Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Guest Book Review: Nelson Moore on James McGrath’s The Burial of Jesus

James F. McGrath is Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. His newest book, The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith (Booksurge Publishing, 2008,) is without question a good read.

The book is imminently readable and at 142 pages, easily digested. It is not a scholarly tome – there are no footnotes, no critical interaction with other historical Jesus scholarship, and many areas where he could have elaborated but chose not to. Rather, this is a book written by a biblical scholar for a popular audience.

McGrath has three primary goals: to introduce the average reader to the historical reasearch methods employed by biblical scholars, to put those tools to work in the historical study of the burial of Jesus, and ultimately to convince the reader that a bodily resurrection did not take place and is not a necessary component of Christian faith. This last goal is not explicitly made public in either the title or the opening chapters of the book, but by the time the reader arrives at the the final pages, there can be no mistake that this really is high on McGrath's priority list.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

McGrath shares his concern in the opening chapters about two elements of contemporary religious life in America. One is the proliferation of conservative Evangelical and fundamental strains of Christianity. The other is the popularity of television documentaries that seek to show "what the scholars have discovered" and then present often sensationalized or one-sided claims – claims that seem more oriented around drawing a large audience than around dealing in a thorough and reasoned manner with historical and archaeological material. So McGrath is annoyed by both of these. And in response to that he has produced this book.

He notes also in the first chapter that since the claims that Christians make are often historical (e.g. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus was buried) it is simply a requirement that the tools of historical study be employed to investigate what happened. It would be ridiculous to make historical claims and then resist the attempts of historians to evaluate them.

Chapter Two – Research Methods

McGrath spends chapter two laying out his argument for how historical research in Gospel studies should be done.

He does a good job of laying out the tools of historical research. In general, historians have access to ancient records (in our case, gospel narratives, Pauline epistles, other early documents) and archaeological finds (signets, cookware, weaponry, etc.) It is the job of the historian to examine this data and draw conclusions. No historian worth his or her salt would ever accept written sources uncritically. As a result of this, Prof. McGrath will expose the biblical narratives to the same kind of critical inquiry. And he is not afraid to reject biblical sources that display evidence of tampering.

McGrath then proceeds to use the tools of historical critical biblical study to examine the Synoptic Gospels. He does a fine job outlining what is the majority opinion among New Testament scholars today: Mark was written first; Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source; Matthew and Luke seem to have shared a second common source that we often refer to as Q; Matthew has some material that is totally unique to his Gospel; so does Luke. A careful reading of this material will help one realize that these are not wild claims that are invented by an imaginative scholar, but rather are reasoned conclusions based upon careful examination of data.

Based upon his work here, McGrath concludes that Matthew and Luke have heavily modified the original story for theological and rhetorical purposes. As a result, they are not reliable as historical sources. This conclusion will become very important when he later examines the burial of Jesus.

Chapter Three

In chapter three, McGrath puts to work the historical research methods that he laid out in chapter two. Due to his conclusions there, he will use the Markan account almost exclusively. He draws the following conclusions.

It is virtually indisputable that Jesus existed and that he was crucified. While history will encounter some who from time to time seek to deny these facts, the historical record is really rather clear. It is also virtually certain that Jesus really did die. Theories about how Jesus could have survived crucifixion are most unlikely.

He concludes that the words ascribed to Jesus as he hung on the cross are in all likelihood fictive. He concludes that Jesus' body was in all probability laid in a mass criminal's grave, used often for the purpose of entombing crucified criminals. The likely motive for the Sunday visit of Jesus' followers was to get the body out of this dishonorable location and to give the body of their fallen leader a more proper burial. The whole tradition surrounding Joseph of Arimathea, the desire of the woment to anoint the body, the existence of the guard at the tomb – all are rejected as unhistorical.

What we can conclude, therefore, is that Jesus lived, he was crucified, he died, and the body was missing on Sunday morning. As an historian McGrath is willing to concede that it is possible that the body rose from the dead. But he does not believe that the tools of historical inquiry can reach that conclusion. (And since he believes those are the only tools suitable for historical research, he does not draw that conclusion.)

Chapter Four

One might expect a book entitled The Burial of Jesus to end at this point. McGrath continues his exploration, however, to investigate what happened after the tomb was found empty. (He is particularly interested in examining New Testaent experiences with the resurrected Lord because as a Christian, he believes that they are still happening.)

