesus and a friend of Pilate. Peter indicates it was Joseph’s tomb, and it was in a Garden named after Joseph! Celtic myth eventually claimed Joseph held the Holy Grail when it collected Jesus’ blood.]

Curiously, Joseph of Arimathea appears for this one part at the end of Act III, and then disappears from the scene. We haven’t heard of him before; we hear nothing of him after. Even when the early church interacts with the council, we hear nothing about Joseph of Arimathea. (Acts 5:34)

Mark also indicates that after Sabbath, women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus with spices. Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene and Salome. (Mark 16:1) Although this was normally done at the burial (John’s Gospel does included it), it is possible to be done again. Note, like Joseph, the women have appeared for the first time by name at the crucifixion (Mark 15:40, 47)

What is more important are the names. In first century Palestine, burials and tombs were family matters. A person would be buried in a family tomb; the family was expected to perform the burial rites. Mark is writing a story of abandonment. Christ has already predicted all will abandon him. (Mark 14:27) Who would be expected to normally bury Jesus? His father, Joseph, and his mother, Mary.

Mark is deliberately emphasizing Jesus’ own family abandoning him in the end. In case we are too thick to get it, he introduces “Joseph of Arimathea” to play the part of Jesus’ father Joseph, and two Mary’s to play the part of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Not convinced? What are the chances Joseph, Jesus’ dad, is unavailable and the name of the person who is available also happens to be named Joseph?

Or that Mary, Jesus’ mother, is not available, and another Mary prepares to perform the rite. A happy coincidence? How far will that coincidence stretch? Mary, the mother of Jesus, has sons named James and Joses. (Mark 6:3) This Mary also has sons named James and Joses. (Mark 15:40) Could Mark make it any more obvious? Like Joseph of Arimathea, Mary(s) appear, act their part and disappear.

Not coincidentally, failing to obey Jesus’ last command to inform the Disciples (Mark 16:7-8), making the abandonment of Jesus complete by all persons.

This is a strong example Mark’s author was deliberately modifying facts…making things up…to make a point. Mark loves to use the unexpected—role reversal. We see this theme replete through Mark.

What better example of this, then the statement, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”? (Mark 10:31) Again, in case we miss the point, Mark tells the tale regarding the sons of Zebedee desiring a place of honor, and Jesus saying they must be servants first. (Mark 10:37-44) Or the disciples turning away children (considered extremely low status in first century Palestine), and Jesus saying, “No—the children get to see me.” (Mark 10:13-16)

The centurion—a foreigner, not a God-fearing man—is the person who declares Jesus the son of God. (Mark 15:39.) (For even a deeper look at the irony here, it is likely the Centurion was saying this mockingly: “This was the son of God…and I’m the queen of Spain!” Yet he was actually correct. Another level of role reversal—saying the right thing, thinking he was wrong. If you believer I am taking this too far, remember the soldiers clothing Jesus with a purple robe and giving him a crown of thorns. (Mark 15:17) Even Christians agree an ironic statement was being made there.)

The accusation against him from the Romans was that he was “King of the Judeans.” (Mark 15:26) A sign meant to be mocking, but again turns out to be true. Jesus tells his followers to “take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; 10:31) yet it is a non-follower—Simon of Cyrene—who is compelled to carry the cross. (Mark 15:21) The named “Simon” playing the role of “Simon Peter” is another coincidence…or is it?

Finally, we should consider how Mark treats females. The person receiving the highest praise within Mark (in fact the only person to receive solely praise) is a woman—the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany. Mark 14:3-9. (Again, note the ironic role reversal that Jesus indicates she will always be remembered, yet her name is not given.)

Mark treats favorably the woman who touches Jesus to heal her blood problem (Mark 5:25-34) and the Greek woman requesting healing for her daughter (Mark 7:25-30)

So this is what we have:

1) An author who enjoys irony and role reversal,
2) An author who treats women favorably,
3) An author manipulating names to make a point, (Joseph/Joseph. Mary/Mary)
4) An author intending to make a specific point. (Complete abandonment.)

Why wouldn’t Mark use females to discover the empty tomb? It makes sense in light of the themes running through this gospel.

The Christian scholars claiming differently are using a modern thought process (“If I were making up the claim, I would do it this way…”) without looking at it in the Gospel writer’s framework.

As Matthew and Luke utilized Mark for their stories regarding women encountering the empty tomb, these are not independent statements and need not be addressed once Mark’s position is clarified. John appears to incorporate Mary Magdalene being at the tomb, perhaps through oral transmission of the story initiated in Mark, but differs greatly on the details.

When Mark is reviewed as 21st Century courtroom testimony, we might wonder why, if he was making it up, he would use woman at the empty tomb. When Mark is reviewed within its own writing, in its own time, we wonder why he would use anyone else.


