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My Meditation Practice and Women at the Empty Tomb: Readers Mailbag April 9, 2017

I will be dealing with two questions in this week’s mailbag, one about me personally – do I meditate? – and one about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: in all our narratives it is specifically women who are said to have found the empty tomb and so to be the first witnesses to the resurrection.  Given ancient views that denigrate women, is it likely that anyone would make up such a story?  If someone made up the tomb-discovery story, wouldn’t they have claimed that that *men* found the tomb empty?  And doesn’t that suggest the story really happened as narrated?



Do you meditate? If so, which techniques do you use? Do you find it helpful?



Yes indeed, I do meditate.  Every New Years I make it a resolution to meditate each and every day.  This year I’m doing pretty well *except* when I’m traveling (which, unfortunately, is a lot this semester); that’s probably when I need most to meditate and I just have real trouble scheduling it in.  Not good.

I find meditation to be terrifically calming and centering.  I think it has the same psychological and emotional effect that sustained prayer has, since it involves a similar mental focus.  My meditation practice, if I were to summarize it, all involves body-awareness.  I have numerous techniques that I use, all of which I have simply come up with myself (for good or ill), that involve recognition of my bodily existence – either sensing parts of my body (either doing a full-body scan or focusing on an area, e.g. the head and brain), or consciously recognizing my bodily activities and systems, especially respiratory (thinking of my breathing and all its stages) and cardio-vascular (being aware of my heart-beat, and tracing it from the top of my head to the tip of my toes and everywhere in between); or focusing on my bodily senses (all five of them, in turn); and … well other things.  Typically I meditate for 15-20 minutes, and most effectively I do so right after a work out.

I have found this practice not just relaxing but, as I said, centering.  It reminds me of what is most important to me and helps keep me focused on the things that matter in my brief mortal existence.  I highly recommend it!



That still begs the question of why the first stories have the resurrection revealed first to women. Why would they make that up?


I think this is a vital question, and it’s one I get asked a lot.  Here is what I said about it in my book How Jesus Became God:


It is often argued by Christian apologists that no one would make up the story of the discovery of the empty tomb precisely because according to these stories, it was women who found the tomb.  According to this line of reasoning, women were widely thought of as untrustworthy and, in fact, their testimony could not be allowed in courts of law.  According to this view, if someone wanted to invent the notion of a discovered tomb, they would be sure that it was discovered by credible witnesses, namely by the male disciples.

I used to hold this view as well, and so I see its force.  But now that I’ve gone more deeply into the matter, I see its real flaw.  It suffers, in short, from…

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The Two Books of Job: A Blast from the Past
The Afterlife (or not) in Ecclesiastes



  1. Avatar
    Jana  April 9, 2017

    Perhaps you would find this of interest .. Brent Landau’s commentary to the release of “Case for Christ” April 7th: http://www.livescience.com/58612-jesus-christ-resurrection-whats-the-evidence.html

    I feel and unsure why .. happy to learn that you are also meditating Dr. Erhman! My own practice is now at two hours … late night and in the wee hours of each morn. I recently added a short pranayama practice. Yes calming. The most noticeable change .. seldom angered and yes happy and grateful. Events that once irritated now strike me as humorous. I deal with them of course and with a light heartedness I did not possess before. I was inspired by the Dalai Lama’s baggy eyes 🙂 (Russian documentary Sunrise/Sunset) .. his practices begin at 4am.

    As I continue to learn from your writing, the Christ story sounds more romantic than factual …. it seems the product of an imagination or many that attempted to connect the dots leading to the Resurrection, the Heart (no?) of Christianity? (this is a question)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      Ah, thanks. Two hours?! Wow.

      • Avatar
        Jana  April 10, 2017

        This is average for a serious practitioner. Four hours is my goal (I’m still in training :)) … the Dalai Lama is no slouch and his practice begins around 4am. My own late Teacher’s practice began at 4am for four hours. She also worked full time as well. One adjusts.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 11, 2017

          Do you mind saying what your mind does for two hours? (I, for one, will never be a serious practitioner!)

          • Avatar
            tenchi  April 13, 2017

            I would also like to know! 🙂
            I am happy with 20 minutes every other day! 🙂
            I can not see myself becoming a serious practitioner 😉

          • Avatar
            fcp  April 19, 2017

            It’s interesting that you sit and practice body awareness, as this was the exact practice set by Gautama Buddha for new bhikkus (monks). When they could do this without distraction, he would refine it to just watching the breath, and so on from there.