McGrath examines Paul's testimony and notes that Paul has no empty tomb references. He then points out that "all such details which emphasize the physicality of Jesus' resurrection body are in the latest of the New Testament Gospels: Luke and John" (106). He concludes concludes in chapter four that it was not the existence of an empty tomb that created resurrection faith, but rather encounters with the risen Christ.

Chapter Five

Chapter five is McGrath's attempt to lay out what resurrection and faith look like in light of his findings. He briefly examines Christian beliefs regarding concepts such as eternal life, final judgment, the immortality of the soul, and the like. Among other things, he draws the following conclusions. New Testament authors speak of eternal life not as "going to heaven whe you die" but rather something to be experienced on earth. In the Bible, judgment is more often than not something you need to be concerned about while on earth. A non-corporeal resurrection of Jesus corresponds more clearly with what Christians have believed regarding their own fate. "If it makes sense to regard eternal life as something non-bodily, then surely the appropriate action is to regard Jesus as having entered eternal life in precisely the same way and same form as will eventually happen to all" (130). This corresponds to the concept of Jesus as forerunner.


The Burial of Jesus by James McGrath is definitely worth purchasing and reading. For those unfamiliar with how historical work is done in Christian academic contexts, McGrath provides a wonderful primer. If you are a biblical scholar, you may find this book very valuable as a resource to share with friends or students who are looking to understand historical scholarship. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this work.

by Nelson Moore

post scriptum

I would like to thank Chris Tilling Really Very Holy Ministries for the opportunity to present this material. May Tom Wright be blessed.

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At 10/21/2008 5:09 PM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for doing this! I hope you'll consider posting the review on Amazon.com as well, if it isn't too much trouble.

At 10/21/2008 9:29 PM, Anonymous Carl W. Conrad said...

What does "imminently readable" mean?

At 10/21/2008 9:40 PM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

It means the book doesn't contain the words "imminently readable" :)

At 10/22/2008 12:23 AM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

Unfortunately, if he's not bothering to interact with other scholarship, then he's probably not interacting with the scholarship on bodily resurrection in early Judaism, burial / reburial practices in ancient Judaism, bodily resurrection in the Pauline literature, whether it was acceptable to be defiled during certain holy days (i.e. timing of a reburial) or even to work on those days, etc.

Sounds like just a basic variation of the "stole the body" hypothesis, perhaps without actually saying as much. I debunked the old "stole the body" hypothesis last time I saw it come out on Internet Infidels, one of the "coordinated-with-Easter" attacks on Christianity a few years back. Coming soon to a Christian bookstore near you, ey?

Take care & God bless

At 10/22/2008 12:59 AM, Anonymous steph said...

WF - just because it is written for a popular audience, without footnotes, does not mean that he has not 'bothered' to "interact with other scholarship". The amount of background research going into a book like this presupposes that has does "interact with other scholarship" but doesn't burden his general readers with the details.

Nice review - however the last five words did damage to the credibility somewhat... :-)

At 10/22/2008 4:01 AM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

Hm, I was just going on the part of the review where it says there's no critical interaction with other historical Jesus scholarship plus the hypotheses set out. Perhaps if I find the book in a library at some point I can check it out first-hand. The synopsis in the review really sounded so much like the popular treatments at Internet Infidels that I found myself wondering how this differed from other authors' existing treatments of the same subject.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 10/22/2008 4:33 AM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

Why not recommend that your local public and/or academic library acquire a copy! :)

Many points (e.g. about historical studies or the Synoptic problem) are commonplaces of Biblical scholarship, and so I didn't feel it was necessary or helpful to provide footnotes. On those points at which I reach conclusions that are distinctive, I try to make my case in a way a general audience can understand, but I do plan to offer more detailed analysis of some of the relevant texts in the future in more scholarly venues - complete with footnotes! Again, WF, I'd welcome your evaluation of whether the book would have benefitted from footnotes or not, if you get a chance to read it.

As for the disciples stealing the body, I am very much persuaded that the disciples would have wanted to, because Jesus did not get the honorable burial they felt he deserved. I am uncertain whether the disciples tried to steal the body, but it is quite possible. If they did attempt to steal the body, I am convinced that by the time they got to the tomb, the body of Jesus was no longer there...

At 10/22/2008 4:44 AM, Anonymous Jonathan Robinson said...

NTW is nlikely to be blessed by a review which uncritically accepts the suggestion that eternal life is to do with the eternal soul rather than the resurrection of the body!

If McGrath is still hanging around would be interesting to hear his take on Wrights Resurrection book or on Barnett's Jesus and the logic of history, or indeed any other book that argues for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

At 10/22/2008 12:57 PM, Anonymous Christian said...

