Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (6) – Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance

Casey - Jesus of NazarethReview of “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching. London and New York: T&T Clark (Continuum), 2010.

Part 6: Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance

All four Gospels feature a tradition in which one or more women discover the empty tomb of Jesus on the morning of Easter Sunday. None of the Gospels can agree on the identities of these women, but all of them name Mary Magdalene among them (the Synoptics) or Mary Magdalene as visiting the empty tomb on her own (John). As discussed earlier, the entire idea of finding an empty tomb is secondary to an earlier conception of Jesus’ resurrection, in which Jesus is resurrected to a new spiritual body, to spend the afterlife beside God in Heaven – for in such a scenario there was never any requirement for Jesus’ natural physical body to go missing from a tomb somewhere. Furthermore, as I have argued, the “discovery” of an empty tomb probably only occurred in Mary Magdalene’s vision “confirming” the resurrection of Jesus, not in the real world, and in fact, Jesus may not even have been buried in a tomb at all.

A common apologetic defense of the story of the women’s discovery of the empty tomb makes the argument that the story is historically reliable on the basis that it involves only women. What is typically argued is that women were not accepted as reliable legal witnesses in ancient Judea, that nobody would have any cause to later invent a story involving women if they wanted to persuade others that it is true, and that therefore the story must be true. The argument is not really logical from the outset, because it argues from a very modernist false dichotomy that either the story is literally true, or somebody has intentionally fabricated the story. But there are many other options for the development of this tradition and its inclusion in Mark, most of which would be more probable and in accord with ancient Jewish beliefs. Not the least of these alternative options is that a woman or group of women, who were followers of Jesus during his lifetime, experienced a vision of an empty tomb after his death, which they interpreted as proof of his resurrection to Heaven, and this tradition was told and retold until included and adapted in Mark’s Gospel. So as there are a number of different ways which such a story could develop in earliest Christianity, not just according to the modern and fundamentalist divide of truth versus legendary fabrication, one cannot logically make such an argument.

Mary Magdalene: Her report of the empty tomb was one that was made by a close follower of Jesus to fellow close followers of Jesus - yet scholars such as N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and William Lane Craig want to impose on it the rules of a first-century Jewish lawcourt! (Photo from the music video "Judas" by Lady Gaga.)

Mary Magdalene: Her report of the empty tomb was one that was made by a close follower of Jesus to fellow close followers of Jesus – yet scholars such as N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and William Lane Craig want to impose on it the rules of a first-century Jewish lawcourt! This is one of the first indications that their apologetic argument is quite unsound. (Photo from “Judas” by Lady Gaga.)

Despite the flawed logic which undermines the heart of its construction, the argument is defended, for example, by the conservative bishop-scholar, N.T. Wright, who claims,

The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses.
(Resurrection of the Son of God, 2003: 607)

It is also argued by Dale Allison, who comes to a similar conclusion:

So, the reasoning runs, it is precisely the testimony of women, once suspects, that confirms for us the truth of the story.
(Resurrecting Jesus, 2005: 328)

And it is also argued by William Lane Craig, who sets out his reasoning as follows:

“Given the second-class status of women in first-century Palestine and their inability to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court, it is amazing they should appear here as the discoverers and chief witnesses to the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb, for so unreliable a witness was an embarrassment to the Christian proclamation. Any later, legendary account would surely have made male disciples discover the empty tomb…. The fact that it is women, whose testimony was worthless, rather than men who are said in the earliest narrative to be the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that the tradition here is reliable.”
(Jesus’ Resurrection, 2000: 176-177)

It is pleasing that Casey has taken the time to explain why “there are several things wrong” with this argument concerning the women witnesses (p. 475) – even if it is highly unlikely that we have seen the end of an argument which is so poor that it seems a shame to have to address it at all in serious scholarship. In the first place, Casey notes that the position of women in a court is simply irrelevant to Mark’s story. This point alone should rightly have put a stop to the unusual defence of Jesus’ resurrection. For the apologetic argument sets up a standard which does not even apply, because it involves a report by followers of Jesus given to other followers of Jesus! Even if it can be shown that there was some legal bias against women, which is probable but debatable, one may safely conclude that the level of proof demanded by fellow believers who already accepted the resurrection of Jesus would be significantly lower than the evidentiary requirements of a law court. This was not a hard sell!

