“If Jesus never rose, Christians believe in a fairy tale and it is time they grew up.”
–Mark Pierson, p. 17
“We will operate under the assumption that the Gospels remain historically reliable witnesses unless our investigation shows otherwise.” p. 21
Gary: The consensus among New Testament scholars is that neither eyewitnesses, nor the associates of eyewitnesses, wrote the Gospels, therefore the Gospels cannot be considered “historically reliable witnesses”. Mr. Pierson has admitted this fact in a previous book he has coauthored, “Making the Case for Christianity“. Why is he asserting their historical reliability here without acknowledging this important fact?
Pierson next attacks several prominent skeptics, including Robert Price. He saves his finally attacks for Bart Ehrman, Skeptic Enemy Number One, or so it seems for the authors of this book and for many Christian apologists and theologians. Concerning Ehrman, Pierson says,
“Ehrman himself claims that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written roughly thirty-five to forty-five years after Jesus. This remains within the lifetime of eyewitnesses–both friendly and hostile ones–who would have corrected or protested any glaring inaccuracies about what Jesus did and said.” p. 29
Gary: Bart Ehrman believes that the first Gospel written, Mark, was written in circa 70 CE, and that Matthew and Luke were written approximately a decade or so later, so Pierson is not far off the mark in the first part of this statement. However, the second part of the statement is a classic Christian assumption. How does Mr. Pierson know that any person who witnessed the crucifixion and burial of Jesus in circa 33 CE was still alive in 70 CE? He doesn’t. Now, is it likely that at least some people who were alive in Palestine in 33 CE were still alive in 70 CE, thirty-seven years later? Sure! But that doesn’t necessarily mean that any eyewitnesses to the crucifixion, burial, and alleged events shortly after his death were still alive!
First of all, I believe that this statement assumes that Jesus was the big deal that the Gospels make him out to be. Maybe these details in the Gospels are just more “Greco-Roman biography literary invention”. Maybe Jesus was not a big deal. Maybe there was no triumphal entry into Jerusalem with thousands of people cheering him with palm fronds as the new Jewish King (many scholars doubt this event). Maybe there was no mob scene intimidating Pilate. Maybe Jesus’ execution caused no big sensation in Jerusalem that day. So how many people went out to witness his crucifixion? Maybe only a handful. We just don’t know for sure.
Bottom line: No one knows if even ONE eyewitness was still alive in 70 CE.
But even if there were eyewitnesses alive in 70 CE, if these people knew that the Gospels were typical Greco-Roman biographies, full of “literary inventions and embellishments”, why should we expect them to have said something about “discrepancies” in the story? As long as the story said that Jesus was crucified, was buried, and soon thereafter he “appeared” to his followers, that was all that mattered. All the other details were simply literary “flourishes”…maybe even the Empty Tomb story was recognized as a fictional detail.
But here is another possibility. Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome. How long before a copy of this Gospel reached Palestine? Ten years? Twenty years? How many eyewitnesses would still be alive in 90 CE? Probably not many.
So the Christian assumption that “inventions” in the Gospels are impossible because eyewitnesses would have “cried foul” are simply that…assumptions.
“Around 80 AD, a man named Papias acquired information on who wrote the first two Gospels, relying on the testimony of those who knew Jesus’ disciples. He concluded that Matthew wrote his own account, and Mark recorded Peter’s words.” p. 30
This statement is just sad. It shows the desperate lengths which conservative Christians will go to to hold onto their cherished superstitions.
Most historians believe that Papias was born in circa 70 AD, that would mean that Papias was “acquiring information” regarding who wrote the first two Gospels at the age of ten. TEN YEARS OLD, folks! Who trusts the testimony and memory of a ten year old? Why resort to such blatant grasping at straws? Sad.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Pierson quotes scholar Richard Bauckham in his footnotes as a source for this information. I wonder if Mr. Pierson is aware that Bauckham does NOT believe that the Apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew (I just finished reading and reviewing Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” here on this blog). Mr. Pierson believes that Matthew the Apostle did write the Gospel that bears his name.
That brings up an interesting point. Almost all conservative Christians agree that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark and Luke the physician and traveling companion of Paul wrote the Gospel of Luke, but when it comes to the two Gospels allegedly written by actual eyewitnesses…conservative Christians can’t even agree among themselves! I would bet that most conservative Christians believe that the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, wrote the Gospel of John. Richard Bauckham, Dr. Bombaro, and other conservative/moderate scholars believe that John the Elder from Ephesus (not the Apostle) wrote this Gospel.
“Various studies of oral cultures have shown, however, that the retelling of major events and their significance remained constant, due in part to key individuals possessing a common memory of what happened.” p. 30
Many of these studies are recent studies of the oral cultures of nomadic Arab tribes and Pacific islander tribes. Is there any correlation to the oral cultures of first century Palestine? How can we know for sure?
Speculation, at best.
