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The Women and the Empty Tomb

QUESTION:

So, on Ludemann’s account, how do the stories of the women at the tomb found in the canonical gospels come to be told? As many scholars I’ve read have pointed out, having women, who were considered untrustworthy witnesses, as the first to see the risen Christ, was not exactly a way to get people to believe the stories. So why would the gospel writers tell the stories with the women in such a prominent place?

RESPONSE:

I’m not sure how Lüdemann would answer your question (I.e., I don’t recall off hand how he deals with it). But I thought that maybe I should give it a shot. I am not responding here with a long-held position that I have carefully thought through and worked out. I’m really just “thinking out loud” (well, thinking silently, at my keyboard, in any event).

I have indeed heard this argument for many years. In fact, I used to make it myself. The argument is that since women were not considered reliable witnesses (since their testimony was not acceptable even in a court of law), then no one would have invented the idea that it was precisely women who discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that he was, therefore, raised from the dead.

I have lots of comments about that view – the one I used to hold – but will give them only in short order now.

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Paul and the Resurrection of the “Flesh”?
Paul’s View of Resurrection

52

Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  October 9, 2012

    Fascinating conclusion.

  2. Xeronimo74  October 9, 2012

    Couldn’t it be that especially women were attracted to this new belief and therefore legends involving women came into existence? If I recall correctly then a big part of the early Christian community (when they still only met in private people’s places) apparently were women and that the faith got taught by the women to the children, the husbands often being rather indifferent about that new faith?

  3. Dennis Steenbergen  October 9, 2012

    We have Dr. Luedemann’s email address. We could ask him if he wanted to chime-in on this topic. gluedem@gwdg.de

    • Xeronimo74  October 10, 2012

      Now that would be cool! And we would be spoiled even more ;D
      I doubt he will but asking doesn’t hurt, right?

  4. Dennis Steenbergen  October 9, 2012

    I take back my last post. Dr Ludemann does talk about women finding the tomb and offer an opinion how it came to be written.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qCdv7VCunE (0:36:55)

  5. proveit  October 9, 2012

    If nobody went to the tomb and found it empty, wouldn’t we have relics? Maybe a talking skull in the Vatican? There are body parts of saints held and enshrined.

    The shock of finding the tomb empty would have probably provoked visions in the people who were most bonded with Jesus. They wouldn’t have said, “Oh, he has been moved,” they would have been aghast.

    I suppose, with regard to the story, it is a matter of which came first: the empty tomb or the visions. I thought you accounted for the empty tomb elsewhere, but here it seems you are saying it is myth.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 9, 2012

      My sense now is that visions came first, and that hte empty tomb tradition came about by those wanting to stress that the body really was raised (as believed on the basis of the visions).

  6. andrew0410  October 9, 2012

    Might it not be the case that one or more of Jesus’ female followers experienced visions of Jesus after his death, as you have argued was the case with Peter and Paul? The tradition that Jesus had appeared to one or more women then got fed into and developed in the stories of the women coming to the empty tomb. (Even though there was in fact no empty tomb.)

  7. Scott F  October 9, 2012

    Another thought of mine is that the status of women in Palestine is not really germane. If the gospels were written for a Greek-speaking audience (they were written in Greek, after all) then the role of women in the wider imperial world (filtered through diaspora attitudes?) is what matters most.

  8. Jim  October 9, 2012

    I know this is a bit off the topic, but it may be distally related. Mark ends abruptly with some freaked out women and an empty tomb. What is the current consensus regarding this abrupt ending. Did Mark’s dog eat part of his homework? Is it highly probable that this document ended here and the other (later) gospels subsequently built on this ending based on what you suggest in this post. Or could the women/empty tomb scenario already have been part of an oral tradition from an early Christian community near Galilee (a possible origin of Mark) that Paul did not know much about during his time but that finally went to press in the 70s?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 9, 2012

      There’s a split among scholars. Some (I *think* this is a minority, but possibly not hugely so) think that hte last page was “lost.” Others (probably more?) think he meant to end it there. That’s my view as well (the latter).