There is something very strange going on here about the willingness of conservative Christian academics to attempt such an argument in what are purportedly scholarly works. For the evidentiary requirements of an ancient Jewish lawcourt are completely inapplicable to the specific circumstances of a Christian woman (Mary Magdalene) telling a story about the leader of her religious group to fellow members of her religious group. What we see here is the imposition of modern standards of apologetics, which for more than a century have been frequently self-styled with law-court imagery, and often authored by legal dilettantes (see, as only a selection: Simon Greenleaf’s The Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (1846); Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1972), with its early cover imagery of a judge’s gavel; Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection (1991); and Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (1998)). Most regrettably, scholars such as N.T. Wright and Dale Allison, publishing academic biblical studies, have uncritically accepted these modern, fundamentalist legal standards of proof - which is completely inappropriate for any proper analysis of the growth of a religious tradition within a nascent religious community. Instead of applying, for example, the relevant scholarship on the growth of new religious movements to determine how the empty tomb story may have become accepted in earliest Christianity, a certain type of New Testament scholar is now examining the rules of ancient Jewish lawcourts! This only illustrates how close some historical Jesus scholarship is to popular apologetics, and how far it is from mainstream religious studies.

Judith leaving the tent of Holofernes

Judith leaving the tent of Holofernes (Full copyright asserted by the artist. Used by permission. Click on the picture to view larger size.)

By contrast, Casey examines some relevant religious traditions concerning the role of women in Jewish narrative: how women were frequently presented as heroines in Jewish stories. In light of this approach, the role of women in the post-resurrection narrative is not surprising, but to be expected. He gives the examples of the story of Deborah the prophetess and judge (Judges 4-5) who summoned Barak and 10,000 warriors, Jael who had sex with the leader of Israel’s enemies in order to drive a tent-peg through his skull during his post-coital snooze, as well as noting the centrality of powerful women to the scriptural books named after them: Ruth, Esther, and Judith. As Casey concludes, against the conservative interpreters who would, irrelevantly, belittle the role of women witnesses in Jewish lawcourts:

This is the real cultural background for the role of women in the stories of the empty tomb: they are heroines, not witnesses in a court of Law. (p. 475)

In addition, Casey notes that the particular women who claimed to have seen the empty tomb were well known to the community as witnesses of the crucifixion (Mark 15.40-41). The women may even have been the source of Mark’s crucifixion narrative. These women were the only ones who, according to Mark’s tradition, had remained in Jerusalem, because the male disciples had already fled at the time of Jesus’ arrest. (The later tradition in Luke and John claims instead that the male disciples remained in Jerusalem, and that the male disciples also witnessed appearances of the post-resurrection Jesus in Jerusalem. But this development in the post-resurrection traditions occurs after the first Gospel, where the tradition about the women witnesses of the “empty tomb” is first recorded.)

Jael, Killing of Sisera

Jael, Killing of Sisera (by Kevin Rolly, aka. ‘Kevissimo’)

Therefore, far from it being unlikely that Mark would present the women as the witnesses to the empty tomb – in the absence of every one of the male disciples, one of whom was in such a hurry to get away that he fled away naked – Mark had no good option but to include women followers of Jesus at Jerusalem! This does not mean that the male disciples had fled all the way to Galilee already by Sunday morning, as some apologetic scholars (and recently Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 2005) have presented as the only alternative. We must instead pay careful attention to what Mark narrates: the male disciples had fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; the women made the journey to the empty tomb alone (unusually unchaperoned in a graveyard); and Jesus promised he would “go before” the male disciples to Galilee.

