Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Early Jewish Acknowledgment Of The Empty Tomb

A few early Christian sources tell us that their Jewish opponents acknowledged that Jesus' tomb was found empty after the body had been placed there. Were the later sources just repeating what the first one, Matthew, told them?

Even if so, there's no good reason to reject Matthew's report. The gospel seems to have been written by a Jew and seems to have been written for an audience with a lot of knowledge of Judaism, Israel, and other elements of Christianity's early Jewish context. R.T. France notes that the idea of non-Jewish authorship of the gospel "enjoyed quite a vogue" during the third quarter of the twentieth century, "but is now not widely supported" (The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007], n. 26 on p. 15). Grant Osborne comments that "One major consensus is that Matthew writes a Jewish gospel." (Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010], p. 31) Matthew comments that acknowledgment of the empty tomb by Jewish opponents of Christianity originated just after Jesus' death and existed "to this day" (Matthew 28:15), a claim that easily could have been falsified if untrue. William Lane Craig discusses some other evidence that Matthew's account is reliable.

Around the middle of the second century, Matthew's account is corroborated by a passage in Justin Martyr in which he seems to quote from a Jewish source on the subject. In section 108 of his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin seems to cite a Jewish document or tradition, in which Jesus is referred to as a "deceiver" and reference is made to Jesus as Him "whom we crucified", apparently speaking from the perspective of non-Christian Jews ("we"). This passage in Justin contains multiple details not found in Matthew's gospel. For example, Michael Slusser's edition of Justin has him referring to how the Jews "chose certain men by vote and sent them throughout the whole civilized world" in order to argue against Christianity, including by accusing the disciples of stealing the body from the tomb (Dialogue With Trypho [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003], p. 162). It's not as though people would have been dependent solely on Matthew for information on such subjects. Justin had more than Matthew's account to go by. And he seems to be quoting some sort of Jewish document or tradition.

Justin is familiar with many Jewish responses to Christianity, as his interactions with their scripture interpretations, for example, demonstrate. He "shows acquaintance with rabbinical discussions" (ibid., n. 9 on p. 33). Bruce Chilton writes that Justin "appears to adapt motifs of Judaism", and Rebecca Lyman comments that Justin "is aware of Samaritan customs as well as some patterns of rabbinic exegesis" (in Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, edd., Justin Martyr And His Worlds [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007], pp. 83, 163). He wasn't just repeating what he read in the New Testament documents. He's aware of Jewish arguments outside of those reflected in the New Testament, and he's aware of post-apostolic developments in Judaism. His willingness to compose a work as lengthy as his Dialogue With Trypho tells us something about his interest in Jewish arguments against Christianity.

Though Justin wrote around the middle of the second century, he sets his dispute with Trypho earlier, around the year 135. And the Jewish tradition he's citing in the passage I mentioned above would date even earlier.

Late in the second century, Tertullian summarizes Jewish arguments concerning the empty tomb:

"This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!" (The Shows, 30)

Notice that Tertullian mentions something that neither Matthew nor Justin had reported. Apparently, the argument that the disciples stole the body was still the primary Jewish response. But some Jews had argued that the body was moved by a gardener, perhaps because of how implausible the argument for theft by the disciples had become in light of the suffering and martyrdom of the disciples. Keep in mind that the argument that the disciples stole the body originated before any of the disciples died as martyrs and before they had suffered much. The argument was better early on than it would become later.

It should also be noted that Tertullian, like Justin, wrote an entire treatise against Judaism (An Answer To The Jews). The idea that he would have been dependent solely on Matthew for his knowledge of the Jewish response to the Christian claim about the empty tomb is unlikely.

All three of these early Christian sources include information not mentioned by the others. All three would have had easy access to the Judaism of their day, and they all show interest in interacting with Jewish arguments against Christianity. Matthew and Justin are making highly public claims that could easily have been discerned to be false if they had been false (e.g., "to this day" in Matthew, men "sent throughout the whole civilized world" in Justin). All three include information unlikely to have been made up by a Christian (see Craig's article about Matthew; Justin seems to be citing a Jewish source; Tertullian or a Christian source he relied on probably wouldn't have made up an alternate argument about the removal of Jesus' body that avoids the main problem with the theft argument). For reasons like these, and because there isn't any good argument to the contrary, it seems likely that there was early and widespread Jewish acknowledgment of the empty tomb.


