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Who Would Invent the Story of Women at the Tomb??

Who in the ancient world would ever try to *prove* the resurrection by making up a story that women, in particular, discovered Jesus’ empty tomb?   Weren’t women seen as complete unreliable witnesses?  Their testimony never even accepted in a court of law?  If someone want to prove that Jesus had been raised — and that therefore the tomb was empty — they would have invented *men* at the tomb (reliable witnesses) rather than *women* (untrustworthy).  Right?

I’ve been asked this question several times since my recent post on Jesus’ women followers not doubting the resurrection.  The reason anyone ever has this question is because it is a favorite claim of Christian apologists wanting to prove that Jesus really was raised from the dead.  Proof?  The tomb really was empty.  How do we know?  We have witnesses.  How do we know we can trust the reports of these witnesses?  No one would have made them up: the witnesses in the stories are always * and no one would invent “unreliable” witnesses to back up “proof-claims.”

When I was an evangelical Christian, I too used that argument (with some vehemence, I might add).  But even when I had become an agnostic I thought it was probably a historical tradition, that women must have found an empty tomb: it’s found in all four Gospels, for example, and the fact that the stories indicate precisely it was *women* who found the tomb did not seem like something Christians would want to make up.  And so, as an agnostic, I had to come up with alternative explanations for why the tomb was empty.

But when I actually got down to *think* about it (very few people reflect much on arguments they have heard so often), I ended up changing my mind.  Completely.  And for reasons I continue to think are compelling.  It is dead easy to realize why the story started to circulate in early Christian circles.  I first realized this …

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The Quest for the Historical … Judas Iscariot
A New Way of Explaining Contradictions in an “Inerrant” Bible



  1. Avatar
    mkahn1977  October 22, 2019

    I recall that “argument” in Stobel’s “The Case for Christ” but all of his reasoning were circular arguments.

  2. Avatar
    Jafar Jawad  October 22, 2019

    Thank you Prof. Ehrman

    the stories about Jesus ,especially the resuscitation story, subjected to the process of development and re-shaping with extended of time, may be for purpose of filling the gaps in story ,or may be , an additions needed to answer the questions that may been raised !
    The empty tomb and the witnesses of Women is the best example for the timely development of these stories.

  3. Avatar
    Ficino  October 22, 2019

    I can’t find this in my notes now, but somewhere I read that women’s testimony was accepted in court according to rabbinical tradition if there were no male witnesses – e.g. concerning an event alleged to have happened in the women’s part of the synagogue, or in a mikvah. This is in line with your suggestion, Dr. Ehrman, that all the male disciples did flee Jerusalem or at least are represented as having fled.

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    lobe  October 22, 2019

    If I’m way off base here, Dr. Ehrman, please let me know…but one thing that’s always struck me about the oft repeated “women as witnesses” line: While it is true that the women are the said to be the *first* to get to the tomb, what’s the very first thing the women do in 3/4 of the Gospels? They go tell men!

    Those men then see the resurrected Jesus. Don’t trust women? No problem, here are some men who saw the living Jesus! It doesn’t seem like the Gospel writers would have much if anything to lose by having women be the first witnesses to an empty tomb, since they can immediately point to men who literally saw the walking, talking, & eating post-crucifixion Jesus.

    (The women don’t go tell the men in Mark, but then they don’t tell *anyone* in Mark…but surely they most have told SOMEONE, else how do we have a Gospel?)

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    Annu Sai  October 22, 2019

    Absolutely prof!Even here in the village one woman are not considered a solid testimony till now !!(then what about 2 thousands year ago!!?!)
    And moreover if Jesus was resurrected then it would have been a spirit!which never need a “body”! So if the body was vanished by moving from the tomb that means Jesus was alive.and Jesus explained that he was not a spirit,to assure his disciples he asked in Luke 24:41-43 “Have you here any meat”?(how can a spirit eat??!!)”And they gave him a piece of broiled fish and honeycomb,and he took it and did eat before them”.

    • Avatar
      Tempo1936  October 25, 2019

      Maybe just a legend or good story written by individuals who were not eye witnesses nor knew any eye witnesses based on oral traditions 40-60 years after the events w/o Any independent historical verification of these miracles.

