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Women at the Tomb

Here I’ll continue my thread on topics that I changed my mind about or came to see in doing my research for How Jesus Became God.   One of the most important things I changed my mind about was the idea that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty three days after his death.

When I was a Christian, of course I thought that was the case.   But even when I had become an agnostic I thought it was probably a historical tradition: 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…)

I changed my mind.  Most of my change came from my investigation of Roman practices of crucifixion.   As it turns out, standard policy appears to have been to have left the bodies of corpses on the crosses to decompose, as part of their punishment.  Decent burials were not allowed.   I go into this matter at length in the book – at greater length than I want to excerpt here.  But I can excerpt my new reflections on whether it is conceivable that any Christian story-tellers would invent the tradition that women found the tomb empty.   Here is what I say about that:


Would Anyone Invent the Women at the Tomb?

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 a poverty of imagination. It does not take much mental effort at all to imagine who would come up with a story in which the female followers of Jesus, rather than the male followers, discovered the tomb.

The first thing to point out is that we are not talking about a Jewish court of law in which witnesses are being ca lled to testify.  We’re talking about oral traditions about the man Jesus.  But who would invent women as witnesses to the empty tomb?   Well, for openers, maybe women would.   We have good reasons for thinking that women were particularly well represented in the early Christian communities.  We know from the letters of Paul – from passages such as Romans 16 – that women played crucial leadership roles in the churches:  ministering as deacons, leading the services in their homes, engaging in missionary activities.  Paul speaks of one woman in the Roman church as “foremost among the apostles” (Junia in Rom. 16:8).   Women are also reputed to have figured prominently in Jesus’ own ministry, throughout the Gospels.   That may well have been the case, historically.  But in any event, there is nothing at all implausible in thinking that women who found their newfound Christian communities personally liberating told stories about Jesus in light of their own situations, so that women were portrayed as playing an even greater part in the life and death of Jesus than they actually did, historically.  It does not take a great deal of imagination to think that female storytellers indicated that women were the first to believe, after finding that his tomb was empty.

Moreover, this claim that it was specifically women who found the empty tomb makes the best sense of the realities of history.  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?   Moreover, if, in the stories, they’re the ones who went to the tomb to anoint the body, naturally they would be the ones who found the tomb empty.

In addition, our earliest sources are quite clear that the male disciples fled the scene and were not present for Jesus’ crucifixion.  As I stated earlier, this may well be  historical, that the disciples in fear of their own lives not only went into hiding, but fled town in order to avoid arrest.   Where would they go?  Presumably back home, to Galilee.  That was over a hundred miles and would have taken at least a week on foot.   If the men had scattered, or returned home, who was left in the tradition to go to the tomb?  If it wasn’t the fleeing disciples, it must have been the other followers of Jesus, the women who had come with the apostolic band to Jerusalem but who presumably did not need to fear arrest.

Moreover, one can imagine strictly literary reasons for “inventing” the women at the empty tomb.  Let’s suppose it was Mark himself who invented the story.  I personally don’t think he did; there is no way to know, of course, but my suspicion is that it was a story Mark inherited from his tradition.  But suppose Mark did invent it.  There would be plenty of reasons, just from his own literary perspective, to do so.  The more you know about Mark’s Gospel, the easier it is to think of reasons.  Let me give just one.  Mark makes a special point throughout his narrative that the male disciples never do understand who Jesus is.  Despite all his miracles, despite all his teachings, despite everything they see him do and say, they never do get it.   And so at the end of the Gospel, who is it who learns that Jesus has not stayed dead but has been raised?  It is the women.  Not the male disciples.  The women never tell.  As a result, the male disciples never do come to understand.   That is all consistent with Mark’s view.

Again, I’m not saying that I think Mark invented the story.  But if we can imagine very easily a reason for Mark to have invented it, it is no leap at all to think that one or more of his predecessors may also have had reasons for doing so.  In the end, we simply cannot say that there would be “no reason” for someone to invent the story of women discovering the empty tomb.



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  1. Avatar
    toejam  April 4, 2014

    It’s a coin-toss from where I sit as a layman. There may have been an empty tomb, or there may not have. Neither the cases for or against are overly compelling to me.

