Saturday, June 16, 2012

Women at the Empty Tomb

Lately, I have been listening to a lot of debates on Christianity and the resurrection, and one particularly astounding claim keeps coming up. According to apologists, an indication of the historicity and reliability of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that the gospels mention women were the first to discover the empty tomb. This, they say, is too remarkable to be fiction in a time when the testimony of women was not valid in court. I have heard this claim made on many occasions by William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, and others.

The big problem with this idea is that it rests on an assumption about Mark's intent with the material (I mention Mark because most scholars consider it the earliest gospel and one source used by Matthew and Luke; John's reference to women at the tomb may or may not be independent of the synoptics, but could just as well come from some other source material). In his debate with Richard Carrier, Mike Licona argues that if the gospel authors had invented the empty tomb story, they would have portrayed the male disciples as the first at the tomb, because it would have been more believable in that era.

However, it's not at all evident that the gospel accounts treat the women as witnesses. To whom are they witnesses? The male disciples? The reader? Would first century readers have recognized their presence as constituting some kind of witness to the resurrection? How could this be when, as the apologists point out, women were not valued as witnesses in that time? The whole thing makes very little sense. Mark tells us that the women went to the tomb to ceremonially anoint the body (16:1), as was the custom of the day. Their presence in the narrative doesn't appear to indicate anything more than the observance of Jewish customs. In fact, we might argue that without this element, the story would have seemed more suspicious at the time.

But perhaps even this much effort is not necessary to debunk this claim. The Jewish historian Josephus shows no discomfort when he relies on the testimonies of two women regarding the events at Gamala and Masada. Richard Carrier provides a number of additional cases of trusted female witnesses, and also exposes some of the weak arguments made in this area by apologists. [1] If there is no veracity to the idea that women were not considered reliable in the ancient world, then this argument for the historicity and reliability of the resurrection account collapses. Nonetheless, countless apologists continue to peddle this nonsense, while - I'm sorry to say - few skeptics seem to properly address it.

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