A macabre digression

I think a good blog post should have a single main topic, and should stick to it, but today I’m going to break that rule rather badly. This post is going to be mostly about Ben’s most-recently-published comment, but at a certain point I am going to digress by bringing up a rather grim and horrific possibility that accounts for the empty tomb in a way I haven’t heard before. I may end up derailing my own conversation with Ben, but I can’t help it. This one is just too fascinating to pass up.

In his most-recently-published comment, Ben attempts to address some of my replies to his long second comment. He writes:

Of course it is possible some one stole the body if we allow that that some one was not one of eleven disciples who went on to perish for their beliefs. But you would have to be able to suggest a plausible candidate and motive.

Neither the Romans nor the Sanhedrin are candidates. And it seems unlikely, at least to me, that a follower of Christ would do it because the motivating emotion would be inversely proportional to the resolve. By that I mean only a devout follower of Christ would think to do it and a devout follower of Christ would not be likely to disturb the slumber of their Lord out of a pious wish to restore his honour by turning his whole life into a lie. The idea is self-abnegating. Christ demanded moral rectitude of his followers—often on pain of eternal damnation. If they revered him enough to conceive of doing it they would revere him too much to be capable of doing it. Of course it is still a possibility—but a fairly remote one.

As far as identifying plausible candidates and motives, I’ve already done that in some of my recent posts: Jerusalem at the time was full of Jews from out of town, visiting the Temple on the holy days. Joseph of Arimathea was known to be a member of the Council that had plotted Jesus’ death, and was not known to be a Christian, as the New Testament assures us. If some out-of-town disciples had felt strongly about leaving the remains of Jesus in the hands of the Council that murdered him (as they would have seen it at the time), then their actions are perhaps unexpected but not all that mysterious, really. Imagine if the US Navy had brought back the body of Osama bin Ladin to a naval base here in the US. If a group of Al Qaeda members had secretly raided the base, recovered the body, and returned it to Saudi Arabia, would any of us find their motives so incredible that we would conclude the Navy was lying and God had really raised Osama from the dead?

Ben’s attempt to refute this possibility suffers from a bit of anachronism: he assumes that the disciples would be reluctant to steal Jesus’ body because they would not want to “[turn] his whole life into a lie.” But that assumes that these disciples would be intentionally faking a resurrection, which means they would be expecting a resurrection, which is something the New Testament emphasizes over and over again that the disciples were not expecting. The disciples at the time would have no idea that their actions would give anyone the idea that Jesus had come back from the dead, and thus Ben’s objection would have no power to restrain their actions. Their reverence and love for Jesus would make them more likely to want to rescue Jesus from the hands of his enemies, not less so. The thought of faking a resurrection, even accidentally, would not have entered their minds.

He then attempts to poison the well against other possibilities by questioning the motives of anyone who might suggest them:

You would almost be better off postulating a group of drunks or pranksters but then your main reason for doing so would then appear to be that of circumventing a possibility you are pre-committed to denying.

So Ben himself recognizes that there are may other possible, perfectly mundane scenarios by which the body of Jesus could have been removed from the tomb without any actual resurrection taking place. He tries to preemptively dismiss such possibilities out of hand by making it sound like pointing them out would prove we’re not arguing in good faith. But notice, our motives and intentions are entirely irrelevant to the possibilities of whether or not such scenarios could happen. Our motives and intentions have no power to go back in time and prevent any drunks or pranksters from moving the body. If some of Herod’s off-duty guards got drunk, and went and got Jesus to go “party” with them, and then couldn’t remember where they left the body when they sobered up, the tomb would be “inexplicably” empty before any of us were even born. And that’s only one set of scenarios that, while definitely bizarre, do not lie outside the realm of ordinary possibility.

There’s another possibility that I haven’t heard mentioned before, and this is where I may digress quite a bit from my original discussion with Ben. According to the gospel stories, the disciples laid Jesus in a rich man’s tomb, and then rolled a heavy stone in front of the tomb to seal it until they could come back later to give it a proper burial. But what if they didn’t actually do that? What if they meant to seal the tomb, and intended to seal the tomb, but in the rush to be finished before the Sabbath, and in the fear of being caught and arrested themselves, and in the shock and trauma of the moment, each disciple thought the others were going to do it, and none of them did?

The story of Jezebel raises some interesting possibilities about what might have happened next.

Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window. As Jehu entered the gate, she asked, “Have you come in peace, you Zimri, you murderer of your master?”

He looked up at the window and called out, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked down at him. “Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot.

Jehu went in and ate and drank. “Take care of that cursed woman,” he said, “and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.” But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. They went back and told Jehu, who said, “This is the word of the Lord that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh. Jezebel’s body will be like dung on the ground in the plot at Jezreel, so that no one will be able to say, ‘This is Jezebel.’”

In the ancient Middle East (and even today, I believe), the relationship between people and dogs isn’t quite the pet/owner relationship we’re used to. There are packs of dogs that roam the streets, neither wild nor entirely pets, that forage for themselves to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the level of poverty in the area. It is possible, though macabre, that dogs could have eaten the body of Jesus if the disciples thought they had sealed the tomb when they really hadn’t.

