Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (6) – Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance

Casey - Jesus of NazarethReview of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.

Part 6: Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance

All four Gospels feature a tradition in which one or more women discover the empty tomb of Jesus on the morning of Easter Sunday. None of the Gospels can agree on the identities of these women, but all of them name Mary Magdalene among them (the Synoptics) or Mary Magdalene as visiting the empty tomb on her own (John). As discussed earlier, the entire idea of finding an empty tomb is secondary to an earlier conception of Jesus’ resurrection, in which Jesus is resurrected to a new spiritual body, to spend the afterlife beside God in Heaven – for in such a scenario there was never any requirement for Jesus’ natural physical body to go missing from a tomb somewhere. Furthermore, as I have argued, the “discovery” of an empty tomb probably only occurred in Mary Magdalene’s vision “confirming” the resurrection of Jesus, not in the real world, and in fact, Jesus may not even have been buried in a tomb at all.

A common apologetic defense of the story of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb makes the argument that the story is historically reliable on the basis that it involves only women. What is typically argued is that women were not accepted as reliable legal witnesses in ancient Judea, that nobody would have any cause to later invent a story involving women if they wanted to persuade others that it is true, and that therefore the story must be true. The argument is not really logical from the outset, because it argues from a very modernist false dichotomy that either the story is literally true, or somebody has intentionally fabricated the story. But there are many other options for the development of this tradition and its inclusion in Mark, most of which would be more probable and in accord with ancient Jewish beliefs. Not the least of these alternative options is that a woman or group of women, who were followers of Jesus during his lifetime, experienced a vision of an empty tomb after his death, which they interpreted as proof of his resurrection to Heaven, and this tradition was told and retold until included and adapted in Mark’s Gospel. So as there are a number of different ways which such a story could develop in earliest Christianity, not just according to the modern and fundamentalist divide of truth versus legendary fabrication, one cannot logically make such an argument.

Mary Magdalene: Her report of the empty tomb was one that was made by a close follower of Jesus to fellow close followers of Jesus - yet scholars such as N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and William Lane Craig want to impose on it the rules of a first-century Jewish lawcourt! (Photo from the music video "Judas" by Lady Gaga.)

Mary Magdalene: Her report of the empty tomb was one that was made by a close follower of Jesus to fellow close followers of Jesus – yet scholars such as N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and William Lane Craig want to impose on it the rules of a first-century Jewish lawcourt! This is one of the first indications that their apologetic argument is quite unsound. (Photo from “Judas” by Lady Gaga.)

Despite the blinkered logic which undermines the heart of its construction, the argument is defended, for example, by the conservative bishop-scholar, N.T. Wright, who claims,

The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses.
(Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003: 607)

It is also argued by Dale Allison, who comes to a similar conclusion:

So, the reasoning runs, it is precisely the testimony of women, once suspects, that confirms for us the truth of the story.
(Resurrecting Jesus, 2005: 328)

And it is also argued by William Lane Craig, who sets out his reasoning as follows:

“Given the second-class status of women in first-century Palestine and their inability to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court, it is amazing they should appear here as the discoverers and chief witnesses to the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb, for so unreliable a witness was an embarrassment to the Christian proclamation. Any later, legendary account would surely have made male disciples discover the empty tomb…. The fact that it is women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men who are said in the earliest narrative to be the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that the tradition here is reliable.”
(Jesus’ Resurrection, 2000: 176-177)

It is pleasing that Casey has taken the time to explain why “there are several things wrong” with this argument concerning the women witnesses (p. 475) – even if it is highly unlikely that we have seen the end of an argument which is so poor that it seems a shame to have to address it at all in serious scholarship. In the first place, Casey notes that the position of women in a court is simply irrelevant to Mark’s story. This point alone should rightly have put a stop to the unusual defence of Jesus’ resurrection. For the apologetic argument sets up a standard which does not even apply, because it involves a report by followers of Jesus given to other followers of Jesus! Even if it can be shown that there was some legal bias against women, which is probable but debatable, one may safely conclude that the level of proof demanded by fellow believers who already accepted the resurrection of Jesus would be significantly lower than the evidentiary requirements of a law court. This was not a hard sell!

There is something very strange going on here about the willingness of conservative Christian academics to attempt such an argument in what are purportedly scholarly works. For the evidentiary requirements of an ancient Jewish lawcourt are completely inapplicable to the specific circumstances of a Christian woman (Mary Magdalene) telling a story about the leader of her religious group to fellow members of her religious group. What we see here is the imposition of modern standards of apologetics, which for more than a century have been frequently self-styled with law-court imagery, and often authored by legal dilettantes (see, as only a selection: Simon Greenleaf’s The Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (1846); Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972), with its early cover imagery of a judge’s gavel; Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection (1991); and Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (1998)). Most regrettably, scholars such as N.T. Wright and Dale Allison, publishing academic biblical studies, have uncritically accepted these modern, fundamentalist legal standards of proof – which is completely inappropriate for any proper analysis of the growth of a religious tradition within a nascent religious community. Instead of applying, for example, the relevant scholarship on the growth of new religious movements to determine how the empty tomb story may have become accepted in earliest Christianity, a certain type of New Testament scholar is now examining the rules of ancient Jewish lawcourts! This only illustrates how close some historical Jesus scholarship is to popular apologetics, and how far it is from mainstream religious studies.

