• On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 3)

    As mentioned in my previous posts, someone in Malawi is about to have a debate on national TV with a Christian about the Resurrection accounts and I have been asked to help provide some ideas for the debate, so here goes.

    There are three aspects to the debunking of the Resurrection:

    1) The Gospels are not reliable sources of information; they are poor quality evidence

    2) The claims of the Resurrection are incredible claims which require very good quality evidence

    3) If the Christian claims of the Resurrection are not true, then what, if anything, actually took place, and what hypothesis can better explain the data?

    Having looked at points 1) and 2) it is time to see if there is a more plausible explanation for the data from a naturalistic perspective than the Christian claims. Before setting out the positive case, I want to spend a little time going over some of the data from the Gospels and how they are problematic. Really, this belongs in the first post under point 1), but it sort of required its own post for reasons of length.

    Here are what are often called the “minimal facts” by people like William Lane Craig:

    1. After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
    2. On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
    3. On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
    4. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary. [source]

    With these in mind, let us see if these data points stand up to scrutiny.

    The Silence of Paul

    Had the Resurrection account based on followers discovering an empty tomb been a pre-existing oral or written tradition, in all likelihood, the Apostle Paul would have mentioned it; not in all of his letters, since many were about local church issues, but in 1 Corinthians at least, I would posit. We learn very little from Paul about the historical Jesus, but 1 Corinthians is slightly different to the other letters. After all, Paul reminds the Corinthians of their general acceptance of Jesus’ Resurrection, that he was buried and raised. And yet there is no mention of an empty tomb, or of its discoverers. Paul goes to length in persuading the reader of how important the Resurrection was. Surely, then, to help persuade, as the Gospel writers do, then mentioning the ‘facts’ about this event would have been vital! As Geoffrey Lampe states:

    If Jesus’ resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he raises consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known that the tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence. [note 1]

    As Kris Komarnitsky states in Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection:

    Given Paul’s ability to defend ideas, and given his effort above to defend Jesus’ resurrection, it is hard to understand why Paul did not mention a discovered empty tomb if he knew about it. It would have been a great bolstering point for Jesus’ resurrection and in turn for the general resurrection, which Paul argues for right after arguing for Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-57), including giving a seed/plant analogy that attempts to describe how a dead body is raised (1 Cor 15:35-54). The discovered empty tomb is the only piece of major evidence missing from Paul’s argument for Jesus’ resurrection. [note 5]

    Thus we appear to have a later development for this perhaps legendary overlay. Absence of evidence, when expected, IS evidence of absence.

    Joseph of Arimathea

    Here are some videos I did ages ago documenting the issues with J of A. He is most likely a theological and literary device who was fictional (his name probably meaning “best disciple”, using an analysis of “Arimathea” which appears not to exist as a geographical location, amongst many other points made). Please watch to save me expounding them all here.

    Further to this is the idea that he also seems to be conveniently fulfilling some particularly contrived prophetic verses, which I set out here (Joseph of Arimathea; a rich prophecy fulfilment).

    Many interpreters of the Markan account of J of A lead one to believe that he was a God-fearing Jew as opposed to some new Christian convert, and wanted a burial to fulfil Jewish predilections for burial before the sunset and the Sabbath, rather than fulfilling any desire to appease any faith in Christ. [Note 4]

    75% of New Testament scholars believe in the Empty Tomb

    This is a claim, often without the percentage, made by William Lane Craig and others who follow in his lines of arguments. It is used to set up the Resurrection account as likely to be true. There are several things to say here:

    a) Almost 100% of Islamic scholar believe in the truth of the Qu’ran, it does not say much about the intrinsic truth value of the book. Most NT scholars are Christian and enter the field of study in order to ratify their own beliefs. Of course they will find this cornerstone of the Resurrection narrative true.

    b) IF the claim is based on Jakob Kremer then this was a bald assertion with no backing at all, and Kremer himself was apparently agnostic about the empty tomb anyway. Craig’s use of Kremer can be seen critically analysed here. Craig, in debate with Carrier, and when Carrier spent a long time critiquing Habermas on this point, switched and claimed he was using Kremer as a source, and of course Carrier had not prepared for this sidestep (considering Craig was almost certainly using Habermas: a sort of bait and switch tactic).

    c) IF the claim is using Gary Habermas’ study, then the claim is problematic since the study is fraught with issue. Firstly, as mentioned, most people asked were Christians, some studying at Christian universities with doctrinal statements making sure the pollsters HAD to believe in the empty tomb! To say that, even with such huge selection bias, only 75% believed the minimal facts thesis of the empty tomb shows that fully 1 in 4 still do not think it viable. That is no small proportion. This article shows how the survey would never pass peer review and is full of statistical issue. Richard Carrier in “Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix” also provides an excellent critique of Habermas’ arguments relating to the minimal facts, and the statistical problems. The fact that hardly any agnostics or skeptics are included as scholarly sources for the survey is dubious to say the least.

