Review of “The Resurrection Fact”, Chapter 3, by John Bombaro who states, “the factuality of the Empty Tomb has a totalizing effect on other faiths, signaling the superiority of Christianity”

Dr. Bombaro is my former pastor.  Dr. Bombaro has told me that he believes that the Bible, in particular the Gospels, should not be read in a fundamentalist manner because not everything in the Gospels was meant to be understood literally.  The Gospels were written as first century Greco-Roman biographies.  In Greco-Roman biographies, variations in the non-essential details in the retelling of an historical event was fully acceptable.   These variations were not seen as discrepancies or contradictions.  After doing some research on this topic I have come to the conclusion that Dr. Bombaro is right.  However, I do believe that these variations lend support to the majority scholarly consensus that these books were not written by eyewitnesses.

So I was very surprised to read this statement in his conclusion to this chapter of the book, a chapter he authored:

“John Dominic Crossan maintains the Gospels were never intended by their authors to be taken literally.  But they were at the behest of the earliest named witnesses.  He argues that the meaning of the story is the real issue, not whether a particular story about Jesus is history.  Yet every bit of evidence from first-century Christians holds the two inseparably tethered, with the former argued and substantiated upon the latter.”

How does this square with his stated position to me that the “discrepancies” in the four Gospels should not be read literally but should be seen as “literary” variations or constructions (which means that at least some of the variations are fiction)?  Does he mean that we should take the bodily Resurrection claim literally, just not all the minute details literally?   I’m confused.  Does he believe that “Matthew’s” story of Dead Saints being shaken out of their tombs to roam the streets of Jerusalem on the day of the Crucifixion Story is literal, historical?  Most scholars do not, including evangelical scholar Mike Licona.  Does he believe Matthew’s Guards at the Tomb Story is historical?  Most or at least many scholars do not.  Do you see the problem, Dr. Bombaro? 

If we step away from a fundamentalist/literalist reading of the Gospels, which I now agree we should, then there may be many more details or stories in the Gospels that may in actuality be literary inventions in addition to the popular “discrepancies” that Christians are accustomed to debating.   It is therefore possible that even bigger stories in the Resurrection narrative were literary inventions such as…the Joseph of Arimathea Empty Tomb Story!

If authors of first century Greco-Roman biographies were allowed considerable freedom with non-essential details in the retelling of an historical event, it is therefore entirely possible that the Empty Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea Story was an invented non-essential detail.  After all, if this story is removed, it doesn’t change one doctrine of the Christian faith.  It is entirely possible that this story was invented by the author of Mark, and then incorporated into the later three Gospels.  And isn’t a resurrection from the rock tomb of a rich member of the Sanhedrin much more interesting reading than a resurrection from some unmarked hole in the ground (dirt grave)?

The first we hear of Joseph of Arimathea and his rock tomb is from the author of Mark in circa 70 CE.  Paul seems to know nothing about it.  Ask any Christian today what the best evidence is for the Resurrection and almost every one of them (including Dr. Bombaro, from what we read in this article) will say:  the Empty Tomb (of Joseph of Arimathea).  Yet Paul never says one word about an Empty rock tomb as physical evidence for the Resurrection.  Odd.  Not absolute proof he didn’t know about it, but his silence is very odd.  His own appearance claim on the Damascus Road could have been written off as an hallucination by the skeptics of his day as well as by skeptics today, but an empty rock tomb on the outskirts of Jerusalem was something every Jew could travel to Jerusalem to see for himself.  Yet Paul is silent regarding the best evidence Christianity had for the Resurrection??  Odd.  Very, very odd.

In footnote number 70 of this article, Dr. Bombaro states:  “Crossan has theological objections to defending the historical factuality of the empty tomb…the factuality of the empty tomb has a totalizing effect on other faiths, signaling the superiority of Christianity.”

Wow!  That sure is placing a lot of importance on the historicity of this historical claim, Dr. Bombaro.  “Factuality”?  Even if Habermas’ literature search on the scholarly position of the historicity of the Empty Tomb is correct, only 75% of scholars (who have written on the topic) believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb.  (How many moderate and liberal scholars did NOT write an article on this topic between 1975-2005?)  But for the sake of the discussion, let’s accept Habermas’ literature search as an accurate reflection of scholars on the historicity of the Empty Tomb:  So 75% of scholars believe the Empty Tomb is an historical fact, 25% of scholars do not.  If 25% of historians doubted that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon would this event be listed in university history textbooks as a “factuality” or just as a “disputed event”??  I think you are overstating the strength of your position, Dr. Bombaro.

If I am willing to accept that the “discrepancies” in the four Resurrection accounts could well be literary variations (inventions) then I think it only fair that Dr. Bombaro and Dr. Francisco accept that the Empty Tomb of Arimathea pericope may well be a literary invention as well.

 Let me address other points in this chapter.  Dr. Bombaro brings up Christian NT scholar Craig Evans’ research regarding Jewish burial practices.  He states that this research contradicts Crossan’s “dog-food” theory (that Jesus’ body was left on the cross for the birds and dogs to pick apart as carrion).  The problem in Dr. Bombaro’s argument is that in most situations, it was the ROMANS who disposed of the corpses of persons crucified, in particular the corpses of persons crucified for treason, not the Jews or other subject peoples.  Is it true that the Romans sometimes allowed crucified persons to be buried by their families?  Yes.  Philo of Alexandria lists some rare exceptions…such as on the birthday of the Emperor…in Egypt.  Josephus lists some exceptions during the Jewish-Roman Wars…decades later.  How many cases of persons crucified for treason during Jesus time period, in Palestine, do we have in which the Romans allowed the corpses to be given to their family…or to the Jewish authorities for burial?  Any???  This is again a case of Christians grasping at straws. 

Could Jesus have been buried in a rock tomb?  Sure.  Could Jesus have been buried in the rock tomb of a member of the Sanhedrin?  Sure.  Could it be true that Pilate released the body of a man convicted and executed for treason against Caesar to a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin?  Sure.  But is this the typical pattern of behavior of the Romans in relationship to the treatment of the body of a man they had just executed for treason?  Answer:  Absolutely not! Dr. Bombaro’s statement, “Roman accomodation with these customs is also well known and amply recorded” is blatantly false or at least misleading.  If it happened, it was a rare act of accommodation. 

So here is what we have:  If we allow for “literary freedom” in the four Resurrection stories, we must include the Empty Tomb detail within that literary freedom.  And without the Empty Tomb as physical evidence, we are left with the appearance claims as Christianity’s only real evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  And the appearance claims can be easily dismantled.   I don’t need all the disciples to have an hallucination to start the Resurrection belief.  I only need one:  Simon Peter.  The same guy who claims to have seen a sheet full of animals, floating in the air, in the middle of the day!






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