Bart D. Ehrman on the Historian and the Resurrection of Jesus

[Written by John W. Loftus] Here's what Ehrman wrote:
Why was the tomb supposedly empty? I say supposedly because, frankly, I don't know that it was. Our very first reference to Jesus' tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard it was empty. How would he know?...Suppose...that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea...and then a couple of Jesus' followers, not among the twelve, decided that night to move the body somewhere more appropriate...But a couple of Roman legionnaires are passing by, and catch these followers carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets. They suspect foul play and confront the followers, who pull their swords as the disciples did in Gethsemane. The soldiers, expert in swordplay, kill them on the spot. They now have three bodies, and no idea where the first one came from. Not knowing what to do with them, they commandeer a cart and take the corpses out to Gehenna, outside town, and dump them. Within three or four days the bodies have deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus' original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why.

Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one..." [See pages 171-179]
After quoting this from Ehrman's book, Jesus Interrupted, which I reviewed on Amazon, James McGrath wrote about the historian's dilemna:
...namely that all sorts of fairly improbable scenarios are inevitably going to be more likely than an extremely improbable one. That doesn't necessarily mean miracles never happened then or don't happen now - it just means that historical tools are not the way to answer that question.
[Edit: But it's precisely because the tools of the historian are all we've got to know whether an extremely improbable miraculous event like a resurrection happened, then even if it happened we cannot know that it did. That's the point of Ehrman. Since they do not happen now we have no way of knowing that they happened then. And this is why I say that if miracles do not happen now then they did not happen then. Why? Because the tools of the historian are all we've got to know whether they really happened.] Here's what else Mcgrath wrote about methodological naturalism.

First Posted April 9, 2009.


Admin said...

There is no good reason to believe Joseph of Arimathea allowed Jesus' body to be placed in his tomb, or that the Romans would have allowed it.

However, if we grant that for the sake of argument, who is to say Joseph didn't have a change of heart and had some servants take Jesus out of there after the sabbath? It wouldn't even need to have been some of Jesus' disciples who moved the body.

Yes any number of scenarios could be created to explain this that would not require the absurd notion that yahweh did it.

It is important to emphasize though that the "honorable burial" and "empty tomb" are not facts at all, and not even mentioned by Paul. Rather it is later embellishment created by Mark.

ahswan said...

Ben Witherington has just reviewed Ehrman's book in 2 posts:

I'm having a review copy sent to me, and I'll review it myself, soon. However, from the excerpts and interviews I've read, I would agree with BW.

Admin said...

Ahswan is typical of most christians. Whenever a book comes out challenging christian beliefs, the christian runs to his authorities to calm him down and tell him everything is going to be all right. Yes, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I took a look at Witherington's blog and quickly ran across this juicy nugget...

"The earliest Christians writers were, almost without exception, educated Jews, who passed on early Christian traditions in a thoroughly Jewish manner and had a high regard for the truth of things."

Oh really? I guess when you preach to the choir you aren't required to back up your assertions.

Witherington says...

"Bart pleads in this chapter that each Biblical author be allowed to speak for himself. I quite agree with this up to a point, But these Biblical authors did not think they were operating in a social vacuum. They believed they were part of a movement, and they relied on traditions, oral and written, from those who had come before or were their contemporaries."

Funny, where did Witherington get this insight into the biblical authors intentions? How does he know where they got their information? Why should we assume these authors agreed with one another? Why should we assume they were Jewish when they were writing in Greek and belittling the Jewish disciples (see Mark)and constantly saying "the jews, the jews" (see John).

This circular reasoning is making me dizzy.

Does Witherington believe Luke's genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam is historical?

Badger3k said...

Well, you have to presuppose that there was a tomb, and a Jospeh of Aramethea, and everything, before you can ask if the tomb was empty. There are a lot of reasons to believe that Joseph of Arimithea was a fictional construct used as an explanation for the tomb, which was necessary for there to be a resurrection - you can't really have a resurrection if the hero was tossed into a common grave with the rest of the criminals. That hypothesis is another of many, but all of them are built on loads of assumptions and presuppositions.

But I agree with Ehrman that all those situations are far more probable than the events of Jesus' Bad Weekend.

K said...

This issue is the hardest thing I have in reconciling any belief system regardless of whether it be Christianity or something else. I mainly hear this in "new age" circles where most of my experience has been with claims of this nature.

