The last post surveyed the alleged discrepancies between the empty tomb narratives and provided a coherent reason for accepting the differences as the particular eye-witness testimony of the named women in the Synoptics, and that John’s Gospel is simply highlighting the experience of Mary Magdalene.Today’s post is little longer than usual as I lay out the next piece of our map: the criterion of embarrassment and its specific application to the women at the empty tomb in the New Testament documents.

Here’s the big idea for our next phase in the map: In the first-century the credibility of women was regarded as low and the use of women in the narratives of the empty tomb would have worked against the early church; thus, the narratives of the empty tomb are most likely historical. This line of reasoning for the historicity of the empty tomb utilizes “the criterion of embarrassment,” which is a standard used by historians in which ancient texts may be judged as historically probable. This criterion applied to the New Testament documents says “the early church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.”[1] The women’s discovery of the empty tomb is just the kind of event that would be an embarrassment to the early church and make the story unbelievable to their opponents. William Lane Craig writes, “the fact that women witnessed these events is made very probable when one considers the low credibility given to women in Jewish society. Their testimony was regarded so poorly that women were not even considered qualified to serve as legal witnesses.”[2] Hence, in the empty tomb narratives there is a credibility issue that works against their inclusion in the Gospels. Evidence for the lack of credibility of women is demonstrated from multiple sources: The New Testament documents, the literature of the Greco-Roman world, Jewish law, and Pseudo-Philo. Today’s post will simply look at some of the the New Testament data for the low credibility of women.

In the narrative of the empty tomb in the Gospel of Luke, the women discover the tomb empty and are then met by two angelic beings who remind them of Jesus’ resurrection predictions (Luke 24:1-8). The women return to the disciples and tell them what they saw and heard, but Luke bluntly reports that the disciples “did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11). These women had been disciples of Jesus as well, but were immediately disbelieved by the other disciples. In fact, the Greek word for “nonsense” has the sense of a wild tale and “was used in everyday Greek to refer to the delirious stories told by the very sick as they suffer in great pain or to tales told by those who fail to perceive reality.”[3] Even in the longer and disputed ending of Mark, the tradition of disciples not believing the women is maintained (Mark 16:11).

Another argument from the New Testament documents is the lack of attention to the women’s testimony to the empty tomb in both the sermons in Acts and the resurrection creedal formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. In both places the core message of the resurrection narratives is given in summary form, but the women are missing. It is not implausible to think that these kerygmatic summaries were often used to convince outsiders to join the early church. Paul and the early church omitted the testimony of the women to avoid conceding to their opponents an opportunity to raise questions regarding the credibility of the women.[4] The sex of the witnesses may not have been the main reason for the doubt of the disciple, as a majority of first-century Jews were not expecting the resurrection of a single prophet before the great last day.[5] Nevertheless, the unbelief of the disciples towards the women’s testimony comports well with sources outside the New Testament which see women as unreliable witnesses in matters of divine revelation.

Thus the New Testament hints at the problem: women were not trusted in their testimony. In the next post we will survey the Greco-Roman and Jewish world in order to gain a greater appreciation for the historical and cultural setting and how women were perceived.


[1] John P. Meier, “Basic Methodology in The Quest for The Historical Jesus,” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter, 291-331 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011), 311.

[2] William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, Or: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 60-61.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Luke, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 381.

[4] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 307.

[5] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 205-206.