The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Review)

It should go without saying that the resurrection is the most important element of the Christian religion. “If Christ has not been raised,” says the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” In the nearly two thousand years since, apologists have wasted little time assembling a case for the raising of Jesus. The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave is a 2005 anthology of essays by historians, philosophers, and New Testament scholars, challenging the case for resurrection presented by such stalwart defenders as William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas. Contributors include Richard Carrier, Michael Martin, Peter Kirby, and Keith Parsons, as well as Robert Price and Jeff Lowder, among others.

This book came to my attention after I discovered an excellent online article written by Jeff Lowder,1 of which a substantially revised version is featured in The Empty Tomb. The article is a reply to William Lane Craig, postulating a hypothetical naturalistic explanation for the empty tomb story. In my opinion, Lowder’s hypothesis is one of the most plausible and thorough alternatives to resurrection that any skeptic has put forward. It is also bolstered considerably by Peter Kirby’s chapter, “The Case Against the Empty Tomb,” and Richard Carrier’s chapter, “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law.” These three essays weigh the historical testimony, the problems and apparent myths in the gospels, and even the plausibilities in the narratives, to pose a daunting and powerful counter-argument to resurrection.

Of course, The Empty Tomb has much more to offer too. Kicking off the book, Greg Cavin unpacks the multiple, unsubstantiated claims contained within the resurrection and asks what kind of evidence would work in their favor. Theodore Drange explains why the resurrection is actually unnecessary to the significance Christians draw from it. In a feat that seriously undermines Paul’s statement above, Drange alleges that the gospel would retain its meaning even if Jesus had not been raised:

…all that the gospel maintains is that Christ’s atonement was successful, and, consequently, salvation has been made possible for humanity. It was the death of Christ, not his resurrection, that was supposed to have atoned for humanity’s sins. And his death could indeed have occurred without the resurrection. Christ’s body might have been cremated or in some other way destroyed, and the message regarding the possibility of salvation could have been communicated simply by scripture.2

Peter Kirby lays out the interesting, though admittedly sparse, evidence that there may have been an early tradition of dishonorable burial for Jesus. Richard Carrier revives the stolen body theory into a surprisingly defensible hypothesis, if only to show that apologists have been too hasty in declaring victory over naturalistic explanations. Other highlights include Keith Parsons’ chapter on hallucination as the cause of the postmortem appearances and Robert Price’s spectacular evisceration of William Lane Craig’s tightrope walk between faith and reason in the aptly titled chapter, “By This Time He Stinketh.” The responses to Swinburne and Plantinga written by Michael Martin and Evan Fales are worth reading as well, even just for the entertainment of seeing the nonsensical gerrymandering they resort to in the service of their faith.

Predictably, apologists like J.P. Holding have their own answers to many of the charges made in this book. Unfortunately, (and perhaps tellingly?) Holding has removed a great deal of the content from his review and slapped it in a book so as to motivate his fanbase to give him more money, but let’s briefly look at a couple of the criticisms he’s bothered to leave up. His response to Greg Cavin’s chapter is so bad it’s comical, as he grossly misrepresents the gist of the argument and resorts purely to mockery, suggesting that Cavin “is a malicious time travelling atheist from the year 2300 AD,” blah blah blah.3 The point of Cavin’s chapter is, like I already noted, to unravel the various assumptions behind the resurrection claim, and consider how each of them can or cannot be justified by historical evidence. Holding’s childish rejoinder does nothing to refute Cavin, but ironically goes to show that mundane historical evidence is not sufficient to establish far-fetched, extraordinary claims – essentially making Cavin’s point for him without realizing it.

Similar mockery is directed at Evan Fales, who has the audacity to propose, along with countless scholars, that the gospels contain myth. Holding believes the gospels to be the genre of bios or biography, but conveniently neglects to mention in his review that Greco-Roman biographies, like Greco-Roman histories, were not sober accounts of historical fact, and often contained myths, supernatural stories, rumors, and hearsay.4 As much as J.P. complains over Fales not addressing Burridge’s case for the gospels being bios, Burridge also cites several examples of ancient biographies that contain exaggerations and fabrications. Even if the gospels are biographies (which is not as settled a question as Holding wants us to believe), they are still quite capable of containing the mythic elements Fales draws attention to in his chapter. Furthermore, Holding’s simplistic dismissal of myth in the gospels by declaring their genre in reference to Burridge and others is precisely the sort of a priori game-playing that he and his ilk constantly hate on the form critics for.

The Empty Tomb does have its low moments, though not for the reasons most apologists will assert. Michael Martin’s chapter on the improbability of the resurrection and J. Duncan M. Derrett’s chapter are quite a bit more speculative and less hard-hitting than the rest of the book. That aside, this is hands down the best comprehensive refutation of the resurrection I’ve come across. While it does not make every possible criticism, it does manage to put out numerous challenging, well-organized arguments and thoughtful responses to the common claims of apologists. I only wish some of these would make more of an appearance in live debates.

1. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story, (2001). Retrieved Dec. 18, 2012.
2. Theodore Drange, “Why Resurrect Jesus?” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005, Prometheus), p. 57.
3. J.P. Holding, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave — A Rebuttal, (2009). Retrieved Dec. 18, 2012.
4. Mary Lefkowitz, “Patterns of Fiction in Ancient Biography,” The American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring 1983), pp. 205-218.

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