I definitely think Wright's worth reading on this. Here's an extract which is an example of how he tries to rely on the earliest sources and traditions, in this case even pre-1 Corinthians:

'It is, frankly, impossible to imagine that the [accounts of women discovering the empty tomb] were inserted into the tradition after Paul's day...Rather, the tradition which Paul is quoting (in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8] precisely for evangelistic and apologetic use, has carefully taken the women out of it so that it can serve that purpose within a supsicious and mocking world. But this only goes to the edge of the issue. The underlying point is more ruthlessly historical.

'Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material, and did so some time in the late 60s at the earliest, it will not do to have him, or anyone else at that stage, making up a would-be apologetic legend about an empty tomb and having women be the ones who find it. The point has been repeated over and over in scholarship, but its full impacy has not alsways been felt: women were simply not accepted as legal witnesses' p607

James, as for your apparent concern that these earliest sources weren't describing something physical enough - well I guess I'll have to read your book. But I think - given that most of Wright's 800 pages are an exhaustive survey of how the NT writings strangely shun the spectrum of post-death 1st century explanations available to them and converge on a very specific and distinctive category of bodily resurrection - I think you'd have to show us, against Wright, that any of the early sources are desribing phenomena that are clearly non-bodily.

At 10/22/2008 1:46 PM, Anonymous steph said...

I think James Crossley's response to Wright is worth reading on this. :-)
"Against the Historical Plausibility of the Empty Tomb Story and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus: A Response to N.T. Wright" JSHJ 3.2 (2005) 153-168

At 10/23/2008 12:58 AM, Anonymous steph said...

True ranger, but the trouble is I don't think Wright really adequately responds to James' arguments. But that's getting off topic.

But really the infatuation(?) with Wright, a man with verbal diarrhea, is quite weird. There are many far better conservative critical scholars in the world. :-)

(I'm leaviing now to escape the slaughter)

At 10/23/2008 5:47 AM, Anonymous Ranger said...

I totally agree with you. I quite often agree with Wright, but there are other conservative scholars I prefer reading as well.

I also agree that Wright doesn't address all of James points in the response. Some are actually discussed elsewhere in the article, but its nowhere near as adequate a response as it could have been. Really, I was just posting it because I thought the back and forth was cute and knew it could be continued.

At 10/25/2008 11:40 AM, Anonymous bobbyt said...

Take one historian, using the latest methods of historical research (which will likely be considered out of date very soon), add anti-supernatural pre-suppositions and the outcome is inevitable. Why should historians' methodologies be the final word on the purpose of the incarnation?

At 10/25/2008 2:52 PM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

bobbyt, if you have tools, other than the methods of historical study, that will allow us to assess the evidence for past events, I'd love to know what they are.

At 10/25/2008 4:01 PM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Three cheers for McGrath for pointing out the most obvious questions based on the chronological order in which the letters of Paul and the Gospels were composed. It's an effective way to raise obvious indisputable questions.

I used an approach similar to McGrath's when debating physical resurrection apologist Gary Habermas of Liberty University:


Also having spent time reading reviews of N.T. Wright's book I learned that the world's theologians weren't all convinced by his interpretation of the evidence:



or see


I might add that I personally would like to read a single FIRST PERSON account of what the raised Jesus looked like and said and did. The Gospels are however anonymous and not first person accounts. And even Paul doesn't give a first person account describing the "appearance" of Jesus to him, except to say he "appeared," and to claim that appearance equal to that experienced by other "apostles," but that raises the question of whether Luke was correct with his late story about a bodily ascension into heaven which happened BEFORE Paul ever converted, so whatever "appeared" to Paul wasn't a bodily raised Jesus, was it? And since Paul places the "appearance" granted him on equal footing with the "appearances" to all the other apostles, what indeed are we to think concerning the nature of Paul's "spirit body?" Or did Luke's "bodily-ascended" Jesus make a special trip back down from heaven in the body once again just for Paul?

Also one must note that someone else tells the story of Jesus' "appearance" to Paul in Acts, for Paul says precious little about any of that in any of his letters, even when he mentions the road to Damascus and the resurrection in his letters. So we do not have a first person account from Paul. Neither is there a first-person testimony of meeting the raised Jesus anywhere in the whole N.T. Nor is there a first person testimony of someone meeting any of the many "raised saints" per Matthew, nor a first person story of anyone meeting a raised Lazarus per the fourth Gospel. Instead we have stories told by anonymous people in second or third person or more fashion. So this case wouldn't even GET to court, not without a single first person testimony. Yet Christian apologists claim they have a TRIAL and it's all sewn up in their favor. Of course the message by the time of the fourth Gospel is that it's "more blessed to believe rather than to have seen."

