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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 …

You interested in this?  Keep reading.  If you’re not a blog member, you’ll need to join.  But it’s no burden — at all.  You get five posts like this each and every week, masses of interesting information and reflections on the New Testament and earliest Christianity.  All for a small memership fee.  And the entire fee goes to charity.  So go for it!

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



  1. Aractus
    Aractus  October 23, 2019

    Bart there’s some parts of your argument I fundamentally disagree with. In particular I think Mark did not describe an empty tomb, and the “young man” figure as a dissident disciple (not meant to be taken literally) is the one announcing, or “witnessing”, the resurrection – not the women.

    I have spent years trying to work out this story, it’s only recently that I’ve discovered answers I find compelling. I’ll run though some points quickly.

    1. All NT gospel passion-burial traditions are based on Mark’s. Evidence:

    (a) There’s several passion-resurrection traditions found in Acts as well as in 1 Cor, and Mark’s is unique. The non-Markan traditions: Acts 2:22-36, 3:13-15, 4:10, 27-28, 5:29-32, 10:39-43, 13:27-31, and 1 Cor 15:3-8. Both John and Luke appear to have merged additional traditions with Mark’s.

    (b) All the gospels are too similar in their details to be independent. Unique to the Markan tradition: Jesus asked by Pilate “are you the king of the Jews”; Crown of thorns; abandonment by disciples; character of the “young man”; Pilate offering to release Jesus or Barabbas; Jesus dying same day and the timing of the crucifixion and death; blackening of the sun at noon; burial by Joseph of Arimathea; women going to tomb. Defending historicity of one detail requires defending all.

    (c) John describes Jesus’ anointing to counter Mark’s supposed description of improper burial practise.

    2. There’s no empty tomb. Mark never describes it this way. All the other evangelists do, but Mark intentionally leaves open the possibility that Jesus’ body is still in there despite what the “young man” claims as he is presented as an unreliable character (the Amos 2 themed abandonment representing a straightforward refusal of Mk 8:34-38). Mark doesn’t say tomb was “new”. Empty tomb and women’s testimony is therefore added to the tradition later, so can’t be historically based.

    3. Story is not meant to be taken literally. Mark didn’t write this as apologetics, he intentionally leaves room for doubt. The imagery and purpose make sense only when not taken literally.

    4. JoA character adapted from existing tradition that Jews buried Jesus (Acts 13:29). Evidence: Mark doesn’t contradict this, but other gospels do.



    Busch. (2008). Resurrection in Mark—or Not. In SBL annual meeting, Boston (Vol. 22).
    Scroggs & Groff. (1973). Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ. JBL, 92(4), 531-548.
    Spong. (2009). Challenging Biblical fundamentalism by seeking the influence of the synagogue in the formation of the synoptic gospels. Verbum et Ecclesia, 30(1), 243-259.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      Interesting. But the man at the tomb in Mark *does* tell the women that jesus “is not here.” So the tomb’s not empty — he’s in it — but Jesus’ body’s not there any longer, and that’s wahat people mean by the Empty Tomb.

      • Aractus
        Aractus  October 24, 2019

        Not at all, I’m doing a full write up you can review shortly if you’re intersted from redaction criticism (based on those three papers I cited). As far as Mark’s readers are concerned Jesus is buried alongside the bodies of JoA’s relatives, as far as they’re concerned Mark has (intentionally) left open the possibility that the young man simply moved the body of Jesus and lost it amongst the other bodies buried in the tomb. The tomb is never empty, it still contains other bodies which is (one of) the “problems” which all the later gospel authors have an issue with.

        He has the women as you well know go to the tomb to perform a second burial. Which is impossible. The reason is Mark is, for his own reasons, adhering to the tradition you see in Acts 13:29. They literally can’t participate in the burial because of this, Mark simply uses that to illustrate their failure and abandonment just as he did with the disciples back in Mk 14:50. All the other gospel burials contradict Acts 13:29, but Mark does not. The only possible explanation for that is that Mark started with that burial tradition and was determined not to contradict it. Well either that or a very unlikely co-incidence considering it has three unlikely elements: 1. a member of the Sanhedrin who unmistakeably participated in condemning Jesus burying him in *his* tomb. 2. the women could have helped with the burial but didn’t, and watched from a distance. And 3. the claim Pilate would take instruction from the Sanhedrin to crucify Jews.