  9. toddfrederick  October 9, 2012

    I’m not sure where to ask a general question, so I’ll try here. It’s not related to the women at the empty tomb.

    I hope I can explain this adequately….my question is: “When did the term Christian come into use?”

    This is why I am asking: when I went to the hospital ER about a year ago they asked me for my religion in the event I died. I could not give them an answer. Even though I was born into a Christian home, attended Christian churches, studied at a Christian seminary, worked in Christian churches, I do not want to label myself “Christian.” When I label myself I put put myself in the “Christian Box” and there are Christian expectations placed on me. My freedom to believe is limited. I’m “boxed in.” If I went to a church and picked 10 people at random and asked them what it means to be a Christian, I would probably get 10 different answers. I’m currently debating this with some friends now on Facebook and in the church I attend, and am getting very mixed responses. I do not see myself as a Christian who is set apart from a Muslim, a Sikh, a Hindu, an atheist, a Mormon and on and on. I’m just a person who is seeking to find meaning in life. Jesus was not a Christian, I doubt that Paul called himself a Christian, and I’m not even sure those in the early church used that term. Now days we see many accusing Obama as not being a Christian, Romney is a Mormon, I’ve heard people say that our Catholic friends are Catholic and not Christian, and that the United States is a “Christian Nation.” I’m uncomfortable using that term.

    Do you have any information on the origin of the use of the word Christian (in its many linguistic forms), and any other thoughts you might have on this issue.

    Thank you, Todd Frederick

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 9, 2012

      Good question. It first gets used in the New Testament, in the book of Acts and in 1 Peter (so a total of two occurrences in the NT). In both instances it simply means someone who is a follower of (one committed to) Christ. What that might *mean* depends on all sorts of things. I know of Christians who say that if you don’t believe in the literal word-for-word truth of every word in the Bible you cannot be a Christian; others who say if you don’t believe in the Virgin Birth and Bodily resurrection (literally) you cannot be a Christian; others who say that they are Christian and who believe in the Big Bang, Evolution, and who do not think Jesus pre-existed, was born of a virgin, or was raised from the dead. So, well, there are differences of opinion out there (with most people who think one of these things or the other wondering either how someone who thinks something else could “really” be a Christian or wondering how so many Christians could be so hard-headed and wrong about whta they believe!)

      • zemi  October 13, 2012

        I believe the term “Christian” is used 3 times in the NT:

        ● Acts 11:26 (Χριστιανούς)
        ● Acts 26:28 (Χριστιανὸν)
        ● 1 Pet 4:16 (Χριστιανός)

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 14, 2012

          You’re right! Sorry, I was thinking two books, and mistakenly said two occurrences.

          • zemi  October 15, 2012

            Oh, I knew you knew this! : )

  10. Adam  October 9, 2012

    Thank you for this post.

    Another very very popular evidence put forward for the resurrection is “the disciples would not have died for what they knew was a lie, therefore it must have happened.” I hear this all the time. You note that they really believed they saw Jesus after he died so they were not lying. However, is there evidence (historical or literary) that they were killed because of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 9, 2012

      Great quesiton! I’ll deal with it on a post in a day or so.

    • donmax  October 9, 2012

      Hi Adam,

      I’ve heard this sort of claim coming from “Christians;” too. It’s evidence only for mindless and primitive fanaticism. Religious martyrs come in all sorts of guises, be they Christians, Muslims or Jews. Their willingness to die for fanatical beliefs says nothing about the rightness of their cause or the truth of their faith. Even Vikings chose death over enforced conversion when Charlemagne gave them the option. And lets not forget the Japanese in WWII, either.

    • Xeronimo74  October 10, 2012

      Also, people are willing to die for all kind of crazy beliefs. Doesn’t mean that those beliefs therefore are based on something real and thus true?

  11. toddfrederick  October 9, 2012

    Thanks for the answer to the term “Christian” question. Right now, the Pastor who endorsed Paul Ryan is saying that Romney is not a “Christian.” That’s how it gets all twisted. Who cares.