What’s interesting about this is that it would really explain a lot, not only about the missing remains of Jesus, but also about a lot of other things. For example, all the gospel accounts agree that the disciples came to the tomb expecting to find it sealed, and found it open instead. The Romans and Pharisees, of course, would be unable to produce Jesus remains, since any parts that were left uneaten would probably not be recognizable as belonging to him. The disciples themselves, might have subconscious doubts and guilt, despite convincing themselves that they did seal that tomb, they really did! And this, in turn, might have led them to embrace the alternative of the resurrection with a fanaticism bordering on the suicidal.

In this context, it’s interesting to look at the early Christian ritual of communion.

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

This is from I Cor. 11, one of the earliest records of a communion observance that we have today. And lo and behold, believers commemorate and proclaim Jesus’ death by eating his body! There is no ritual cannibalism in Judaism, nor in any of the other major sects and religions of that time and place. Whence comes this fascination with making a connection between Jesus’ death and the devouring of his body? Could some latent suspicion of guilt have driven the first disciples to invent a ritual re-enacting the horrifying consequences of their negligence? Could communion be an attempt to sanctify and redeem a failure too horrific to even put into words?

I don’t know if this is what happened or not, but if it did happen, it wouldn’t take a miracle. People have been known to do things they later regret, especially when under extreme duress. Denial can go to some remarkable extremes, and can even produce behavior and attitudes that border on a kind of death wish. If something like that happened in the first century, who knows how the disciples would react, especially if they couldn’t be sure what had really happened?

And, like I said, this is only one of the many possible non-supernatural scenarios that might reasonably have produced the empty tomb that appears to be the only tangible aspect of the whole resurrection story.


  1. sawells says

    I’m afraid any effort to explain “the empty tomb” naturalistically is ultimately futile, because “the empty tomb” exists only in fiction. The gospels are fiction. There is absolutely no point in coming up with explanations involving Romans, Pharisees, or packs of wild dogs, because there is nothing to explain. There is a story in which a tomb was found empty because the occupant magically came back to life, and this means only that somebody made up a story. You might as well come up with naturalistic explanations for Eowyn killing the Lord of the Nazgul. The dogs are not devouring Jesus, they are just barking up the wrong tree.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I’m happy to continue to explore such naturalistic explanations, because clearly some sequence of non-fictional events led to the origin of Christianity, otherwise the religion would not exist. I am aware that there are those who argue for an entirely mythical origin for Christianity, yet even myths can have origins that spring from some exaggerated, embellished account of a remarkable but mundane event. It seems to me that there’s something a bit overboard about claiming that because some aspects of the story are false, therefore every single detail must be. You would not argue, for example, that since Jesus was a Jew, there must be no such thing as Jews. Hence I see no reason to reject, out of hand, the possibility that there could be an actual, itinerant preacher down among the roots of the legend that eventually became the gospel. And if there were some scandalous, sensational event (from entirely ordinary and unremarkable causes) to energize the spread of the story and its accumulation of embellishments, that seems to me to be entirely plausible. The shocking absence of a corpse might be just the ticket for turning an otherwise failed faith healer (of which we have a ton) into an empire-conquering messiah.

      • scoobie says

        because clearly some sequence of non-fictional events led to the origin of Christianity, otherwise the religion would not exist.

        You seem unwilling to entertain the possibility that nothing world-changing happened on Passover, AD32. Richard Carrier’s latest book spells out in great detail the likelihood of Christianity originating in scripture, with no ‘events’ required, no matter how mundane. It’s a very interesting read!

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I’m sure it is, and I should probably get around to reading that soon because it sounds fascinating. I doubt, though, that it describes Christianity as originating entirely without any human actions whatsoever. I expect, rather, that it describes a sequences of such non-fictional events as real people hearing stories, and re-telling them, and perhaps embellishing them or modifying them. Those may not be remarkable events, but they’re still events nonetheless.

        I’m quite open to the possibility that mythicism may be correct, but the evidence I’m aware of currently seems to me to better support the conclusion that Christianity arose from notable, non-supernatural events in the life of one or more faith healers of the era. My chief objection to mythicism currently is that if we accept the idea that Jesus was entirely fictional, but we agree that later Christian leaders were real, we inevitably have a situation somewhere along the way where real Christian leaders were personally trained in their faith by the fictional ones. Alternately, we could have a situation where an entire generation of Christian leaders arose spontaneously without any direct contact with the prior, fictional generation. Thus, we need either a generation of Christian leaders who successfully lied to their fellow Christians about their association with the fictional leaders, which seems highly unlikely, or else we need a clear gap between one generation of Christian leaders and the next, in order to put all the fictional leaders on one side and all the real leaders on the other.