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    saavoss  October 22, 2019

    Professor Ehrman, iive heard the explanation that the tomb was empty because was never put in a tomb in the first place. It was customary to leave the crucified men on their crosses so the birds and wild dogs would tear at their decomposing flesh, they would not be allowed a “proper burial”.
    What is your view of this reasoning? What is your personal and professional opinion of events following the crucifixion of Jesus? Was there a tomb at all? If so, was it found to be empty? If so, what happened to the body?
    I am interested in your opinion of the most likely historical scenario. We all know the theology, I’m not interested in a catechism lesson… I’d like to know the most likely historical explanation.
    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      Yes in How Jeuss Became God I explain why I think Jesus never was given a decent burial. But I wouldn’t say that this is why the tomb was empty. In my view there never was a tomb.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  October 24, 2019

        I think the empty tomb story is important to believing in the resurrection. If the women came to anoint Jesus’ body, then there was a special tomb, a stone rolled away, dead Roman soldiers, etc.etc
        If Jesus’ body was left in a common grave, then the entire resurrection story is legend.
        The narrative about the about the honorable special burial in a tomb is critical to supporting the rest of the story.

  7. Avatar
    Zak1010  October 22, 2019

    Jesus says:
    “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.”
    Then Jesus says:
    “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”

    He said he is going away to the Father, Why even go to the tomb?

  8. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  October 22, 2019

    That’s a convincing argument – that women could have made up the story that it was (earlier) women who found the tomb empty. The prominent role of women in the early Church (as outlined by Dr Ehrman above) has been ignored by the recent Roman Catholic commission that looked at the case for reintroducing female deacons (and also by those who don’t like the idea of women priests). I recently attended a talk by Dr Ally Kateusz who argued that the very earliest depictions of Christian ceremonies all show either women or (in some cases) women and men in leadership roles. None show just men presiding (which must irk the Vatican, I imagine!) . But I suppose that one can’t really use Dr Ehrman’s argument to support the case for female ministry as it also casts strong doubts on the veracity of the resurrection.

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  October 22, 2019

    But doesn’t the fact that Luke and John add extra eye-witnesses to the empty tomb show that early christians were uncomfortable with christian belief beginning purely on the say so of women?
    The longer ending of Mark has the disciples disbelieving Mary Magdalene and even the short ending has the women being too afraid to tell anyone.
    Doesn’t the fact that Matthew is the only one which has the pure account of the women finding the empty tomb and telling everyone else about it suggest it is the earliest gospel?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      Luke also hasa that, no? And no, I don’t see the logic of why that would be evidence; it seems more likely that matthew thought this was a deficiency in mark and so added the story, than that mark thought the story was deficient and so took it out.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  October 24, 2019

        I dont think Mark was intended to end at 16:8 – but the point is if we take the original story as the women finding the empty tomb and telling the disciples we can see which writers are embarrassed by this account and try to change it.
        Luke says yes the women saw the empty tomb first but no-one believed them, so Peter went and also saw it.
        John says yes the women saw the empty tomb first and yes peter was next to enter the tomb but the disciple jesus loved outran peter and saw the empty tomb before he did.
        Mark says yes the women saw the empty tomb first but were too afraid to tell anyone … suggesting belief in the resurrection didn’t begin with the women.
        Only Matthew has the unaltered version.

        • Avatar
          godspell  October 25, 2019

          Mark is suggesting that Jesus appeared to the male disciples in Galilee (where they had fled), and that later the women revealed what they saw, but he’s still saying that the women were first witnesses to the resurrection, and the only ones to see the empty tomb.

          There is no basis for saying Matthew’s version is the earliest, let alone ‘unaltered’ (how can it be unaltered when Paul, writing decades earlier, says hundreds of people saw the risen Jesus?)

          In Matthew, we’re told an angel came down in full view of the terrified men guarding the tomb, and rolled the stone aside to reveal an empty tomb. The excited (not terrified) women run to tell the men, and Jesus appears to them and says “Yes, go tell them I’m fine” like he couldn’t do it himself. He also says the disciples should go to Galilee t meet him, which doesn’t make any sense, since of course they’d get out of town before the same thing happened to them. Why can’t he just go see them wherever they’re hiding in Jerusalem?