  2. Avatar
    JoeWallack  April 5, 2014

    There is an extant tradition of men being the first to have a resurrected Jesus appear to them, 1 Corinthians. While I think that the related verses are unoriginal, I think their addition was still before “Mark”. You would than have an extant tradition where men were the first claimed witnesses to the supposed resurrection. This supports the women at an Empty Tomb as original to “Mark” since there is extant earlier contradiction and no extant earlier support. That being said, I’m more interested in your:

    “Mark makes a special point throughout his narrative that the male disciples never do understand who Jesus is. Despite all his miracles, despite all his teachings, despite everything they see him do and say, they never do get it. And so at the end of the Gospel, who is it who learns that Jesus has not stayed dead but has been raised? It is the women. Not the male disciples. The women never tell. As a result, the male disciples never do come to understand. That is all consistent with Mark’s view.”

    You have previously said that you think 14:28 implies that the Disciples do come to understand Jesus in Galilee. Have you changed your mind on this?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      14:28 predicts that Jesus will be raised and will go ahead of the disciples to Galilee, but it doesn’t say that they will ever understand who he is. Did I say something different somewhere?

  3. Avatar
    GokuEn  April 5, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, you mention you had a theory of why the tomb was found empty back in the days you believed such fact to be historical. Would you mind sharing that theory?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 7, 2014

      I’ve thrown out a number of suggestions, all of which are more plausible than a “resurrection.” As a wild speculation: Two disciples go to remove the body to put it in a permanent tomb, Roman soldiers see them dragging the body, think they are grave robbers, kill them, and throw all three bodies into a common grave. Is it *probable* that this happened? No, not at all. Is it *more* probably than a miracle? Of course!

      • Avatar
        ardiess  June 1, 2014

        Dr. Ehrman, I’ve just finished your book, How Jesus Became God, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, found it intriguing and stimulating. A welcome addition to my library.
        Here’s the rub: all of history is full of the implausible; further, people mistake implausible for ironic; and then make the leap from ironic to Willful. (consider me a “progressive conservative”)
        1)-Is it implausible that the council met at night? Absolutely not; every government that ever existed has bent the rules as needed.
        2)-Is it implausible that a senior member of the council would have regrets the following day? Yes and no. So honestly, I can’t rule out either scenario: tomb or dogs
        3)-You deal at length with the pre-Pauline liturgy in 1Cor. You make the argument that it dates to the earliest traditions, but verse 4: “and that he was buried,” gets no respect. Was that a later redaction? Like Crossan I don’t think a tomb is necessary, but I do think that the earliest traditions would omit it if it didn’t happen.
        4)-There seems to be a subtle distinction between implausible and dissimilitude that escapes me.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  June 1, 2014

          My view is that one has to establish history on the basis of what is *most* plausible, not on the basis of what is at least *possible*. On burying: I do think Jesus was buried — that is, that the remains of his corpse were put into some kind of grave, a few days after his death. I simply don’t think that the Joseph of Arimathea story is credible.

  4. Avatar
    willow  April 5, 2014

    As a woman who can relate to the startled reactions of the women, as so written in Mark, I’ll stick to the record on this one, continuing to believe that by whatever means, Jesus was taken down from the cross, placed in a temporary tomb that was visited by women, whose customary task it was to attend to the deceased. That just makes better sense to me. But of course, I haven’t read that part of your book yet, so remain yet to be convinced.

  5. Avatar
    gavriel  April 5, 2014

    The historical core could be very simple. Paul’s very early testimony is that Jesus was buried, and he must have received this information from reliable sources. The women at the execution place watched him being taken down for burial into a common grave for criminals and was later unable to locate it properly. That would explain most of the later legendary embellishments. If the location had been precisely known initially, one would have expected Acts or other sources to describe later ceremonies attached to it or something similar.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 5, 2014

    Finished the book last night – and of course, I think it’s terrific! I knew it would be. Some thoughts…

    I assume you think that if Paul had been asked *what* “scripture” prefigured the Messiah’s rising from the dead on “the third day,” he would have cited the passage from Hosea and/or the Jonah story. But neither of them is a goood fit – above all, because in both those cases, God has been punishing someone. Could Paul *possibly* have been citing them in good faith? Or were he and other early Christian proselytizers engaging in deliberate fraud, citing out-of-context passages that the less educated wouldn’t realize were out-of-context?