        Of course Acts 13:28 is contradicted in Mark and that can’t be denied, but there’s two probable explanations for that firstly he had a tradition substantially similar to Acts 13:27-31 but not identical (after all Acts is written perhaps 15 or so years later), or far more likely in my opinion given the plenitude of passion-related traditions in Acts, he was using more than one passion tradition when crafting his narrative. And a 3rd option of course is simply that he chose to contradict it because he wanted to.

        Anyway in summary, no, the YM “telling” the women “Jesus isn’t here” whilst he’s depicted as sitting amongst buried corpses in a tomb and them leaving without investigation does not constitute an “empty tomb”. He could not possibly have removed the stone by himself, questions naturally remain.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 25, 2019

          I’m not sure why you think Mark has Jesus buried next to Joseph’s relatives? Wouldn’t they be buried in Joseph’s home down of Arimatheia? And “second burial” is actually a technical term for what happens a year or so after the first burial.

          • Aractus
            Aractus  October 30, 2019

            Because it’s a tomb and there are bodies buried in a tomb. Anyway, it’s not a story from history, Joseph of Arimatheia is not a person from history, he serves a theological purpose in a theological narrative.

            Yes I accept fully my terminology was wrong, I meant for the women to anoint him after burial would have required un-burying and re-burying him which sounds as absurd as say exhuming an already buried coffin 3 days after the funeral to change the man’s burial suit!

            My point about the women is that they were not in the original tradition (which is Mark 15:40-16:8 as the earliest form that we have it) serving the purpose of “witnesses”. They’ve been added, theologically and narratively to an existing burial tradition like Acts 13:29. That purpose is given to the “young man”. The women are symbolic of their failures to Jesus the same as the men failed back in Mark 14:15-52. All of the male followers, both the inner circle and the outer wider following, deserted him (predicted three times by Jesus despite being warned not to in the strongest possible terms in Mark 8:34-38). Later the women do the same, both the inner circle (represented by the two Marys and Salome) and the wider circle who were there witnessing the death of Jesus (Mark 14:40-41) but failed to bury him, or to even help with the burial. This is clearly reflective that the tradition Mark wanted to honour was that Jesus was buried by his enemies – the very same Jews responsible for having him crucified.

            Mark started with, in my opinion, a burial tradition very similar (if not identical) to Acts 13:29. He knows that it’s absurd, but he embraces it and pushes the absurdity of it to the limit with the women going to anoint an already buried body.

            The assumption by scholars that the original tradition was that Jesus was buried by his disciples is “nothing short of delusional” (Richard C Miller, 2010, Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity. JBL 129[4], 759-776). I think there were multiple burial traditions when Mark was writing, there may have been traditions that he was buried by his followers, but I think it’s very clear that Mark followed the tradition that he was buried by the Jews responsible for handing him over for crucifixion. The other evangelists probably did have a competing tradition, that may have motivated them to redact the Markan tradition.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 1, 2019

            But it was a new tomb. Not explicitly stated in mark (though elsewhere), but the fact that it stresses that he rolled a stone in front of it maybe suggests that the stone hadn’t been there yet? Possibly. In any event, my point is that Joseph’s family wasn’t from Jerusalem, so they wouldn’t be buried there.

            IN any event, I imagine anointing the body after the sabbath, for a burial that took place on a Friday, was exceedingly common in ancient Israel.

  2. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 23, 2019

    What do you think of the possibility that women, or a woman, were first to have visions of Jesus after his death? And the tomb story is built on a historical truth passed in the early oral tradition?

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 23, 2019

    You have lost your “vehemence” indeed and seem much more “understanding” than I am by far.

    That you change your mind about things says something really good about you and adds credence to your work.

  4. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  October 23, 2019

    “you would not make up the fact that it was women who stumbled on the empty tomb first.”

    Bart, wasn’t it an unknown male in the tomb who was first in the tomb? so mark is saying that it was a male who was telling the women…..

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      The unknown man appears to be one with supernatural knowledge, and so is usually understood to be some kind of angel? But yes, it’s an interesting point. Of course he’s not one of the followers of Jesus, because the women have no idea who he is….

