You’d have to pay me to waste my time on any of the millions of amateur Christian arguments on the internet. But of course, that being the case, occasionally someone actually does. A benefactor of mine wanted an expert take on the specious argumentation of a woman tweeting avidly as “Christian Apologist” (@Lead1225) and blogging under the same rubric. She has no relevant credentials. And no skill in the matter is exhibited in her writing. I have a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University and several peer reviewed academic publications in the field. So, my benefactor contracted me to write up an expert analysis of one of her articles, “Resolving Controversies Surrounding Joseph of Arimathea and the Women Who Discovered Jesus’ Empty Tomb.”
Myself, I found Christian Apologist on Twitter to be a total waste of time replying to. She considers James Bishop to be a conclusive rebuttal to On the Historicity of Jesus. One hardly need any greater indictment of her acumen. But just to confirm she has none, she still keeps using the totally annihilated 10/42 apologetic. With that, one might suspect she’s a cleverly coded internet bot, that plays at being a Poe. She then tried writing posts about me. I’m not wasting a minute of my life answering them. Unless someone pays me to. Otherwise my existing writings already fully rebut her. Compare, for example, my “Did the Apostles Die for a Lie,” with her reply “Why Were Early Christians So Brave,” just to get an idea of how eye-rollingly illogical and tedious she is.
On Twitter she accompanied her announcement of that article with her pretentious mission statement:
— Christian Apologist (@Lead1225) May 4, 2017
The Empty Tomb Stuff
But now to the job at hand. Christian Apologist roped in another atheist by the nic Kaimatai, who blogs as Another Atheist, and it sounds like she kept whack-a-moling to avoid his every argument (see his exasperated final comment on the blog post in question, which frankly is rebuttal enough). She concluded by writing that blog post. Alarmed that “many atheists…on social media dispute the accounts of Jesus’ empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb by women, and the owner of the empty tomb, Joseph of Arimathea,” she makes clear she’s having none of that. Those things have to be totes true!
“Kaimatai,” she says, “presents four general arguments against the authenticity of various events in the New Testament.” In particular:
He questions (1) the timing of the writing of the New Testament, calling into question its authenticity; (2) inconsistencies in the accounts of the empty tomb and the number of women discovering same; (3) conflicts with Roman practices; and (4) whether Joseph of Arimathea was a real person.
She then aims to address those four points.
Fair enough, one can try that. Although those aren’t even the best arguments against the authenticity of any tomb being found empty. Paul mentions no empty tomb. Not in 20,000 words. And he’s writing in the same generation as any witnesses there would have been (a generation after the fact—his letters dating to the 50s A.D., roughly twenty years later—but he attests to witnesses still living). In fact, Paul conspicuously lists no witnesses even to the burial, much less to a body missing (his only cited source for there even being a burial is scripture); and the first witnesses to anything he seems to know about, are the recipients of momentary visions of a risen Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). The Gospels name no sources, and never even claim to be written by witnesses of any kind. They all copy Mark. And embellish. And construct their stories from scripture and fiction. No other source for the claim exists. That’s adequately suspicious. (On the Historicity of Jesus, Chapter 10.)
Moreover, the polemic that the body was stolen (in the Gospel of Matthew) only arose after the Gospel of Mark told a story about the body turning up missing. Which is pretty good proof that no such story had existed before. Otherwise, that polemic would have been rampant by the time Mark wrote, requiring his rebuttal. Or someone else’s, well before Mark inherited the story (if such he did). That story could not have been told for four decades across three continents, and no one ever thought to say, “Hey, I’m not falling for that…obviously someone just stole the body!” Instead, Mark doesn’t even know anything about such an accusation. Nor about what Matthew had to invent to answer it: the Jewish elite placing guards and a seal on the tomb, and a space monster descending from the sky to paralyze them with an invisible death ray. (Proving History, pp. 126-28.)
In fact, in contrast to Matthew’s ridiculous account, Mark—Matthew’s only known source, whom Matthew copies verbatim, and adds and alters freely—not only lacks all those absurdities, but explicitly says there were no sources for the story. That’s right. Mark outright says the only witnesses never told anyone (Mark 16:8; the rest firmly known to be a forgery: Hitler Homer Bible Christ, Chapter 16).
Consequently I know of no genuinely qualified historian in the world who believes any of this—who isn’t required to for their own salvation. But let’s descend into the rabbit hole of la-la land and pretend that’s not the case. What has Christian Apologist to say to Another Atheist’s four arguments? Does it have any merit?
Random Non Sequiturs
Christian Apologist makes a lot of dubious assertions in her rambling about this that aren’t particularly on point. For example, she mistakenly thinks the account in Tacitus (which is probably fake anyway) describes the punishments for being a Christian, when in fact Tacitus explicitly says they were the punishments for a specific act of arson, by an emperor whose bizarre treatment of those victims was condemned by everyone. Real scholars now know, Christian tales of martyrdom are wildly exaggerated or outright false (see Christian scholar Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution, which agrees with most mainstream peer reviewed literature on the subject now). In reality, the Christians faced very little actual persecution, and escaped most of it easily.