    Re “Pascal’s Wager”: I had this thought right away. A person *can’t* “decide” to believe or not believe something! Belief doesn’t work that way. You believe…or you incline toward belief…or you’re on the fence, not inclining either way…or you incline not to believe…or you flat-out *don’t* believe. (When I’m not letting myself be ruled by emotion, I say only that I “incline strongly to belief in” reincarnation.)

    You *can* decide to *pretend* to believe or not believe something, when you’re actually at least inclined the other way. And you can decide to *act as if* you believe something – go through all the motions, *in case* it’s true. But that’s not the same as really believing.

    Re the “Kingdom”: Believers in a coming “general resurrection” would have expected *all* the revived dead to have transformed, immortal bodies…and to *go on living in them, on earth*. Shouldn’t Jesus’s followers have found it hard to explain why he, representing the “first fruit,” had been taken up to heaven?

    You’ve told us that in or around the time of Jesus, most people in the Mediterranean region believed either that there was no afterlife, or that it was a bleak kind of survival in the shadowy realm the Jews called Sheol. I’m guessing that the initial concept of God’s coming “Kingdom” was well-received in part because it promised a desirable afterlife. But when those early Christian thinkers were doing all their fussing and fretting over just *how* Jesus was God, didn’t they *ever* stop to wonder whether the no-afterlife concept might have been right after all, and Jesus might have ceased to exist the moment he took his last breath on the cross?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      Thanks for your observations. As to your question, no I don’t think so. They were committed apocalypticists who knew there would be life in the age to come.

  7. Avatar
    jmmarine1  April 5, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman,
    Did the exaltation of Jesus evidenced in the NT, human to somehow divine, set a pattern for Mary moving from merely human obedient servant to theotokos and mediator? A pattern that later includes an immaculate conception, perpetual virginity and an ascension? Thank you.

  8. Avatar
    Peter  April 5, 2014

    Today, no burial for Jesus; yesterday, Jesus becoming god after Caesar did the same…..do I see a seat for you at a reformed Jesus Seminar in a few years?!! 😉

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 5, 2014

    I saw the movie “Son of God” today. If you have seen it, I would appreciate your writing a post or two about it some time in the future. Here are my observations about the movie:
    1. Being a stoic asker of questions, I was affected emotionally by the movie far more than I anticipated.
    2. In a broad, general sense, the movie follows the four Gospel texts mixing them together into a composite.
    3. The movie really adds lots of details to the Gospel accounts regarding Caiaphas, Nicodemus, Pilate, Pilate’s wife, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. And I mean “lots.”
    4. The movie seems to make a composite of another Mary fusing together Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene which gets confusing.
    5. At times, Jesus says things in the movie that make sense, but are not really in the Bible. More disconcerting, at other times in the movie, Jesus says things attributed to Him in the Bible, but He says them in the movie here and there completely out of the expected context and sequence.
    6. This literary license with details makes me wonder why the movie is so popular among those who advocate the literal, inerrant interpretation of the Bible because this movie certainly does not follow such a literal interpretation. Maybe literalism is okay when it says what people want it to say and a more literary interpretation is okay if it fits with one’s beliefs? The movie, “Noah,” has to add stuff otherwise you have no movie, but there Is more than enough material in the Gospels to make a movie without adding stuff.
    7. The literary license of having John of Patmos narrate the beginning and end of the movie is very effective even if the narrator’s contention that all of the disciples, except he and Judas, died because of their faith cannot really be proven.
    8. The suffering of Jesus is portrayed in a very vivid and pronounced way. Is there some Christian view that the greater the suffering of Jesus, the more noble it was and the more likely that that suffering atoned for our sins? In my book, suffering is suffering. Why does the amount of suffering matter?
    9. The movie does not clearly explain why Jesus is crucified. Like with the trial of Socrates, the details of the crime do not quite add up to the death penalty. It’s probably a cultural thing that I do not fully appreciate..