      • Avatar
        mdostal1  October 24, 2019

        But Mark uses the Greek word for “young man” and not “angel”, unlike Luke, Matthew and John.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 25, 2019

          That’s right. That’s why I”m saying there are other grounds for suspecting he’s not a mere mortal.

  5. Avatar
    rivercrowman  October 23, 2019

    Bart, what proportion of Matthew’s Gospel was borrowed from Mark’s Gospel? Roughly. Thank you!

  6. Avatar
    mdostal1  October 23, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I agree with your assessment. Any thoughts on the way Mary Magdalene is is mentioned by the author(s) of Mark without any other information about her? Since Mark was the first Gospel, what are readers of that time to make of this? Could she already have been known to early Christians, and Mark makes that assumption, mentioning her only by name?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      Good question: yes I think she was simply known in the communities when Mark was writign, some 40 years after the events. His community would have heard most of these stories already, and many others, before he wrote.

  7. Avatar
    gavriel  October 23, 2019

    Don’t you think that 16:1-8 is badly integrated into the preceding passages? The woman are said to be part of the group of disciples that fled from the garden, and suddenly they appear as if they were Jerusalem dwellers. Isn’t that a sure sign of a free-floating story, handed down to Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      I don’t see them being portrayesd as inhabitants of Jerusalem. What do you have in mind?

      • Avatar
        gavriel  October 27, 2019

        Sorry for responding this late.
        a. Well, I think it is in between the lines.
        The women are portrayed as followers from Galilee, that is , a part of the group of disciples(15:40). As such they would have been on the run with the remaining group or in hideout(s) around Jerusalem, at quite some distance. Nevertheless they are able to purchase spices Saturday evening (Outside Jerusalem?) and access the grave “early in the morning” which implies a short walk from the center of the city to the the grave. Unless one assumes that the women were following Joseph to the burial place over a long distance.This is what i find badly connected. The women behave as if they were Jerusalem dwellers, and we hear nothing about the relations with the remaining disciples

        b. Do you close postings for comments? Or what is the maximum age of a post you would allow/prefer comments to?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2019

          a. I don’t think the women would have had any reason to be on the run. They were just staying int he city for the feast.

          b. Nope!

  8. Avatar
    Charlene  October 23, 2019

    Oh my goodness, you go to great lengths to fabricate a hypothetical scenario for a story that was simply written as an allegory to provoke the reader to pursue a much deeper meaning. Women weren’t women as you know it and tombs weren’t tombs. One thing I said to myself while sitting in church after many years was, “ if there is a God, it has to be perfect,” so why is there suffering? I also decided that if there was a God, why would he make the Bible so hard to understand. After reading every Christian self help book that people gave me for answers, I finally said, God, I’m done. Either you stop suffering or give me answers. Otherwise I am done with you. Even I could create a better world, and I sure as heck would have a better way that blood and crosses. That’s stinking barbaric. Yes, common sense kicked in. That’s when it all started falling into place. You have to study other religions and other books if you ever want to understand the Bible. There’s no such thing as a scholar if you don’t. You will do this forever and never get there.

  9. Avatar
    Koryneaustin  October 23, 2019

    Sorry, a couple unrelated questions!

    1. I’ve been seeing how Hebrew was once a dead language and it is now “coming back” & this is a sign of the end times prophecy. However, was it really ever a “dead language?”

    2. I was just wondering if you had events or debates open to the public coming up anytime soon, in North Carolina or Virginia! I would love to come see a debate in person. And wasn’t sure where to find this info!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      Yes, Hebrew was a dead language. It was revived with the Zionist movement. If it is a sign that the end is near, why didn’t the end come near to the time it was revived? 2. No debates scheduled just now!

  10. Avatar
    RorscHaK  October 23, 2019

    Just a sidetrack, what in your opinion is the more appropriate rendering of Romans 16:7 “well-known in the apostles”/”outstanding among the apostles”/”esteemed by the apostles”?
    It seems to be a flak issue between egalitarians and complementarians (and whether ESV is decidedly biased in the complementarian direction, although its pericope heading placement for Ephesians 5:21-22 is suspicious enough for me)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      The Greek seems pretty clear to me: “foremost among the apostles”

  11. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  October 23, 2019

    When people make the argument that the empty tomb stories are not true/historical, i believe they have the responsibility to explain how they are able to use any of the gospel in question because it is simply intellectually dishonest to use any of the gospel if the central part of the text is false/lies.