            I used to do lots and lots of hours/day when I was in a Zen school, and I can’t say I DON’T recommend it, but it’s absolutely not for everyone. This is why later teachers developed accommodations for householders, since we can’t have a world with nothing but hermits 😉

  2. Avatar
    uziteaches  April 9, 2017

    In terms of why the women: if Jesus was married to Mary the Magdalene, then it makes perfect sense that his two close relatives–his mother and his wife–go to anoint the body.
    This is perfectly reasonable, and no need to speculate as to why the women were there.
    Uzi Weingarten

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  April 10, 2017

      Huh? There’s absolutely no reason to think Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. And his mother is never named as being one of the women who enter the tomb.

  3. Avatar
    mjt  April 9, 2017

    Those are all good points about the women as witnesses. There is one other fact that makes this argument used by apologists nonsensical to me from the outset. The women in these stories seem to be essentially messengers, intended to relay the appearance only to the disciples. The narratives have the women tell the male disciples – who are the ones given the responsibility to tell other people. Even in Mark, the women are told to have the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee. It’s not like Jesus appeared to the women, and the women were supposed to tell the world. He appeared to the women, the women relayed a message to the disciples, and these male disciples verified the women’s stories only after seeing Jesus in person.

  4. Avatar
    yes_hua  April 9, 2017

    I agree with the all the possibilities you propose about the women. It doesn’ t strike me as implausible. I still don’t really understand how a Galilean preacher, whose followers we are told run home after his execution, can be the centerpiece of a religion that finds its home in Jerusalem. Could the story of the women serve to bridge the gap between the death of Jesus and the beginning of his cult in Jerusalem? The scenario I envision, since Jerusalemites would have to be convinced that all of this miracle occurred in their own town: ‘why haven’t I heard of this story before?’ ‘Oh, that’s because some women witnessed it but didn’t tell anyone. He had to appear to his disciples in Galilee and they eventually returned to tell the story.’ The idea is not new, but I don’t think it is examined closely enough as a Markan device. Jesus’ message came through, not because of the strength of his followers (they were probably llargely unknown in Jerusalem), but because something happened outside of the normal, natural bounds of the world. Maybe I’m seeing something that isn’t there.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  April 9, 2017

    Seems pretty obvious to me that the reason the “empty tomb” is discovered by women is that at the point in time the empty tomb was added to the narrative the received tradition was that the male followers of Jesus had already absconded from Jerusalem. So in order to make the empty tomb scenario fit within the already accepted tradition, the female followers would have to be the witnesses to the “empty tomb”. To me, the accretion of events followed the following order:
    — The Disciples still believed the Day of Judgment, and with it the Resurrection of the Dead, was going to happen anyday now.
    — They believed Jesus was/is the Messiah (or, at the very least, a saint) who would be resurrected among the first — i.e. the “first-fruits” of the Resurrection.
    — Ergo, since Jesus would be raised ahead of the Resurrection, and since the Resurrection was coming anyday now, he has probably already been raised.
    — The Disciples started seeing “visions” of Jesus (illusions, hallucinations, dreams, etc.)
    — They assumed this confirmed their belief that Jesus has risen first (or among the first raised, as the scene from the risen Saints in Matt. 27:52 suggests Jesus was only one of many saints raised ahead of the coming mass resurrection).
    — Of course, this raises the question of what happened to Jesus’ body if he was raised from the dead? (a question that wouldn’t need to be asked if, instead of the Disciples seeing “visions” of Jesus, they, instead, were literal eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus’ body.)
    — In other words, the fact that, in the received tradition, Jesus’ resurrection has already occured offstage, the storytellers had to explain the resurrection through the eyes of other witnesses. And the only likely witnesses remaining were the women, whom no story up to that point says had absconded along with the men.
    — Hence, it is the women who “discover” the “empty tomb” in the story.

    • Rick
      Rick  April 11, 2017

      Points well taken. The women also seem to fit well in the narrative as to why this event was not well known in Jerusalem versus the Galilee. As women, they are credible enough to be witnesses to the scattered disciples but perhaps would not be expected to have informed Jerusalem at large. Additionally the narrative has the advantage of having a cultural reason for the women to go to the grave – the duty to the body.

