Would Christians hearing of an empty tomb see more “story need” to avoid using the women as its discoverers?
Clarifying the question
Several sources say that, after Jesus’s crucifixion and entombment, a group of Jesus’s women followers—including Mary Magdalene—discovered Jesus’s tomb empty (Mk 16, Mt 28, Lk 28, Jn 28, etc.).
Scholars have wondered whether this report, rather than having honest origins, started as a lie that was perpetuated and finally culminated in these reports. Some of the main evidence for and against this hypothesis looks to whether early Christians would be inclined to employ these women in this role.
In that vein, it may be worth considering what virtues and vices would be involved in storytelling itself, and what kind of pressure that would exert on hearers and storytellers.
So here is our question: Considering only the internal virtues and vices of an historical story qua story, would a Christian telling the Gospel story feel more narrative or story-telling pressure to avoid utilizing these women as the discoverers of Jesus’s empty tomb (and His resurrection)?
The women are negligible characters
As portrayed by the Gospel authors, Mary and the other women who end up first learning Jesus rose, up until that moment, play virtually no role in the Gospel drama of Jesus’s ministry.
- The women get virtually no mention prior to this.
This is relevant because the empty tomb discovery and its proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection by the accompanying angel is a climactic main event in content of the Gospel story. Yet using negligible characters as the heroes in your story’s climax —tossing out all the character development beforehand—is awkward. It frustrates the narrative’s development, and makes for generally inept storytelling.1
- >• Craig Evans: “It’s hard to see why relatively unknown women would feature so prominently in such an important story if what we have here is fiction.” [Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus: Online]
• Dale Allison: “That it should be these devoted but humble and relatively insignificant followers who are given the credit for the discovery in every gospel is historically impressive. … This is perhaps the most popular argument for the empty tomb in recent decades.” [Resurrecting Jesus (T & T Clark International, 2005), 326-327.]
Jews felt God wouldn’t use women
In 1st century Jewish thought, women were thought to be inappropriate/unworthy mediators of God’s word to men.
A full page will analyze these 5 arguments:
- Details considered, women are never used this way in Biblical history.
- Pseudo-Phil LAB 9:10 says Miriam’s righteous parents rejected her vision.
- Pseudo-Philo, LAB 42:1-5 says Manoah rejected wife’s words (from an angel).
- Leviticus Rabbah 10:5 says Manoah rejects his wife’s words because she’s a woman.
- In Ant 1:257, Josephus minimizes the role of women in receiving revelation.
This is relevant because the story uses women to first hear news of God’s grand message and vindication of His Son and to consequently inform the male apostles.
The male disciples fled (only women remained)
The male disciples historically fled to Jerusalem soon after Jesus was crucified. [Forthcoming] This is relevant because the author's audience knew the males fled (i.e., the author could not erase this), and so female witnesses would then be the only available disciple-witnesses the author could use.1 Their use would therefore be a necessary evil; (i.e., “If Mark was working from a source which had only women as witnesses of the burial of Jesus, only they could be responsible for discovering the empty tomb.”)
But the first claim is false,
- Male disciples were available.2
• Gerd Theissen & Annette Merz: “The disciples had fled at the arrest of Jesus. Only a few women disciples ventured to look on the crucifixion from afar. Probably the fugitives had removed themselves to Galilee.” [This Historical Jesus (Fortress, 1998), 503.]
• J.M.G. Barclay: “…it could arise simply from literary necessity: if Mark was working from a source which had only women as witnesses of the burial of Jesus, only they could be responsible for discovering the tomb empty.” [“The Resurrection in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship,” in G. D'Costa, ed., Resurrection Reconsidered (Oneworld, 1996), 23.]
• Gerd Lüdemann: “From there the narrative of the tomb develops with apologetic intent. It was not strange that women should have been the main figures in this legend, since the flight of the male disciples was an established fact.” [The Resurrection of Jesus (Fortress, 1994), 118.]
- Consider three reasons to agree that male disciples would be available:
• First, at least some of the women at the tomb would have husbands (or fathers), and they would be available. (Or they could easily be invented! Even an invented non-Christian husband or father could see.)