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      Interesting. I’m afraid I’m not sure I can bring myself to see it….

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  April 7, 2014

        I understand. It was not as bad as I expected.

  10. Avatar
    Hank_Z  April 5, 2014

    Bart, I happened to read this part in your book today and I had a question about this: “Moreover, if, in the stories, they’re the ones who went to the tomb to anoint the body, naturally they would be the ones who found the tomb empty.”

    Question: Why would women (or anyone) have been going to anoint a body that had already been buried in a tomb two or three days earlier?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      The idea is that he was buried right before sunset on Friday; he is in the grave on Saturday; and they go when there is the first light on Sunday — in other words, just as soon as they can (given Sabbath requirements), to make a permanent burial from the hurried, temporary one a day and a half earlier.

  11. Avatar
    Adam0685  April 6, 2014

    What are your general thoughts on your debate with Butt compared to your other debates on the subject. I’m not sure how you kept your patience. He’s a nice guy…but can’t see outside of his narrow view.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      I thought he was far more conservative even than I had imagined, and he did not seem like a kind-hearted pleasant fellow to me, but like someone who really was out for blood and wanted desperately, above all else, to win a debate. More like James White than anyone else I’ve debated.

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  April 7, 2014

        I could really tell you care deeply about the topic and really care and want to (and do alot to!) help people in need. I like how you noted that it’s not just a logical discussion and urged the crowd to think carefully about the topic and, whatever the hold, to help those in need since we’re talking about peoples lives, not philosophical prepositions.

  12. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 6, 2014

    One point on which I think critics *might* fault you… You say your treatment of this topic isn’t meant to, and can’t, prove Jesus wasn’t/isn’t God. But in your chapter on whether there’s reliable evidence he claimed to be God, you go so far as to say not merely that he didn’t claim to be, but that he *didn’t think he was*, anything more than the Messiah.

    Perhaps you should have mentioned the possibility that *if* divine beings exist, such a being *might* choose to incarnate as a mortal *without* (until, perhaps, some crucial moment) the memory of who and what he really was. That would make a kind of sense. How else could divine beings ever learn to empathize with and understand mortals?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 6, 2014

      My view is that he could have been God without knowing it. Theologically one could argue that if he was limited as a human, he wouldn’t know everything, even about himself.

      • Avatar
        toejam  April 7, 2014

        Is there a technical name for that view yet? How about “divignorinity”? (divine + ignorance). In context: “Jesus was a divignorant being”. haha!

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 6, 2014

    Like Walker Percy’s famous novel character, I am an avid “moviegoer,” and I recently saw the movie “God’s Not Dead.” As you probably already know, the plot is about a Christian college freshman debating an atheist professor about whether or not God exists. The debate briefly focuses on four intellectual issues as follows:
    1. The Christian contends that all of this universe could not have just come from nothing and that it, therefore, must have been created by God. That is a good basic argument. The atheist, in turn, appropriately replies by asking then where did God come from? The Christian says he does not know. This is all fairly standard debate material even if the argument by either side does not go very far in the movie.
    2. The atheist raises the theodicy problem of why there is evil and why people suffer. The Christian makes the standard “free will” argument and the exercise of “free will” may explain some human suffering, like drug abuse, but does not explain why natural disasters, like hurricanes, occur.
    3. The Christian makes the moral argument that there can be no moral standards without a God to set these standards. The atheist replies that atheists can have morals without God. Again, this is fairly standard debate stuff as far as the argument goes.
    4. The Christian argues that when God says “Let there be light” in Genesis, God was really describing the Big Bang and that the Bible, hence, is more correct than science. Hmmm? The Christian also argues that life developed quickly (I think he is referring to the Cambrian explosion of life) rather than evolving slowly. Hmmm?
    Unfortunately, these four issues are not developed very well by either side and the movie shifts from intellectual discussions to “feeling” issues with the revelation that the professor became an atheist because his mother died when the professor was 12 years old. Interestingly, the professor at the end of the movie gets hit by a car and has a “death bed” conversion before he dies on a rainy street. Ooops!
    Also, unfortunately, the characters are presented as one-dimensional caricatures not like any real people I actually know. I have certainly never known any real person quite like this professor. Moreover, I don’t think any professor could get away with or be interested in having his students sign statements that “God is Dead” although the professor would be interested in hearing how students might argue both pros and cons of the question. The movie by presenting extremes also does not do justice to those of us who struggle and struggle and really end up concluding that the existence of God does not make sense because of the theodicy problem and the non-existence of God does not make sense either because all of this universe seems unlikely to have just come from nothing,
    Anyway, if you ever happen to see this movie, it might be worth a blog or two.

