The Argument from Silence, Part 6: Uta Ranke-Heinemann on Paul’s Silence about the Empty Tomb
In this post, I want to revisit an argument from silence used by Uta Ranke-Heinemann against the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus.
The empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning is a legend. This is shown by the simple fact that the apostle Paul, the most crucial preacher of Christ’s resurrection, and the earliest New Testament writer besides, says nothing about it. As far as Paul is concerned, it doesn’t exist. Thus it means nothing to him, that is, an empty tomb has no significance for the truth of the resurrection, which he so emphatically proclaims.
As with my other posts in my series on the argument from silence, I want to formulate her argument as an explanatory argument, in order to make it as strong as possible. As was the case with Craig, I need to point out that Ranke-Heinemann does not present her argument as an explanatory argument; in fact, she does not explicitly state the logical structure of her argument at all. The following is my attempt to formulate an explanatory argument, using the relevant points from her discussion.
The Argument Formulated
B: The Relevant Background Evidence
B1. For Paul, all Christianity depends upon the resurrection of Christ.
B2. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gathers together and cites all evidence for Jesus’ resurrection that has been handed down to him.
E: The Evidence to be Explained
E1. Paul is silent on the empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15.
H: The Proposed Explanatory Hypothesis and Its Alternatives
H: Jesus’ tomb was empty after his death and burial.
~H: Jesus’ tomb was not empty after his death and burial.
(1) E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E | B) is close to 1.
(2) H is not intrinsically much more probable than ~H, i.e., Pr(H | B) is not much more probable than Pr(~H | B).
(3) E is antecedently much more probable on ~H than on H, i.e., Pr(E | ~H & B) >! Pr(E | H & B).
(4) Therefore, other evidence held equal, H is probably false, i.e., Pr(H | B & E) < 0.5.
Defense of (3)
Here is Ranke-Heinemann:
“Granted, for Paul all Christianity depends upon the resurrection of Christ – “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). But in Paul’s view, that has nothing to do with an empty tomb. He manifestly has no idea of any such thing. If Paul had ever heard of the empty tomb, he would have never passed over it in silence. Since he gathers together and cites all evidence for Jesus’ resurrection that has been handed down to him (1 Corinthians 15), he certainly would have found the empty tomb worth mentioning. That he doesn’t proves that it never existed and hence the accounts of it must not have arisen until later.”
Objections to (3)
There are two main objections to (3).
First, according to many New Testament scholars, Paul’s belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead entails the resuscitation of Jesus’ corpse. That, combined with the facts of Jesus’ burial in a tomb and the post-resurrection appearances of the resurrected Jesus, entails an empty tomb. Not only did Paul understand this, but his audience in Corinthians would have understood it also. Therefore, Paul probably considered the empty tomb obvious and not worth mentioning.
Second, Dale Allison argues that 1 Cor 15 is “a very compressed statement, one mostly bereft of details. Pilate, Jerusalem, and the crucifixion also go unmentioned.” Similarly, Allison quotes Nack who argues that “the empty tomb served not missionary preaching but belonged to discourse aimed at the faithful community.” As Allison puts it, this “explains its [the empty tomb’s] presence in the Gospels, written for the faithful, and its absence from the kerygma, intended for public consumption.”
I consider both Ranke-Heinemann’s argument from silence and the objections listed above to be inconclusive. Paul may well have believed the historicity of the empty tomb was obvious. (I’m well aware of the debate regarding the nature of Jesus’s post-resurrection body; trying to sort that debate out requires specialized knowledge I do not have. Therefore, I view the nature of the post-resurrection body as an open question.) And Paul’s target audience may very well have included believers. For these reasons, I do not share Ranke-Heinemann’s confidence in the strength of her argument. It appears that B2 is doubtful and premise (3) is false. In particular, I don’t see how to show that Pr(E | ~H & B) is very much greater than Pr(E | H & B).
On the other hand, Paul states (in 1 Cor 15:12) his audience includes those who “say there is no resurrection of the dead.” This verse makes me wonder if it would have been valuable for Paul to mention the empty tomb to them. If so, then perhaps it would be possible to show that a weaker version of premise (3) is true, namely,
(3′) Pr(E | ~H & B) > Pr(E | H & B).
I am agnostic about that. In the meantime, however, I think it is clear that Ranke-Heinemann’s argument, as it stands, is inductively incorrect.
 Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things: the Virgin birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 131.
 See, e.g., N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
 Robert M. Price, “By This Time He Stinketh: The Attempts of William Lane Craig to Exhume Jesus” The Secular Web (1997), http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/stinketh.html(spotted July 11, 2012).
 Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T & T Clark, 2005), 306-7.
 Ibid., 307, n. 423.