  6. Avatar
    Pegill7  April 9, 2017


    I think it is in your book on the historical Jesus where you refer to the criterion of dissimilarity as offering evidence of the reliability of this passage since most readers or hearers in that age would have been reluctant to admit that women should play such a prominent role in the Resurrection story unless they knew it to be true.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      Yup, I later changed my mind, and in that post I explain why.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 16, 2017

        Yep, that’s it. The story seems more believable just because: “Who would invent the idea that women (so, so unreliable) were the ones who discovered the empty tomb?” Personally, I don’t believe the apostles ran away. I believe that was a later invention because it denigrated “the Jews.” One of the most important goals of the gospels is to separate Jesus from the Jews–they didn’t deserve him; later, it became “they killed him.” This was an early version of anti-semitism. Okay, you call it anti-Judaism, but as a practical matter it amounts to the same thing. And how, how many have died for this contumely?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2017

          I’m not sure I understand how the disciples deciding to head out of town is anti-Jewish.

          • Avatar
            ftbond  May 31, 2017

            I doubt they headed out of town. Jesus was crucified on the eve of a Sabbath, or maybe two Sabbaths. They weren’t going anywhere till after the Sabbath. Jewish law wouldn’t allow them to travel on a Sabbath, and wouldn’t allow them to carry provisions for traveling, like food or water.

            Nope, they were in town till after the Sabbath(s).

  7. Avatar
    Brian32  April 9, 2017

    Hello, as I was reading your post, a thought came to me as another plausible reason for the Gospel authors to have the women be the discoverers of the empty tomb; that being to combat the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body. With women discovering, the Gospel authors get to narrate how the women went and told the disciples the news, and the disciples didn’t believe until they went and then checked and then relayed the message to the others, showing that this was now the first time the disciples had been to the tomb, “proving” that they certainly hadn’t stolen the body.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  April 13, 2017

      Except that, the oldest mass. of Mark end at 16:8 where it says they told no one.

  8. Avatar
    thelad2  April 9, 2017

    Hello Bart: Here’s a question for next week’s mail bag – Where do historians now stand concerning the identity of the Son of Man? I know you believe Jesus thought the SOM was God’s cosmic herald prior to the establisment of The Kindom of God. Others maintain that Jesus is referring to himself. Any consensus out there? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      Ah, it’s a great question. I don’t think I know what the dominant view is, but my sense is that my view is in the minority.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  April 9, 2017

    Women followers of Jesus might have been the most horrified at the idea that he’d been left to rot, his corpse picked at by scavengers. We tell stories, quite often, to fix the problems with real life. To make the world what we think it should be. There’d be no civilization if we didn’t do that.

  10. Avatar
    dankoh  April 9, 2017

    I notice that in the other gospels men are also added as witnesses. Matthew even brings in Roman soldiers for added verisimilitude. But aside from the question of whether Pilate would have bothered to post soldiers (and even if he did, there is a gap before they got there), I find it hard to credit that they would have reported to the priests; they would have reported to their own superiors. And if the priests told them to lie, how did Matthew find out about it? “So they took the money and did as they were directed….” (Matt. 28:15) Nor are the soldiers in the other gospels.

  11. Avatar
    FadyRiad  April 9, 2017

    Off topic:
    I have recently reread Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium and I find the hypothesis very convincing indeed… I’m wondering why there is no consensus today that Jesus was indeed an apocalyptic prophet. Any ideas?
    Coming this Easter…

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      Well, historical scholars hardly *ever* see eye to eye on important topics. It’s the nature of teh beast. But I will say that the majority of critical scholars over the past century have thought, and still think that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher.

  12. Avatar
    Blackwell  April 9, 2017

    The explanation about the story of women discovering the empty tomb misses the point that it is easy to make up a story but hard to get it accepted as true. During the first few years after the crucifixion there were many opponents, Paul included, who could have ridiculed a false story. In light of his later disputes with the disciples, it is not credible to suggest that Paul knew the story was invented but said nothing. The alternatives seem to be that either Paul did not know the story but somehow the gospel writers did (so maybe Mark made it up after all) or that it was so well known to be true that comment was superfluous.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      We don’t know, of course, how much it *was* ridiculed.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  April 11, 2017

      And as I understand it, all we know about Paul’s opinions re “proofs of the resurrection” are what he stated in a letter to a specific congregation, whose members were already familiar with his views. He may not have mentioned the empty tomb story *either* because he’d never heard it, or because the people he was writing to already knew all about it, and knew whether or not he believed it.