Take the example of talking to the dead. While all evidence points to the mind being a product of the body that ceases to be when the body dies, it could be true that there is an element of the essence of our being that can survive death. And if that is true, then it could be that the dead would have a vested interest in the living - after all we have a vested interest in the living after we are alive. And if we have that duality to our nature, then it could be that a few could contact the other side. And those who have a message for their living loved-ones could be around when a medium is oh-hand to deliver the message...

Yet there are a plethora of explanations that have an evidential basis in the real world that can explain the exact same phenomenon that don't rely on unsubstantiated assumptions; that in the case of John Edward, the techniques of cold, warm and hot reading combined with a credulous audience and willing participants could explain it just as well - without delving into an *impossible explantion. Before jumping to a supernatural conclusion, all natural explanations should be exhausted and even then scepticism should be taken on the idea. Otherwise, it's playing a god-of-the-gaps type understanding of nature.

To me, this is why I can't understand the Christian focus on eyewitness accounts. Even if there were a million eyewitness accounts, the extraordinary nature of the claim demands something better than the notion that it could be true provided a few massive assumptions are made and from there ignore the unreliability of the type of evidence at hand.

*impossible in accord with our understanding of the world.

Dave Huntsman said...

One of my points of disagreement with Richard Carrier in his debate with William Craig was that Carrier conceded that Jesus was buried. There is no reason to believe that he was. And there is no reason - repeat, no reason - to believe that "Joseph of Arimathea" was a historical person, either.

Carrier in his blog strongly disagreed with my disagreement; and pointed me towards a paper by
theologist and bible literalist, Craig Evans, in the June 2005 issue of The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus.
(Evan's own biography page states that: "The New Testament Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and truthfully and accurately describe the teaching, life, and death of Jesus." Puh-lease.)

But in that paper, even this theologian also agreed that when the Roman's crucified you you were not allowed to be buried (and certainly not that night). What he does is then go on and postulate several things that might have happened - ie, Pilate might have been bribed to let him be taken down (by whom?); Joseph might have existed - though there is no evidence for that; etc. Pilot's reputation was one of treating the Jews with unusual brutality; so bad he eventually was removed for it and sent to Rome for probable execution. "Kindler, gentler" were not adjectives used for that procurator.

Crossan's points - which neither Carrier nor Evans directly takes issue with, in my view - is that when the normal practice of crucifixion as state terrorism is coupled with the 'trajectory' of scripture writings, they both say the same thing. (The 'trajectory' is where Crossan lays out all of the crucifixion stories in the order they were written over the centuries. They start out, when they finally do start out, exceedingly simple; but with each 'retelling', they get more and more elaborate, with the final one describing a burial fit for a king. Tracing that trajectory backwards, and it points to 'zero'; ie, no burial at all. Add to that the normal Roman practice of no burial - which even Evans admits was by far the normal practice - and it, too, points to no burial. Add to that the archeological evidence - or, lack of evidence: of the many thousands of people the Romans crucified over a few decades outside of Jeruselem's walls, only the bones of one - as in, less than two - have ever been found. That, too, points to no burial. Add to that, absolutely no real evidence for any of the other theories. Add to that the fact that the earliest writer of all - the person 15 or 20 years from the action - never mentions a an empty tomb (as if such a thing wouldn't be worth mentioning??), which again points in its own way to no burial.

In short: Jesus of Galilee caused a ruckus; Pilate had given standing orders during Passover to deal with any troublemakers promptly with all of the crowds, before anything got out of hand; the troublemaker was immediately crucified, with what Crossan describes as a 'casual brutality' that would not have involved any trial; no philosophical debate with the procurator; nothing. And he would have been left to hang there, period. The fact that his disciples couldn't understand how their master could be so casually dispatched (just as quickly as the Baptist had been), led them over the following decades to start small in their stories; but the stories gradually - and, unceasingly - became more elaborate over time.

Essentially, the Christ figure rose out of that disappointment. Started by Paul, who self-admits he never met the guy. Others in later decades - anonymous writers who didn't live in Judea or Galilee, had never been there, didn't know the language - wrote the Gospel stories we now know, while sitting in another country, writing in another language.

Joe Staub said...


I reviewed Ehrman's, "Jesus Interrupted" and Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" on my blog. Kind of a side by side comparison. I would like you to read it and comment. Bauckham, of course, has a different perspective. And it isn't reduced to faith.



