At the end of the last post we asked whether the corroboration in details between the empty tomb narratives are simply superficial. The question posed is whether there are not more discrepancies between the accounts that would count against the narratives as historical. In this post we will lay out the charge against the empty tomb narratives and then try to answer it with an appeal to the workings of eye-witness testimony. Let’s get started with the charge against the empty tomb narratives. 

Some critics argue that the Synoptic Gospels’ variances in named women at the tomb, and John’s exclusion of all women except for Mary Magdalene produces problems for the historicity of the empty tomb narratives and shows they are late legends. One such critic writes, “the discrepancies between the gospels highlight what redaction criticism explains: the post-Markan gospel narratives of the resurrection are legends and fictions built up around the empty tomb story in the gospel of Mark.”[1] The criticism from the alleged discrepancies do not explain why the Gospel writers would choose women, but it nevertheless casts dispersion on the Gospels as historical documents. Furthermore, these differences are noticeable and prima facie look like contradictions between the Gospels. Thus, the plausibility of the empty tomb narratives being a late apologetic legend increases if the texts are largely unreliable in their historical details.

The variances in named women among the Gospel accounts do not indicate their late development or legendary make-up, but instead display the use of eye-witness testimony at the heart of the tomb narratives. Richard Bauckham, Senior Scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has persuasively argued that the variance among the named women is not from the Gospel writers’ “inattention to the details or unfounded invention,” but from each of their “particular care…to list only such women they knew to be witnesses of each event.”[2] For example, Mark mentions three women who witnessed the crucifixion and the same three women as those who discovered the empty tomb (Mark 15:40; Mark 16:1). However, the episode between these two narratives has only two women observing where Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body—Salome is omitted (Mark 15:47).

Why does Mark omit Salome from the observation of Jesus’ burial but include her in the other two episodes? It is not probable that Mark forgot her when he wrote down the empty tomb narrative only one line later than the preceding burial episode. It is much more plausible that Salome was an eye-witness to the crucifixion and empty tomb but not to the burial. There is a conscientiously careful inclusion and omission of named women on whether or not the women were well-known witnesses to the events. Matthew and Luke include or omit various named women based on their knowledge of the witnesses involved in each episode. Thus, Bauckham writes that there were specific reasons why each Gospel writer named the witnesses they did and thus “it is much easier to understand the omission of names than the addition of names.”[3] Consequently, variation among the named women who discovered the tomb empty does not provide a positive argument for viewing the Gospel accounts as legendary.

Does the appeal to eyewitness testimony answer the charge of contradictions in the empty tomb narratives? If it does then we can move to the next piece of evidence — the criterion of embarrassment and the its application to the place of women in the New Testament and the larger Greco-Roman context.


[1] Peter Kirby, “The Case Against the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffery Jay Lowder, 233-260 (Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books, 2005), 236.

[2] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 302.

[3] Bauckham, 299; 301.