  1. Very nice work, Dagood. When the fascists come to get me, I want you as my lawyer.

  2. Three observations (with which you are probably already familiar):

    (1) Back when I used to practice law for a living, I worked with one of the sneakiest bastards you could ever hope to meet. He explained to me that the worst thing to do when preparing a client to testify is to have him deny everything the other side says. That makes him look like a liar. You want your client to agree with 95% of what the other side says and only challenge a couple of specific points that can turn the case. For example, have him admit that he signed the contract but have him claim that he had a discussion with the other side in which they agreed on a particular meaning of an ambiguous clause.

    In short, we can't eliminate the possibility that an embarrassing detail might simply be included to enhances the credibility of the story.

    (2) If Mark invented the empty tomb story, his readers would have been curious about why they had never heard the story before. By writing the story the way he did, Mark created an out for himself, i.e., "You never heard we didn't know about this for a long time because those silly unreliable women ran off without telling anyone."

    I realize that this is simplistic, and I don't think that it is nearly as likely as the reasons you have suggested, but I think it illustrates the fact that facially embarrassing facts can serve important purposes that might justify their invention.

    (3) I have heard many Christians give their testimony over the years, some repeatedly. In the cases where I have heard the same person's testimony more than once, there seems to be a marked tendency to make their pre-conversion life seem more desperate and depraved each time they tell their story. In cases where I knew the person prior to their conversion, they make their former life sound much worse than I remember it being and their transformation more spectacular than I have observed.

    In other words, any embarrassing story about the disciples prior to the resurrection isn't necessarily embarrassing if it serves to illustrate the glory of their transformation.

  3. This examination also reveals a deep character of evidentiary arguments, showing that these arguments are not fundamentally deductive.

    Any finite amount of evidence allows for an infinite number of "stories" to explain or account for that evidence. Each piece of evidence changes the "weight" of these stories, making each story more or less "unlikely" (i.e. improbable and/or implausible). And we find time and again that if we put together enough evidence we get one "bright spot" of likelihood, with all alternative explanations fading into unlikelihood.

    A common misuse of evidentiary arguments is the treatment of evidence in isolation. But we must treat evidence more holistically. Taken apart, a particular story might be an relatively unlikely explanation for two or three pieces of evidence, but that same story might well be the most likely explanation for both or all three pieces of evidence taken together.

    It's just not the same as deductivism. When I'm deriving theorems of geometry, for example, I might take a subset of the axioms to prove that the opposite angles of an isosceles triangle are equal, and another subset to prove its area is equal to the length of the base times half the height. It doesn't matter here that I'm taking some of the axioms of geometry in isolation: any theorem derived from any subset of the axioms is necessarily valid by definition.

    Thus Craig commits a fallacy of evidentiary reductionism (among his many other fallacies; it's clear from the body of his work that he's either entirely incompetent at logical reasoning or that he's pretty much intentionally lying almost all the time):

    1. Take one particular item of evidence (the women discovering the empty tomb)
    2. Note (more or less correctly) that this piece of evidence in isolation makes one particular category of story (intentional lying) less plausible.
    3?. Apply Occam's Razor and say that since one particular kind story is less plausible, it can therefore be ruled out.
    4. Consider only those kinds of stories not ruled out in evaluating additional evidence.

    The fallacy is at step 3: Even if Craig were not committing the more prosaic logical fallacy of the excluded middle, one kind of story (intentional lying) is less plausible only relative to one particular piece of evidence. Furthermore, less plausible just means less plausible; it does not mean definitely false.

    We can apply Occam's Razor only at the end: After we have come up with the candidate stories that explain or account for all the evidence, we then apply Occam's Razor and then pick the most plausible story. Furthermore, even then we do not conclude that the less plausible stories are definitely false, we conclude only that they are in fact less plausible, and we have at present no additional evidentiary criteria to make distinctions. When and if new evidence arrives, the less plausible stories are back on the table.

    (Of course, Craig makes a far larger and more obvious error: If the women found Jesus and didn't tell anyone, "And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid," how did Mark ever find out, much less find out many decades later? Mark must be making something up here.)

  4. This one is bookmarkable. Sound argument. It helps to have read Misquoting Jesus for grasping your ideas.

  5. With regards to your succinct reply to Craig, the fact that the Centurion recognized Jesus and that's embarrassing is just more proof that that historical detail is correct. Right?

    Seriously, this is really fascinating stuff. I'd heard Carrier talk about role reversal related things but without the many details you offer here it didn't seem too persuasive.

    What are the chances that with this poor portrayal of the disciples Mark is really Marcion?

  6. Vinny,

    I am familiar with those testimonies that become worse over the years. However, I would not necessarily claim that was happening in First Century Judea. I wouldn’t want to commit the same error of saying, “Since we do this—they would do it too.”

    It was a different culture, and I am persuaded by Malina it was an Honor/Shame society. Peter would not dishonor himself with these stories. Perhaps a more generalized (Like Paul’s “I was chief of sinners” or “I persecuted Christians”) but not with such specificity.