  1. I know this is slightly off topic but it's been nagging me lately: Why did the early church almost universally think that Matthew was the first Gospel written instead of Mark which most scholars today would say was written first? It just seems out of place for the early church to have been so wrong on that point. Also, couldn't the early church read Greek fluently? If it is so obvious that Mark was first why didn't anyone notice Mark's priority before modern Biblical scholarship?

    I of course am kind of ignorant of the whole issue, so maybe Markan priority was disscussed early on. Anyway, that's my slightly off topic question!

  2. Hello Mike,

    I haven't studied the church fathers on the order of the writing of the Gospels. However, I do know that when you ask "couldn't the early church read Greek fluently?" the answer is: some of them could.

    It also depends on who you define as being "early church." I know, for instance, that Augustine could not read or speak Greek. Obviously, there were enough people who didn't understand Greek to make it worthwhile for Jerome to produce the Vulgate (this is true for even the Old Testament, since the LXX existed for those who could have read Greek).

    I think what you'll find is that at the time of Christ, Greek was generally known by scholars in the Hellenized area of the Mediterranean, but that its dominance was brief and fleeting. The Western part of the Roman Empire was quickly Latinized, while the East retained more of the Greek influences.

    As a very rough analogy, I suggest looking at how the French impacted the New World. In the late 1700s, much of North America was considered to have been colonized by France, a small bit by Spain, and the rest by England. A lot of the Founding Fathers learned French as their second language, because of how prominent French was in court affairs. Now, not even 300 years later, the only place you'll hear French spoken with any regularity is in Quebec, as well as having been mixed into some of the dialects in the Caribbean, etc. And the change was fairly rapid--after the Louisiana Purchase, areas that would have been French-speaking were mostly gone from North America, and as a result, I would guess by the time of the Civil War, it would be fairly difficult to find anyone in the United States, outside of academics, who knew French fluently--if at all.

    I would say the similarity there to the early church fathers is that the ruling government was Latin, not Greek, that there was less and less reason to learn Greek as the Latin government solidified power and made the world more Roman, and that correspondingly, there was probably a fairly rapid loss of Greek language--at least in the Western part of the Empire. In the East is a different story, because of the rise of Byzantium and all that fun stuff.

  3. Mike,

    I don't know Greek, so I make judgments about such issues based on what I'm told by others. Some scholars argue for Matthean priority, but Markan priority is the majority view.

    Under the assumption that the current majority is correct about Markan priority, and assuming that the majority is correct in concluding that Matthew was originally written in Greek, I think the best explanation for the totality of the evidence is that our gospel of Matthew is a Greek reworking of an earlier document written in Hebrew. In other words, a Hebrew document written by Matthew was composed first, followed by Mark, then Greek Matthew. The Hebrew document may have been something like what Q is thought to have been. Or it might have been significantly different. If a patristic source meant to suggest that Hebrew and Greek Matthew were identical, then the significance of that mistake would depend on the extent to which the two documents written by Matthew were different. And Richard Bauckham notes that ancient authors often had a "flexible concept of translation" (Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], pp. 224-225), meaning that they could refer to Greek Matthew as a translation of Hebrew Matthew without intending the sort of close association we have in mind when we refer to a translation today. What we would call a paraphrase or new edition might be called a translation in an ancient source. Bauckham gives some examples from extra-Biblical literature. The mere fact that a patristic source refers to Greek Matthew as a translation of a Hebrew document doesn't prove that he has as close a relationship between the documents in mind as we assume today when we refer to a translation.

    It's also possible that a Hebrew version of our Greek Matthew was composed later and was mistakenly thought to have been written first. The order in which two translations or highly similar editions of a document were written isn't the most important fact to remember about a document. It's the sort of secondary issue that could easily be forgotten.

    Other possibilities could be discussed as well. I don't know enough about the issues involved to be confident about the answer. But there are multiple potential solutions that seem reasonable to me and don't require any major error on the part of the patristic sources who commented on the subject.