Steven Carr said...

From Joe Staub's blog 'His (Bauckham's) study leads him to the conclusion that ancient historians at the time of Christ had a very high view of historical accuracy because of their trust in eyewitness testimony'

In other words, the earliest Gospel never names the author as ever having met any eyewitnesses, and nobody in history ever named himself as ever having seen Arimathea, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Bartimaeus, Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Joanna, Salome, Barabbas, Judas, Thomas , Simon of Cyrene, his sons, etc etc.

And Matthew's Gospel , far from relying on eyewitnesses, uses 90% of Mark's Gospel, simply changing whatever did not suit his theological agenda.

For example, while the Jesus in Mark's Gospel is made to say '"Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it."', the Jesus of Matthew's Gospel is made to say something else entirely different :-

'A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah."'

Using 90% of an anonymous source without telling your reader you are plagiarising, and then just changing your source to fit your bias, this is not the work of historians, no matter what special pleading Bauckham comes up with.

At least Ehrman is an historian, while Bauckham's book reveals him as biased as the people who claimed cigarettes did not cause cancer.

Harry H. McCall said...

After all is said and done in the “Proofs for Gospel Historicity”; here’s what it boils down to:  The Gospels have Jesus giving power to this disciples to continue “Signs and Wonders” as proof of his supernatural life an authority from God.
However, other than Peter (who himself fades from history in the first half of the Book of Acts), the other 11 (who were taught by Jesus himself) leave no mark of their passing (That the Epistles of Jude was written by an Apostles is pure tradition).
The really odd thing is that a man who never met Jesus; who never saw an empty tomb; nor a resurrected body formulated about three quarters of the canonized New Testament and give the Church its Summa Theologica:  the Epistle of Romans.  All this while the very disciples are continually displayed in the Gospels as not understanding Jesus or his message leave us nothing (Other than Peter).
Finally, we should NEVER lose sight of this thought:  While many things are labeled as sin or sins in both thoughts and deeds by the Gospel Jesus and latter by Paul, one must understand that nowhere in the Bible (especially the New Testament) is the fabrication or forging of so called Scriptures ever prohibited nor condemned. In short, just as it is even done in sermons today, lying to help create faith is considered good.

As prove of this high output of erroneous “Holy” literary output in ancient times, one just needs consider the vast Old Testament Apocryphas and Pseudopigraphias and the New Testament Apocryphal Gospels, Acts and Epistles written under the names of holy men.

Fact is, no matter how much credence believers attribute to the text of the New Testament, the ONLY thing that makes it half way valid is its pure human process of Canonization! A process of Canonization based simply on what was considered orthodox at the time the books were chosen.

Steven Carr said...

'The really odd thing is that a man who never met Jesus; who never saw an empty tomb; nor a resurrected body formulated about three quarters of the canonized New Testament and give the Church its Summa Theologica: the Epistle of Romans.'

And Paul went much further than that....

1 Corinthians 1
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not
know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was
preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a
stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Paul states that Christianity was not built on what Greeks looked
for, which was worldly wisdom.

Nor on what Jews demanded , which was miraculous signs.

Indeed, Paul seems to suggest that it would be wrong even to look for the miraculous signs that the Jews were demanding.

They were wrong to ask for signs, as Christianity was no more in
the business of supplying miraculous signs as it was in the
business of building on Greek worldly wisdom.

Miracles would be no more God's way than using worldly wisdom as a basis for Christianity.

Had there really been no miracles which could have been regarded as signs that Christianity was true, signs of the type that the Jews were demanding?

So how could there have been a visible ,earthly resurrection if
miraculous signs were to be as despised as worldly wisdom?

Of course, in Mark's Gospel, the women tell nobody about this empty tomb.

And the Jesus of Mark's Gospel is made to say 'He sighed deeply and said, "Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it."

So how could there have been an empty tomb, signalling the resurrection of Jesus?

When the earliest Gospel goes out of its way to have a Jesus say there will be no such sign, and then has an ending where the news is simply not told to anyone?

And Paul chides Jews for demanding such signs?

There was no such sign.

There was no resurrection of an earthly corpse.

Unknown said...

How confusing is what MgGrath said:

'it just means that historical tools are not the way to answer that question. '

What are the tools to determine history? And miracles might happen now?

Harry H. McCall said...

Steve Carr,

My point is that Paul has no eye witness proofs, but simply and only his reasoned logic called "theology".