• Second, Jesus's apostles themselves were available:
a) They are never unavailable.
i) It is false that the apostles fled or that it was implied that they fled.
ii) Certainly, it wasn’t clear enough in the narrative to exclude the possibility:
• See for yourself that it doesn’t imply an immediate exit from Jerusalem.
• Luke obviously saw no problem [Lk 23:49 (“All his acquaintances …stood at a distance”)
• John and his community obviously saw no problem (Jn 19:26-27 — “the disciple who he [Jesus] loved standing beside her [at Jesus’s crucifixion]”)
b) Even if they had fled, the author could simply invent a story of one or more returning.
• W. D. Davies & Dale Allison: “One fails to see why Christian legend preferred to create a story with Mary Magdalene at the tomb instead of a story in which the disciples, if gone to Galilee, soon return to Jerusalem to find the tomb empty.” (cf. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p.320-330)
• William Lane Craig: “…if the story of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb is a pure legend, then why could we not have a purely legendary account of the discovery of the empty tomb by male disciples?” [Visions of Jesus: A Critical Assessment of Gerd Lüdemann's Hallucination Hypothesis, online
For example, as done in the Gospel of Peter:
• Gospel of Peter 10:38-11:45 — [High ranking Jewish officials look to see]
Only the women saw where the tomb was
In the tradition(s) being circulated, only women were reported to have seen where Jesus was buried.
- E.g., this fact is implied [here in Mk 15]
This is relevant because, from a narrative-coherence point of view, only persons who knew where the tomb was could visit it.1
But that first claim is false …
- Many saw where the tomb was (e.g., those who placed Jesus in the tomb).
- It would be easy to invent people who saw it (e.g., known disciples in cloaks, unknown/secret disciples, bystanders, etc.).
And regarding the claim's relevance …
- It would be overtly easy to invent a detail wherein the women told the men.
- It would be overtly easy to invent a detail that says the men accompanied the women (e.g., to help move the stone).
• Peter Carnley: “[t]here was an existing tradition that only the women were in the close vicinity of the crucifixion and that they alone participated in the burial. This would dictate that only the women, therefore, despite their unfortunate incompetence at law to supply evidence of the highest calibre, could really be called into the empty tomb story.” [The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Clarendon Press, 1987), 60.]
Only women were the customary corpse-preparers
The role of anointing a dead body was only appropriate for women to perform. Women uniquely had the duty to anoint a buried corpse. So only women would make sense in the story as ones returning to the tomb.
But that first claim is false.
- [There is no evidence of it being true.]
- The Gospels themselves provide multiple counterexamples.1
And regarding the claims relevance …
- It’d be overtly easy to invent a detail that says the men accompanied the women while not helping with the work.2
- For example, Mark explicitly records that Joseph (or Joseph’s servants) prepared the corpse for burial while the women merely watched. See similar reports in all the Gospels (Mk 15:42-47). This is also reported in the other Gospels, with even Nicodemus—obviously a male—assisting. (Mt 27:57-61; Lk 23:50-56; Jn 19:38-40)
- For example, they could plausibly be said to accompany the women out of gentlemanly concern for their safety, to help move the stone, to check the corpse, or ritualistically place something in the tomb.
Only women were mourners, death-checkers, etc.
Women were uniquely associated with certain after-burial practices, namely the practices of of mourning and checking a buried body to see if it was actually dead. So only women would make sense in the story as ones returning to the tomb.
But that first claim is false,
- …men could/would mourn and check.1
- …others can visit just fine.
• John Nolland: “[supposing] only the presence of women at the tomb could be readily accounted for [because of their role in Jewish mourning practice] involves a misuse of the evidence concerning Jewish mourning practice; [Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 35c: Luke 18:35-24:53, (Word Books, 1998).]
• Carolyn Osiek: “Both men and women lament, often publicly (e.g., 2 Sm 13: 31; 18:33-19:8; Job 1:20; 2:12-13; Ezk 29:30-36; Mk 5:38; Jn 11:33), but it is especially women who carry the tradition with their own particular and culture-specific customs.” [“The Women at the Tomb: What are they doing there?” HTS Theological Studies 53/1 & 2 (1997): 110.]