And this story was not maintained within one village or within one small tribe. It was passed from village to village, from country to country, translated from one language to another, retold and retold over many decades before finally being written down, by non-eyewitness authors, in lands far, far away…and we are asked to believe that the story remained 100% intact?
Next, Pierson talks about the historicity of the Empty Tomb. He attacks Bart Ehrman skepticism of the historicity of this biblical claim. He attacks Ehrman’s comment that he finds it odd that Paul never mentions the Empty Tomb in any of his writings. Pierson says this:
“Perhaps there is no mention of Jesus being ‘buried in a tomb’ because the phrase is redundant, like someone today saying ‘buried in a grave’ or ‘cremated into ashes’.” p. 32
Gary: This analogy would be correct if everyone in first century Palestine was buried in a “tomb”. But this was not the case. Most first century Palestinian Jews were buried in dirt graves, not tombs. So if Jesus were buried in a rock tomb, this would have been something unusual. I believe Ehrman has a very valid point. If Jesus really had been buried in such a very unusual manner from the typical burial pattern of most first century Palestinian Jews, why didn’t Paul mention this? Paul’s silence doesn’t prove the Joseph of Arimathea Tomb Story is fiction, but it strongly suggests that it is. Read this scholar’s statement on first century Jewish burial practices:
“The poorer classes of Jewish society — the majority of the population — buried their dead in simple, individual trench graves dug into the ground, similar to the way we bury our dead today. This involved digging a rectangular trench in the ground, placing the deceased (wrapped in a shroud) at the bottom, and filling the trench back in with earth. Usually a crude headstone was set up at one end of the grave. Ossuaries are associated only with rock-cut tombs, since once bodies were interred in trench graves they were not dug back up for deposition in an ossuary.”
—Jodi Magness, scholar
(Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature.)
Gary: If it was completely acceptable for a Jew to be buried in a dirt grave, why didn’t the Sanhedrin have three dirt graves dug, ready, and waiting for Jesus and the two thieves? They knew the Sabbath was coming. They knew the three men were going to die. Why panic at the last minute and put him in Arimathea’s rock tomb? It just doesn’t make sense. And if Arimathea was acting on his own, this would have infuriated the Sanhedrin. Why would they allow Arimathea to give Jesus a rich man’s honorable burial among the wealthy and famous Jews of the city instead of burying him among the poor or among the criminals? And why would Pilate allow a man who had been executed for treason against the Emperor to be given an honorable burial in a rich man’s tomb? It just doesn’t make sense!
But skeptics do not claim that Jesus was not buried in Arimathea’s rock tomb. We don’t claim that it is IMPOSSIBLE that Jesus was buried in Arimathea’s tomb. We just believe that it is unlikely. We believe it is much more likely that this story is a literary invention of the author of the Gospel of Mark. Note that if the Empty Tomb pericope is removed, it does not change one Christian doctrine.
Pierson continues, “The second major problem with Ehrman’s position is his assessment of what the Romans normally did with the corpses of people they crucified. While he remains agnostic about what ultimately happened in Jesus’ case, Ehrman cites various ancient documents to suggest that the body of Jesus either was never buried or was placed into a common grave reserved for criminals. In fact, he argues, Jesus’ body probably remained on the cross for some time to decompose. This is because the Romans, not the Jews, had executed him; and the Jews were powerless to keep the cruel Romans from desecrating Jewish burial customs and laws. Ehrman adds that Pilate would certainly not have allowed a crucified victim to receive a decent burial.” p. 32
Pierson goes on to counter Erhman’s statements by quoting Christian scholar Craig Evan’s research regarding Jewish burial customs and Roman crucifixion customs. Pierson states that Evan’s research “forcefully and convincingly disputes Ehrman’s analysis”. Per Pierson, Evans says “it is unknown just how regular a practice it was to leave corpses up for an extended period of time” and states that there are “numerous” exceptions in the written sources.
Here is one of these “numerous” examples which he quotes. It is from a section of Roman Law:
“The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives …[and] should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.” (Digesta 48.24.1,3)
That sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? Just from reading this, I’d say that Christians have a slam dunk case that Jesus’ body was given to the Jews for burial. The problem is, that Mr. Pierson did not quote the entire law! The law goes on to state that the bodies of persons executed for high treason are not to be turned over to the families or to others!
The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life said that this rule had been observed. At present the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason. Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried. (Digest 48.24.1)
Jesus was executed for claiming to be the King of the Jews. That is high treason. Jesus was executed for HIGH TREASON! Therefore, based on the Roman law which Mr. Pierson himself quotes, it is HIGHLY unlikely that the body of Jesus would have been handed over to the Jews for an honorable burial. It is much more probable that the body of Jesus was left up on the cross for days to be picked apart by the birds and other scavengers, and then what was left of his body, was tossed unceremoniously into a dirt grave, possibly even into a mass grave, with the corpses of other criminals executed that week.
Skeptics cannot prove that this is what happened to the body of Jesus but based on the evidence regarding standard Roman practice regarding the disposal of the bodies of persons crucified for treason, this is probably what happened.