    The first Christians most certainly believed that the tomb was empty. If that was not true then they were committing a fraud…at least those who claimed to see the empty tomb and those that claimed to see the resurrected Jesus.

    And if they were lying, why believe ANY of their testimony?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2019

      I don’t think fraud is necessarily involved. Rumors start all the time, every day, without anyone making a bald-faced lie. They just do, weird as it always seems….

  12. Rick
    Rick  October 24, 2019

    Professor, surely someone heretofore has delved into supposition here using Mark as much as reasonable less the superstitious and historically unlikely bits. Something like:
    The disciples fled to Galilee leaving the women including Mary of Magdala.
    The women witnessed the execution – a traumatic experience.
    The women waited, wanting to put the remains in a tomb for decomposition and cleaning of bones preparatory to an ossuary as was custom.
    The Romans (eventually) took whatever remains there were down.- disposing of them as usual in a shallow “mass grave”. The women arrived to an empty cross and unmarked mass grave.
    Mary had a vision of a living Jesus, likely a dream. The women returned to Galilee and reported this to the disciples.
    Start with a “story” something like the above and – what would you expect it to sound like on the 20th, 40th or later telling? I’m surprised Mark doesn’t say Jesus invented the internet!

  13. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  October 24, 2019

    Dear Bart
    This is one of the few passages, which make no sense.
    I know that because of the crucifixion, it was not possible to do the Jewish ritual.
    But wasn’t waiting three days to do so long enough?
    The body was already being devoured by the larvae. And the unbearable smell.
    Was this anointing three after death part of the tradition too?
    What would be other examples?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2019

      Well, by our reckoning it would be something like 36 hours; they couldn’t do it earlier because it was the Sabbath.

  14. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  October 24, 2019

    Was Mark a woman?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2019

      Almost certainly not.

      • Avatar
        Rita Gomes  October 25, 2019

        but we are not 100% sure, right?
        We can assume that it could be a woman posing as a man on a very remote assumption.
        I like to think about this possibility. Closer to the essence of Jesus in Mark

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2019

          No, we don’t know who the author was. But knowing what we do about literacy in antiquity, about the socio-economic status of the vast majority of first century Christians, and the highly restricted access to education the vast majority of women in the empire had at the time, it is really, really improbable.

  15. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  October 25, 2019

    I might think that the women at the tomb story was made up if it didn’t appear in all four gospels with Mary Magdalene being present in every narrative. It also complements Paul stating that Jesus was buried. The conflict I see is the competition between Mary Magdalene and Peter—who did what first? As Libbie Schrader has pointed out in her work, Mary is diminished in the gospel of John when she’s split into two people: Mary/Martha. In one of the early texts, it is Mary, not Martha, who declares, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” That put her at equal standing with the disciples. Also,

    The tradition is that the women found an empty tomb. The gospel writers give no indication that they thought anything different. I’m not sure why conservatives would come up with a speculative theory about reliable/unreliable testimony and a court of law when all they need to do is simply rely on the evidence itself.

  16. Avatar
    Hngerhman  October 25, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Taking a spin back through the audiobooks of your Peter, Paul and Mary as well as Triumph, and then this post sparked a thought.

    Each of the three key visionaries would seem to have quite differing levels of disinterest in terms of desire to see a risen Jesus. This is not to say each one didn’t genuinely experience what they perceived to be real resurrection appearances, but it seems there might be some additional, relevant human context to the historical persons’ motivations.

    Would you generally agree with the following ranking: (a) Peter least disinterested, then (b) Mary, and then Paul (most, but not fully, disinterested)?

    Thanks as always!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I would certainly put Paul last on the list, but I don’t know of any way to make a comparative ranking of the other two.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  October 27, 2019

        Thank you. Perhaps it’s cynicism that nudges me to draw a line between Peter and Mary… In the vein of memory and cognitive studies applied to the nature of visionary experiences, I do wonder if maybe behavioral economics could potentially have something tiny to add to the discussion.