Even the book of Acts depicts this, and that was Christianity’s own propaganda! Despite covering nearly thirty years of Christian history from day one until just before the event Tacitus would have been speaking of, hardly anyone is ever even threatened with death, much less killed. In Judea, only Stephen is killed—and not by having been convicted of anything, but by in effect a rioting mob. Then James the Pillar—who gets beheaded over a decade later; yet we are never told why. Everyone else, including Peter himself, safely continues running their whole church in the middle of Jerusalem for decades with hardly any interference. They get chased out eventually, but still unharmed. Beyond, only scattered random acts of violence occur, which the Roman authorities always rescue them from. So Christian Apologist’s picture of Christian “danger” is simply bogus. It’s not supported even by her own Bible.
She also resorts to a plethora of non sequiturs. In an article that’s supposed to be defending the historicity of the empty tomb, Christian Apologist blathers on about attestation of the crucifixion and apostolic visions. Neither of which are evidence of an empty tomb; nor of anything unique to Christianity, frankly. Plenty of religious founders get killed and plenty of religions are begun with visions, purported or real. And plenty of religions have believers willing to suffer or die for their mystical revelations. Her list of witnesses is also deeply problematic, methodologically and factually, but we aren’t here to address anything but her empty tomb apologetic. So I won’t bore you with that here. (For the rest, just see OHJ, Chapter 8.)
Christian Apologist often drops lame bombs like this:
Finally, we have eyewitness testimonies from disciples Peter, Mark, Matthew, Paul, James and Jude, along with the testimony of Luke, who authored the book of Luke and Acts. In Acts, Luke refers to himself in the first person when traveling with Paul (who knew Peter and James), which suggests he was well-aware and had first-hand knowledge of the testimonies of (at least) Peter, James, and Paul.
Pretty much all of that is false. We have no eyewitness testimony from Peter (2 Peter is recognized by all mainstream scholars as a forgery; and 1 Peter never claims to have witnessed anything), Mark and Matthew are not eyewitnesses (a fact agreed by all mainstream scholars), and James and Jude never mention witnessing anything, nor ever say they were the apostles of those names. Luke, meanwhile, never says he witnessed anything, either; the “we” passages are widely agreed among mainstream scholars to indicate no such thing (using that device was common in fiction of the period: see OHJ, pp. 360-61), but above all, those never include any passage pertaining to the empty tomb, or featuring either Peter or James—and Paul never knew Jesus, nor ever saw an empty tomb, nor met any of the women who allegedly did. Ironically, Christian Apologist wants to claim Mark and Matthew are eyewitnesses (and admits Luke is not), yet Mark and Matthew have no knowledge of Peter ever seeing an empty tomb! So even her own eyewitness source destroys her claim that Luke had any reliable accounts from them. To the contrary. He is suddenly adding stuff, that her own eyewitnesses didn’t report!
This is why talking to amateurs like this is such a waste of time. They just string together arduous paragraph after paragraph of false statements and fallacies, that anyone informed already knows are bogus. You hardly need me to tell you any of the above. And like Young Earth Creationists, she dishonestly acts like fanatical fundamentalist literature that goes against all mainstream peer reviewed scholarship, is what “scholars” say is the case. Concealing from you what I just told you: that she is replacing actual peer reviewed facts and the actual mainstream expert consensus, with Christian propaganda, and pretending she didn’t just do that.
When Do Real Historians Say the Gospels Were Written?
So, about that. Nearly all mainstream scholarship—in fact, even most fundamentalist scholarship these days (that which survives peer review anywhere)—disagrees with Christian Apologist on the probable dates of the Gospels. Which any formal reference book in the field will tell you, are 70s for Mark, 80s for Matthew, 90s for Luke, and John somewhere around 100 A.D. or later. So what does she do, to rebut an entire expert academic field filled with actual Ph.D.’s in relevant subjects? Cite a completely unqualified crank, J. Warner Wallace. An ex-cop. Who has exactly zero degrees in any relevant subject. And has never published a single paper or book on this at any peer reviewed venue. This tells you all you need to know about how bankrupt her epistemic values are. She’s a completely unreliable source. She doesn’t even know what a reliable source is.
Another Atheist was, of course, right about the dating of the Gospels. They not only come a whole average human lifetime after the fact (indeed, two, in the case of Luke and John), forty to eighty years late (OHJ, Element 22). But they also only begin to be written after all known witnesses were dead. We have no evidence any survived the Jewish War. No documents, no letters, nothing at all attests to Peter or Paul or any apostle, still being around after 70 A.D. And the War radically destroyed the Judean world, resulting in countless Jewish natives being killed or sold into slavery outside the Empire. At least one famine had already decimated any witness-base there was, even before the War. And even by Christian Apologist’s own logic, persecution did the rest in (although we know, as just noted, there’s little evidence many really faced much danger of that).
That’s actually kind of suspicious. Why only write these stories down, when everyone who was there is no longer around? Why wait whole human lifetimes before doing that? Why name no sources in them when you do? Another Atheist was right to be skeptical.
But let’s pretend we don’t know all of that. What arguments from Wallace, the completely unqualified amateur, does Christian Apologist, now our analog to Ken Ham, find convincing?