Therefore, if we accept this reason for the presence of women in Mark’s story, it is irrelevant whether or not we can also demonstrate first-century Jewish bias against the reports of women. We might even say that it is safe to assume that there was some male bias against reports derived from women. Even the two disciples of Jesus on the Emmaeus Road appear reluctant to believe the report that they had heard from the women (Luke 24.22-24). In the second century, Celsus mocks the report as though told by “half-frantic women” (Origen, Contra Celsus,2.59). But the apologetic argument for historicity loses even what little credibility it might have had when we recognise that Mark had a very good reason not to include male disciples: none of them were there!

Furthermore, against another common apologetic argument, there was never any desire or ability for any “officials” to produce the body of Jesus, so as to “disprove” the resurrection. In the first place, the apologetic argument that the resurrection must be true or officials would have produced Jesus’ body presumes that the officials cared about the religious fantasies of a small Jewish sect and their dead leader. In the second place, the tradition that the tomb belonged to a rich man is, as argued, invented so as to make Jesus’ death all the more noble; in reality, we are dealing with a common tomb, or no tomb at all if it only ever appeared in a vision. Third, even if we were to accept that Jesus had been buried in a tomb known to officials and for some unknown reason they were eager to disprove the religious claims of a small group of heretical Jews, Jesus’ body would have been unrecognizable well before the development of this secondary tradition. As Casey puts it:

[Even after a few weeks,] Jesus’ remains would be unrecognizable. Even if someone knew where his tomb was, for example if Joseph of Arimathea was back in Jerusalem too, some of his helpers probably being there anyway, the revolting task of trying to identify which body it was would not have been decisive at all. It would not have silenced his followers, because their faith that Jesus had risen was not dependent on the missing remains of Jesus’ body. They would have continued to preach the good news that God had raised Jesus from the dead in accordance with Psalm 16, and he now sits at the right hand of God in accordance with Psalm 110. Producing Jesus’ remains would impress only those who did not believe in resurrection, those who believed God never took anyone to heaven, and those who believed that Jesus was a seditious criminal. Like most Jews in Jerusalem, such people did not believe in Jesus’ Resurrection anyway, so producing Jesus’ remains would have been a revolting exercise which had no significant effect.
(p. 497)

Sometime after the first vision reports about a post-resurrected Jesus were circulated, a further tradition arose about women finding the tomb of Jesus empty on the morning of Easter Sunday. This tradition included women because it was accepted that only women remained in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus, while the male disciples had fled, and women were frequently presented as heroes in Jewish narrative. There was, however, no real “empty tomb”, only a tradition about an empty tomb, in which I find a number of motifs which suggest its origin in a woman’s vision. The apologetic argument that the women’s report is true merely because it is by women falsely assumes the alternatives of fabrication versus truth, bizarrely demands that a tale told by Christians to other Christians should meet the requirements of an ancient Jewish law-court, and belittles the role of women in Jewish story-telling. For these reasons, the apologetic argument does not even merit consideration in critical scholarship on the resurrection reports, belonging as it does to popular apologetics peddled by dilettantes.

Next part: (7) Visionary Experiences of Jesus’ Resurrection
Previous part: (5) Did Jesus consider himself to be “The Son of Man”?

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31 responses to “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (6) – Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance

  1. That’s pretty incisive, and I have to admit, the “women witnesses” argument no longer factors into my support of the historicity of the empty tomb. It’s been gnawing at me for the past few years, after my post on the empty tomb back in ’06. I think this post just removed my final shred of doubt.

  2. Ed Babinski

    It was the job of women to perform funerary rituals like anointing the body and mourning outside the tomb, so the women were perfectly suited to fill that role in a first century tale. In fact it made MORE SENSE, if you were trying to convince a first century Jew that someone went to the tomb early Sunday morning, to have women visit the tomb rather than men. See the book, Maranatha: Women’s Funerary Rituals and Christian Origins Kathleen E. Corley.

