The recent opening of the alleged tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has attracted worldwide attention as the marble slab overlaying the tomb has been removed exposing it for the first time since 1555 (A.D.). This historic event has served as an occasion for Christians to review or explore the strength of the case for identifying that tomb as the genuine burial place of Jesus. A thought which occurs to me, as I review the evidence for the authenticity of the site, is that the evidence is actually good enough to provide some very moderate but noteworthy evidence for the historicity of Christ.
The historicity of Christ is, of course, not hotly contested among professional historians or academics, but it has gained notable popularity on the Internet among many new-atheists who adopt the ‘mythicist’ view propounded (or defended) by folks like Dr. Robert Price and Dr. Richard Carrier. In fact, as recently as October 26th, Robert Price finally debated Bart Ehrman (Ehrman being one of the preeminent biblical scholars in the world, as well as a staunch agnostic and author of the book “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”) on the topic of whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. While I haven’t yet seen the debate (because the group uploading the content to youtube is currently still charging money to view it), initial reviews are a little disheartening. The conspiratorial views of the mythicists are a long way off from getting any serious foothold in mainstream academia, but they are (or, at least, seem to be) gaining more ground in the popular culture.
I do not presently have the time, the space, or even the inclination to take a comprehensive approach to dismantling the mythicist’s case, but I do note that, for what it’s worth, the mythicist hypothesis is regarded by academics as on a par with flat earthism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and young earth creationism (or, as it really ought to be called, young universe creationism). It is a hack conspiracy theory for which no reasonable case can be made (I would invite the skeptic to explore the case(s) presented by Price and Carrier and contrast that(/them) with Ehrman’s work, as well as the work of figures like N.T. Wright). It will be evident to the reasonable person’s satisfaction that there was clearly a historical figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Mythicism is of fleeting relevance, but the opening of the tomb in Jerusalem gives me an excuse to offer a thought about how the evidence for the veridicality of the site heaps even more evidence against the Mythicist.
As to the Tomb itself, the archaeological community considers it likely to be the burial place of Christ. It fits the description of (along with everything else we’ve learned about) a first-century Jewish tomb. The Biblical accounts say that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, a well respected and wealthy member of the Sanhedrin (the same council which had been instrumental in condemning Jesus). Some of the Gospels indicate that Joseph of Arimathea had become a disciple of Christ, though only in secret, and the Gospel of John indicates that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (another Jewish follower of Christ who kept his views secret) worked together to give Jesus a proper burial.
“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:38-40)
The tomb itself is an authentic first-century tomb with a disk-shaped rolling stone at its entrance. Although it is true that there were two kinds of tombs with a stone-slab covering the entrance (one kind with a rolling stone, and another with a roughly rectangular stone covering a doorway), and the disk-shaped stone covering is much rarer (and reserved for the wealthy), the Gospels indicate that the tomb of Jesus was found with its stone ‘rolled’ away (Luke 24:4), indicating that it was the rarer variety of tomb in Jerusalem. Some scholars doubt that the actual tomb of Christ had one of the rare disk-shaped stones covering the entrance; Urban C. von Wahlde, for instance, has written an article titled “Biblical Views: A Rolling Stone That Was Hard to Roll.” Nevertheless, I think a stronger case can be made for the disk-shaped stone, especially in light of the case for the authenticity of the tomb safeguarded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Apart from this tomb matching the biblical description, the story of its discovery also lends it immense credibility.
The story of the tomb’s discovery is ancient history, but it is extremely interesting. William Lane Craig, speaking casually (and excitedly) on his podcast recently recounts the following:
“Scholars believe that the The Church of the holy Sepulchre has a very credible claim to be on the site of the actual tomb of Jesus, and this is based on a couple of very interesting facts about its discovery. In the year 326 (this is just one year following the council of Nicea that was convened by the emperor Constantine and then promulgated the famous Nicene creed – the following year) Constantine’s mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for the purpose of finding relics from the time of Christ and when Constantine’s mother came to Jerusalem she asked the residents of Jerusalem where the tomb of Jesus had been… The people in Jerusalem at that time pointed her to this site where a pagan temple now stood and they said the tomb of Jesus was on this site and this pagan temple was built over it. Well, Helena ordered the temple to be razed and the earth to be excavated [to] get rid of this pollution of paganism. Now, what was interesting about the site identified by the residents of Jerusalem at this time is that the site lay within the walls of Jerusalem. If you look at where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, it’s inside the city walls, but the Gospels state that Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls of the city; they would never allow a crucifixion site and burial of unclean corpses to be going on inside the Holy City, it had to be outside the walls, and so it was odd that the residents of Jerusalem would point Helena to a site inside the city walls. Well, as it turned out many centuries later archaeologists excavating the city discovered that the original walls of Jerusalem were more narrowly constrained in that the site that the residents of Jerusalem pointed Helena to actually lay outside the original walls of Jerusalem. They had been later expanded. … The second thing that’s interesting… is that when they began to excavate the site and remove the earth they dug down and… lo and behold they excavated a tomb exactly where the residents of Jerusalem said that it would be. Now what’s interesting is that this Pagan temple stood on that site since it was built by the emperor Hadrian in A.D. 110. Now, since Jesus was crucified around A.D. 30, that means that the memory of this temple being on the site of Jesus’ tomb goes back to within just 80 years of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, well within the time that historical memory might be preserved. And so there’s a very very good chance that this is the very tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea lay the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The fact that the site originally identified was identified within the walls of Jerusalem (to the best of everyone’s knowledge), and that it came to light only centuries later through archaeological discovery that it was actually outside the original walls of Jerusalem, gives this site immense plausibility. Being originally inside the walls lowered the conditional probability of its being authentic (though the fact that there was a tomb there fitting the description of the biblical tomb and that it was identified by the residents of Jerusalem as the spot, raised the conditional probability of it being the authentic tomb). However, once it was discovered that this tomb was, in fact, outside of the walls of Jerusalem in place at the time of Jesus’ burial, that greatly raises the conditional probability of its being authentic. It is not merely that the tomb resides outside the original walls which is relevant for the conditional probability assessment here, it is that it was identified first as the tomb and was later discovered that it lay outside of the original walls of Jerusalem. That discovery raises the conditional probability tremendously. To formalize this a little bit:
Pr(A|B&W) < Pr(A|B&~W)
Pr(A|B&D&~W) >> Pr(A|B&~W)
Where A means the tomb is authentic, B stands for our background knowledge, W stands for ‘the site of the tomb is located within the city walls’ and D stands for ‘discovering after the fact that ~W.’ In the words of the archaeologist Dan Bahat, “we may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but… we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.” In fact, the discovery after the fact (in conjunction with the other properties which fit the description of the tomb from early sources) raises the probability of this being the authentic tomb highly enough that we can say it provides evidence that there was an authentic tomb. This entails that there was a place where the historical Jesus of Nazareth was buried, and so a historical figure, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’
Pr(J|B&D*) > Pr(~J|B&D*)
Where J stands for ‘Jesus of Nazareth existed,’ B stands, once again, for our background knowledge and D* stands for ‘the case for the authenticity of the tomb in light of the discovery that it lies outside of the original city walls.’
This case isn’t compelling. It’s just something to think about… Also worth thinking about, depending upon how strong you think the case for the Shroud of Turin is, is the following report from the U.K. branch of EWTN. I leave that here, without endorsing any of it, for those of you who may be interested in a pretty far-fetched but provocative suggestion.