        I am not aware of any evidence for either scenario, so the same skeptical methodology that would otherwise lead me to embrace mythicism requires that I provisionally reject it pending receipt of new information. Meanwhile, a consideration of alternatives to mythicism requires only that I suppose people in the past were as capable as people are today of rationalizing, jumping to superstitious conclusions, justifying themselves, stacking the deck in favor of their own beliefs, making choices when under stress that they later regret, etc., etc. Whether or not mythicism can solve the problem of the transition from fictitious leaders to real ones (and maybe it can, I don’t know), the naturalistic alternatives are more than plausible enough to account for the origins of Christianity without the need for any appeal to the supernatural, and without requiring a wholesale rejection of the entire account in order to dispense with the miraculous.

        Also, I have a certain reservation about mythicism, which is that it could be taken as supporting the arguments of Christian apologists. If (they might say) the evidence for the resurrection is so overwhelming that the only way to reject any of it is to reject all of it, then perhaps the skeptics are merely in denial, and have just rejected the New Testament out of hand. You know and I know that this is not the case, but I’ve spent enough time interacting with believers to know that a lot of them would find this sort of argument irresistibly compelling. If we’re going to argue for a completely fictional Jesus, we better have one hell of an ironclad case, because it’s so easy for believers to take mythicism as simple closed-mindedness.

      • Friendly says

        My chief objection to mythicism currently is that if we accept the idea that Jesus was entirely fictional, but we agree that later Christian leaders were real, we inevitably have a situation somewhere along the way where real Christian leaders were personally trained in their faith by the fictional ones.

        Um, no. Carrier’s thesis, as best I understand it, is that Christianity began as a mystery religion, all of whose tenets and experience with the spiritual were meant to be derived through divine revelation. Certainly Paul always speaks of truth coming from revelation, not from ever having been trained by anyone who was trained by Jesus. In the Christian mystery religion, Jesus was a celestial figure whose death and resurrection took place in the heavenly realms, not on Earth. Eventually — as an effort to get people in the doors — people started telling “rube stories” (Gospels) that placed Jesus on Earth as a human being in the relatively recent past; only when believers rose to the appropriate level of initiation would they be given access to the secret and holy truth that the real Jesus was an exclusively heavenly figure. However, at some point after the Gospels were written down, Christianity began to lose its mystery aspect; people were content with believing that the events in the Gospels had actually happened and the gnosis was either forgotten or suppressed or both. The transition is one from revealed wisdom to traditional wisdom, not from real teachers to fictional teachers.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        Yes, I’m just reading his book now, and it’s an eye-opener to say the least. There’s a wealth of evidence I was not aware of, and even more surprisingly a great deal of evidence that I was aware of and just never put in the proper context. It’s almost like having spent a lifetime hearing and believing that Baptists were the only Protestants, and then not only discovering Methodists and Episcopalians and Lutherans and the rest, but realizing that one already knew about Knox and Calvin and Luther and so on, without realizing they were non-Baptist Protestants.

      • Friendly says

        Sorry, I meant “from fictional teachers to real teachers” in the last sentence there.

  2. boof says

    Having interacted with various believers about the evidence for the resurrection over the years, it always seems to come down to the same thing. They present their evidence and then demand that I find some explanation (other than a resurrection) for the evidence. When I come up with various possible explanations they (rather condescendingly) say “pfft, that’s extremely unlikely!!” And I always say “Look. The thing that you are trying to get me to believe (namely that a man came back to life after being dead for one and a half days) is sooo unlikely that any natural explanation (no matter how unlikely in itself) is more likely than your explanation.”

    Usually, of course, I would say that the alternative explanations that I come up with are not that unlikely given the nature of religious cults, but the believers never see it that way. I guess if you have been told since birth that this extremely unlikely thing happened, it is hard to appreciate how unlikely it actually is (even if you can see how unlikely it is when another religious cult claims that it happened to their spiritual leader).

  3. scoobie says

    As sawells says (says), the gospels are fiction, so an ‘explanation’ is futile. However I think I’m right in thinking that Jesus was destined to be the big final sacrifice to replace the temple cult so the notion of eating him (as you would a burnt offering) is actually a relatively mundane part of the story. *That* bit does make some sense!!
    That aside, I do like the new (to me) possibilities of Jesus’ body having been eaten by dogs or by the disciples themselves (or even by the Roman guards for that matter).
    In fact, you’ve put me in mind of another possibility: Jesus’ body was eaten by some of the many zombies that were roaming around that weekend. The zombies ate the guards too, which explains their absence come morning.

    • kagekiri says

      Or Jesus was resurrected as just another zombie among the horde, and the disciples killed him to protect his memory and dignity, then disposed of his remains.

  4. Nick Gotts says

    Hmm, I still think the most likely explanation is that (as Byron McCane argues) Jesus was buried at the behest of the Jewish religious authorities – a dead Jew unburied at the start of the Sabbath was quite unacceptable – with few if any of Jesus’s followers witnessing it; and (which McCane does not suggest), those who went to tend the body, strangers to Jerusalem, went to the wrong tomb, which was empty and unsealed because no-one had been put in it. Mark, Matthew and Luke all include the words “He is not here” from someone met at the tomb. Of course this is associated with “He is risen”, but simply “He is not here” could be the original, added to as the resurrection story took hold.

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