Bart Ehrman responds in detail to Craig Evans’ research on this topic and to Evan’s criticisms of his position. I personally believe he leaves Evan’s (and Pierson’s) position in tatters. I would encourage everyone, skeptic and Christian, to read Ehrman’s posts on this subject. I have linked the first post in the series here:
Pierson points out that in 1968 an ossuary was discovered in Palestine of a Jewish male, in an ossuary, with an iron spike in its heel, indicating he had been crucified. The ossuary was dated to the late 20’s CE, approximately the time of Jesus, therefore during the reign of Pilate, proving that Pilate did allow persons crucified to have a decent burial. Pierson states that Ehrman “conveniently” fails to mention this fact.
What does this artifact prove? If the dating is correct, it proves that ONE crucified man during Jesus time period was allowed a decent burial. That’s it.
Skeptics do not claim that it is IMPOSSIBLE that Jesus was given a proper burial in a rock tomb, we simply say that it is improbable; it is unlikely. Romans USUALLY did not allow the bodies of persons executed for high treason to be given a proper burial. This is explicitly stated in Roman Law (the Digesta) as stated above. Jesus was executed for high treason. For what crime was the man with the iron spike in his heel executed? Answer: We don’t know.
Beginning on page 34, Mr. Pierson discusses the many discrepancies in the four Gospel resurrection accounts and whether these discrepancies qualify as contradictions. I used to see these discrepancies as contradictions; that each author who wrote these four separate stories believed as historical four completely different set of events. I no longer believe this is necessarily the case. I believe that it is entirely possible that the four authors of these four books knew the same set of facts but wrote four stories, each adding their own “embellishments” to the core facts. What were the core facts?
Answer: Jesus was arrested; Jesus was tried; Jesus was convicted of treason against Rome; Jesus was crucified; Jesus was buried; shortly after his death some of his followers believed that he appeared to them in some fashion.
But these bare facts would make for a very boring book. These four authors were skilled authors. They were skilled in writing Greco-Roman biographies. Therefore, they added captivating details to these core facts to give the story “life”, to give the story “color”. For instance, Pilate probably never wrung his hands in timidity regarding Jesus’ fate. The Pilate of history was a very brutal, decisive man. Jesus was most probably condemned to crucifixion without a seconds hesitation. His trial was but a formality. Joseph of Arimathea and his Empty Tomb? Pure fiction. Who wants to read a story about a resurrection from a dirt grave? How much more exciting to read about women arriving at the crack of dawn to a rich man’s rock tomb and finding it empty with the great stone rolled to the side! And to add to the intrigue of the story, make the rich man a member of the Sanhedrin and a possible secret admirer (follower?) of Jesus!
Yes, Mr. Pierson is right. The discrepancies in the Gospels are irrelevant. But Mr. Pierson, Dr. Bombaro, and Dr. Francisco cannot have their cake and eat it too! If some of the nonessential details can be chalked up to “literary invention” then the Empty Tomb can be as well. Eliminating the Empty Tomb pericope changes not one single Christian doctrine. It is therefore a non-essential detail. Many non-Christian scholars and even some Christian scholars believe the Empty Tomb story is a literary invention. (If we accept the accuracy of Gary Habermas’ literature search, one quarter of all NT scholars doubt the historicity of the Empty Tomb.)
And here is more evidence against the historicity of the Empty Tomb. There is no evidence that early Christians venerated or visited this site. (Protestant) Christians will respond with all kinds of excuses that can be summed up like this: the early Christians would have no reason to venerate an empty grave. They were not superstitious.
Protestant Christians seem to believe that the earliest Christians were pious, non-mystical Calvinists who abhorred any form of papist relic worship but this is blatantly false. There is evidence that in the second and third centuries, Christians were making pilgrimages to visit the “holy sites” of Palestine, including the alleged sites of Jesus birth and baptism…but no mention of visitations to the site of his burial. Why??
Sorry to break the news to you, dear Protestants, but the earliest Christians were Jews and first century Jews venerated the burial sites of famous people. The fact that they believed Jesus had been resurrected after his burial would not have made a difference.
There is no mention of the location of the “empty tomb” of Jesus in the writings of the Early Church until the Emperor Constantine announced in 325 CE that he wanted to build great cathedrals on the major holy sites in Palestine and then all of a sudden the bishop of Jerusalem “remembers” that the empty tomb of Jesus lies underneath a pagan temple outside the city. Even the Bishop of Palestine, the Church Father, Eusebius, was dubious of this claim…initially…until the Emperor’s mother arrived for the inauguration of the new holy site.
There was no Empty Tomb, folks. It was a literary invention, most likely by the author of the Gospel of Mark, carried over into the three later Gospels because it is a great story! A great story, but a fictional story. That is why it is not mentioned in the Early Creed. That is why Paul never mentions it. Paul never mentions it because he had never heard of it!
Accept the evidence, Christians: The Empty Tomb is most likely fiction.