(1) The New Testament fails to describe the destruction of the temple during the fall of Rome in 70 A.D.; (2) The New Testament fails to describe the siege of Jerusalem; (3) Luke said nothing about the deaths of Paul and Peter in 64 A.D. and 65 A.D., respectively; (4) Luke said nothing about the death of James in 62 A.D.; (5) Luke’s Gospel predates the Book of Acts, as noted in its words to Theophilus; (6) Paul quoted Luke’s Gospel… ; (7) Paul echoed the claims of the Gospel writers… ; and  Luke quoted Mark and Matthew repeatedly (Luke 1:1-4).
Swuh?? Cue the Dave Silverman meme. Um. The Synoptic Gospels do describe the destruction of the temple during the fall of Rome in 70 A.D. and Luke in particular references the siege! So his (so now her) first two arguments (1 and 2) are simply full on false. The rest is just plain illogical.
Points 6 and 7 give no reason why we are to assume the Gospels aren’t in fact quoting Paul. Or indeed a shared oral lore. But it’s worse than that. Because Paul never once says any of the passages she lists came from any Gospel; in fact, in one of the only two passages she cites (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), Paul explicitly says his source was divine revelation (thus ruling out his use of any Gospel). And the other, 1 Timothy…is a forgery! As all mainstream scholarship agrees. Consensus puts that letter in the second century, well after the Gospels (in fact, some scholars suspect the author of Luke-Acts composed it).
Points 3 and 4 illogically assume authors never end narratives decades before they write them—when in fact, historians often wrote about events decades past and didn’t continue the narratives up to their time. Some authors end stories where they do…because they died before they could write on. Authors also typically ended, when their sources did. If Luke didn’t have any clue what happened after Paul reached Rome, he could hardly have written about it. But above all, as many a scholar has pointed out, Luke couldn’t continue beyond the date he did, because in fact doing so would have undermined the entire apologetic purpose of Luke-Acts in depicting the Romans as favorably disposed to Christians. Ending on the dark note that the Romans tried and executed Paul would pretty much crush his whole agenda. He kind of had to keep that on the DL.
And points 5 and 8 just try to leverage those non sequiturs into pushing Mark to an earlier date as we all know he wrote before Luke. But once you see them for what they are—two false claims and four illogical ones—this leveraging trick doesn’t work.
Is Christian Apologist this stupid? Or this gullible? Did she foolishly trust these lies from Wallace? Or does she know they are lies? I guess only the golden monkey gods know.
Note why engaging with people like Christian Apologist is a waste of time. They are either delusional or dishonest, either way so stalwartly disconnected from reality you can never get through to them. Here is what I mean. Another Atheist’s original argument was:
For something that’s supposed to convince us all that Jesus was divine and resurrected, its absence for decades in early Christianity literature is astonishing.
The gospels are generally reckoned to be written after Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans (70 CE) because they’re not referenced in earlier Christian documents.
Not a single thing argued by Christian Apologist even answered Atheist’s actual point, except her citing a crank to redate the Gospels. His first point stands. The absence of any reference to an empty tomb for decades is quite suspicious. That it appears only a lifetime later, after we have no evidence any witness still lived, is super suspicious. Then his second point, on which his first stands, is that the Gospels are “generally” dated post-War. Note that Christian Apologist does not even address the fact that, indeed, the general consensus of experts is exactly that. Which is what he actually said. Instead, she deceives her audience by pretending he didn’t cite the general consensus, even pretending there is no general consensus supporting what he said, and asserting instead that what some random crank said is authoritative.
This is Christian apologetics.
Trusting Cranks & Being One
At this point Christian Apologist says this jaw-droppingly embarrassing thing:
Some claim the Gospels were anonymous, yet “no one in antiquity ever attributed the Gospels to anyone other than the four traditionally accepted authors” (Wallace, p. 172). Papias, who lived in the 1st century and early 2nd century is an example of a person who attributed authorship to the four traditionally accepted authors. Furthermore, the Gospels are not the only ancient documents that do not identify the author, as evidenced in Tacitus’ Annals.
Holy shit Batman. Where do I even begin?
First, that we never hear of the Gospels being given different authors, does not logically even imply the authors they were given weren’t assigned later. Otherwise, we’d have to believe an actual Homer wrote the Iliad despite its cultural references spanning the entire Iron and Bronze Ages (which historians recognize means different parts were written centuries apart). I guess he was a vampire. All because “no one in antiquity ever attributed the Iliad to anyone other than Homer.” The whole point of concluding a text was originally anonymous is that it wasn’t assigned any other author. Not “had another name.” Had no name. In case you’re uncertain about this, look up “anonymous” in a dictionary. But worse, that statement, besides being a non sequitur, doesn’t even address the actual reason experts conclude the Gospels weren’t written by the persons now assigned them. Perhaps because Wallace is a crank and ignoramus, he didn’t know the reason. But then, that makes Christian Apologist either a crank or an ignoramus, too.
