Over the last couple of posts we have been assessing the relevant historical sources from near the time of Jesus in order to answer the questions of how a woman’s testimony was viewed in the first-century world. In this, our penultimate post on the topic, we will summarize some of what we have discovered and consider two objections to the empty tomb.

From the above survey of sources there is sufficient historical warrant to conclude that the narrative of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb would have been sufficiently embarrassing for the early church. Michael Licona writes that it is a certainty “that a woman’s testimony would have been less preferable to man’s…and the more important the testimony, the less likely a woman’s word would have been taken at face value.”[1] This would be especially so when trying to convince others of the veracity of the claims of the empty tomb. Bultmann and those who have followed his critique of the empty tomb as an apologetic legend do not take into account the weakness of this supposed apologetic. The testimony of the women was embarrassing and lacked credibility, so that the early church should have “suppressed…softened” or even changed the narrative to the male disciples discovering the empty tomb.[2] Consequently, Raymond Fisher, though not amenable to all aspects of the empty tomb narratives, writes that the historicity of the Markan narrative “derives from the presence of the three women as the sole witnesses, a feature which Mark would have avoided if it had been entirely his own composition.”[3] If the empty tomb stories were an apologetic legend, they were an ineffective and even counterproductive one. Therefore, it is more probable that, though it was embarrassing, the tradition of the empty tomb discovered by women was so strong that it could not be denied, suppressed or changed by the Gospel writers. If the tradition was so strong that it could not be denied, suppressed or changed, it is probable that the tradition was historical.

However, the above historical evidence and abductive argument utilizing the criterion of embarrassment has been challenged by two objections. The first is that since the women were already close disciples of Jesus, their testimony would have had greater acceptability in the early Christian community.[4] In this objection, the criterion of embarrassment fails, because there was no embarrassment in believing the testimony of these early women disciples, especially such a prominent disciple as Mary Magdalene. The second objection, and by far the most prevalent among critical scholars, is that the disciples had already fled to Galilee — a distance of about 101 kilometers/63 miles—and thus were not in Jerusalem in order to witness the burial or empty tomb. Barnabas Lindars writes, “I am  assuming that none of the followers knew what had happened to the body of Jesus after the crucifixion because they had all fled to Galilee.”[5] With the disciples absent, the Gospel writers came up with historical substitutes to generate the legend of the empty tomb—the women.[6] Thus, though embarrassing still, the apologetic weight of the narrative is greater than trying to construe a way for the disciples to be in Jerusalem instead of Galilee. If the former argument is true it would mean that the criterion for embarrassment would not hold and the story could have operated as an apologetic legend. If the latter argument is true, the criterion of embarrassment is maintained but is outweighed by the apologetic value of the story.

In our final post, we will try to answer these two objections and come some conclusions on the evidence we have assessed in these posts.


[1] Mike Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Ill.: Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010), 352.

[2] 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.

[3] Raymond Fisher, “The Empty Tomb Story in Mark: Its Origin and Significance,” NeoTestamentica 33, no. 1 (1999), 72.

[4] James Crossley, “Against the Historical Plausibility of the Empty Tomb Story and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus: A Response to N.T. Wright,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3, no. 2 (June 1, 2005), 184.

[5] Barnabas Lindars, “Jesus Risen: Bodily Resurrection But No Empty Tomb,” Theology 89, no. 728 (March 1986), 94.

[6] Crossley, 185.