    • Avatar
      yes_hua  April 23, 2017

      I would also add that, as the number of Christians at the outset have been overestimated, so were their opponents. Really, this was a small movement as far as I see until the second century at least. Even if the story had been circulated early, it would have largely been unknown and certainly unfalsifiable.

  13. Avatar
    HawksJ  April 9, 2017

    [“Preparing bodies for burial was commonly the work of women, not men. And so why wouldn’t the stories tell of women who went to prepare the body? “]

    Something that just occurred to me as I read those sentences from your post: all of the gospels describe the women finding the stone already ‘rolled back’.

    If it was, indeed, just women who traditionally tended to the body (in groups as small as one – as in John), how did they plan to move the stone (which was described as ‘extremely large’ in Mark)? In Mark, they purportedly even ask each other, ‘who will roll away the stone for us?’, seemingly indicating that they wouldn’t be able to do it themselves.

    So, my point is this: the ‘stone’ seems to be a made up detail, added for authenticity, but actually doing the opposite because the woman/women were going to do something that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish without help (and how much help would be around at dawn on a Sunday morning?). What were they going to do, travel to the tomb to perform this critical task and just hope somebody wonders by to help? The whole thing seems fabricated.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      I suppose if there were several women they could indeed roll it away if they tried hard enough, on the assumption that a couple of men could do it. The point of the story is that there’s this big stone there and voila! It’s moved! (In Matthew it is not rolled away before they get there.)

      • Avatar
        ftbond  May 31, 2017

        I don’t see where it says, in Matthew, that the stone had not already been rolled away by the time the women get there. It just says that the women went to see the burial place, and, “lo and behold”, an earthquake happened – which seems to have coincided with the angel rolling the stone away. But, from the way it’s written, it could be that the earthquake that (presumably) caused the stone to roll away happened while they were in route. There is no clear indication at all that the women were standing there when the stone rolled away. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t.

        How do you come up with such a positive determination that the earthquake happened AFTER they arrived on the scene? I’m just not seeing it…

        • Bart
          Bart  June 1, 2017

          V. 1 is normally taken to mean they had come to the tomb — it is indicating a completed action, not one in progress (it’s not “they were going to the tomb”)

          • Avatar
            ftbond  June 1, 2017

            “The train came, and all of a sudden, a car crosses the track”.

            But – of course, the train had not gotten there yet. Which gave time for Superman to swoop in and carry the car off.

            My take on v1 is that v2-v6 establish the chronology.

            As I read this, I see: The women came to see the tomb, and all of a sudden a “quaking occurred”, or a “quaking became”, because an angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone away, and then – sat on it.
            (note the quirky use of tenses)

            This “descending from heaven” and “stone rolling” takes place before he *sat* upon it.

            Clearly, the women didn’t see Jesus coming out of the tomb. The angel says to them, “He is not here. He has been risen from the dead..” v6).

            One could argue that Jesus didn’t need to use the door, for goodness sake. He could have already exited the tomb before the stone was rolled away. And, I’d say “fair enough”. But, that’s when one goes to look at the other gospels to see what they had to say.

            This whole passage is written in the same fashion that one might say in English (and, as they quite often do in Spanish): I was going to the store, and this guy runs into the street, and I’m slamming on my brakes to avoid him, and my wife screamed so loud it’s making my ears hurt”. Lot’s of mixing of verb tenses.

            In short: I don’t think you can take v1 out of context and try to determine the timing of the following text.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 2, 2017

            It is normally understood that Jesus came out of the tomb before the stone was rolled away. The stone was rolled away not to let him out but to let others see in.

  14. Avatar
    davitako  April 10, 2017

    Bart, does Larry Hurtado agree with you that Jesus was probably not given a decent burial? I was unable to find his opinion online.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      Almost certainly not! (He tends to hold pretty traditional historical views of things)

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 10, 2017

    It is interesting that women, although different ones, are involved in all four of the empty tomb Gospel accounts. As usual, I find your analysis of this to be thoughtful and helpful. For those new to this blog, please read “How Jesus Became God.” It is a terrific book.

    With regard to meditation, I guess I had rather hit a bag of golf balls and try to understand what in my swing caused each ball to go where it did. It’s very hard for me to be unoccupied for 20 minutes….I have to make each minute count….It’s a lifelong habit hard to break.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      Ha! I don’t see these as mutually exclusive options. And maybe meditating would help with the frustration after those double-bogies (not that *you* would ever make a double bogey….)