The actual reason the mainstream consensus is that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John were not the names of the authors of the Gospels, is that the text of the Bible itself says so. Each name is only assigned a Gospel after the preposition kata, which in Greek never meant author; it only meant source. And indeed, “no manuscript exists that says otherwise.” Thus, whoever first appointed those names, was shying away from claiming them as authors and instead postulating their source—or naming the Gospels thus as an attributed source, which only a later party would do, not the authors themselves. This is so unusual (in fact, unprecedented), that it’s one of several ways we know all current manuscripts derive from the first collected edition of what became the canon, issued in the mid-second century (see Three Things to Know about New Testament Manuscripts). In other words, no one attributed books this way. So to suddenly see all four of these so-attributed, in such a completely novel way, when they were all combined and published together, means one person assigned all those names. Which of course rules out any of the authors having done so.
So Wallace and Christian Apologist are total amateurs who don’t even know what they’re talking about. But the really funny thing are the two other sentences Christian Apologist then tacks on to that. How Christian Apologist cites Papias (did she get this from Wallace?), and her weird, factually false nonsequitur about Tacitus, both made me laugh out loud.
We actually don’t know Papias lived in the first century, or was anything but a child then. But that’s moot. Because it’s a total howler to claim he “attributed authorship to the four traditionally accepted authors.” Nope. Papias doesn’t even mention the Gospels of Luke and John in any extant quote, everything he says about Mark and Matthew is demonstrably false (at least, about the Gospels we know under those names), and his explicitly stated methodology (believing rumors rather than records) is the worst, so untrustworthy the Christian historian Eusebius concluded he was an idiot (literally). Papias notoriously believed all kinds of absolutely ridiculous things, like that Judas swelled to the size of a wagon trail and exploded (OHJ, Chapter 8.5). Like Eusebius said, an idiot. Who had no reliable sources for anything he said, and got everything wrong.
And that thing about “the Gospels are not the only ancient documents that do not identify the author”? Um. How does that argue the Gospels weren’t anonymous? Does she now mean they were anonymous, but that’s okay, because so were the Annals of Tacitus? I can’t fathom any coherent argument here. But it’s also not even true. Making no sense aside, it is also not the case that Tacitus published the Annals anonymously. They very much indeed have his name on them. It’s the Twelve Caesars of Suetonius that are missing his name, but only because we are missing the first pages of it, not because his name wasn’t on it. Somehow Christian Apologist has fallen victim to an incompetent amateur telephone game wherein “we’ve lost the title pages of the Twelve Caesars of Suetonius” got twisted around into “Tacitus published the Annals anonymously.” Face, palm. (See my old note on Anonymous Books.)
In actual fact, the only kind of book in antiquity that was ever published anonymously—was fiction. Of which we do indeed have many examples. Which kind of screws Christian Apologist.
How Bad Are the Inconsistencies in the Gospels?
A classic sign of defending a delusion is when you hear a strong argument and a weak argument, and you only rebut the weak argument and act like the strong argument was never made, and conclude you’ve won. Christian Apologist does this with Another Atheist’s point about the empty tomb stories being too inconsistent to be credible. Another Atheist correctly concludes, from all the inconsistencies, that each Gospel author “didn’t balk at making things up.” Christian Apologist ignores the string of inconsistencies Another Atheist lists, and only answers the problem of why they all disagree as to which women went to the tomb. The least significant contradiction there is. This is how we know Christian Apologist is deluded.
Christian Apologist then invents a completely new story about the empty tomb, in which she tries to harmonize the contradictions, proposing that all that’s happened is that each author only told different parts of it. The problem is that her harmonization neither works, nor is credible as the way witness testimony works.
Its credibility is shot, for example, by the fact that her own story contradicts the Gospel of Matthew’s: she has the earthquake occur and the angel descend and paralyze the guards and open the tomb before the women arrive; Matthew, however, doesn’t say that. The women “came” to see the tomb (past tense: 28:1); then an earthquake hit, and a space-monster descended, paralyzed the guards, opened the tomb, sat on the tomb door, and from there spoke to the women (literally “answering” their questioning presence, 28:2-5); and then “they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring his disciples word” (Matthew 28:8).
Contrast this with Mark, Matthew’s only known source, who never mentions any earthquake, space monster, or guards, only has a man in white inside the tomb speak to them, not sitting on the cast-aside door outside the tomb, and then Mark tells us “they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid” (Mark 16:16). So which is it? They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid? Or they told everyone everything because they were filled with great joy? Christian Apologist’s “story” does not fix this contradiction. It only tries to pretend it doesn’t exist. Likewise, which are we to conclude? That a space monster really did fly down and paralyze the guards and open the tomb, because the women were there to see that and report it, or (as Christian Apologist tells us) no one saw that because no one had gotten there yet—and therefore Matthew made it up?
Catch-22. Gets you every time.
But the bigger problem is that harmonizations like hers are not credible. Because that is not how any real police investigator or historian reconstructs events. All real investigators, when encountering contradictory stories, correctly assume someone has the facts wrong. They never assume every single claim made by every single witness must be true, and therefore the “whole” truth must be some contrived keystone-cops narrative that explains how they are all completely right. Because that’s extraordinarily improbable. No witness would forget a descending space-monster, or that there were magically petrified guards. And the only way witnesses would contradict each other on details like where the glowing space creature was when he spoke to them (in the tomb? outside the tomb?), is because one of them misremembered it. To say it was otherwise, is to assert something extremely unusual in the history of witness accounting.