    It is (in my opinion) indicative of myth to finish the gospel, “And they never told anyone.” Of course, believers would claim this silence was only for a short period of time. Hours for inerrantists, a few years for non-inerrantists. And clearly even the author didn’t intend the readers to think the women never told anyone…otherwise even the author wouldn’t know!

    The idea being, “You never knew the story…until now.”

  7. The Barefoot Bum

    This is EXACTLY why I dislike the “minimal facts” form of debate. You accurately point out that the solution for a few facts may not conform to more discovered facts. I always imagined answering this in a debate:

    “Why only look at ‘minimal facts’? Don’t we want to look at ALL the facts? What if something in the other facts eliminates our solution under the minimal facts? For example, what if we only look at two minimal facts:

    1) The Government has lasers; and
    2) My car didn’t start this morning.

    “A minimal fact solution would be that the government lasered my car! Obviously we look to more facts, like other reasons the car didn’t start and the government’s complete lack of interest in my car, which eliminates this solution.”

  8. Lorena,

    Thank you for your comment. I forget, after delving in this so long, how to phrase it better. I need to flesh out…better…the basis of these claims.

  9. Jon,

    I date Mark pre-Marcion…so I don’t think it was Marcion. Of course, as you know, dating the gospels can be a tricky business.

    My favorite example of “embarrassment as criteria” is the account in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where a child inadvertently bumps Jesus, so Jesus kills him. The parents of the dead boy complain to Joseph…so Jesus blinds them! Not very favorable about Jesus, right? Embarrassing to portray the person who talked of loving others to do such things. That must make these REALLY true!

  10. The maxim is "false in part, false in whole," not "true in part, true in whole," n'est pas?

    This is EXACTLY why I dislike the “minimal facts” form of debate.

    Is this an actual form of debate? Or, rather, are there people whose heads are so far up their asses that they would call this a form of debate?

    Your example is amusing, but not strong enough. A better example is:

    (1) My car didn't start this morning.
    (2) The most likely explanation (based on history) is that the battery is dead.

    (1) is stipulated and (2) is actually true. A "minimal fact" solution, however, would be to eliminate all solutions other than a dead battery, even though there's additional evidence, such as the engine turning over strongly when the starter is applied, that would make a dead battery the least likely solution.

  11. Bwahaha…where have you been, friend Barefoot Bum?

    It seems every debate I hear anymore around the existence of God (or the Christian God) brings up Habermas’ “minimal facts.” The Christian claims a majority of historians (what that “majority” is depends on the debater) agree on these facts:

    1) Jesus died and was buried.
    2) The tomb was empty after the third day
    3) The Disciples believed they saw a resurrected Jesus.

    (Some do more “minimal facts”) The debater then tries to take away any of the opposing party’s rabbit trails by saying they will “prove” Jesus using only these minimal facts. Simple trick really called “Defining the argument.”

    Then the Christian says, “The simplest solution is that Jesus was resurrected and my opponent must come up with a solution that is more plausible and answers these facts.” Of course by the time you delve into each one, or develop a full explanation of how the New Testament came to be you have:

    1) Wasted all your time; and
    2) Lost your audience (most were against you anyway.)

    I’m realizing we need to approach some of these answers in two very different manners. Here, in blogdom or on a forum, we can parse it out, explain the difficulties, and create a long form answer. I am deliberately approaching this from two different aspects: 1) how to respond in a debate and 2) how to give a full, reasoned out answer.

    I used the laser beam example because it IS amusing (make the audience laugh in a debate) and get them to realize why just cherry-picking a few facts is an insufficient method.

    At the moment I am concentrating on figuring out how to give both answers—both those that would satisfy a hostile audience in a time-limited debate and those in the internet who like a more full-bodied explanation.

  12. Bwahaha…where have you been, friend Barefoot Bum?

    Hanging out with commies. :-p

    It seems every debate I hear anymore around the existence of God (or the Christian God) brings up Habermas’ “minimal facts.”

    I remember Habermas. His head is indeed so far up his ass he needs a glass navel to watch television.

    At the moment I am concentrating on figuring out how to give both answers—both those that would satisfy a hostile audience in a time-limited debate and those in the internet who like a more full-bodied explanation.

    How would you give your opening as the defense if the prosecution tried such a simple trick? Seems to me the first question out of your mouth would be, "Why doesn't the prosecution want you to hear all the evidence?"

  13. Yes, that would be my first statement.

    But debates are different than courtrooms. In trials, we have hours and days to present our evidence, to a neutral recipient. In a debate one only has minutes and to an arguably hostile audience. In a trial, the evidence has already been presented, whereas in debate the people may not know the evidence yet.

  14. I don't want to fall into the fallacy of ignoring cultural differences, however, part of my reason for mentioning people whose pre-conversion life gets worse each time they give their testimony is to illustrate that stories evolve according to the responses the elicit. The reason the Christian makes himself worse each time is because the story works better that way. I can see why Peter might not have told the story on himself, but I do think the criteria of embarrassment is invoked much too freely by apologists.