    An Honourable Burial in a Tomb

    This is a vastly important point. The biblical account has a blasphemous traitor given a quick trial to make sure he goes down, and then being allowed a burial befitting someone worthy of honour. This is a 180 about turn. I set out the myriad issues here, detailing burial practices in the area – “Jesus: burial practices and crucifixion”:

    We return back to the idea that Jesus was especially toxic, and people went utterly out of their way to get him crucified. The likelihood of going back on this to give honour in death is preposterous. It makes no sense. The precedent question is more specific – there is no precedence for someone in the same situation as Jesus being given an honourable burial. In other words, there are very particular occasions of low criminals having bodies taken down for proper burial, but for treason, as Jesus, uh-uh, nope.

    The likelihood is that Jesus would have been left to die on the cross and have his flesh picked off by wild animals as the usual deterrent. He would then have been buried in a shallow grave, perhaps unknown to anyone of importance to the narrative. This is corroborated by the Secret Book of James, which has Jesus saying:

    Or do you not know that you have not yet been mistreated and have not yet been accused unjustly, nor have you yet been shut up in prison, nor have you yet been condemned lawlessly, nor have you yet been crucified without reason, nor have you yet been buried in the sand, as was I myself, by the evil one? [my emphasis]

    This is Jesus claiming he was buried in the ground, in the earth, and not a tomb. As Josephus stated:

    He that blasphemeth God, let him be stoned; and let him hang upon a tree all that day, and then let him be buried in an ignominious and obscure manner” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.6) [my emphasis]

    So not only is J of A unlikely to be a real character, but burial in a brand new rock-hewn tomb is equally fictitious, in all probability.

    More Problems with the Empty Tomb: Veneration

    Again, I have written about this elsewhere in “Why was Jesus’ tomb not venerated?”:

    So I think we can successfully conclude that Jews did venerate sites and even artifacts. Would it then seem likely that early Jewish Christians would give the tomb of Jesus any such veneration? Absolutely. Remember, this is probably the greatest site of spiritual interest in the world. Bar none. This is where God, incarnate in man and dying nearby, was given life again to rise into heaven magnificently in order to pay for our sins and give us hope. It also acts as the birthplace, if you like, for the entire Christian religion. It would be insane to think that the site would not be venerated and given special accord.

    Let us ask whether the site would be known and remembered. The tomb was that of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. Even if one didn’t know exactly where this tomb was, one could surely find out. His description within the New Testament hints at him being of some notoriety. Moreover, there are a number of people who visited the tomb who clearly HAD to have been, in some way, the sources to the resurrection accounts. Whether it was Mary, the other Mary, Salome or Simon Peter, we have a number of candidates who qualify for having such geographical knowledge. It would be strange if they could recount all the details of the resurrection to their fellow Apostles and disciples, and yet somehow forgot where it took place. This is almost a moot point since in describing the visitors to the tomb, it is clearly implicit that they knew where it was.

    So if they knew where it was, and if they were culturally and spiritually highly likely to venerate the spot, why didn’t they? Let us look briefly at reasons why they would not want to do so.

    Of course, the best reason that it was not venerated is because, like I have mentioned, it did not exist and Jesus was buried in a shallow grave.