          It seems pretty altered to me, and clearly because Matthew, like you, is not contented with Mark’s ending, and has chosen to jazz it up. Luke and Matthew both read Matthew, and both had some ideas about how to fix the ending, and frankly, neither of their endings are anywhere near as good. But they’d have had a future in screenwriting if they’d just lived two more millennia.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  October 28, 2019

            The question is whether Matthew is altering Mark’s version. If we accept Luke has altered the original to not have the women as the only eye-witnesses to the empty tomb, then Mark’s version (the women told no-one of the empty tomb) appears to be along the same lines as Luke. Matthew is the only one who has the sequence, Jesus tells women, women tell everyone else.

          • Avatar
            godspell  October 29, 2019

            First of all, in Mark, Jesus doesn’t tell the women. A white-robed man, presumably an angel, tells them. They don’t see the risen Jesus. He’s already up and gone. I’ve made worse mistakes, but I’m not the one trying to revise scholarly consensus.

            More importantly, Matthew telling what you consider the most complete story doesn’t prove didley-squat. Matthew could just be filling in what he considers gaps in Mark’s story. Mark is intentionally telling an incomplete story, knowing his readers will fill in the gaps (and it’s likely that different readers would fill the gaps in different ways, since stories about the resurrection would have varied a great deal, as Paul’s earlier account proves).

            We threshed this out in more detail in the discussion forum here. You do not believe Jesus was the divinely begotten Son of God. You believe the author of Matthew was the Apostle Matthew (even though the way the gospel is written makes that hard to credit). You also believe he is an unreliable eyewitness. That sometimes he deliberately misstates what happened, changes the story.

            So you presumably agree with me that none of this happened. The angel didn’t appear and roll the stone aside. Jesus did not unnecessarily appear to the women after the angel told them what happened (and presumably cause the tomb guards to crap their pants). No evidence anyone believed this before Matthew wrote it.

            Your argument is that the most complete story must be the first, but that’s wrong. Very often, stories get filled out as they go. Somebody thinks something needs to be better explained, this or that character didn’t do what he or she should have done. Motivation problems. Matthew doesn’t like that the women in Mark don’t do as they’re told. He doesn’t like that the tomb was just found empty (meaning that somebody could say “What if the man in white robes wasn’t an angel, but in fact somebody came and stole Jesus’ body?”)–so he makes it as clear that there were guards present, the angel came down in glory and rolled the mighty stone aside in full view of witnesses, and then Jesus appeared to them afterwards to give them an unnecessary message. Matthew likes to spell things out. Mark prefers allusion. Because Mark is a much better writer.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  October 31, 2019

            The argument is not about the completeness of the story but about what the original version of the story was.

            If the original version was not that only the women found the empty tomb and they themselves letting everyone know then there is no argument.

            But all 4 gospel writers have the women finding the empty tomb first and all 4 have differences in the subsequent events. The best explanation is that this was the original version and 3/4 of the gospel writers were embarrassed with this version.

            Mark’s line that “the women told no one because they were afraid” is very suggestive of him editing the original version for the same reason as Luke and John.

        • Avatar
          godspell  November 1, 2019

          Explain to me how a story that has an angel coming down to roll aside the stone in front of (very improbable) tomb guards, as well as the women, could be the earliest version? All the more since Paul says Jesus appeared to hundreds of different people, and mentions no specifics at all.

          You did in fact say that Matthew’s version is the first because it’s the most complete. Wrong. It’s the most complete because it’s Matthew trying to fix the earlier story told by Mark, which I don’t think is the earliest version either.

          All the later movies based on the original King Kong are more complete than the original, which never tells us why there’s just one giant gorilla on an island of dinosaurs (is there a Queen Kong?) Later movies (Peter Jackson’s overblown epic in particular) try to explain it, fill in the gaps, but the original just tells a very basic story, doesn’t try to explain anything (and the sequel still doesn’t tell us if there’s a Queen Kong, even though there’s a Kid Kong–maybe he was divinely conceived?) Because the earliest version of a story is almost always shorter, more basic, less inclined to explain, to justify, to answer questions that nobody is going to ask until after you’ve told the story. This is a universal pattern–once people have heard a story, they ask questions, they nitpick, they look for plot holes, and later storytellers tinker with it. Not always successfully.

          Matthew is trying to answer all these questions, and fix what he sees as problems in Mark, which is why he can’t possibly be telling the earliest surviving version of the story. The very earliest we don’t have, and probably never will. But Mark’s story must be the earliest we have, because Mark leaves us all these unanswered questions–that Matthew and Luke and possibly John are trying to answer. Or just evade.

          (If it were a few centuries from now, and this was a post-apocalyptic film discussion forum, you’d now be telling me that obviously the Peter Jackson film came first, because obviously….)

  10. Avatar
    Gary  October 22, 2019

    Do you believe that the empty tomb is historical?

  11. Avatar
    Gary  October 22, 2019

    Off topic question: Many Christian apologists point to the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15 as evidence for the resurrection. Their argument is: How can the resurrection be a legend if this Creed was circulating within three to five years of Jesus’ death, “as most scholars believe”?

    What is the evidence that this “creed” was circulating within a few short years of Jesus’ death, and, is it true that most scholars believe it was?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      I don’t see teh logic of that, for two reasons. One is that rumors don’t take 3-5 years to start. they can start 30 minutes later. But also, on what grounds could anyone date the creed to the year 35 or so? Paul only says that he told it to the corinthians after hearing it himself. He would have started the church inthe late 40s, right? So why does that make the creed fifteen years earlier?

      • Avatar
        MGH  October 24, 2019

        That’s a really good point. Every time I see an apologist like William Lane Craig state as absolute FACT that the Corinthian creed dates from 5 years after the death of Jesus I am astounded at the chutzpah involved with this claim. Unless there are independent sources for the date of the crucifixion (not even Paul dates it) and independent sources for the Corinthian creed (there aren’t), how can we know whether Paul invented this creed, adapted it, or when?

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  October 25, 2019

        The creed only mentions “appearances” which can mean spiritual not necessarily physical bodily interaction as detailed in John’ gospel. Paul never writes about Knowing an earthly physical Jesus. It’s all about the high heavenly priest.

      • Avatar
        Iskander Robertson  October 28, 2019

        Dr Ehrman,

        how they say rumors take ages when….

        False, Acts 21:20 says there were “tens of thousands” of Jews who converted to Christ…and v. 21-24 indicate that they believed as true a rumor that Paul abandoned the customs of Moses when teaching outside Jerusalem. Apparently, lies could indeed deceive thousands in the first century.


        so unless paul was preaching against the law….

  12. Avatar
    Tm3  October 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    It seems likely that when Jesus reappeared to the Apostles and the 500 that the Romans would have rearrested and crucified him again. News of a resurrection would have immediately spread like wildfire. It’s as though after the resurrection all the detractors of Jesus disappeared. Any thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      I think the idea is that he had ascended to heaven and simply came down to convince the others, not htat he was still walking around Jerusalem.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 26, 2019

      This is a bit like those conversations people have on other message boards about superheroes and Star Wars. You’re trying to rationalize something that isn’t meant to be rational. (And why does everything have to be?)

      Jesus is no longer a mortal human being after the resurrection. He isn’t a mere spirit, he’s got a physical form, but he is no longer subject to death, having in effect vanquished it. The Romans could not lay hands on him unless he allowed it (and increasingly, Christians believed Jesus was only crucified the first time because he allowed it–I would say he was crucified because he encouraged it, but that’s not a proven fact).

      I don’t believe the physical resurrection happened, anymore than I believe in beneficient aliens from Krypton, but the stories told are consistent from the POV of the people telling them. And you could argue there is a truth to them, albeit self-fulfilling. The Romans executed the body of Jesus, but couldn’t kill the IDEA of him, and here we are, proving that, right now.

      But as to the notion that if the resurrection had been widely known to have happened, everybody would have become believers–I don’t agree. People could have assumed he was a demonic being, or that he was never really crucified at all, or just gone back to their regular lives, as people tend to do.

      Have you read Dostoevsky’s story of The Grand Inquisitor, from The Brothers Karamazov? I think it might have been very much like that. If it had happened.

      (And the kiss still burns in my heart, but I hold to my ideas.)


  13. Avatar
    scissors  October 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman
    The women aren’t treated as witnesses. Mark says they said nothing. They weren’t in a position to have their testimony evaluated. IF John 21 is something like Mark’s ending, then the women’s discovery COULD be foreshadowing. Matt and Luke seem to fix this by adding apostles. The implication, they didn’t know the author of Mark and didn’t have any first hand information.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 31, 2019

      The implication is that the women did eventually speak up, or how would Mark be telling this story? Mark is being more literary than literal here. We can’t know exactly why he’s ending the story this way, but it isn’t because he wants everyone to think the women never told what they saw. As to evaluating the testimony–???? Like they’re going to send out investigators with dictation pads and polygraph machines? There’s at most a few hundred followers of Jesus, they’re scattered to the four winds after the crucifixion. Nobody’s talking to anybody for a while.