Christians like to keep saying “real eye-witness accounts always contradict each other,” but they leave out the whole truth, that “real eye-witness accounts always contradict each other, because real eyewitnesses always get details wrong.” Christian apologetics is always about hiding evidence. Like that all the evidence that eyewitness accounts typically contradict each other also shows they do so because eyewitnesses typically get details wrong. Not because all eyewitnesses are always 100% correct and just forget stuff. Likewise, when stories contradict each other in fabulous details, in every other case in history we conclude it’s because the author is making shit up. To claim an exception for the Gospels is a fallacy of special pleading. Which is illogical.
There is a lot more evidence that Matthew, Luke, and John all rewrite Mark’s story by making shit up, not by having access to different witnesses. See, for example, how John fabricates a whole extra person to witness the empty tomb, a person John invented out of a parable in Luke that John specifically endeavored to refute (OHJ, pp. 489-90, 500-05). See, for example, how Matthew embellished Mark’s simple and mundane story into the miraculously fabulous, in order to model Jesus’s escape from the empty tomb after Daniel escaping the lion’s den (PH, pp. 199-203). See, for example, how even Mark is crafting his seemingly simple narrative out of scripture and inter-religious commentary (The Empty Tomb, pp. 158-65). And again, none of their accounts are attested by any actual witness or anyone ever naming any actual witness or who we know would have known any actual witness there would have been (like Paul). It appears, whole cloth, a lifetime later, in a foreign language, from an anonymous author, citing no sources, whose entire treatise is front to back full of unbelievable tales of manifestly allegorical intent. That’s a slam dunk, decisive in any other instance of historical literature…to anyone not fanatically irrational.
In short, Christian Apologist’s “theory” of how the stories came to be as they are is wholly implausible, devoid of evidence, and contrary to every standard of evidence and known fact of human literature and psychology. By her own methods, she would actually think two witnesses to a bank robbery were both telling the truth if one said a burglar stole the money, and the other said a robot with a jet-back descending from the sky did it. “Oh, well, the first witness just forgot about the robot” is just plain ridiculous. Which means any religion that requires you to say that, is ridiculous. (See my discussion of Gospel Contradictions in my review of The Case for Christ film for more on that analogy.)
What’s Really the Case about Burial Customs of the Time?
On this point, both are wrong. Another Atheist incorrectly repeats the completely false statement of John Dominic Crossan that the Romans would have just tossed Jesus’s corpse in a mass pit, and not permitted a tomb burial, because that’s what they did everywhere else. It may be what they did everywhere else (that’s actually not so certain a conclusion). But it absolutely cannot have been what they did in Judea. Judea at that time was still under treaty with Rome, for helping Augustus win the Civil War against Mark Antony. That treaty explicitly said the Roman government would respect the Jewish laws. The Jewish laws mandated proper burial before sundown of any who died—including, and indeed explicitly, executed criminals.
Both Philo and Josephus verify this fact. And Josephus not only points all this out, even quoting the treaty decree, and elsewhere mentioning even specifically that burial of convicts was still practiced, but his entire narrative about Pontius Pilate is also about Pilate’s occasional violation of that treaty as adding fuel to the growing fire of rebellion. But Josephus’s entire point is not that Pilate simply stopped obeying the treaty; that would actually have led to war. Josephus’s point is to record those instances in which Pilate flauted the treaty. So we can be quite certain he wasn’t flauting it in respect to burying convicts; had he been, Josephus would have mentioned it. Indeed, it would have been causing quite a good deal of political uproar.
Christian Apologist is right in citing Philo as attesting to a similar practice of burying crucified criminals in Egypt, though there it was just a limited custom backed by no law or treaty. More decisive is the evidence in Philo and Josephus regarding the special treaty status of Judea, and Josephus’s explicit mention of Jewish burial practices continuing there even for convicts. Christian Apologist is wrong, however, in arguing Jesus would be treated differently than the thieves crucified by him. Nothing she says on that point is even logical. A pretender to the crown would be even less likely to receive special treatment. The Romans would in no way allow any signal that he was being tendered more respect than any other criminal. To the contrary, the thieves crucified by Jesus would have been buried in the same Criminal’s Graveyard Jesus would have been, entirely in accordance with treaty-enforced Jewish law.
What Jewish law said (per the Mishnah) was that executed convicts had to be buried in a special temporary graveyard reserved solely for convicts, and left there for (typically) a year, at which time (when the flesh had rotted from the bones) their family could reclaim them, and properly rebury them in an ossuary—and since such secondary burial was a practice that ended with the Jewish War, that’s one of the reasons we know this law was definitely being enforced in the time of Jesus and not invented later; the law and the practice are also attested in the very verse of Isaiah out of which the narrative of Jesus is constructed: that the messiah (God’s “Chosen One”) after his execution (for crimes he didn’t commit), would be buried with criminals. So the Mishnah practice was quite ancient.