If theology was logical truth to the world, than there would never be any heresies.

Only the weaker theology is labeled a heresy, not that its any less truer than that labeled orthodox.

In religion, truth is in the mind of the believer, and religious “proofs” a invalid in a court of law.

Vinny said...

Let us suppose that we could establish that the supernatural explanation of the Resurrection stories is twice as likely as any specific natural explanation. There are still so many possible natural explanations that some natural explanation is still overwhelmingly more likely than a supernatural one. That is of course unless you want to open up the possibility of a supernatural explanation other than the traditional Christian one

eheffa said...

Dave Huntsman said:
"In short: Jesus of Galilee caused a ruckus;

Yes & according to the "Gospels", Jesus attracted huge crowds & was the talk of the town with his public sermons & healings. Pilate even placed a sign on his cross declaring him to be the "King of the Jews".

Funny how none of the social commentators & historians of the day noticed this charismatic personality. They also failed to notice the existence of his many vocal followers & the rapidly growing sect he inspired. don't suppose the anonymous author of Mark, writing at least 40 + years later from a remote location could have just made it the whole thing up?

Naahh. Couldn't be.

Now let's get back to the question of how that tomb could have been empty...a miraculous physical resurrection has to be the only reasonable answer. Thank God we have people like Craig, Strobel and JP Holding to keep us thinking straight.


Luke said...

I think this is a nice way to sum up the historian's problem in arguing for a magical resurrection.

nearenough said...

There's no evidence at all that Jesus was dead. There was no examination of the properly identified body by anyone at all familiar with the accurate diagnosis of death: no lack of pulse, no rigor mortis, no lack of breathing -- none of these signs (and many more)were recorded anywhere. No death, no resurrection.

Sure, apologists like William Lane Craig will say the "swoon" theory was disproved decades ago, but the fact is, it hadn't been and never will be disproven, as there is simply no evidence that a death occurred.

As far as the "empty tomb," which tomb? There are always empty tombs hanging about any cemetery. Exactly where was the proposed tomb and where was the later alleged empty tomb? No addresses are given; no plot numbers, no identification. The story is just a story, nothing more.

New Family Bureau said...

Perhaps the tomb was empty because it was never occupied.

M. Tully said...


I agree with your conclusions, but, "This is already by definition true..."

Historians don't have a true by definition category of acceptance, only true by evidence. Yes an improbable hypothesis will carry more weight than a ridiculously improbable hypothesis, but that is only because that is what the evidence today dictates.

If ever the day came, when the evidence of a bodily resurrection from the dead of a guy who had been in stone tomb for three days was demonstrated, the historians' would raise the probability of the Jesus story. If, in addition to that, previously unknown multiple reliable accounts of a rabbi named Jesus resurrecting in the same manner were discovered, you would see the resurrection of Jesus treated as an established fact in peer reviewed historical journals of the ancient mid-east. Instead what you see today is no one making an argument that an event like that occurred and most historians just ignoring it (and no that is not to say that they ignore the historical significance of people's belief in the story, much the same way they don't ignore Pompeii performing divination rites while Cicero lamenting he ought to be fighting and not praying).

Steven Carr said...

Of course there is no evidence that Joseph of Arimathea existed.

There is no evidence that Arimathea existed.

Ryan Peter said...

"Why was the tomb supposedly empty? I say supposedly because, frankly, I don't know that it was. Our very first reference to Jesus' tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard it was empty. How would he know?.."

Actually, last time I checked the earliest reference to the resurrection is 1 Cor 15, based on a creed that had formed in the church earlier than it was written (the creed can be dated earlier).

1 Cor was written about 20 years after the resurrection, and here Paul claims that some people who witnessed it were still alive. Looks to me that Ehrman needs to do a little more research...

Vinny said...


Paul doesn't say anything about an empty tomb in Corinthians.

Anthony said...

Ryan: Actually, last time I checked the earliest reference to the resurrection is 1 Cor 15

Vinny, you beat me to the punch!

Ryan, there is a distinction between the question of the empty tomb and the resurrection, at least for historians. James F. McGrath deals with this issue at length in his excellent little book The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith

Ryan Peter said...

Oh ok. I think that sort of thing needs to be explained to layman people on a post like this; many will assume an 'empty tomb' discussion links to a discussion on the resurrection. I don't think that's an unfair assumption. My bad anyway.

eheffa said...