      I don’t believe any of the gospel authors had first-hand information. Mark for all we know was rewriting an earlier account that is now lost. What we can be fairly sure of is that Matthew and Luke added details because the story as it stands in Mark is too spare, and new converts would be asking the same questions we ask. Mark’s original audience was probably very familiar with the story he was telling, and could fill in the gaps themselves. But there would always be people who said “How did anyone know what the women saw? How could they know the man in the white robes was an angel, and that the body wasn’t just removed? Why didn’t Jesus appear to them himself?”

      In many ways, Mark’s account is the most believable, but it still raises more questions than it answers. And we’re still wondering if there was a tomb for Jesus to disappear from.

      I do, however, believe that if the women closest to him believed they knew where his body had been taken, they’d go there–under great emotional strain, terribly afraid–and do what their beliefs told them to do with a dead loved one. I have no problem believing that at all. In Mark, more than any other gospel, I feel their plight, and can imagine them standing there, wishing more than anything in the world that this was all a nightmare they’d awaken from.

      And there’s no telling what emotions like that might evoke in a human mind.

  14. Avatar
    VaulDogWarrior  October 22, 2019

    Don’t Paul & certain Gnostic groups honour women? It may not have been the norm, but we shouldn’t act like it was impossible to happen. Same goes for gay rights. Most societies it seems did not approve of homosexuality, but we do see it crop up here and there as an acceptable alternative lifestyle (I’m thinking specifically of certain Native North America tebes, but there may be others.

  15. fefferdan
    fefferdan  October 22, 2019

    I wonder if the reliance on women as witnesses to the resurrection is related to the Gnostic tradition [in many cases] that women understood the real meaning of Jesus’ teaching better than men did. In some Gnostic traditions women were teachers. But in the proto-orthodox churches, men became the exclusive possessors of the apostolic teaching tradition. Was the always the case? The evidence from the Gospels does give pride of place to women in terms of being the first to see the resurrected Christ, while men tend to write of their reports.

  16. Avatar
    Omatseyin Binitie  October 22, 2019

    By stating that the disciples would have likely fled Jerusalem actually makes a strong case for the likelihood of women being the ones who found the empty tomb

  17. Avatar
    rburos  October 22, 2019

    I fear asking this for risk of sounding like I’m being negative or childish, but based on the empty tomb and stories of resurrection appearances. . .

    I’m struck by similarities of an extremely popular man in my lifetime who died under questionable circumstances, was buried under questionable circumstances, and was seen by many (women!) after his death–Elvis. (Again, please don’t read this as a joke or me being childish.) I had a neighbor who absolutely believed she saw him at a gas station, and the news was filled with people who *saw* him at KFC, or on TV, or in a bar. Even into the 90’s Bill Bixby hosted a TV show about Elvis sightings. My point is good people really (and a few nefarious ones as well to be sure) believed to have seen him. These did, however, begin to taper off, also just like Christ.

    Is it disrespectful to make a comparison like this, and are there any theories that attempt to explain these commonalities?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      No, it’s interesting. But one does have to wonder whether the cultural memories of Jesus are precisely what drove teh stories about Elvis….

  18. Avatar
    forthfading  October 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Every gospel author agrees; the women came to the tomb and were the first to discover it empty. Do you have a theory to why people such as Peter, Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathia did not find their way into the tradition of finding the empty tomb? Joseph of Arimathia certainly made his way into the tradition concerning Jesus’ burial.


    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      No, not really — althoguh Peter does find the tomb empty in John.

  19. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 22, 2019

    Another of Mark’s themes is, “The first shall be last and the least shall be first”. Women were pretty low on the totem pole of society..amongst the least. I think it’s a very likely reason for women to be the discoverers.

  20. Avatar
    thebookguy  October 22, 2019

    Brilliant, never thought about it like this ! As you’ve illustrated above, if the account of the tomb burial took place, the most plausible and historically sound conclusion is the women would of indeed been there first to discover the vacant tomb when one considers the political climate surrounding the crucifixion. After reading your initial post, I’d say there was “good reason” to say the women were the first to discover the empty tomb because it would make sense to those living in the first century considering the circumstances surrounding the crucifixion!

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