    I should also add that I pointed out to resurrection apologist Gary Habermas about 20 years ago that the involvedment of MALE apostles with the empty tomb story grew over time. He had no rejoinder. I wrote:

    In Mark, ostensibly the earliest, the story goes that the disciples “all left him and fled” in the garden. A young man following Jesus’s captors was seized and escaped naked. Peter is afraid to admit to knowing Jesus. While at Jesus’s crucifixion, only women are mentioned, “And there were also women looking on from afar.” “And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on where Jesus was laid.” Any subsequent empty tomb story would HAVE to be limited to women, since we are told in the earliest Gospel that only women were looking on from afar and saw where Jesus was laid.

    In Matthew, “all the disciples left him and fled,” adding at the crucifixion that “many women were looking on from a distance.” And when Joseph sealed Jesus’s grave, “Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.” Only women again. But this time “many” of them witnessed Jesus’ death and saw where he was laid.

    Luke is the first to omit that the disciples all “fled” at Jesus’s arrest. And he is the first to add that many followers of both sexes witnessed Jesus’ death : “. . . all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” But Luke repeats like the rest that it was “the women [who].followed after, and saw the
    tomb and how His body was laid.” So in Luke as in the other cases, women visit the tomb Sunday morning. [Luke 24:12, which depicts "Peter running to the tomb" is a later insertion that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.]

    John, the last Gospel written, bursts this mold open. The women are no
    longer watching the crucifixion “at a distance” as in Mark and Matthew,
    but “they were standing by the cross of Jesus,” and now there is at
    least one man with them by the cross. This is a necessary redaction, since John has two men race each other to the tomb once Mary Magdalene tells the disciples it is empty, and they couldn’t run there unless they knew where it was, and they couldn’t know unless they had attended the crucifixion, which John says they did.

    So the earliest version of the empty tomb story HAD to employ women (see Mark above about the men “fleeing,” and only the women seeing where Jesus had been buried). And the earliest story about the women “not telling anyone” (in Mark) explains the relatively late appearance of the legend of the empty tomb, i.e., “no one” was “told,” nor heard, about an empty tomb until later.

    The empty tomb legend only arose after “appearance” stories, like those related by Paul (who does not mention an “empty tomb”) had already spread.

  3. Ed Babinski

    I mispelled involvement dammit.

  4. Blimey – she’s lost her feminine side! And … quite large enough without the enlargement – silicone?!! I think I prefer the angelic and pear shaped Botticelli Judith… incapable of such gruesomely messy beheadings. And Gaga – didn’t you like my deliciously voluptuous Mary? Very scary. I’m going to have nightmares!! But entirely appropriate – and as always, thank you for your independent minded, thorough, honest and incisive review. (I hope your back is a bit better too)

  5. pf

    This is probably not an original idea, but reading this makes me that that the male disciples fled and the women didn’t because the authorities would likely have prospecuted the male followers of Jesus, but not the women, who were probably seen as less of a threat to order. So in that scenario, the male disciples had no choice but to hide, while the women could watch from a distance, as long as they didn’t do anything that would provoke disorder.

  6. pf

    steph — why are women so fixated on breasts? :)

  7. A friend of mine wanted me to read this post and to comment on it. So I did here.

    • Ah but you didn’t comment on ‘this post’ – you commented on Casey’s book. From what your comment says Casey says and Casey doesn’t say, it is clear that you have NOT read the BOOK. :) It’s a bit like google books – reading reviews gives some people the false impression they have read the book.

      He was trying to reconstruct what actually happened in so far as this is possible. This was his motivation, and he was very critical in the first chapter of the domination of the study of Jesus by a variety of agendas, of which evangelical men and feminists are only two. He was especially critical of the work of a variety of American social subgroups which distort everything and everyone, as you have illustrated with your biased and incompetent comments. He is not silent about Paul. Maybe you should read the book and then you will read what he does actually discuss.

