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Notes from Limmud 2008

How To Resolve Jesus' Empty Tomb Enigmas

Rabbi Dr Michael J. Cook

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. (Obviously, knowledge of Christianity is not my forte!) Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Without a belief in the resurrection of Jesus, one can doubt whether Christianity would ever have survived.

Like with Jesus' birth, the stories differ in the four Synaptic Gospels. In Mark as originally written, the empty tomb story is only eight verses long. In New Testaments, it's 20 verses long, though: twelve verses were later added.

The account in Matthew is twice as long, because he had to resolve all the inconsistencies he found in the account in Mark. In Luke it's even longer.

There are two critical points: first, the burial on Friday afternoon, and secondly the empty tomb as found on Sunday morning. The burial story involves Joseph of Arimathaea* (the person according to Christian tradition brought the Holy Grail to England and built an oratory at Glastonbury, and also rid Ireland of snakes, not St Patrick!).


The Gospel of Mark tells us (13:42–47) Joseph was a respected member of the sanhedrin which condemned Jesus. He was looking for the kingdom of G-d—a respectable sentiment. After all, Jews today say after the very first sentence of the Shema, "Blessed be G-d's name Whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever". (The speaker thinks this is said quietly because they wouldn't want Rome to hear this sentiment after all, Jesus died for being king of the Jews.) Other expressions of the kingdom of G-d can be found in עָלֵינוּ and elsewhere. Joseph of Arimathaea looking for the kingdom of G-d exemplifies finding the world unbefitting. Note, though, that Jews talk of the kingdom of G-d in the present tense.

[* Linguistic note: Arimathaea is a Greek mangling of רָמָתַיִם צוֹפִים, the birthplace of Samuel.]

What we don't realise on the basis of this story is that Joseph of Arimathaea is one of those who voted for Jesus' death, according to Mark, as he says that 100% of the Sanhedrin voted to condemn Jesus. Most Christians don't realise this. (The speaker said in his following talk [blogging pending] that the trial of Jesus never happened: it was a patchwork account put together later to deflect blame.)

Joseph then took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. For Romans, you did not reward criminals with a proper burial. This is why Mark tells us he was a respected member of the council—it meant Pilate wouldn't just push him off.

(Josephus does mention three examples of people crucified who had been buried. But Josephus also tells us so important was the treatment of a deceased body that Jews would even take the corpse of a crucified person, remove him frrom the cross and give him a decent burial. Joseph of Arimathaea. bears this out exactly; as a righteous man he would have done this for Jesus even if he was opposed to him.)

When Pilate learned that Jesus was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. They used to break the bones of crucified victims to hasten their death, or make sure they were; but in this case Jesus already was dead. (This is why Jesus was taken down, according to the Gospels, after only six hours: it was so he could be taken down and not have the soldiers break his bones. This is because the Paschal lamb cannot have broken bones; and Jesus was thought of in Christian theology as the Paschal lamb.)

Joseph took the body down, wrapped him in a shroud and laid him in a tomb, hewn out of the rock; then rolled a stone against the door.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. Mark says this to make sure the women are perceived to go to the right tomb on the Sunday!

On Sunday (Mark 16:1–8), Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices to anoint Jesus' body. (Frankly, this was a little late: spices were to prevent the body from decomposing.)

They went to the tomb when the sun had risen... saying, "who will roll away the stone for us from the tomb?" ... Looking up, they saw... the stone... rolled back. It was very large*

Entering the tomb, they saw a young man... dressed in... white... He said, "...You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place... they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." Note: he's saying at least two people buried him.

They fled, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and... said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

* I.e. too large for them to roll back themselves.

If the women fled without telling anyone, how do we know it had happened! And why did they say nothing when they had good news!?

For Jews and sceptics generally, this story presents a problem.

There are nine approaches to explaining the empty tomb, all incorrect in the speaker's view:

  • They went to the wrong tomb.
  • Jesus was buried in a temporary tomb, but then moved to a second tomb; the women didn't know about the switch.
  • Somebody was a secret admirer of Jesus, and wanted him in their family tomb; they removed Jesus' body from the tomb, but didn't tell anybody what they had done.
  • There was a conspiracy amongst Jesus' disciples to deliberately steal his body so that people would think he had been resurrected.
  • The Jewish authorities removed the body to make sure he wasn't resurrected.
  • Jesus did not actually die, but merely swooned, revived in the tomb, and left.
  • The "Passover plot" theory: The disciples of Jesus administered a drug to him to make it appear he had died, which wore off after he had been buried. They later had him appear deliberately to make it appear he had been resurrected.
  • The women assumed the young man at the tomb was Jesus himself.
  • The whole story is just a legend.

