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Does corpse-decomposition explain why Jesus's body wasn't used to falsify Christianity?

  • Clarifying the question

    Question: The earliest critics of Christianity in Jerusalem never falsified the movement by simply displaying the unresurrected corpse of Jesus. Could this simply be because they knew corpse would have already decayed beyond recognition?1

    1. For examples of scholars propounding this view:
      Gerd Lüdemann (Early Chr. Hist. & Lit. prof. at Göttingen): “At seventy or more degrees, decomposition will soon make a face unrecognizable and thwart the surest ways to identify a dead person (fingerprints, dental records, etc., were not available at that time). Therefore, no easy way existed for the Jewish opponents to confront the young Jesus movement with counterevidence.” [Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? eds. Eds. Copan & Tacelli (IVP, 2000), 152.]
      Jeff Lowder: “[They] could have produced the body, but the disciples could simply have denied it was Jesus.” ["Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story." Journal of Higher Criticism 8:2 (Fall 2001): online.];
      Kirsopp Lake (NT prof. at Leiden; 1872-1946): “…there is no trace of any attempt to investigate the tomb. The emptiness of the grave only became a matter of controversy at a period when investigation could not have been decisive.” [The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Williams & Norgate, 1907), 196.]
“No, after all…
  • Identifiable by its location

    Jesus's corpse would've been identifiable simply by its location1 (Note: They knew were Jesus's tomb was.) This is relevant because it renders corpse decomposition irrelevant.

    1. As noted by a few different sources:
      Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: “When Jesus' resurrection was first proclaimed, why did the authorities not exhume the corpse? Even if it had decayed beyond recognition, its presence in Joseph's tomb --- a detail with strong historical credentials --- would have been damning.” [Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, (IVP Academic, 1992), 558.]
      Robert Gundry): “But you would see something, at least the skeleton; and you would see that the tomb was occupied, not empty. So [the question remains]: Why did the enemies of Jesus not squelch the message of resurrection by exposing his remains?” [Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? eds. Copan & Tacelli (IVP, 2000), 111.]
      Or more broadly, if the corpse was not buried in a tomb, Jesus's corpse would have been identifiable simply by knowing the location of its grave.
      William Lane Craig: “Even if Joseph (or the Jewish authorities) only gave Jesus a dishonorable burial, why did they not point to his burial place as the easiest answer to the disciples’ proclamation of the resurrection?" [Visions of Jesus: A Critical Assessment of Gerd Lüdemann's Hallucination Hypothesis (Edwin Mellen Press): online]
      Wolfhart Pannenberg: “How could Jesus' disciples in Jerusalem have proclaimed his resurrection if they could be constantly refuted merely by viewing the grave in which the body was interred?” [Jesus - God and Man (Westminster, 1983), 100.]
      Gary Habermas & Mike Licona (NT professor at Southern Evangelical): “…regardless of the condition of his body, the enemies of Jesus would still have found benefit in producing the corpse. Even a barely recognizable corpse could have dissuaded some believers, possibly weakening and ultimately toppling the entire movement.… This exodus would presumably have required the attention of the Christian apologists of the second and third centuries…” [The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregal Publications, 2004), 70-71.]
  • Identifiable by its physical features

    There would be a thoroughly sufficient combination of these durably recognizable features that would be dead giveaways that the corpse was Jesus's:

    We know this for 3 kinds of reasons...

    • The corpse was identifiable several ways for several months.1
    • The corpse's environment was also very preservation-friendly (chilly and arid).2
    • The corpse would've been examined soon.3

    This is relevant because if corpse-decomposition is going to explain why Jesus's body was not examined and used to refute early Christianity, then there needs to be a relevant connection between its decomposition and that lack of refutation. This fails insofar as it hopes to be that relevant connection.

    1. For example, Jesus's corpse would be identifiable by (1) fleshly lacerations/holes in the head (from thorn-crown), back (from scourging), side (from spear thrust), and feet and wrists (nail holes), (2) its height, (3) its stature, (4) its hair, (5) its teeth--a recognizable feature to friends/family.
    2. We know the environment was preservation-friendly for two reasons: it was chilly and arid.
      Regarding temperature, it was likely well-below Lüdemann's º70 F.
      • Contemporary investigations suggest that it is regularly cold at this time and place:

      Robert Gundry: “…the high elevation of Jerusalem can make it cold at Passovertide. …” [Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Eerdmans, 2000), 997.]
      Raymond Brown: "Actually, it can be quite cool in mountainous Jerusalem in early spring;” [The Gospel according to John XII-XXI (Doubleday, 1970), 982.]
      William Lane Craig: “Jerusalem, being 700 meters above sea level, can be quite cool in April.” [Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Edwin Mellen, 1989) 204.]

      • It is reported that it was very cold.
      Jn 18:15-18, 25 -- “[Just before Jesus' crucifixion, one disciple] entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest,... Now the slaves and the officers were standing there, having made a charcoal fire, for it was cold and they were warming themselves; and Peter was also with them, standing and warming himself. …, Simon Peter was standing and warming himself.
      Regarding humidity, it would have been arid.
      Gary Habermas & Michael Licona: “…in the arid climate of Jerusalem, a corpse's hair, stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after fifty days (This information was obtained from the Medical Examiner's Office for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The physician in charge said that even in Virginia, which has a climate warm and damp enough to promote quick decomposition, an unprepared corpse undergoing a normal rate of decomposition should still after fifty days have its hair and an identifying stature. The wounds would “definitely” be identifiable. Thus, a corpse in a much worse state than what would be expected for arid Jerusalem would still be identifiable after fifty days.).” [The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregal Pub., 2004), 70-71.]
      For an example that brings home the relevance of this: the corpse of Medger Evers was found 30+ years after death, and remained well preserved for this reason. See Christine Quigley, Modern Mummies (McFarland, 1998), 213-214.

    3. Specifically, any corpse in Jesus's tomb would have been examined by friends and enemies with days, or just weeks of Jesus's death because that is when Christians began upsetting the Jews and winning converts (e.g. see Acts 1-2).