    • Avatar
      yes_hua  April 23, 2017

      Some Buddhists will speak of different forms of meditation: walking, sitting–maybe golfing meditation.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 10, 2017

    I have no problem with the specific idea of women being described as the first to enter the tomb. (With its being a “plausible story,” since there may never have been a tomb.)

    But I *hate* to accept the idea of *many* women in that era accepting Christianity, and being as active in it as you say. “Women who found their newfound Christian communities personally liberating”? What’s “liberating,” for a woman, in being told to *worship* a *dead man*?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2017

      I think when people think of it as liberating it’s because women were allowed positions of power and influence in the early yeaars of the movement.

  17. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 10, 2017

    On the “empty tomb” story in general – with a natural explanation, my preferred one being that the interment there *had never been meant to be permanent* – I think I’ll always be 50-50.

    The fact that no one cites the empty tomb as a major “proof” of a resurrection *might* suggest that the story wouldn’t have been made up to serve that purpose.

    Jesus had been a “nobody,” Pontius Pilate wouldn’t have given a hoot about him, and it seems reasonable to me that Joseph of Arimathea (if he existed) could have gotten the body just by giving a guard a small bribe. Pilate might already have been on his way out of town! (Though as I said, he might not have cared at all.)

    The most unlikely part of the story is a well-to-do man, a member of the Sanhedrin, having been a (presumably secret) admirer of Jesus. Yes, pious Christians might have made it up. But it certainly isn’t impossible.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  April 16, 2017

      I think Matthew 28:11-15 has some factual information regarding Jesus’ body. I also think the chief priests were involved in his execution somehow because he previously made a raucous at the temple, so they were none too happy. And the guards could have easily been bribed in my opinion. I doubt Pilate kept tabs on dead bodies. He may have been a tyrant, but I was under the impression that he was not particularly motivated to antagonize the Jews at this point. That came later I thought. And it doesn’t mean he was a tyrant every day of his life. Even psychopaths take a break every now and again.

      As far as the women go, I’ve wondered if Mary left the crucifxion at some point then came back later to discover her son’s body was missing. For a mother, a dead child is bad enough, but a missing dead child is even worse. Only opinion of course, but that’s the element of the situation I think triggered the very first vision–he’s missing. Hell, he’s still missing!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  April 19, 2017

        But the Gospel of John – the last-written and least historically reliable – is the only one that mentions Jesus’s mother having been anywhere near there! (Probably for the purpose of including the schmaltzy story about Jesus’s telling the “beloved disciple” she would now be *his* mother, and he her son. Part of the author’s scheme to indicate he’d had a source – the unnamed “beloved disciple” – who’d been exceptionally close to Jesus.)

        I think that if Jesus’s mother really had been there, it would have been an important enough detail to be mentioned in all the Gospels.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  April 19, 2017

      You’re probably right about Jesus’s mother. Mark seems to imply that Jesus appeared to Peter first which coincides with Paul’s claim. My question is, was the vision triggered by grief and guilt or because some women told him that Jesus’ body was missing.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  April 20, 2017

        As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Some questions are not meant to be answered but transcended.” Most of exactly what happened in those days is beyond our knowing. The Gospels are not corroborated history but stories.

  18. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  April 10, 2017

    Why do you think Paul omitted the women from his list of witnesses to the risen Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8? Did that part of the tradition just not exist yet?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 11, 2017

      Yes, my guess is that he simply had never heard the stories.

  19. Avatar
    HawksJ  April 10, 2017

    Speaking of the role of women in the church, what is the best translation of the description of Phoebe?

    Older translations, like the KJV, call her a ‘servant’ (of the church), while newer ones call her a ‘deaconess’ or a ‘minister’.

    This would seem to me to be one of the more significant differences between translations, but I don’t recall ever hearing it discussed.

    What say you, Professor? ?‍?

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 10, 2017

    There is also the story in Genesis 29, in which Jacob comes upon a well covered with a large stone, presumablhy too large for one man to move, so that all the shepherds who use the well must cooperate and share the water equitably. But when he sees Rachel with her flock, Jacob has superhuman strength and and removes the stone singlehandly, allowing her to water her flock. Could Mark or someone have incorporated the large stone which was mysteriously or miraculously removed from the empty tomb to allude to this betrothal motif? That would seem to be another reason to have women figure most prominently in the resurrection stories, or possibly to link them to an OT narrative that makes it “fulfill scripture.”

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  April 16, 2017

      That’s certainly a lovely and imaginative idea.

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