However, people view the story with certain presumptions in mind.

  • There are predictions in the Gospel that Jesus would rise from the dead. It was assumed that the preductions would actually be fulfilled. But possibly the predictions were added at a late stage: rather than the predictions coming first, and the resurrection later, it was the belief in the resurrection which caused the accounts of its prediction.
  • The problem of sequence: it's assumed that first came the burial, then the empty tomb, and then the theology. Possibly the early Christians believed Jesus was resurrected, and only later did the story arise. Why did Mark not say the empty tomb was due to a theft? This is a typical Jewish response to the enigma of the empty tomb, but Mark doesn't know it. Therefore, the story may have originated with Mark.
  • Rome had enough difficulty with allowing a crucified victim to be buried at all, let alone in a tomb. This was a major fear that crucifixion was supposed to evoke: that their body would be eaten by birds. Rome would definitely not allow a tomb burial, which smacks of a reward; at best victims of crucifixion would be buried in a criminals' cemetery.
  • As for the women; in the traditions that Paul quotes, there are no references to the women being the first ones to find the tomb empty. The writer wanted to show that the male followers of Jesus failed him, and the use of women to find the tomb was a way of embarrassing the men. It's not until 72 in Mark that we ever hear of the women being involed.
  • What about the young man? He's just a literary device.
  • Precautions.
  • Garments.
  • Women's silence.
  • Dependence on empty tomb.
  • Resurrection and Messiah. Note that in Judaism there is no correlation between resurrection and being the Messiah. This is something many Christians aren't aware of.

(Most of the last few points were not explained, probably due to time pressure. If you want to know more, you'll just have to buy the book. :o)

Now, consider Joseph of Arimathaea. He has a glowing reputation in Christianity. But in Mark, he did not, and was not qualified to that extent. Mark only says (15:42–47): that he was a respected councillor, that he was looking for the Kingdom of G-d, that he showed courage in requesting Jesus' body; that he laid it in a tomb, and that he closed the entrance. It doesn't say anything about him being a rich person, or whatever.

It is Matthew (27:57–61) that tells us Joseph was rich, and was Jesus' disciple, that he owned a new tomb which he had hewn personally. Luke (23:50–56a) adds that Joseph was good and righteous, and that he did not consent to the council's verdict; and that the tomb was never before used. John (19:38–42) adds that Joseph was Jesus' disciple secretly, and that he was aided by Nicodemus.

None of the above follows from the account in Mark; it was added as, effectively, midrash. The notion, for example, that Nicodemus aided John was added from the word "they" in Mark, and the fact that the body would have been too heavy for Joseph. The idea that Joseph did not consent to the death of Jesus is purely inference. The speaker thinks Mark intended to show that he did because he wanted to show that even his opponents helped him when his own followers let him down.

The Gospel tradition of Joseph being rich comes from the following Biblical passage:

Isaiah 53:7/9 ישעיהו נג ז/ט
7. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers, dumb: he opened not his mouth. 9. They made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death; although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. ז׳ נִגַּשׂ וְהוּא נַעֲנֶה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח־פִּיו כַּשֶּׂה לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל וּכְרָחֵל לִפְנֵי גֹזְזֶיהָ נֶאֱלָמָה וְלֹא יִפְתַּח פִּיו׃ ט׳ וַיִּתֵּן אֶת־רְשָׁעִים קִבְרוֹ וְאֶת־עָשִׁיר בְּמֹתָיו עַל לֹא־חָמָס עָשָׂה וְלֹא מִרְמָה בְּפִיו׃


Fully half of Matthew's material (287:72–28:15) goes to attempting to deal with the problem that Jesus' body might have been stolen: clearly he was bothered by this!

Next day, ... after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gather before Pilate and said, "... We remember how that impostor said... 'After three days I will rise again.' ... Order the sepulchre... made secure until the third day, lest his disciples... steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first.1" Pilate said..., "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can. So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

Now after the sabbath, towards dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And... there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven... rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning... his raiment white as snow.

And for fear of him the guards trembled, and became as dead men.3

...the angel2 said to the women, "Do not be afraid; ... I know... you seek Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here;... he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. ... Go quickly... tell his disciples... he is risen from the dead and... is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. Lo, I have told you.4 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy5, and ran to tell his disciples. And... Jesus met them6 and said, "Hail!" And they came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said... "Do not be afraid;... tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."