    • Avatar
      EricBrown  April 7, 2014

      The priest in our church this Sunday highly recommended the movie. That was enough to tar it in my mind — this priest (a younger, enthusiastic fellow) seems to find the “Trilemma” the absolute end in theology.

      • Avatar
        RonaldTaska  April 7, 2014

        Well, as you probably know, the “trilemma’ does not take into account the possibility that the Gospel writers may have misquoted Jesus. So, that is a fourth option.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 7, 2014

    Say, I just looked up the Emperor Constantine at Wikipedia, and found this:

    “Constantine—as the first Christian emperor—is a significant figure in the history of Christianity. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on his orders at the purported site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem, became the holiest place in Christendom.”

    So they *had* preserved a tradition of where that tomb was located!

    But I *didn’t* find an answer to the question that had taken me to Wikipedia, so I’ll bother you with it. Is it known who converted first, Constantine or his mother Helena?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  April 7, 2014

      The belief that that was the “place” was not preserved from the time of the apostles to Constantine; it was a “tradition” that can be traced — to the fourth century!

      • Avatar
        FrankJay71  April 8, 2014

        This is a subject I’ve hoped you would explain for some time. Many sources I’ve read, including secular sources (maybe even my college Western Civ textbook) take for granted that Hadrian built a temple to Venus over Christs tomb in 135 A.D. At the same time, I’ve heard cited as evidence in support of the resurrection, that early Christians never venerated Christs tomb. Meaning I guess that if his body was still in there, early Christians would have pilgrimaged there. So if it wasn’t a popular spot with christian, and I guess relatively unimportant in early Christianity, how would Hadrian or his men know that it was Christ’s tomb, and why would they want to desecrate it in the first place if it wasn’t an important christian site?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  April 8, 2014

          I’m not familiar with the legend about Hadrian, I have to admit.

          • Avatar
            J.J.  April 9, 2014

            Jerome, Epis 58 (to Paulinus), sect 3.

          • Robertus
            Robertus  April 13, 2014

            “From the time of Hadrian to the reign of Constantine— a period of about one hundred and eighty years — the spot which had witnessed the resurrection was occupied by a figure of Jupiter; while on the rock where the cross had stood, a marble statue of Venus was set up by the heathen and became an object of worship. The original persecutors, indeed, supposed that by polluting our holy places they would deprive us of our faith in the passion and in the resurrection. Even my own Bethlehem, as it now is, that most venerable spot in the whole world of which the psalmist sings: “the truth has sprung out of the earth,” was overshadowed by a grove of Tammuz, Ezekiel 8:14 that is of Adonis; and in the very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus.”


            The question is, how reliable is Jerome on these points? Is it not just as likely that Constantinian Christians were merely taking over pagan holy places, which were not based on earlier Christian holy places?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  April 13, 2014

            I’ve never looked at it, but on the surface I’m highly suspicious….

  15. Avatar
    richard gills  May 7, 2014

    “Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’64″Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”

    Dr Ehrman, does it make historical sense that Pilate would believe the claim that the disciples would hoax a resurrection IF he knew that the disciples forsook jesus and ran away? wouldn’t it cross his mind that deciples would avoid an area in which jesus was brutally murdered? why didn’t the jews REQUEST the body and BURY it in an UNKNOWN burial location?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 7, 2014

      Theis passage is found only in Matthew, and it is usually considered to be legendary rather than historical.