      • steph –
        I did read this post and only know Casey from the excerpts in Deane the Gigantologist’s review. So please let me clarify and further qualify that my friend (the blogger Theophrastus) and I were only simply talking about how “Casey seems.” We both did use that phrase. So, more to your point, I didn’t but should’ve kept saying throughout my “according to Deane’s post only Casey sure seems…” And don’t my comments only seem biased and incompetent if I’ve not yet read Casey’s book but pretend to have? I’m not doing that or even trying to.

        Thank you for clarifying Casey’s engagement with feminists and with Paul in Casey’s earlier parts of his book. You brief note here, more than Deane’s review, make me interested in actually reading Casey’s book.

      • Yes they do seem biased and incompetent, because you give the false impression you’re referring to the book, as you refer to the author of the book. You don’t refer to the review. This is what pseuds do. It’s pretentious and not genuine. To say an author ‘seems’ to think doesn’t in the least bit suggest you’re not referring your impression of the book. But what you say Casey says and doesn’t say is evidence that you haven’t read it. Nevertheless I am very happy indeed you’re inspired to read it. I recommend it and Deane evidently does too.

    • Deane Galbraith

      The comment in the link comprises unsubstantiated aspersions against Casey, an easy yet disingenuous strategy which substitutes shallow thinking for serious engagement with another. It is, as Steph has already commented, not even a comment “on” this post. There is a name for people who make comments like this: “pseuds” – all style and no substance.

      • Deane -
        “all style”? Well, doesn’t that count for something? :)
        guess I wasn’t too clear. When reading this post of yours and commenting on it, the only substance about Casey I could respond to was the argument you had him making. Shallow? Disingenuous? Strategy? really?

      • Deane Galbraith

        Well, to be fair, a good style can be a snazzy thing.

  8. Just a couple of things:

    To fault those who use the argument from the women as witnesses because a) They point out that the testimony of a woman in court was deemed less credible than that of a man, but b) This was not in fact a courtroom setting, is a bit bizarre. Nobody has ever said that this was a courtroom setting. The fact that a woman’s testimony was treated as less believable in court is cited by many to illustrate the fact that a woman was considered less reliable as a witness per se (why else would her testimony in court be deemed less credible than that of a man). Of course the apologists realise that this is not a court trial.

    Deane, when you point out that the women only had to persuade fellow followers of Jesus (which was probably not a hard thing to do), I think you quite certainly miss the point. None of the apologists that you’re finding fault with have claimed that it would be difficult for the disciples to believe the testimony of the women concerning the empty tomb. Instead, the argument is that the sceptic, on hearing the claims of early Christianity, would want to know who first discovered the empty tomb. When he was told “it was a small bunch of women,” then it becomes relevant that in that culture the testimony of a woman was less reliable than that of a man.

    • Deane Galbraith

      Yes, Glenn – the issue of the reliability of women only becomes relevant to a modern skeptic – this is the point I make, and which you seem to have missed completely. That is why I examined how this concern with law courts arose in modern apologetics. It simply is not a relevant measure for determining the historical plausibility of one close and prominent follower’s story about Jesus’ resurrection being believed by other followers. At best, it provides very indirect evidence of the bias against women that undoubtedly did exist, as we see from Paul’s writings, for example. I’m not claiming anything as simplistic as apologists wrongly imagining this to be a court trial. Rather, I am pointing out the lack of, or at best very weak, logic in the argument.

      I doubt very much that you could even formulate a sound argument why the origin of this story with women instead of men makes it even remotely plausible that it is true.

  9. Tim

    “Even if it can be shown that there was some legal bias against women, which is probable but debatable, one may safely conclude that the level of proof demanded by fellow believers who already accepted the resurrection of Jesus would be significantly lower than the evidentiary requirements of a law court. This was not a hard sell!”