  1. The last fraud is his resurrection; the first fraud is that he's the messiah.
  2. Notice how the young man has now become an angel.
  3. Why did the soldiers not intervene? Matthew puts them into a stupor.
  4. Mark says: as Jesus told the women; but he never said anything such thing, so Matthew corrects it to as I have told you.
  5. Now they're not going from the tomb in fear: they now also have great joy. Matthew also has him tell his disciples, which Mark left this out. Mark leaves this out because he made it up: for forty years nobody had known this story; this is because he made it up. For Matthew, though, knowing the Gospel of Mark, this is not a problem.
  6. In Matthew the reader knows where the resurrected Jesus went; we don't have that in Mark.

But what about the soldiers in a stupor? Matthew goes on:

While they were going, ... some of the guard went into the city, and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave... money to the soldiers and said, "Tell people, 'His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.' And if this come to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him, and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying has been spread among the Jews until this day.

Note closely the last sentence (v.15). That's why this story has been added. Note also that this is the only use of the expression "the Jews" in the whole of Matthew other than the sign on the cross, "King of the Jews". This shows you that it's the editor that added this: By Matthew's day Christianity and Judaism have separated, so he refers to the Jews, not to the Pharisees or Sadducees or whatever.


John is also worried about the theft, but handles it in a sophisticated manner (20:1–18):

...on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early..., and saw... the stone... taken away from the tomb. So she ran... to Simon Peter and the other disciple, ... whom Jesus loved, and said to them,

"They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

[They]... went toward the tomb. ... The other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; ... stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying... but ... did not go in. Then Simon Peter... saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin [for]... his head... rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other... saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture that he must rise from the dead. ... The disciples went back to their homes. But Mary... weeping outside the tomb... stooped to look in...; and... saw two angels in white,1 sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head... one at the feet. They said..., "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said...

"Because they have taken... my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus2... but ... did not know ... it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "...why are you weeping...?" Supposing him... the gardener, she said..., "...if you... carried him away, tell me... and I will take him."

Jesus said..., "Mary." She... said... in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (Teacher). Jesus said..., "Do not hold me... I have not yet ascended to the Father, but go to my brethren and say... I am ascending to my Father and your Father, ... my God and your God." Mary Magdalene went and said..., "I have seen the Lord"; and... told them... he he said these things to her.

  1. The one young man, who became an angel is now two angels. This is midrash!
  2. v. 14: The easiest way to handle this is to have Mary Magdalene see Jesus in the garden outside the tomb, not to invent soldiers and then not know how to do with them. Mark created the problem, and it never occurred to him that Jews would say there was a theft. Matthew came up with a solution, but a botched one. John is the last of the Gospels; he knows how to solve it properly!


What about Paul? Paul is much earlier than the gospel writers. Paul's ministry is from ca. 30 into the 50s. What does he have to say?

Paul does not have an empty tomb story. Indeed, he makes an empty tomb story impossible in his theology! In 1 Corinthians 15, someone asks him what happens when you die; what do you look like? Now, Paul never shirks a question, and answers:

...Some... will ask, "How are the dead raised?" With what kind of body...? ... Foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel... of wheat or... other grain.1 But God gives it a body... he has chosen... to each kind of seed its own body. ...one ... men, another ... animals, another ... birds, another ... fish. ... Celestial bodies and... terrestrial...; but the glory of the celestial is one and... the terrestrial is another... So ... with ... resurrection of the dead... sown ... perishable, ... raised ... imperishable. ... Sown in dishonour, ... raised in glory ... Sown in weakness, ... raised in power. ... Sown a physical body, ... raised a spiritual body.2 If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus is it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, ... of dust; the second... from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those... of the dust; ... as is the man of heaven, so are those... of heaven.

  1. When wheat or grain grows from the ground, it looks quite different in its blooming form from the form in which you put it in the ground.
  2. So what's a spiritual body? We don't know.

If you follow Paul's theology, an empty tomb story is impossible, because it presupposes that a physical body has been raised.

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we... also bear the image of the man of heaven.1 I tell you... flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.2

...I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in ... the twinkling of an eye... The trumpet will sound... the dead... raised imperishable... For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, ... this mortal nature ... immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal... immortality, then shall come to pass the saying ... "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is thy victory? ... Where is thy sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. The man of dust is Adam; the man of heaven is Jesus.
  2. Paul believes that when Jesus was raised from the death, it was not in a physical form.

The fact that nobody picks Paul up on this means that the empty tomb story did not exist in Paul's day.

So why did the early Christians believe that Jesus had been resurrected? Reports proliferated that Jesus had been seen after his death. Once this happened, people began to assume the body must have been removed from the tomb.

Most Christians have no awareness that the empty tomb story was not known until forty years after Jesus died.

Jewish learning notes index


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