The Talmud reports that in those days the Sanhedrin owned a special graveyard for this purpose. In Jerusalem, that would most likely mean a tomb complex (to facilitate the constant turnover in bodies the law thus required). That’s not certain (the court’s graveyard could still have been earthen), but it is highly likely (especially in the area of Jerusalem). Enough that we can be reasonably certain Jesus would have received a tomb burial, as would the thieves crucified with him (once they, too, had died), or anyone else crucified in Judea. However, it would not be the unoccupied tomb of a private rich man. That would violate the very Jewish law in question; and become a political scandal of the first order. (More on that when we get to the Joseph of Arimathea thing.) Although notably, Mark never says the tomb Jesus was buried in was the unoccupied tomb of a private rich man. Those embellishments were added by later redactors of Mark’s story, thereby making his story increasingly implausible.
(On all the above facts, in every paragraph above, see my full analysis with citations of sources and peer reviewed scholarship confirming each point, in The Empty Tomb, pp. 369-92.)
Most likely, had he existed, Jesus would have been buried in the Sanhedrin’s tomb complex reserved for criminals, and the body of Jesus would have been left there on one of countless shelves among hundreds of other corpses in varying states of decay. Where it could easily have come to be lost (particularly if the authorities wanted it to be lost, as further punishment for his believed sedition and to demoralize his followers). Or where no one cared to collect it, or where no Christian then cared even if it was—it being just the discarded shell of a revered sage whom his worshipers believed now resided in an entirely new body made by God (see below).
But though that’s likely on background evidence alone, it is not the case, as Christian Apologist claims, that “we have at least four independent sources attesting to Jesus’ burial.” She mistakenly thinks the sources she lists are independent; they are not. She list as “independent” sources the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul—which is actually six sources, not four, but none of these is an independent source. Matthew and Luke are both close redactions of Mark, John is a free redaction of Luke, and Acts is based on Luke. They are all just embellishing on a story originating in a single source: Mark. None are independent of Mark. And none attest to any real sources other than Mark or each other.
And Mark is not independent, either; his source (for the fact of Jesus being buried and raised on the third day after) is Paul. Paul, meanwhile, never says whether Jesus was buried in a tomb (rather than in an earthen grave), and never says anyone saw that happen or even knew where it was, or ever checked to see if it was empty later, or even could have done so. Indeed, Paul’s only cited source for the fact of Jesus’s burial, is scripture (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). And we have a pretty good idea of one of the scriptures he means (Isaiah 53:5-9; which at that time contained words even more evocative of a crucifixion than the text we have now: see OHJ, p. 77).
This is exactly the opposite of what historians mean by “independent testimony.” A scripturally-based assumption the messiah would be buried, becomes an assertion in Paul that he was, and then is turned into a story of his burial a lifetime later, which later authors then pick up and rework to make even more fantastical. At no point do we even have a reliable source to the burial. Much less in a tomb. Even less to anyone having found said tomb empty.
But even if we conclude (despite having no evidence of it) that Paul knew (rather than simply assumed) Jesus was buried—and in a tomb no less—that still wouldn’t mean Paul had ever heard of that tomb being found empty. Paul never says, so we can’t presume to know. What Paul does say is that the body that is buried, is not the body that rises; that God makes a new one for us, and stores it in heaven for us to occupy later (1 Corinthians 15:37; 2 Corinthians 5:1-4; The Empty Tomb, pp. 105-55). So Paul would have been content with Jesus leaving the old body of flesh behind in the grave, like a discarded shell, and taking up residence in his new supernatural body. No empty tomb required.
And that is, after all, explicitly what Paul says. But even apart from that, people can believe a body went missing without any witnesses having been able to verify it. If everyone fled to Galilee as Mark and Matthew say (whom, again, Christian Apologist is insisting were eyewitnesses, so who is she to gainsay them on this?), how could they have checked? Fugitives could hardly have expected to be able to inspect the Sanhedrin’s grave complex; and by the time they got back, how would they even recognize a body? Jewish law threw out of court identifications of bodies after three days, owing to rot making them unrecognizable (TET, p. 159).
Which also means that even if a body had been presented them, in some ill-conceived (and fatally illegal) attempt to persuade them Jesus hadn’t risen, believers could simply have denied it was Jesus, on the basis of their revelations being more compelling evidence than a legally unrecognizable corpse. These were, after all, fanatics. And Christians deny all kinds of even more obvious facts today without even being fanatics. Just look at the wild logical contortions Christian Apologist goes through to reconcile all manner of inconvenient facts in this very essay. Do you honestly think she wouldn’t deploy the same delusional reasoning to get her out of being confronted with Jesus’s corpse?
What Does the Peer Reveiwed Literature Say about Joseph of Arimathea?
That leaves one more argument they tangled over: the plausibility of Mark’s adding Joseph of Arimathea to the story, which detail the subsequent Gospels borrowed and embellished on. On this again, both of them are wrong. Nearly everything Another Atheist says here is incorrect. He confuses the invention of the character in Mark, with later redactions of the character that made his role increasingly more fabulous. And his assumptions are wrong, e.g., per my discussion on the last point, the Sanhedrin likely already would have buried Jesus that day, and Pilate would have permitted it as a matter of course. Joseph of Arimathea isn’t needed to fill any plot holes. Rather, he simply isn’t needed at all. Which is almost as suspicious.