    I also second Adam’s question about being a martyr…..Why would anyone die for Jesus unless they were convinced that there is something very vital about being a believer. I will be interested in your comments.

    This is a great blog and I just discovered your video collection. I’m learning so much. Thank you for doing this.

    • Christopher Sanders
      Christopher Sanders  November 23, 2012

      Donmax’s answer to your question is something I can agree with. People have visions all the time.. Literally, ALL the time. It’s very common and really nothing we should be surprised at. People also act fanatical all the time too.

  12. Yentyl  October 9, 2012

    Nice

  13. SJB  October 10, 2012

    Ok granted that Paul doesn’t mention the women or the empty tomb specifically in 1 Cor 15:3-8. But he does write that Jesus “died” and was “buried” and he was “raised on the third day”.

    I’ve always assumed that since he knew James and Peter that Paul must have gotten this tradition statement from them or their close associates. And I assume the greek here is is being translated straightforwardly.

    What does “buried” mean in this context? Is he implying they know for certain that Jesus was buried and that his body was not anonymously disposed of (the normal fate of executed criminals I gather) or is that reading too much into the statement?

    I think everyone agrees they thought Jesus was raised from the dead but where did they get the idea that it was on the “third day”? They seem to making a distinction between the specific resurrection “event” which happened on the “third day” and the subsequent appearances which by implication at least must have occurred over some length of time. I will assume that the followers of Jesus interpreted the appearances as evidence that the resurrection event had occurred and perhaps the empty tomb story arose because it was deemed necessary to have someone from the movement be a witness to the actual resurrection event. But again, why the “third day”?

    Is it possible there is a core memory that served as a common ancestor to both Paul’s catechism and the eventual development of the empty tomb story?

    I’m totally fascinated by this so feel free to add a discussion of 1 Cor 15 to your long list!

    Thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 10, 2012

      Yes, I think Paul definitely learned that Christ was “buried.” (Though he doesn’t say anything about Joseph of Arimathea.) That was the tradition early on. The question is whether it is historically right or not. My hunch is that Peter and Co. didn’t really know, personally, since they had already fled and were probably back in Galilee at the time it would have happened. But this is the tradition that was soon circulating. “The third day” is often attributed to a fulfillment of Scripture: Hosea 6:2.

      • Scott F  October 11, 2012

        Could the term “buried” have been Paul’s (and early Christians’) way of emphasizing that Jesus was completely dead, not just MOSTLY dead?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 11, 2012

          Yes, it certainly would mean that for Paul! In 1 Cor. 15:3-5, though, it also functions as *verification* of the death, just as inthe next part of the saying, “he was seen” functions as a *verification* of the resurrection (both death and resurrection are also said to be “in accordance with the Scriptures” -=- so that the two statements are neatly balanced.

      • Christopher Sanders
        Christopher Sanders  November 24, 2012

        Interesting.. So you think the element of Jesus rising on the “third day” could have originated completely from interpretations of old testament scripture as prophecy? That seems totally plausible to me, I’m wondering if you’re aware of any other examples of such a thing happening.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 26, 2012

          Lots of examples in the Passion narrative. You might look at John D. Crossan’s Who Killed Jesus? for lots of other places.

  14. ERHershman  October 10, 2012

    Thank you for answering this so thoughtfully and in detail. Your questioning of the scholarly “consensus” about the value of women’s testimony, is thought-provoking to say the least. I’ll have to look into this some more…

  15. ZachET  October 10, 2012

    Have you watched Ludemann’s debate with Craig? That was an interesting one

  16. toddfrederick  October 10, 2012

    1. I recently was trying to make sense out of the 3 days (3rd day) issue (and also the 4 days for Lazarus’ raising). I came across a comment that Jesus was in the tomb only 1.5 days…that is with regard to how Jews counted days.

    If Jesus was buried before sundown Friday, Friday would count as one full day. Then Friday through Friday before sundown would count as one full day 2. Then Saturday evening to Sunday morning would count as day 3.

    Thus, the Jews are counting days starting at sundown the day before. Jesus was in the tomb no more than 1.5 days, depending upon when his body vanished.

