Sunday, June 12, 2005

Book Review: The Empty Tomb

The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave
by Robert M. Price (Editor), Jeffery Jay Lowder (Editor) 545 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (April 5, 2005)

The Empty Tomb is a collection of 15 essays by skeptical scholars on the historicity of the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection. Some two-thirds of the essays have been published in the past several years, but there are also several new works, including Richard Carrier's brilliant 100-page essay that spans the middle of the book, and completely redeems whatever weaknesses the volume may have.

The book is aimed squarely at the arguments of Christian apologists, a notion that sat very uncomfortably with the critic from Publisher's Weekly on Amazon.com, who obviously lacked both the knowledge and the patience to deal with the diversity of approaches in the book, and did not seemed to understand it at all, a fact which apparently bred resentment rather than admiration. The essays fall more or less into two groups, a set of a half dozen essays on philosophy and methodology, and another group that focuses strongly on the texts themselves, and the evidence they offer, as well as their historical and social context. The work is accessible to layman who are willing to make the effort to interact with the often complex and detailed theoretical, methodological, and evidential aspects of it.

The volume begins with three essays that explore the Resurrection from the historical and theological point of view. Robert Cavin's essay asks whether there is sufficient historical evidence to establish the resurrection of Jesus. Cavin's essay is actually an exploration of what it means to ask this question, breaking out the underlying assumptions of what "the Resurrection" means in great detail.

This is followed by Michael Martin's essay on Bayes' Theorem and the Resurrection as initially improbable. Martin explains things very clearly, and the essay is not difficult to follow. Martin makes a clever move in arguing that not only is the initial probability of the Resurrection low on the assumptions of naturalism, it is also low even if we allow supernatural events. Theodore M. Drange rounds out the opening section with a discussion of Christian theology and the Resurrection. This short essay is a response to the claims of the 19th century theologian Charles Hodge, demolishing them point by point.

The fourth article, Robert Price's article on the famous passage in 1 Cor 15 as an interpolation, begins a section that focuses on the textual evidence for the resurrection, and on early Christian history.

By far the best article in the collection is the next one, Richard Carrier's long essay on the spiritual body of Christ and the legend of the empty tomb. From the title and opening lines one might expect a dull discussion of the theology of risen bodies, but Carrier develops his theme with great fecundity, drawing evidence from ever farther afield and offering numerous insights into the gospel texts. In addition to solid methodological and textual viewpoints, Carrier's work is always full of insightful tidbits, and this one is no exception. Like me, the reader no doubt kick himself when he realizes how many times he has read Plutarch's Life of Romulus yet never spotted the parallel to the arrest scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. In addition to rapier thrusts like that into the heart of the Jesus legend, Carrier also bludgeons it with Orphic and other parallels. Unlike many who present evidence from the so-called history of religions school, Carrier is restrained in his presentation, and entirely free of the kind of triumphalism that has plagued adherents of that school of Jesus-critique. This is one essay that is destined to become a classic.

If Carrier is the brilliant Rommel, ranging across his enemy's flanks at will and unimpeded, Peter Kirby, the writer of the next piece, complements him perfectly as the competent, sturdy NCO who must direct the small-unit battles. Kirby's piece is a detailed review of the evidence from the Gospel texts, showing how it is most likely they are fictive constructions. Kirby's workmanlike piece is buttressed by copious references to a wide variety of scholarship, and should become a key source for anyone writing on this topic.

Jeffery Jay Lowder then follows with a demolition of William Lane Craig's writing on the Empty Tomb. The more-style-than-substance arguments of Craig, a well-known debater and Christian apologist, are ruthlessly exposed by Lowder in this piece.

"Taming the Tehom" is Evan Fales deconstruction of the Matthean version of the Resurrection account. Fales reads Matthew in light of both the Jonah story, other Bible legends, and myths and stories from across the Ancient Near East.

A short essay by Richard Carrier then discusses the plausibility of the theft of the body. This is also a response to apologist William Craig. Carrier shows that far from being history, Matthew's story is constructed off of Daniel 6. This piece, though only a few pages, is written in Carrier's clear and insightful style and is well worth a look.

Carrier follows this with another information-packed discussion of Jesus' burial in light of Jewish law. In this essay, a version of which was posted to Internet Infidels a while back, Carrier's review not only shows how fiction is the more plausible option for the origin of the story, but also locates the 'three-day" motif within the prescriptions of Jewish law.