    Of course it can be shown that women in that culture would have been widely considered to be gullible, overly emotional, prone to being duped, etc. I don’t even think that’s debatable. But I agree that the “legal” question is irrelevant. That’s not really the point, though, in the NT accounts.

    For instance, Luke presents the male disciples giving the typical response to the claims of the women (Luke 24:8-11). Notice that Luke says that when the women tell the men what they had seen – an empty tomb and two men announcing Jesus had been raised – the men consider their story to be a λῆρος (i.e., “nonsense,” “silly talk”). Regardless of whether this account is historical, it is perfectly plausible in light of the culture in which it was told. Luke is not crafting some anachronistic story. So your claim that the resurrection was not a “hard sell” doesn’t fit with Luke’s account, nor does it fit with what we know of the stereotypical ways in which women were viewed.

    • Deane Galbraith

      It seems to me that the bias against women would have to be horrendous for your argument to begin to be persuasive, Tim. Is it really so unbelievable that a vision report about Jesus’ empty tomb told by a close follower of Jesus to other close follower of Jesus, both of them believers in Jesus’ resurrection, would be disregarded because the followers were women? The last time I read the New Testament, I saw that this nascent community had quite a few women members, some of who were prophetesses. Did no males listen to these prophetesses, either, do you think?

      • pf

        I’m generally sympathetic to your point, but in fairness, the bias against women in those days was horrendous, any way you slice it, by modern standards.

  10. Tim

    Oops… Forgot to mention that I still think Margaret MacDonald’s Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion is essential background for this issue.

  11. steph, Deane, I’m getting it (and now got the book).

  12. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival for April 2011 – with Giants | Remnant of Giants

  13. eric bess

    @whoever this may apply to: It’s whole paradigm foisted on the text using legal terminology that’s the issue. The response to the legal paradigm isn’t that the women never deposed their findings in a Jewish court. It’s that concern over the ‘testimony’ of women at all reflects the mind of modern apologists more than the concerns of the story. That’s why they imagine detective-work scenarios and an ancient society composed largely of thoroughly investigative ‘myth-busters’ (cf. Glenn above) all without showing (as far as I’ve been able to see) whether this these legal paradigms are the proper way to appreciate and interpret the text. Perhaps some gospel authors were more conscious of the credibility of some of the circulating stories. In that case, I think Luke is illustrative…he inserts male disciples and says they dismissed the women. But if Mark was writing with the apologists’ paradigm in mind, certainly he couldn’t have failed to mention the men as well.

  14. eric bess

    I wish this discussion was still going, I know I’m late to it. But I think I have to disagree with Casey on the role the women play. I don’t think they are presented as heroines because of their direct non-compliance with the angel’s instructions at least in the Markan version. I think they play subordinate roles as passive unwitting bystanders to prepare the reader for the grand finale, so to speak. It was in fact all the more advantageous, not ‘embarrassing’, for the drama Mark was trying to convey that they were women.


    Copies of copies of copies…The pious scribes gladly copy each other’s mistakes. All the late manuscripts repeat the same error, the start of which is hard to trace (late 20th century?). They all drop the same key letter from the beloved Lord’s name: “Jesus’ disciples ” with none blinking. But going back to the earliest manuscripts at the National Library reveal the glaring error: they all show the original writing “Jesus’s disciples.” But the wrong spelling is so well entrenched that it is not clear if the best scholarly efforts can rectify the trend..

  16. Pingback: Conclusion on the Passion Narrative « Euangelion Kata Markon

  17. The artwork of “Jael – The Killing of Sisera” was done by American artist Kevin Rolly (aka. ‘Kevissimo’)…which is me….

  18. FYI that’s not Lady Gaga. That’s a fine art piece titled “Imaculee” by Miles Aldridge from 2007.

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