    Also…

    2. If I recall, James Tabor speculates on a 2 Sabbaths (one for Passover and the Saturday Sabbath if Jesus was crucified in the year when Passover was on the Friday prior to the regular Saturday Sabbat) and the last supper was not the Passover meal since a Jew can’t be executed on a Sabbath.

    This gets rather confusing. Any thoughts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 11, 2012

      Yes, by *our* counting it is 1.5 days; by ancient Jewish reckoning it is 3 days. I don’t know about Tabor’s claim.

      • toddfrederick  October 12, 2012

        I read quite widely and many of these issues, and the directions the historians and archaeologists and textual scholars and theologians take can be quite confusing. Thank you for your responses.

  17. zemi  October 13, 2012

    You write:

    “[E]veryone knew that the disciples (the men) had themselves fled and gone into hiding (probably back home, in Galilee). So they obviously couldn’t go to the tomb on the third day.”

    But what about Peter? There doesn’t seem to be an indication he fled. If the story of finding the empty tomb had to be invented why wouldn’t Mark use Peter? (Well, my answer would be: because in Mark Jesus’ identity is grasped by some of the least expected characters.)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 14, 2012

      Yup, that’s my response too. Plus, I think the stories of Peter tagging along till the trial are probalby not historical. In any event, there’s nothing to suggest that he was there for the crucifixion, and my sense is that he and the others feared for their lives and got out of Dodge.

      • zemi  October 15, 2012

        Thank you!

      • zemi  October 15, 2012

        One more thought – if Peter’s “tagging along till the trial” is probably not historical, what about his betrayal of Jesus? That did most probably happen, right (criterion of embarrassment)? Was his betrayal historical but then simply added to the passion story?

  18. sleonard  October 20, 2012

    Richard Carrier deals with this question in his book “Not the Impossible Faith” in Chapter 11 entitled “Did No One Trust Women?” He argues that the testimony of women was trusted, citing biblical (John 4:39), and non-biblical sources. One of the many reasons he offers for Mark’s use of women finding the empty tomb was a continuation of the “the least shall be first” idea found in Mark 9:35 and 10:31.

  19. gavm  February 1, 2014

    have you come across the book “The Trouble with Resurrection ” by Bernard Brandon Scott? if so what did you think of it?
    Thank you

  20. john76  June 3, 2016

    Maybe the women discovering the empty tomb was just a theological literary device. Because it was Jesus who died, women could be thought as reliable witnesses because Jesus was all about breaking down barriers. Recall Paul said “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). This would fit in with the tearing of the curtain in the temple (Mark 15:38), and the Roman soldier saying ““Truly this man was the Son of God! (Mark 15:39).”

  21. john76  July 3, 2016

    I’d be willing to bet $5.00 that the whole empty tomb thing got started because some drunk, bored teenagers decided to play a prank and steal Jesus’ body from the grave, and then start the rumor that it was the end of the world (that the general resurrection had begun), and that Jesus had been seen raised from the dead. You could imagine Jesus’ followers hearing this rumor and out of Joy that Jesus had been raised, and terror that the end of the world had begun, hallucinating that the raised Jesus had appeared to them.

    • john76  July 3, 2016

      Dr. James McGrath offers an interesting naturalistic analysis of how belief in the resurrection might have begun among Jesus’ first followers.

      The Pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed says:

      “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve,” (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

      If Mark read Paul, and John read at least one of the Synoptics, then the account of the crucifixion/burial/resurrection of Jesus may go back to only one source, the author of The Pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed, who cites only visions (hallucinations?) and scriptures as sources.

      But McGrath says that, rather than speculating on the genealogical pre-history of these traditions in an attempt to attribute them to a single point of origin, it might be more persuasive to note what Paul explicitly says: that the first person to have the kind of religious experience was Cephas, whose failure in relation to Jesus would naturally create precisely the kind of psychological state that leads to some sort of experience that would help him alleviate his guilt and find catharsis. Once one person has a powerful experience, they may in turn facilitate others doing likewise. One can offer a naturalistic account of how things unfolded without any need to deviate from the depiction in our earliest sources.