The role Joseph’s character plays, like most invented characters in ancient religious fiction, is symbolic and allegorical. His actions, his description, his function, all convey meaning about the gospel, and flesh out the story from popular Jewish and heroic parallels. An Arimathea didn’t exist so far as we know. And the Greek is suspiciously convenient in meaning, “Best Doctrinetown,” as in the most educating and most edifying, where the best disciples come from. That he isn’t a disciple was originally Mark’s point. Mark’s Gospel repeatedly deploys irony, reversing expectations by, for example, having Jesus tell Simon Peter he had to take up his cross and follow him, and then having a different Simon, a total stranger and a foreigner, actually do so. Mark does the same thing by reversing the social expectation that a disciple of Jesus would see to his burial, by instead having a total stranger do so, who is secretly “called” a disciple, with the fake town he comes from.
Later Gospel authors erased the irony and just explicitly made Joseph a secret disciple. And that’s the kind of thing you have to look out for when trying to grapple with the Gospels. You can’t explain why Joseph of Arimathea was made up, by looking at later redactions of his story. You have to look at the original creation of the character. In other words, only what Mark says matters, for understanding where this character came from. Later Gospels, redacting Mark, borrowed and reused the character; you can explore why they made the changes they did, which will tell you something about those authors and their purposes, but it won’t tell you why the character was contrived the first place.
For Mark, Joseph serves a simple function of teaching the gospel through the necessary stage of burying Jesus according to the creed. Joseph’s story is absurdly brief, and completely unexplained (Mark 15:43-46). We aren’t told who even knew who he was, or why it matters who he was; no witness ever speaks to him, nor he to any author; his motives are either unexplored or unrealistic; he appears out of nowhere without explanation, and disappears completely from history the instant his single function is done. Indeed, his total disappearance from history is especially bizarre, for a lot of reasons (see OHJ, Chapter 9.2).
Meanwhile literary analysis makes Joseph much too obviously a fiction. As I point out in OHJ (p. 439; sources cited in n. 108 there):
Joseph of Arimathea is not just a fictive recreation of Priam, who in Homer seeks the body of Hector (as [Dennis] MacDonald shows [in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, pp. 154-61]), but also a type of Joseph the Patriarch, who in [Genesis] 50.4-6 asks Pharaoh for permission to bury Jacob (i.e. Israel), and lays him in the cave-tomb Jacob had hewn, just like the tomb in which the parallel Joseph lays Jesus. Thus, Mark derived the burier’s name as ‘Joseph’. The rest of his description comes from Mark’s use of Homer and his own symbolic imagination.
His fake hometown is also a clue. Joseph does everything according to justice and the law. And he, too, seeks the Kingdom of God. He is thus acting like the Best Disciple. Mark even emphasizes this with a pun: in describing him, the Greek phrase Mark uses that we usually translate as “a prominent councilmember,” also means, literally, “one who makes good decisions.” Joseph also satisfies the scriptural requirement that when the messiah is buried, it will be “with a rich man” (Isaiah 53:9).
The mainstream consensus is thus agnostic about the historicity of Joseph. In two peer reviewed surveys of expert opinion, by William John Lyons (see OHJs bibliography), it was found the arguments for and against are equally balanced, and as many experts doubt his existence as believe it, and many others are undecided. And those who believe it, are usually Christians, who want to believe it. But let’s be honest. No reliable sources support his existence. And a careful literary analysis of his origin and redaction shows clear signs of invention for literary, scriptural, and allegorical ends. His historicity is quite dubious.
And on that at least, Another Atheist is quite right. The town Joseph comes from doesn’t even exist. His appearance is inexplicable. He vanishes from history. No sources are cited for his existence. He performs an obviously scriptural, symbolical, and ironical function. And his story sounds suspiciously too much like Joseph and Pharaoh and Priam and Achilles. In a book full of manifest fictions.
What response does Christian Apologist have? This is all she says:
Joseph of Arimathea is described as a wealthy man who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, which was located in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish high court, which consisted of seventy of the leading authorities on Judaism. Given that the Sanhedrin was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, early Christian views on the Sanhedrin were likely quite hostile. Given that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, all of whom (according to Mark) voted to condemn Jesus, Joseph was the last person Christians would “invent” if the account were merely fiction. According to the late New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “very probable” since it is “almost inexplicable” for Christians to make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus. Even Bart Ehrman affirms that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea.
Nearly every single sentence of that paragraph is false.
- Bart Ehrman does not affirm Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea. In fact, he now strongly doubts it, and cites numerous expert peers who agree with him.
- Raymond Brown’s argument is entirely incorrect. Since Mark repeatedly employs ironies that reverse our expectation (that is in fact a consistent feature of Mark’s Gospel; and a prominent feature of the gospel in general), it is not inexplicable that he would use a Sanhedrist to obey Jewish law in place of the Disciples who fled. Moreover, Brown actually argued that the Markan (and not the later Gospel) versions of the Joseph of Arimathea story is “very probable” because of two reasons: this false claim of inexplicability, and the fact that Arimathea is unknown, yet has no symbolic meaning (Death of the Messiah, vol. 1, p. 1240). But as I just showed, it does have symbolic meaning, thereby eliminating Brown’s second argument as well.