At 10/25/2008 10:19 PM, Anonymous bobbyt said...

The only problem with the 'methods of historical study' is that they are dependent on current philosophical preconceptions - they are subject to changing fashions. Arriving at a consensus amongst historians even on a subject chronologically close to our time is notoriously difficult - and that is not only about matters of 'interpretation', but often matters of 'fact'. My contention remains that if one interprets with a built-in anti-supernatural presupposition, one is bound to discover a lack of supernatural activity. The conclusion that the body of Jesus was dumped in a common grave, rather than an individual tomb is no more the result of historical research than any other conclusion. It depends on one's philosophical / theological starting point.

At 10/26/2008 1:27 AM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

bobbyt, I'd like to make two points in response. First, I would like to point out that you didn't answer my question about what methods you would recommend using to investigate the past, if you reject those used in historical study.

Second, my conclusion that Jesus buried (not "dumped") in a nearby grave used for burying criminals is indeed based on a historical investigation of the evidence. Our earliest Gospel, Mark, has Joseph of Arimathea do the bare minimum the law requires, wrapping Jesus in a linen sheet and placing him in "a tomb". You are obviously free to follow the story depicted by later Gospel authors, in which the tomb becomes Joseph's own (since members of the ruling council often had their places of burial located conveniently near sites of execution, just in case, right?) and Joseph becomes a disciple and eventually, in John, he (together with Nicodemus) anoints Jesus in the way that the Gospel of Mark indicates Jesus was not anointed for burial, unless you count the perfume poured on him by the woman who "anointed him beforehand for burial".

So please do explain what your approach is, and how it does better justice to the evidence than the tools currently used by historians.

I'd also like to object to your claim that historians have a bias against the supernatural. That is simply asking for more impressive evidence for more unusual claims. I ask my students every semester whether they would believe me if I told them I saw a plane in the sky on my way to work, and most would accept my claim at face value. I then ask them if they would believe me if I said I saw a flying saucer, and most wouldn't. That seems perfectly fair, and what is unfair is criticizing historians for treating their sources in the same way most of us treat claims with which we're confronted in our time.

At 10/26/2008 4:16 AM, Anonymous Grandmère Mimi said...

What sort of a resurrection would a non-corporeal resurrection be? It seems to me that there must be a body, perhaps not exactly like our present bodies, but something corporeal, something recognizably us.

That may not be a conclusion that critical historians of the bible can establish with any certainty, but the concept of disembodied souls (or something else?) floating around for eternity seems - I don't know how else to put it - rather ridiculous to me. And wouldn't it be venturing in the direction of gnosticism?

At 10/26/2008 8:05 AM, Anonymous bobbyt said...

These arguments and counter-arguments have been going on for many years, but at the risk of going over some old ground, here are a few of my reasons for accepting the New Testament accounts of the resurrection at face value:
Joachim Jeremias recognized the 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 as a creedal formula from the earliest post-resurrection days, therefore maintaining that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus was not a later invention.
Of course, it is possible that at some point in the possible development of the story, belief in the spiritual resurrection may have changed via wishful thinking into a physical resurrection - but that requires reading into the gospel accounts a motivation that is not itself clear in the New Testament.
There just simply was not time for legendary accretions to be attached to the NT documents. Legendary accretions need at least two generations to accumulate and that in turn requires a late dating for the gospels and letters. The canonical gospels have been proved as early documents (within the first generation of witnesses) and it is unlikely that they would contain accumulated legends or wishful thinking.
If this was a purely spiritual resurrection, why was the body not produced by the authorities to disprove what might become quite awkward at a later date?
Unlike any other messianic movement, the 'Jesus people' of the first century flourished, despite the combined efforts of both Jewish and Roman authorities to eliminate them.
Mark's account is brief - just like the rest of his gospel - but brevity does not make it a different story. The account states: "So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb."
You are free to interpret 'a tomb cut out of rock' to mean a common grace into which the bodies of criminals might be thrown, but unless you had already decided to dismiss any suggestion of a physical resurrection, then why not take these words at face value?
That for me, plus the phenomenal growth of the Christian faith in the first three centuries, is sufficient proof. I believe that the gospel accounts, plus Paul's references to the resurrection are reliable.
As a matter of interest - if you told your students that you spoke to your wife before earlier that day, they would probably believe you. What if you said you spoke to God earlier that day?
Yours in the risen Christ - bobbyt

At 10/26/2008 11:59 PM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for the reply. I will keep my replies here brief, and direct you to a post on my blog that addresses an underlying issue that has not yet been adequately addressed.