    • john76  July 4, 2016

      For instance, the humorous scenario I proposed isn’t contradicted by what we know about the origins of Christianity, and may even be hinted at in the text:

      (1) My scenario was: The whole empty tomb event could have gotten started because some drunk, bored teenagers who were tired of listening to Christians prattling on about the end of the world decided to play a prank and stole Jesus’ body from the grave, and then started the rumor that Jesus had been seen raised from the dead, and it actually was the end of the world (that the general resurrection had begun). You could imagine Jesus’ followers hearing this rumor and out of joy that Jesus had been raised, and terror that the end of the world had begun, hallucinating that the raised Jesus had appeared to them. lol

      (2) And the idea of bored teenagers stealing Jesus’ corpse and starting rumors as a prank that (a) Jesus was raised and (b) that the general resurrection had begun, may even be suggested by the text. After all, the rumor was started by the teenager in Jesus’ empty tomb in Mark:

      “…But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, even though it was extremely large. When they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here! See the place where they laid Him.… (Mark 16:5).”

      (3) The point is, this scenario is a “possible” scenario used to construct a naturalistic account of how faith in the resurrected Jesus began. There are many other models. But as Dr. Carrier says, we don’t want to overstep the bounds of reason by saying we have a “possible” explanatory framework, therefore we have a “probable” explanatory framework. These reconstructions of the possible reasons behind the arising of faith in the resurrection are “only possible,” and therefore merely speculative.

      • john76  July 6, 2016

        The point is, if you MISPLACE YOUR KEYS, you don’t (unless you’re insane) draw the conclusion “There may be a naturalistic explanation, but I think the most probable explanation is that the invisible leprechauns took my keys.” Similarly, if you MISPLACE A CORPSE (in this case Jesus), the reasonable direction to go is not to conclude that a miracle happened, but rather that there was some naturalistic explanation (eg. someone stole the corpse as a prank, etc.)

        Paul mentions nothing of the empty tomb, which you think he would have given his fascination with the crucifixion. In any case, maybe Jesus was buried in a unmarked tomb along with other prisoners that got the death penalty, and so no one knew where he was buried, or maybe someone stole the body as a prank. In any case, all we really have as evidence of the resurrection is the post mortem hallucinations of the disciples of Jesus recorded in the pre Pauline Corinthian creed. As I said Dr. McGrath pointed out elsewhere in this thread, we can have recourse to a perfectly natural explanation for the hallucinations/appearances. Dr. McGrath wrote:

        “The first person to have the kind of religious experience was Cephas, whose failure in relation to Jesus would naturally create precisely the kind of psychological state that leads to some sort of experience that would help him alleviate his guilt and find catharsis. Once one person has a powerful experience, they may in turn facilitate others doing likewise. One can offer a naturalistic account of how things unfolded without any need to deviate from the depiction in our earliest sources.”

        And so, since we have a situation that is easily understandable as natural, not miracle, we should choose to accept the naturalistic explanation. Choosing to believe in a miracle here would be analogous with blaming invisible leprechauns because you can’ find you car keys.

        As I said above, it is silly to try to argue from a set of accepted historical facts to the inference that a miracle has happened, because, as Carrier points out, the standard of evidence to support the “miracle inference” would have to be ridiculously high. For instance, if I told you I have a job, you would not require a great deal of evidence because lots of people have jobs. On the other hand, if I told you I have an interstellar vehicle, you would need extensive and convincing evidence of my claim (you would probably have to see the vehicle and watch it work). On the other hand, wildly extraordinary claims like The New Testament claim that Jesus rose from the dead would require massive amounts of convincing evidence (which we don’t have).

        A natural explanation is always more reasonable than a miraculous one.

  22. Zboilen  September 19, 2016

    I’ve always found a little bit of difficulty with the women finding the tomb empty. The reason is because in Luke and John the empty tomb is confirmed by men. Even if the women were the first to find the tomb empty, its confirmed by Jesus male disciples.

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