    The Women Discovering the Empty Tomb

    Mark ends his Gospel:

    They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

    The rest, after 16:8 is interpolation. What could explain this? Well, if they said nothing to anyone until they got home 30 minutes later, then this is a crass way to end the first Gospel. If they went home and said nothing to anyone, period, until the claims seeped out decades later, then this has a purpose, and the ending actually makes sense. It is not until later Gospels that we hear of the empty tomb that was heretofore unknown. In fact, the silence of the women here gives the excuse as to why no one knew where the tomb was, why it is not venerated, why this and why that. It is the ultimate excuse, the ultimate method of denying skeptical Jews the ability to challenge the empty tomb thesis. Suddenly, decades later, disciples are claiming that “well, of course, the first witnesses kept silent about it, so you wouldn’t have known etc. in order to falsify it”. This lends itself to the later legendary overlay. In fact, Matthew and Luke seem to want to take Mark in their own directions to the point that eminent Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown, states:

    True, we have in the Matthean and Lucan accounts of the burial an early interpretation of Mark; but…there is a very high possibility that these two evangelists have changed and developed the Marcan outlook. Consequently, I shall not use Matthew and Luke as a primary guide to Mark’s intention. [Note 2]

    What is even more difficult with this is that mourners were explicitly forbidden from mourning at a criminal’s burial, and the Romans were big on enforcing it, as Kris Komarnitsky reports in Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection:

    Such behavior by the authorities is noted by first-century historian Tacitus. He noted that as people lingered around the corpses of those executed by the Romans in 32 C.E. (within a year or two of Jesus’ crucifixion), “Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner…” (Annals 6.19). All of the above suggests that if Jesus was buried dishonorably, it is doubtful that any of his family, friends, or followers would have attended the burial. (location 609)

    Moreover, it was explicitly forbidden at festivals, as this was, whether criminal (and  dishonourably buried) or not (see the Mishnah, eg Moed Katan 3.7-9). This means that it would be very unlikely that the women would be there at all, at any rate.

    Matthew’s Guards at the Tomb

    Again, I have written about this in more length; see here: “Matthew and the guards at the tomb”. The fact that only Matthew includes guards in his narrative means that it is pretty much accepted now as being a-historical (Craig has defended it, but admits it may well be false). Here is what probably occurred:

    • Christian legend arises that Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
    • Some Jews counter that his followers probably stole the body.
    • Christian legend arises that the tomb was guarded.
    • Jewish legend arises that the guards fell asleep.
    • Christian legend arises (reflected in Matthew’s Gospel) that the Jewish claim of sleeping guards comes from the guards being paid off (decades earlier) by the authorities to say they fell asleep instead of reporting the supernatural angel they saw. [note 3]

    We can see that the myth of the guards arises out of this tit-for-tat back and forth that seems to have happened. The many problems are:

    • They do not appear anywhere else
    • There is still time in the chronology to steal the body
    • The guards are the first to see the resurrected Jesus, do not seem to convert and are not heard from again
    • They return to the priests and report the event, unperturbed by whaat they see which would shake them to their religious and personal foundations
    • If this is a clear fabrication, then what else in the Resurrection accounts also is? Where do we draw the line?


    This is by no means at all exhaustive. I suggest, for more depth, reading all the hyperlinked articles and documents for more complete analysis – this is but a mere summary.

    What we can tell from this is that, before we even look at a plausible naturalistic explanation for the data, the data itself is obviously rife with issue. It is inaccurate or fabricated to start with, to the point that we are simply not sure how much can be relied on as having any truth value whatsoever – and remember the critical analysis of the sources, too, made in the first part to this series.

    Christians read the Gospels as some kind of either literal historical document, or in cases such as this, almost that. Trying to harmonise how many angels were actually at the tomb is one thing, but answering all these other conundrums is nothing short of an irrational headache.

    In some senses a naturalistic explanation is not even necessary, since the source documents can be pulled apart and thoroughly questioned, like pulling apart four accounts of some miracles of Sathya Sai Baba written by his followers thirty to a hundred years after his death. We do not necessarily need to explain the data because the data is most probably false to start with. That said, my next post will present possible naturalistic hypotheses to explain the pertinent data of the Gospels.


    Note 1 – “Easter: A Statement” in The Resurrection, ed. William Purcell, 1996, 43

    Note 2 – R.E. Brown, “The Burial of Jesus,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly Vol. 50.1 (Jan 1988): 233-234.

    Note 3 – K. Komarnitsky, “Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?”, Stone Arrow Books, 2014, location 401

    Note 4 – R.E. Brown, Death of the Messiah, II, ABRL 7, New York: Doubleday, 1994, 1216, 1239 and “The Burial of Jesus”, Cathollic Biblical Quarterly, Vol 50.1, (Jan 1988), 240, 243

    Note 5 – K. Komarnitsky, “Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?”, Stone Arrow Books, 2014, location 296


    Category: AtheismBiblical ExegesisFeaturedJesusSkepticism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce