How Accurate is Mark’s Burial and Empty Tomb Account if Matthew and Luke Frequently Felt the Need to Revise His Story?

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Sunset over Jerusalem

Gary: Conservative Christian apologists tells us that eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels of Matthew and John (although they don’t always agree on the identity of these eyewitnesses), Luke the traveling companion of Paul wrote the Gospel of Luke, and John Mark, the traveling companion of Peter, wrote the Gospel of Mark.

However, even most conservative scholars will admit that the authors of Matthew and Luke extensively copied (plagiarized) the stories found in the first gospel written, Mark. It is understandable why Luke, a non-eyewitness would copy Mark’s material, but why would an eyewitness (Matthew) copy a non-eyewitness’ material? Scholars say that Matthew copied even more of Mark than Luke did! What is also strange are the occasions in the Passion Narrative where Matthew and Luke seem embarrassed by Mark’s account and go out of their way to correct errors and contradictions within the Markan story. Was John Mark bad at taking dictation? Did he interview Peter when Peter was having senior moments?? Or, is the more probable explanation that the first gospel author, “Mark” was someone who had zero connection to the original apostles, and, who simply wrote down stories and legends which he had heard by word of mouth; stories which like most oral stories were embellished over decades of time, or, who invented the entire story out of whole cloth and was sloppy with some of his invented details! Read the excerpt below:

An Article Excerpt from Bible scholar Lloyd Geering:

Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand.

There are other scholars who defend the substantial historicity of the tomb pericope, and since we must reckon with this possibility, we now turn from the literary form of the story to its content to see in what way the latter may point to historical reliability rather than to legend. We must allow for the fact that both the burial story and the discovery story are very short and contain very few details. Some of the elements we may have expected to find there are absent, it may be argued, simply because of brevity. Nevertheless it is really details of this kind that one is justified in looking for if the story is to have the ring of truth. Some of these very points seem to have caught the attention of Matthew and Luke, who have adjusted their versions accordingly.

First of all, how much time was there for the burial by Joseph, between the death of Jesus on the cross and the sunset at which the sabbath began, and before which the burial should be completed? It would appear to be about three hours at the most, since the Passion narrative states that Jesus ‘gave a loud cry and died’ at ‘three in the afternoon’. But the Marcan story of Joseph begins by saying that the evening had already come, the narrator here betraying no awareness that he has in fact left no time at all in which the burial could take place. Matthew, perhaps aware of this difficulty, has omitted the word ‘already’, making it possible for the words to mean, ‘while evening was coming’, and both Luke and John have understandably omitted the whole of this time reference which reduced the available time to nil, and instead have ended their versions of the burial by saying that the sabbath was then about to begin.

Now even if the full three hours had been available, there was still none too much time, seeing that it involved obtaining official permission from Pilate and this in turn entailed the summoning of the centurion. There was probably time for the ‘ritual burial’ referred to above, but was there time for an ‘honorable burial’, which involved Joseph in going to buy a linen shroud? Once again the later Evangelists appear to be more conscious of the shortness of time available and they omit all references to the summoning of the centurion and to the actual purchase of a linen shroud.

But was this a task which could be performed by one man on his own? The Marcan version presents it as if it was. A little thought makes one realize that it would have been very difficult, perhaps well-nigh impossible, for one man to carry the body the distance required, and to roll the large round stone against the entrance. One of the reasons why the stone was so large was to prevent unlawful entry. This is a fact that the narrator of the discovery story was certainly aware of when he knew that not even several women could have rolled it away. It could be said that Joseph employed servants, who, as such, did not warrant any mention in the story. Nevertheless, the mention of them would have added a little more verisimilitude to the story and it may have been awareness of this difficulty which caused John to mention that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus.

There are already then in the burial story some difficulties standing in the way of its historicity. Let us now turn to the discovery story. We start with two aspects which appear historically improbable even to von Campenhausen, as he attempts to defend the historicity of the empty tomb. He writes, ‘The desire to anoint, “on the third day”, a dead body already buried and wrapped in linen cloths, is, however it be explained, not in accordance with any custom known to us, and in itself unreasonable in view of the Palestine climate. Furthermore, the assertion that the women only realized when they were already on the way that they would need help to roll away the stone and gain access to the tomb implies a degree of thoughtlessness quite out of the ordinary. Accordingly, the later evangelists all made changes in this place, and tried to help out with omissions, new interpretations or broader rational explanations.’21

Matthew Omits all reference to the anointing and says the women came ‘to look at the grave’. In John the anointing is transferred to the burial story, where it was now done by Joseph and Nicodemus, while Mary simply came to the tomb for an unspecified reason. All three later evangelists seem to have recognized how impractical it would have been for the women to continue to the tomb once the problem of the stone occurred to them, and they omit this element in the story. It was probably the intention of the Marcan narrator to prepare the reader so that he would appreciate more fully the miracle of the opened, and hence emptied, tomb, and to forestall the counter-explanation that it was simply due to theft.

Von Campenhausen recognizes that the Marcan narrative ‘has, to some extent, an undoubtedly legendary character,’22 and he is prepared to dispense with the form of the young man whom he, like most, takes to be an angel. Then he looks for an historical core and finds it in the names of the women and their discovery that the tomb was empty. But once the non-naturalistic elements are removed, i.e. the removal of the stone, and the presence and words of the messenger, it is difficult, as C. F. Evans points out, ‘to see what historical nucleus would be left’,23 for ‘the crux of the story involves the legendary element of the angel’.24 The whole point of the story is not that the tomb was found empty, which by itself said nothing at all, but that it was empty because Jesus had risen, the interpretation proclaimed by the unknown messenger, and without which the significance of the story disappears. If the historicity of the story is to be defended, so also must be the women’s witness to the unknown man and his words, but this takes one further than von Campenhausen is evidently prepared to go.

Von Campenhausen believes that if the story were simply a legend ‘it would not have specified three women (who, by Jewish law, were not competent to testify) as the decisive witnesses’25 and he is supported at this point by H. H. Rex who claimed that ‘This is in itself a point in favor of the authenticity of the tradition.’26 The weakness in this argument is that the women are not being appealed to as witnesses to the resurrection in any case. It is true that in the later Gospels the empty tomb story assumes an apologetic role in the proclamation of the Easter faith but that is not its function here since the last we hear of the women is that they told no one. If the story had an historical foundation, and if the women had been regarded as witnesses to something vital, they would have found a place in the Pauline tradition.

In this earliest form of the discovery story, the women, the chief human characters though they be, may be said to be incidental to the story. The narrator is using them as the recipients of the divine message so that the reader of the story may hear the vital message, viz, that Jesus is risen. Thus C. F. Evans writes, ‘The empty tomb interprets the message of the resurrection, not vice versa. . . . Thus in Mark, the visit to the tomb is the means by which the resurrection itself is declared, and not a prelude to, or presupposition of, appearances of the risen Lord to follow. It is only when in the other Gospels it lies side by side with such appearances, with which awkward connections have then to be made, that it takes on the note of apologetic.’27

We may now start to draw together the threads of this examination of the origin and historicity of the tomb story. Both the literary form and the actual content of the earliest version, viz, the Marcan, show not only that it definitely contains some legendary elements, but that it is unlikely to have had any historical foundation at all. It appears to have developed in several stages and may have been added to the Gospel in the form of appendices. This means that though the burial story may have been known somewhat earlier, the discovery story originated about the same time as the composition of Mark’s Gospel. This then would account for Paul’s silence about the empty tomb, since if it had been historical he should have known about it no later than his conference with Peter and the other apostles.

The discovery story probably reflects the changing understanding of the nature of the resurrection which can be traced in the first century. We have seen that Paul denied that resurrection should be thought of in terms of flesh and blood, but by the end of the century this is exactly how it was conceived, and the materialistic descriptions of the risen Jesus were being used to counter certain known trends, which were then tending to remove even the historical Jesus from the material world of flesh and blood.

…For reasons similar to, and including some of, those offered above, many scholars would today agree with C. F. Evans when he writes, ‘attempts to establish an historical kernel of the empty tomb story are not very convincing’.31 On the contrary, the literary form and content of the earliest known version of this story, along with the additions to it to be observed in the later Gospels, present just the phenomena we would expect if a legend were to arise shortly after the death of Paul (and any other surviving apostles), and from a simple, relatively colorless beginning, to receive further elaborations which added verisimilitude, human interest and, above all, the joy of the Easter faith.

This now concludes our discussion of the arguments usually advanced in order to support the traditional view of the raising of Jesus as ‘bodily resurrection’. We find that the age-long tradition of the ‘events’ of Easter day, so old that it was caught up in the New Testament itself, can no longer be defended as an historical description of the resurrection of Jesus. Hugh Anderson in his excellent survey of the state of New Testament studies today speaks of ‘the almost complete failure of historical criticism to authenticate and establish for us the “history” of Easter’.32

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End of post.

One thought on “How Accurate is Mark’s Burial and Empty Tomb Account if Matthew and Luke Frequently Felt the Need to Revise His Story?

  1. So, an idiot quotes an idiot: Campenhausen says: “‘The desire to anoint, “on the third day”, a dead body already buried and wrapped in linen cloths, is, however it be explained, not in accordance with any custom known to us, and in itself unreasonable in view of the Palestine climate”.

    Does Campenhausen actually believe nobody ever died on the eve of two back-to-back sabbaths??????? Seriously????????!!!!!!

    And why, for God’s sake, does this clown being quoted by another clown think that “on the third day” was too late for doing the ‘spice and linen’ ritual”??????? Yeh, AFTER the third day, there was an issue. But not on or before the third day. In Jewish law, the body isn’t considered “in decomposition” until AFTER the third day. Heck, even in Jewish folklore, the deceased’s spirit hangs around until the END of the third day.

    Gary – good grief. Post something good, OK?

    Liked by 1 person

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