- The Sanhedrin were required by their own law to bury Jesus. It was the very Law of God in the Holy Torah, in fact. Hence they had to bury all people they condemned to death. And they certainly always did so, as Josephus explicitly attests. So there is nothing at all inexplicable about one of them burying Jesus. Even one who voted for his execution. That would have been entirely routine. To the contrary, it would be inexplicable of them not to bury someone they convicted.
- Mark’s hostile attitude toward the Sanhedrin (which actually is not so explicitly hostile as in later Gospels) even makes the irony of inventing a law-abiding Sanhedrist to effect the burial more likely, given his regular use of exactly such ironies throughout his Gospel.
- And finally, Mark actually never says Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin. Or that he voted to convict Jesus. Those are conflations with later redactions, changes to the story made by subsequent Gospel authors. They are not in Mark.
That last is a kicker.
Mark carefully indicates when he means the Sanhedrin (sunedrion), in Mark 14:55 and 15:1 (and in the plural in Mark 13:9). Yet when he describes Joseph of Arimathea, he conspicuously does not say he was a member of one. Rather, he says he was a bouleutês, a member of a boulê, a town council—and Mark does not say which one; by implication, one should sooner think he means, of Arimathea. Though other writers could use the colloquialism of boulê (elected council) for Sanhedrin (court of elders), Mark never does. So we cannot assume that’s what he meant. He chose a different word for a reason. If he wanted us to know he meant “member of the Sanhedrin,” he would most likely have written that. Instead, he wrote bouleutês, a widely-recognized elite social rank not solely distinctive of membership in any sunedrion.
More likely, Mark had no notion of Joseph being a Sanhedrist. Mark says he’s not a local. He’s not even from Jerusalem. He’s an outsider, from somewhere else (“Arimethaea”); just like the mysterious and equally symbolic Simon of Cyrene (whose creation to ironically replace Simon Peter I already mentioned). Mark is saying that a well-respected leader of another (fictional) town stepped in to effect the burial. Later Gospel authors didn’t get that or didn’t like it or thought of a better irony to exploit, so they fixed it up into a different story. But Mark’s story is all about puns and irony, not about a Sanhedrist’s pro forma burial of Jesus. He made Jesus’s undertaker a Good Decisionmaker from Best Doctrinetown, because that’s the symbolic point he wanted to make.
There are aspects of their debate I have a different view on. I mentioned already how the facts on burial customs pan out differently than both of them realize. But for another example, Christian Apologist mentions how Another Atheist thinks the Gospels were propaganda used to “convince people that Jesus was the Messiah and of divine origin,” but I am no longer so sure that’s actually what they were for—the Gospel of John excepted, as he explicitly tells us, repeatedly, that that’s why he wrote. But before that, the Gospels were more about explaining why there was no evidence to convince anyone of that, except the scriptures (and visions to the apostles).
This is the whole point behind Luke’s Parable of Lazarus, for example; and all that rigmarole about “only the sign of Jonah” in Matthew, and “no sign will be given” in Mark. These echo what Paul himself said: that no signs were given (1 Corinthians 1:21-28), but for scripture, and visions to the apostles (Romans 16:25-26). Indeed, the earliest creed we have, likely predating even Paul, says Jesus renounced all miraculous powers, becoming a slave to the natural world (Philippians 2:6-8). And accordingly, Paul never mentions Jesus ever performing any miracle (not even of healing or exorcism). The Gospels invented miracles to be parables for the gospel message.
The Synoptic Gospels are propaganda, but they are aimed primarily at fellow Christians—already believers. To convince them of a particular interpretation of the gospel (e.g. Matthew, wants Torah observance; Mark, wants Gentiles to be allowed in without that; Luke, wants both factions to get along and accept both models). And their function outside that is to serve as manuals for missionaries. They contain stories and parables any missionary can use to argue with the locals on their travels, rebutting arguments like “You must be insane” (with pithy stories about what happened when Jesus was accused of that), and explaining things like “What is baptism for?” (with aetiological myths of the cosmically paradigmatic baptism) and “Why did your God let heathens destroy his temple?” (with allegories about cursing fig trees: OHJ, pp. 433-35). Gradually they needed more arguments against the rebuttal “No way your guy was really risen from the dead!” and some such tales got added, and improved, with every redaction—until arriving at John, which is that on steroids. (See OHJ, pp. 489-81.)
But it took years of study before I could see these facts and understand them. So I wouldn’t expect amateurs to have learned it.
What I do expect amateurs to know before mouthing off, is what their own Bible and sources actually say (as we saw, Christian Apologist repeatedly does not). I expect them to vet the logic of their arguments against standard fallacies everyone knows. I expect them to be honest, and to actually care about whether they might be wrong, and to take genuine care to be sure they’re not, rather than just making up a ton of rationalizations to convince themselves they’re right. Garbage apologetics, like the crap Christian Apologist writes, is just delusional. It’s dishonest and illogical, wildly inaccurate, and a waste of everyone’s time.
A closing note to my readers. The empty tomb is just one part of the fabulous tales of resurrection in the Gospels. For my most convenient and up-to-date case against believing any resurrection occurred two thousand years ago, see “Why the Resurrection Is Unbelievable” in The Christian Delusion, and “Christianity’s Success Was Not Improbable” in The End of Christianity. Those combined address pretty much all serious apologetic defenses of the resurrection in print. You hardly need read anything else.