Duncan and Derrett propose a model for the origin of the Resurrection story in their next piece, oddly entitled "Financial Aspects of the Resurrection." They argue that the story of the Resurrection and Ascension was invented because of the benefits it brought to the disciples and the new religion.

Robert Price's piece on William Craig's apologetics follows. This piece, highly polemical, is also very enjoyable. Price's essay dissects the underlying apologetic motives that drive 'scholarship' on the empty tomb and the Resurrection, showing how apologetics continues to inform, and distort, scholarly work on the topic.

Keith Parsons closes the long section on the nuts and bolts of New Testament texts, history, and related scholarship behind with an essay that argues that hallucinations could account for the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. Parsons shows that apologists' objections to this theory are uninformed and poorly-argued.

Michael Martin is up next with a response to Swinburne's absurd argument that it is highly probable that Jesus was God incarnate and really was Resurrected from the dead. Martin, like Swinburne a professional philosopher, shows that Swinburne's claim is incoherent on almost every level.

Evan Fales then finishes with a philosophical look at Alvin Plantinga, reformed epistemology, and Biblical scholarship. Despite its formidable title, the piece is an accessible study of how a major Christian philosopher goes about attempting to discredit modern Bible scholarship so that he can continue clinging to beliefs that have been shown to be wrong by modern scholarship. Fales steers surehandedly through a difficult thicket of philosophical and methodological troubles.

The essays in this volume are all of very high quality and there is something here for readers of every taste. Skeptics in search of ammunition will find a plentiful supply. This idea of themed essays around topics of interest to skeptical views of early Christian history has great potential, and I look forward to further compilations of this nature from Price and Lowder.

2 comments:

Loren Rosson said...

Michael,

Thanks for the review. I've been waiting with bated breath for this book, along with Dale Allison's Resurrecting Jesus (to be published in September). I read this one over the week-end and enjoyed it.

Oddly enough, I think Richard Carrier's two shorter essays on the theft of Jesus' body, and Jewish law about burial, are the strongest the book has to offer. His more lengthy tract regarding Paul's supposed two-body resurrection belief is so weak, in my view, as to constitute an "emperor-has-no-clothes" theory.

Carrier has the Corinthians worrying about their fate if their corpses were to rot in the grave. But that was compatible with the things they'd always believed. More importantly, Paul would have (ahem) taught them his resurrection belief when first evangelizing them. It's pretty clear from Paul's language that the Corninthians accepted Jesus' resurrection (from the old corpse) yet wondered, on the basis of old-beliefs-die-hard, if this would really end up being true for themselves.

I like Carrier's other two essays. It's curious that he goes out of his way to make such persuasive cases here when he really believes the empty tomb was a legend, as argued in the more lengthy essay -- so wrongly praised by you. :)

Dale Allison makes a persuasive case for the empty tomb (I had the privilege of proof-reading his final chapter of his upcoming book). I'm convinced that certain arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb slightly outweigh other persuasive arguments for a legend. What happened to the body? We'll never know, but theft or relocation are scenarios easy enough to imagine, as Carrier (and others like Lowder) argue.

Michael Turton said...

Oddly enough, I think Richard Carrier's two shorter essays on the theft of Jesus' body, and Jewish law about burial, are the strongest the book has to offer. His more lengthy tract regarding Paul's supposed two-body resurrection belief is so weak, in my view, as to constitute an "emperor-has-no-clothes" theory.

I guess that part of the essay was less important to me...I mean, I just don't give a damn what Paul thought about the Resurrection body, it's like arguing over whether Frodo put his pants on right leg first or left leg first. :) So when I look at such essays, I sometimes tend to view them from the perspective of my narrow interests in the historical Jesus. I should probably make that clearer to the reader. My bad.

Dale Allison makes a persuasive case for the empty tomb (I had the privilege of proof-reading his final chapter of his upcoming book). I'm convinced that certain arguments for the historicity of the empty tomb slightly outweigh other persuasive arguments for a legend.

I've read quite a few of Allison's articles and they are good, usually very well argued, so I'll be interested to see it. But it is hard for me to imagine what case could beat the recognition of the Tomb scene as haggidic midrash based on Daniel 6, which Mark, after all, even gives us a pointer to, and Matthew, in his usual fashion, goes back and gets more details from, thus demonstrating the origin of the story.

Michael Turton