The Empty Tomb: Reply to Josh and Sean McDowell

(Redated post originally published on 20 November 2012)

A friend informed me that Josh and Sean McDowell, in the new (revised?) edition of More Than a Carpenter (MTAC) on page 134, have offered a critique of the relocation hypothesis, which I defended in The Empty Tomb (TET). I have reviewed what they wrote. Here is a rough sketch of how I would respond.

First, I could not help but notice similarities between the wording of their comments and the wording of Stephen Davis’s review in Philosophia Christi. The similarities make me wonder if the McDowells are guilty of plagiarizing Davis’s work. Here is just one example. Davis writes, “Lowder’s scenario is helped by the fact that, as we now know, reburial was common in ancient Palestine.” Compare to the McDowells: “The ‘relocation hypothesis’ gains support from the fact that reburial was common in ancient Palestine.”

Second, as I explained in my published response to Davis (see here), I agree with Davis that the relocation hypothesis is unlike the ancient practice of reburial, which is why in TET I do not appeal to ancient reburial practices in support of the relocation hypothesis.(In fairness, I did appeal to reburial in a paper upon which my chapter is based, but in TET I removed those appeals and changed the name of the hypothesis, from reburial hypothesis to relocation hypothesis, for the very reason described by Davis.) The reburial hypothesis is the hypothesis that Jesus received a second burial; in contrast, the relocation hypothesis only entails a primary burial. Therefore, Davis’s objection is not relevant to my actual thesis.

Third, regarding the McDowells’ objection that the relocation hypothesis suffers from a “complete lack of historical support,” I freely admit that the direct textual evidence for the relocation hypothesis is weak. (In other words, there is no text in the New Testament that says, “On Saturday night, Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body from his tomb to the graveyard of the condemned.”) Indeed, I stated as much in the conclusion of my TET chapter when I wrote, “we lack direct evidence for the relocation hypothesis.” It doesn’t follow from this point, however, that the dishonorable burial hypothesis is (a) ad hoc; (b) unsupported by other forms of evidence, or even (c) disconfirmed by the total evidence. This is because direct textual evidence is just one of many types of potential evidence relevant to historical conclusions.

What, then, are the other types of evidence relevant to the final probability of the relocation hypothesis? There is conclusive evidence to show there is “a high prior probability that the Jews would bury an executed criminal like Jesus dishonorably” (266). Moreover, as I argued in my chapter, there is circumstantial evidence that favors the relocation hypothesis over the honorable burial hypothesis: (a) the rushed chronology of Jesus’ burial as described in Mark’s gospel; (b) Mary’s statement in John 20:2,7 (c) Joseph would have defiled his own tomb by storing Jesus’ body in it; and (d) the empty tomb itself.

Fourth, I agree with Michael Licona that the relocation hypothesis does not explain the evidence of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. In fact, I stated this in my book! The relocation hypothesis has greater power to explain the empty tomb than the resurrection hypothesis (since the former entails an empty tomb, whereas the latter does not). On the other hand, the relocation hypothesis is not even intended or presented as a possible explanation for the appearances of Jesus. Some other hypothesis would be needed to explain that.

Finally, regarding the recognizability of Jesus’ body, I contacted a Jerusalem climatologist about this very issue. I think there is insufficient evidence to say one way or the other; I don’t see how the available data can be used to show that, beyond a reasonable doubt and applying the same historical standards we would apply to any other historical topic, the body would definitely have been recognizable after seven weeks of decomposition. Please see my response to Davis for details.

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