Thursday, July 15, 2010

Robert H. Stein on the Empty Tomb

As far as I am aware, "Was the tomb really empty?" by Robert H. Stein appears in three places. (1) Journal of the Evangelical Theologicla Society, 20, 1977, pp.23-29, (2) Themelios 5.1 (September 1979): 8-12. and (3) The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (Vol. III Jesus' Mission, Death and Resurrection) ed. Craig A. Evans, 324-331. For the sake of simplicity, I will follow the numbering of the Themelios publication as it is freely available online here.

For Stein, the resurrection is fundamental to historical and contemporary Christian faith. For "Evangelical apologetics" there are four features to support the "historicity, the 'facticity', of the resurrection." (10) There are the resurrection appearances, the  existence of the Christian church, "the existential experience of the risen Christ in the heart of the believer" and, finally, the witness to the empty tomb. It should be noted that Stein sees the resurrection appearances as the primary witness to the resurrection, as the narratives themselves testify that the empty tomb need not necessitate resurrection.(Luke 24:21-24, Jn. 20:13)

The purpose of the article is dealing with the final point in light of claims that the empty tomb was secondary in explaining the resurrection appearances. He has in mind Rudolf Bultmann who wrote, "The Story of the empty tomb is completely secondary.... The story is an apologetic legend as Mark 16: 8... clearly shows. Paul knows nothing about the empty tomb." (The History of the Synoptic Tradition. p. 290.)

Stein has a number of reasons that "support the fact that the Christian tradition of the empty tomb is very early and that the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed was indeed empty."(11)

  1. The story of the empty tomb is in three gospel sources - Mark, M and John. The variance in these accounts arise suggest independent traditions.
  2. "Semitisms and Semitic customs" in the narratives indicate early Palestinian origin (Mark 16:2, Matthew 28:2-5, Luke 24:5.)
  3. "Jewish belief in the resurrection necessitated an empty tomb" therefore in Jerusalem, especially among Pharasaic and Christina Jews, requires an empty tomb.
  4. The early church would be unlikely to create women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb as their testimony "since women were invalid witnesses according to Jewish principles of evidence." A created story would probably have male disciples as the primary witnesses.
  5. The Jewish polemic confirms the empty tomb "indicates that the account of the empty tomb had from the very beginning an important place in the early Church's proclamation of the resurrection." (12)
  6. The firm tradition regarding Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43-46; Matt. 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; Jn. 19:38-42) has a number of implications. (1) Joseph was not a prominent Christian personality so an unlikely invention and (2) the tomb would have been identifiable.
  7.  The tradition of the empty tomb on the first day of the week is probably the event that shifted Christian religious observance from Saturday to Sunday
  8. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 speaks of Jesus being "buried", the empty tomb is implied in the resurrection. As a Pharisee, Paul knew physical resurrection that necessitates the empty tomb.
  9. There are also a few linguistic arguments provided.
Stein makes an interesting proposal for Paul's silence on the empty tomb:
It may be that the lack of a specific reference to the empty tomb by Paul stems from an apologetic motive rather than from ignorance. When it came to the resurrection appearances, the apostle could argue on equal terms with the other disciples. He, too, had seen the Lord! He could not, however, say the same about the empty tomb. Perhaps this is the reason why he does not refer to it specifically in his letters. (12)

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