  16. Avatar
    JEffler  May 16, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Given historical facts and statements from early Jewish authors such as Josephus saying that the testimony of a women was not worth anything, how do you find the apologists view as “flawed”. I think it’s more probably and makes a lot more sense that it actually did happen given the fact that it is in all four gospels. If it wasn’t in the earliest then that would be one thing, but it is in all four. Not only that you have Jewish rabbi’s say, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women!” (Sotah, 19a) or “Happy is he whose children are male, but unhappy is he whose children are female!” (kiddushin, 82b).

    I think it is a strong case in point that the women were really witnesses. If they wanted to make it up, saying that the men found it. This would be a more credible witness to those OUTSIDE the church-if it was in fact fabricated.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  May 16, 2014

      I thought I posted on that? Maybe not…. There are lots of reasons someone might want to make up the idea that women found the tomb….

  17. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  October 2, 2016

    i note that jesus does not say “there you will see me” in 14:28

    28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

    is it possible he did not think of “there you will see me” because he already knew that he would end his book with :

    8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[a]

    is there a possibility then that the man in the tomb did not say, “there you will see him” ?

    “7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

    but he didn’t tell peter “there you will see me”

    is verse 7 interpolation ?

    Jesus Predicts His Death
    31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

    33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

    where is “there you will see me”

    i am not very well today, but is there any explicit word of jesus which says in mark “there you will see me” ?

    or does “go ahead” mean to go before you go?

    • Avatar
      Kazibwe Edris  October 2, 2016

      Go and tell his disciples, and Peter: He is going before you into Galilee: there you will see him, as he said to you. (16:7)

      why not wait and see them near the tomb like he does in matthew? why leave them behind? why 14:28 does not say , “there you will see me” ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2016

      As to explicit words: that you can see for yourself just by reading the Gospel carefully!

  18. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  November 21, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have a couple of related questions: (1) Many scholars, from Dom Crossan to Byron McCane to Craig Evans to William Lane Craig, have said Jesus would likely have been buried in a “criminals’ graveyard” or a “tomb reserved for criminals.” Would these types of burial spaces be tombs in which multiple corpses could/would be stored simultaneously? That would certainly make sense to me. If this is so, isn’t it possible that Mark never really meant to describe an empty tomb? Mark never says the tomb was new, nor does he say that it was found empty, only that Jesus’ body was no longer there (which doesn’t necessarily mean the tomb was empty). Also, if Mark intended to portray an empty tomb, then the messenger/angel’s pointing to a specific spot in the tomb where Jesus had been laid seems unnecessary. The tomb is empty, so why bother pointing out the particular spot? On the other hand, if the tomb contained other corpses, but there was an open spot available where another corpse could be laid, it would make sense to point to that specific, now open and available spot as the place where Jesus had previously been laid. In short, if this interpretation of Mark is plausible, could this be the reason why Matthew and Luke later go out of their way to say the tomb was “new” and “where no one had ever been laid”, and why John later combines these two apparent corrections of Mark? (2) Is the tradition related in Matthew 28:11-15 historical? If so, it seems this would suggest a concession by the Jews that the tomb was in fact empty, and this would probably nullify everything else I’ve written above. Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2016

      I’m not sure the scholars you cite have this view. But my view is that, historically, his remains may have been tossed into a common grave, not a private tomb. Matthew 28:11-15, no I don’t think so. After Xns said Jesus was raised, Jews said his body had been stolen, and Xns responded with the story of Matthew 28.

      • Avatar
        JoshuaJ  November 21, 2016

        Thanks, Dr. Ehrman. You’re right, scratch Crossan from the list. Don’t know what I was thinking. The others I can provide sources for. William Lane Craig: Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, p. 376, was particularly surprising to me. He writes: “So far as we can rely on Jewish sources, the criminals’ graveyard was only 50 to 600 yards from the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jewish practice, furthermore, was to bury executed criminals on the day of their execution, so that is what Joseph would have wanted to accomplish. Therefore, Joseph could and would have placed the body directly in the criminals’ graveyard, thereby obviating any need to move it later or defile his own family tomb.” Here, WLC is arguing against the temporary burial hypothesis, but is nonetheless (perhaps unwittingly?) discrediting Matthew’s claim that the body was placed in Joseph’s own tomb.