Ryan Peter said: Actually, last time I checked the earliest reference to the resurrection is 1 Cor 15, based on a creed that had formed in the church earlier than it was written (the creed can be dated earlier).

1 Cor was written about 20 years after the resurrection, and here Paul claims that some people who witnessed it were still alive. Looks to me that Ehrman needs to do a little more research...

Hi Ryan,

The passage in question is in question & a little homework can reveal that this singular reference by "Paul" to the Gospel Jesus is quite unique. Perhaps Paul was ignorant to the Gospel story and this passage is an interpolation... (?)


How is the honest questioner to determine the right answer to such a question?

Like the Ultimate TV game show - the pressure is on; because, if you guess wrong, the game show host will burn you forever.

Doesn't this all seem just a little preposterous to you?

I care about the truth of this question but I don't see an obvious answer. Trusting my faith to the camp that also allowed a bunch of forgers' works into the Canon seems like a foolish choice. Can you say with any confidence that you trust the 2nd century church to have guarded these writings against modification or interpolation?

No. Neither can I.


Ryan Peter said...

Hi Evan,

"Perhaps Paul was ignorant to the Gospel story and this passage is an interpolation... (?)"

Perhaps, or perhaps it is also an earlier creed?

There are scholars who disagree with Price's theory. We're obviously not going to get anywhere with this :)

"Like the Ultimate TV game show - the pressure is on; because, if you guess wrong, the game show host will burn you forever.

Doesn't this all seem just a little preposterous to you?"

Yes, perhaps, IF you were going to burn forever and IF it was a guessing game.

For me, it comes round to whether you're going to accept skepticism as the only / your most reliable 'filter' for truth. If you do, you will always be skeptical and never arrive at any answers or at least conclusions. It also depends on whether you think everything and all answers have to be in black and white.

This would require a lot of discussion, and here isn't the place for it. However, let me provide a quick picture just for thought.

Suppose I have never seen an apple before and someone comes to me and tells me that apples are green, then someone else tells me that apples are red. Do I need to choose one of these answers? Only if I believed everything was either black and white. The reality is that apples are both red and green, so both answers are right. There is always the option of both at the same time, but for some reason that option never really passes our mind.

GK Chesterton talks about how a mystical worldview can hold two conflicting truths together whereas a materialistic worldview can't. I believe the former worldview is healthier. It's is also more interesting. And it is by no means living in a dream world, as two conflicting truths CAN both be true. We just don't know how to put it together. Just because we have that shortfall doesn't make either of the truths untrue. Most average people tend to be able to do this, much to the complaint of scholars / the intelligentsia.

That would answer your last question in an obscure way, but I don't really have the space here to go into detail. But at any rate, we have to trust people at some stage until we believe they are guilty. Is it innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent? Skeptics often take the latter view.

And besides, even if the bible was only 70 percent true, that would not make it UNTRUE or a lie. Most of these interpolation theories I've read are based on conspiracy theories that call people's character into question into a very big way. Many are based on assumptions that all people at every time always have sinister goals in mind. That's a very negative assumption and perhaps unfair to those people in question.

I realise this isn't adding a ton of CONCRETE value to the conversation, but I mention it just to provide some thought. Best I end there and rather discuss these kinds of things elsewhere or when the post calls for it.

Jonathan said...

Was Jesus buried like underground in a coffin or placed on a slab in a open tomb?

Why does the Resurrection get special treatment?

If there isn't any proof for Adam / Eve, Noah & the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, why would anyone think Jesus was Resurrected?

Since in the OT God had used many people who seemed to accomplish much more than what Jesus did without the immaculate birth routine?

You would think if Jesus was the son of God he would of had developed a plan of succession before his Crucifixion, since Jesus knew about before hand.

Why would God go through all the trouble in having a fleshly born son only to have him Crucified, the Western / Eastern split, the Reformation, various wars Christians killing Christians, the Puritans, the 4 great awakenings, Mormons, Jehovah Witness, Moonies, Televangelists, Jesus freaks, The Way of the Master, Answers in Genesis, Mega churches, Rick Warren, and Joel Olsteen, Benny Hinn, Todd Bentley, and this guy.

Randy Demain explains how to raise the dead.

Seriously was this all part of God's plan or the events after Jesus were pretty much ad hoc?

Seems pretty ad hoc to me.