Monday, February 15, 2016

How And Why Non-Christians Corroborated The Empty Tomb

One of the best arguments for the empty tomb is its corroboration by non-Christian sources (e.g., Matthew 28:11-5). Critics often try to get around that line of evidence by arguing that the corroboration was fabricated by Christians or that the corroboration was too late, apathetic, uninformed, or faulty in some other way. Maybe only some Jewish opponents of Christianity corroborated the empty tomb, whereas most didn't. Or maybe those who corroborated it were so apathetic about Christianity that they didn't put much effort into researching what they were corroborating. And so on. What I want to do in this post is look at three early sources on non-Christian corroboration of the empty tomb and see what those sources suggest about the nature of that corroboration. The sources are Matthew 28:11-5, section 108 of Justin Martyr's Dialogue With Trypho, and section 30 of Tertullian's The Shows (De Spectaculis).

First, though, I should note that relying on Christian sources to tell us what non-Christians were saying at the time is common practice, both among historians and other relevant scholars and among critics of Christianity. For a discussion of the subject, see page 68 here. Human testimony is generally trustworthy, so we don't begin with a default assumption that these Christian sources were lying or that we should be neutral on the matter. When three sources so early, so diverse, and in so much contact with Jewish opponents of Christianity report that those opponents were corroborating the empty tomb, the best explanation for their testimony is that the empty tomb was being corroborated by the Jewish sources in question. That conclusion is also suggested by the absence of contrary reports, the high level of independent agreement among the sources who mention the corroboration, and other evidence I'll be addressing below.

Before going any further, those who haven't read my post from five years ago on corroboration of the empty tomb should read it. That post will familiarize you with the three Christian sources I'm discussing, their knowledge of Judaism, the context in which they were writing, and other relevant issues. This post is meant to supplement that one.

Part of what we know about the context of first-century Christianity is that many of the opponents of the religion weren't apathetic about it. See, also, my series of posts on the death of the apostles, which addresses their suffering and martyrdom. You don't publicly debate people, physically assault them, imprison them, take their property, and execute them if you're apathetic about them.

Matthew tells us that the theft explanation for the empty tomb arose just after Jesus' death, when some of the guards at the tomb reported to Jewish leaders in Jerusalem what had happened. He tells us that "the chief priests" and "the elders" were involved (verses 11-2). They had influence sufficient to sway "the governor" (verse 14). The theft explanation of the empty tomb was widespread enough that Matthew refers to how it was circulating among "the Jews" in general and "to this day", as if it had been circulating for a long time when Matthew wrote (verse 15). So, it doesn't look like Matthew is referring to corroboration of the empty tomb that arose late, only came from one or two non-Christian sources, only came from sources who were in a poor position to judge the matter, etc. Rather, Matthew refers to early, widespread corroboration of the empty tomb by sources in a good position to be knowledgeable of the subject, including some guards at the tomb and high-ranking leaders within Judaism who were in Jerusalem, and the corroboration went on for decades.

When we get to Justin Martyr, we find the same general parameters we see in Matthew, but with additional details. (The idea that Justin was just uncritically repeating what he read in Matthew is very unlikely, for reasons I explain in my earlier post on the empty tomb.) Justin comments that the Jewish people in general, not just one, two, or some other small group, have "sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world" to argue against Christianity. One of their arguments that Justin goes on to mention is the argument that the disciples of Jesus stole his body from his tomb. Notice that Justin refers to these Jewish opponents of Christianity as being motivated enough to send people out to argue against the religion. They weren't apathetic about it. The men they sent out were "chosen and ordained", and they went "throughout all the world". What these men argued was that "a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilaean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven". Notice the "we" in "whom we crucified". Justin seems to be quoting a Jewish source, whether written or oral. There are other indications in Justin's Dialogue With Trypho that he was familiar with ancient Jewish sources and argumentation. It looks as though he had a Jewish source for his information on how Jewish opponents of Christianity explained the empty tomb. He wasn't just repeating what he read in the gospel of Matthew. In summary, then, we see Justin seeming to independently confirm what Matthew reported, along with additional details. Justin tells us that the Jewish corroboration of the empty tomb was early, widespread, and highly motivated in its opposition to Christianity rather than apathetic. The corroboration persisted beyond the initial decades of Christianity that Matthew refers to, down to Justin's time in the middle of the second century.

Tertullian refers to a new development in the Jewish response to the empty tomb. (He doesn't say that he's addressing Jewish arguments, but most of the nearby context is addressing Jews and Jewish arguments, and other sources tell us that the theft explanation of the empty tomb, which Tertullian mentions, came at least primarily from Jewish sources.) After mentioning the traditional Jewish argument that the disciples stole the body, he mentions another claim, that a gardener had removed the body from the grave. He mentions that gardener argument second, probably because it was less common. In my earlier post on the empty tomb, I explained why the development in Jewish argumentation that Tertullian refers to makes sense. And that development isn't mentioned by Matthew or Justin, which makes it more difficult to maintain that Tertullian was just repeating what he read in Matthew and/or Justin. Notice that the new Jewish argument Tertullian refers to still assumes that the tomb was empty. Apparently, denying that the tomb was empty didn't seem plausible. They recognized a need to explain the empty tomb, even though there was a desire to provide a better explanation for it.

What we can gather from these early sources is that corroboration of the empty tomb was early, widespread, occurred in a context of significant opposition to Christianity rather than apathy, involved some of the guards at the tomb and Jewish leadership in Jerusalem itself, and persisted for more than a century, even when Jewish opponents of Christianity noticed that their original theft argument was problematic.

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