        At any rate, you write: “After Xns said Jesus was raised, Jews said his body had been stolen, and Xns responded with the story of Matthew 28.” But if the Jews said his body had been stolen, isn’t that an acknowledgement that the body wasn’t there, i.e. empty tomb? Thanks again!

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    Hngerhman  February 26, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Based on what evidence there is, do you think it’s more likely on balance that Mark received or invented the empty tomb story?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 27, 2019

      Received. Definitely!

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        Hngerhman  February 27, 2019

        Oh excellent. Is there a source (yours or otherwise) for a good set of arguments that you’d point me towards? I’d love to dig in on that. Thanks in advance!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2019

          Nothing comes to mind. But the fact that you have “empty tomb” stories in Mark, M, L, and John shows that no one of them made it up, since they all know of it independently of one another.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  March 1, 2019

            Great, thank you.

            Editorial: I’m mulling getting Prof Marcus’s commentaries on Mark (alas I cannot seem to find it in electronic format) – and if discussion of this issue were in it, that would probably have tipped the scale to buy yet another physical book (you’ve convinced me on Hezser, Corinthian Body, your compilation of Textual Criticism essays, Metzger’s NT classic on textual criticism, etc.). The lack of electronic format in many of these great works is limiting…

            Question: Where would one find a good set of arguments (yours or otherwise) that the author of John didn’t know Mark? Cheers!

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2019

            You might look at the books by Moody Smith on John and the Synoptics.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  March 3, 2019

            Thanks for the Moody Smith rec!

        • Robert
          Robert  March 22, 2019

          Hngerhman: “Question: Where would one find a good set of arguments (yours or otherwise) that the author of John didn’t know Mark?”

          Bart: “You might look at the books by Moody Smith on John and the Synoptics.”

          Hngerhman: “Thanks for the Moody Smith rec!”

          Robert: While you’re at it, pay close attention to the fact that even D Moody Smith admitted that “the Gardner-Smith consensus [that John was not dependent on any of the synoptic gisoels] is now significantly eroded.”

          • Bart
            Bart  March 24, 2019

            I thought Moody continued to hold to the independence of John. Did I get that wrong?

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  March 24, 2019

            Robert: While you’re at it, pay close attention to the fact that even D Moody Smith admitted that “the Gardner-Smith consensus [that John was not dependent on any of the synoptic gisoels] is now significantly eroded.”

            Thanks Robert – for this nugget, as well as other places on the blog where your contributions serve to move things forward. All the best!

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  March 24, 2019

            Dr Ehrman –

            I’m skimming Raymond Brown’s condensed commentary on the Johannine Gospel/Epistles, and am curious: Do you agree with the view of a temporally layered tradition in the gospel, I.e., there’s different layer(s) from the evangelist and a later editor?

            If I’m reading Brown correctly (which I may not be), regarding the relation of the fourth gospel to the Synoptics, he seems to make use of the layers when he bifurcates between what the evangelist knows of the synoptic tradition (nothing) and what the editor knows (possibly something). So, it sparked my curiosity in your thoughts about these layers.

            Many thanks!

          • Bart
            Bart  March 25, 2019

            Yes, that’s my view.

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    Hngerhman  March 7, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    Given Matthew and Luke were working off of Mark, the factual changes to which people were supposedly at the scene in the two later gospels is a bit of a head-scratcher. For John, if the author didn’t know the other gospels, to inject other people is more explicable than Matthew and Luke, who were looking at the text and decided, “Nope. Wrong people. Lemme change that.” Is there a cogent explanation (historical, theological or otherwise; aside from each Mt/Lk had heard it was different but mutually incompatible other people) that accounts for Matt/Luke changing the people involved, in the face of an earlier written report to the contrary?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 8, 2019

      They had heard other stories as well, lots of them — not just the ones in Mark.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  March 8, 2019

        Indeed. Thank you. It struck me at first that it would take some moxie on the part of a successor to say that the predecessor account written a decade or so prior is wrong. Then it occurred to me afterwards that it takes a certain type of person to feel capable of undertaking the task of penning THE definitive account of God’s son. Once one has reached that threshold level of, let’s call it, self-confidence, that person likely doesn’t break a sweat “correcting” a prior written gospel account with his own version of the facts.

        Appreciate it as always!

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