Judith leaving the tent of Holofernes

Judith leaving the tent of Holofernes (Full copyright asserted by the artist. Used by permission. Click on the picture to view larger size.)

By contrast, Casey examines some relevant religious traditions concerning the role of women in Jewish narrative: how women were frequently presented as heroines in Jewish stories. In light of this approach, the role of women in the post-resurrection narrative is not surprising, but to be expected. He gives the examples of the story of Deborah the prophetess and judge (Judges 4-5) who summoned Barak and 10,000 warriors, Jael who had sex with the leader of Israel’s enemies in order to drive a tent-peg through his skull during his post-coital snooze, as well as noting the centrality of powerful women to the scriptural books named after them: Ruth, Esther, and Judith. As Casey concludes, against the conservative interpreters who would, irrelevantly, belittle the role of women witnesses in Jewish lawcourts:

This is the real cultural background for the role of women in the stories of the empty tomb: they are heroines, not witnesses in a court of Law. (p. 475)

In addition, Casey notes that the particular women who claimed to have seen the empty tomb were well known to the community as witnesses of the crucifixion (Mark 15.40-41). The women may even have been the source of Mark’s crucifixion narrative. These women were the only ones who, according to Mark’s tradition, had remained in Jerusalem, because the male disciples had already fled at the time of Jesus’ arrest. (The later tradition in Luke and John claims instead that the male disciples remained in Jerusalem, and that the male disciples also witnessed appearances of the post-resurrection Jesus in Jerusalem. But this development in the post-resurrection traditions occurs after the first Gospel, where the tradition about the women witnesses of the “empty tomb” is first recorded.)

Jael, Killing of Sisera

Jael, Killing of Sisera (artist unknown)

Therefore, far from it being unlikely that Mark would present the women as the witnesses to the empty tomb – in the absence of every one of the male disciples, one of whom was in such a hurry to get away that he fled away naked – Mark had no good option but to include women followers of Jesus at Jerusalem! This does not mean that the male disciples had fled all the way to Galilee already by Sunday morning, as some apologetic scholars (and recently Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) have presented as the only alternative. We must instead pay careful attention to what Mark narrates: the male disciples had fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; the women made the journey to the empty tomb alone (unusually unchaperoned in a graveyard); and Jesus promised he would “go before” the male disciples to Galilee.

Therefore, if we accept this reason for the presence of women in Mark’s story, it is irrelevant whether or not we can also demonstrate first-century Jewish bias against the reports of women. We might even say that it is safe to assume that there was some male bias against reports derived from women. Even the two disciples of Jesus on the Emmaeus Road appear reluctant to believe the report that they had heard from the women (Luke 24.22-24). In the second century, Celsus mocks the report as though told by “half-frantic women” (Origen, Contra Celsus,2.59). But the apologetic argument for historicity loses even what little credibility it might have had when we recognise that Mark had a very good reason not to include male disciples: none of them were there!

Furthermore, against another common apologetic argument, there was never any desire or ability for any “officials” to produce the body of Jesus, so as to “disprove” the resurrection. In the first place, the apologetic argument that the resurrection must be true or officials would have produced Jesus’ body presumes that the officials cared about the religious fantasies of a small Jewish sect and their dead leader. In the second place, the tradition that the tomb belonged to a rich man is, as argued, invented so as to make Jesus’ death all the more noble; in reality, we are dealing with a common tomb, or no tomb at all if it only ever appeared in a vision. Third, even if we were to accept that Jesus had been buried in a tomb known to officials and for some unknown reason they were eager to disprove the religious claims of a small group of heretical Jews, Jesus’ body would have been unrecognizable well before the development of this secondary tradition. As Casey puts it:

[Even after a few weeks,] Jesus’ remains would be unrecognizable. Even if someone knew where his tomb was, for example if Joseph of Arimathea was back in Jerusalem too, some of his helpers probably being there anyway, the revolting task of trying to identify which body it was would not have been decisive at all. It would not have silenced his followers, because their faith that Jesus had risen was not dependent on the missing remains of Jesus’ body. They would have continued to preach the good news that God had raised Jesus from the dead in accordance with Psalm 16, and he now sits at the right hand of God in accordance with Psalm 110. Producing Jesus’ remains would impress only those who did not believe in resurrection, those who believed God never took anyone to heaven, and those who believed that Jesus was a seditious criminal. Like most Jews in Jerusalem, such people did not believe in Jesus’ Resurrection anyway, so producing Jesus’ remains would have been a revolting exercise which had no significant effect.
(p. 497)

Sometime after the first vision reports about a post-resurrected Jesus were circulated, a further tradition arose about women finding the tomb of Jesus empty on the morning of Easter Sunday. This tradition included women because it was accepted that only women remained in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, while the male disciples had fled, and women were frequently presented as heroes in Jewish narrative. There was, however, no real “empty tomb”, only a tradition about an empty tomb, in which I find a number of motifs which suggest its origin in a woman’s vision. The apologetic argument that the women’s report is true merely because it is by women falsely assumes the alternatives of fabrication versus truth, bizarrely demands that a tale told by Christians to other Christians should meet the requirements of an ancient Jewish law-court, and belittles the role of women in Jewish story-telling. For these reasons, the apologetic argument does not even merit consideration in critical scholarship on the resurrection reports, belonging as it does to popular apologetics peddled by dilettantes.

Next part: (7) Visionary Experiences of Jesus’ Resurrection
Previous part: (5) Did Jesus consider himself to be “The Son of Man”?

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