        Both Peter and Mary were heavily cognitively and emotionally invested – which would make them susceptible to what behavioral economists would label the sunk cost fallacy (affects everyone to varying degrees). For the person expending effort/time/resources on something, the *perceived* value of the object of the investment (in the eyes of that person) increases as the expenditure rises. Jesus and his ministry about the coming Kingdom fits the bill – both Peter and Mary pumped considerable investment into the cause. Peter arguably more.

        When I think about other differences, one of the most crucial (at least to my jaundiced eye) is the directionality of the resources flow. Mary, if Luke is to be believed, pumped money into the ministry as a patron. Peter, on the other hand, having eschewed his former fisherman days to join (perhaps JB first and then) Jesus, was living directly off the ministry. Thus, Peter in particular would have his livelihood to lose should people like Mary fall away post Jesus’s execution. Thus, loss aversion would seem to be a differentially strong cognitive pressure on Peter relative to Mary. Extreme emotional investment (and trauma), intense time/resource expenditure, and then (for Peter) potential loss of livelihood – seems it would all combine to till some fertile soil for a visionary experience.

        Would this seem to hang together, or too tenuous?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2019

          I think I pretty much agree; my main reservation is that I don’t think we have enough information about Mary to know much of *anything* about her or her investment.

  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 25, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Interesting post. I remember asking Dale Allison the question about women’s testamony not counting for much in court, and I said, but this wasn’t court, he gave a pretty good answer I think, he said you’re right, these matters were even more important than a court case. Sometimes I wonder if there is also a possibility of over-thinking an argument i.e. I think the main point of the argument is a very general one that says: in a made up tale, you can basically do whatever you want, so again, the women are at least inconvenient.

  18. Avatar
    JuliaErgane  October 26, 2019

    I’ve always thought that what later became Christianity was yet another of the many mystery cults around the Mediterranean dealing with the afterlife. The Hebrews had been introduced to other ideas about the afterlife from the other societies which surrounded them. Even though the rabbinic reformation was probably more of interest to a possible historic Jesus than this, the new cultic focus which took effect well after his death was turned more onto the non-Hebrews who surrounded them. In my opinion, Christianity does not really come from ancient Judaism at all. To go back to the original topic of the “women’s witness,” I think it is very interesting and all that. As stated, it would have been questionable — and a very nice trope in the accounts, which points out oodles of contradictions, ie, why are the men still there? Of course, this is literature, NOT history (I am an historian).

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I’d say it does indeed have lots of interesting similarities with other mystery cults — at least as far as we can detect (since we know very, very little about them). But I wold also say it definitely derives from Judaism. Jesus was absolutely a Jew, as were his earliest followers, to a person; the sect started in Jerusalem among Jews. Their source of authority was the Hebrew Bible. They followed Jewish customs and worshiped in both temple and synagogue. I would say that they were a Jewish sect that was possibly like other mystery cults at the time.

  19. Avatar
    ftbond  October 30, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    You cite a ” poverty of imagination” as one of the reasons (presumably, the main reason?) for thinking the story of the women at the tomb was a fabrication.

    So, if the story was *real imaginative”, and said Peter and the Twelve went to the tomb to finish burial preparations, then, that would have seemed less fabricated to you?

    Or, if it got real REAL imaginative, and said that aliens in a spaceship came down and discovered the empty tomb, then, would *that* be more likely to have convinced you it was true?

    I guess I just don’t get this “poverty of imagination” thing.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2019

      No, not necessarily. I’m not quite sure I understand the question. Someone could have come up with either story, and I can’t think of a reason that someone could *not* have come up with either story. The “poverty of imagination” point is that if you say “no one would come up with that particular story” you really have to have reasons for saying that. There is a very good reason that saying no one in the first century would come up with a story of aliens in a spaceship finding the tomb. No one in the first century Palestine believed in or had ever heard of aliens in spaceships. That’s decidedly NOT the case with women going to give a body a decent burial. That happened every day.

  20. Avatar
    heccubus  November 11, 2019

    I think that the apologist’s reasoning in this case might be exactly wrong.
    If the audience for the story would expect for men to be the witnesses, would a savvy storyteller not surmise that substituting women would add a much more memorable, counter-intuitive ‘twist’ to the tale. Adding this unexpected detail turns it into more of a ‘man bites dog’ story.

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