As for why the authorities didn't produce the body, the Book of Acts says that around 40 days passed between the crucifixion and the start of the public proclamation. Exactly what identifiable remains do you believe would have been left at that time?

Second, your claim that legendary developments don't occur during the first generation of storytelling seems to me to be patently false, as work on the psychology of rumor (and most of our personal experience with rumor) has demonstrated.

Finally, my conclusions about the burial of Jesus are not ones I wanted to reach at the start of my investigation. They are ones that I feel the texts of the New Testament require me to reach. On the one hand, the Gospel of Mark has a woman anoint Jesus beforehand for burial and women seek to do so afterwards. Those actions make no sense if Jesus had been honorably buried. And thus, when John provides Jesus with an honorable burial in his Gospel, he changes what Jesus says about the woman who anoints him, and doesn't have the women who go to the tomb on Sunday morning plan to anoint him. It is this evidence in the Gospels themselves that led me to conclusions I certainly never expected to reach before I began studying the matter!

At 10/27/2008 5:55 PM, Anonymous bobbyt said...

James - many thanks for the opportunity to discuss this issue with you and thanks for your thought-provoking reply. I am still not convinced, although the brain cells are enjoying the exercise! Cornelius van Til's suggestion that we all think in closed circles and that therefore we simply agree to differ is the last resort of the scoundrel (apologies to Dr Johnson!) - so here goes again!
The most direct and uncluttered descriptions of an event are usually considered to be the earliest. Later tellings accumulate detail - some of which may be accurate, some of which may be designated 'legendary' (or 'superfluous'). Of course, our experience of state public education and comprehensive media / communication systems may considerably accelerate the process of rumour, but that would not have been the case in the first century.
Why would the disciples of Jesus invent a resurrection story? It would have been at odds with their cultural / religious expectations. Indeed, it would have been counter-cultural for them to have claimed that an individual (rather than the 'righteous') had been raised from the dead now (rather than at the 'end time').
My problem regarding the 40 days between resurrection and the first public announcement of the resurrection is that if Paul was right, and that over 500 people did witness the risen Christ, then it would hardly have been a secret, even before the events of Pentecost.
The anointing of Jesus at Bethany would have been in line with the custom of anointing an honoured guest as a mark of respect. It is only the comment by Jesus that has linked this action with the coming crucifixion. Too much weight should not be attached to the way details differ between accounts written by two (or more) different people.
Yours in the risen Christ - bobbyt

At 10/27/2008 6:24 PM, Anonymous James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for your reply! I'm enjoying having the chance to clarify my thinking in conversation with you - it presumably also clarifies things for others who are curious about the book!

I don't find I can do much, historically speaking, with what Paul says about Jesus appearing to over 500 people at once. Paul makes clear that he wasn't one of those 500. Did he talk to one (or more) of them? Or did he get the information from someone who had themselves heard from someone who had heard from someone...? To return to the lawcourt analogy, it is "hearsay" and thus inadmissable.

On the other hand, I don't think that the early Christians simply "made up" the idea of Jesus' resurrection. They clearly had powerful religious experiences that persuaded them that something incredible and unexpected had occurred. I do, in fact, address the ways in which early Christians had to rethink their understanding of history and the notion of the two ages. They clearly didn't simply make things up to support beliefs they already held. But neither is it clear to me that the experiences the earliest sources talk about had a tangible component. This is not to say that they could not have, but simply that I do not find the evidence clear that they did.

The book represents not only my attempt to wrestle with some of the inconvenient aspects of the historical evidence, but also with the question of what religious experience can be appealed to as proof of (if that sentence makes sense).

For those who may be interested, another review of the book has been posted by Stephen Barkley (on his blog as well as on Amazon).

At 11/01/2008 12:22 AM, Anonymous Antonio Jerez said...

Bobbyt wrote:
"The only problem with the 'methods of historical study' is that they are dependent on current philosophical preconceptions - they are subject to changing fashions."

Maybe the methods some historians use are dependent on "current philosophical preconceptions" but I very much doubt that a good historian does that. It is hardly because of philosophical speculations that an overwhelming majority of modern historians dismiss the miraculous. It is based on observation of the real world out there. It´s not like we haven´t taken a deep look at supposedly miraculous phenomena like glossalia and demonpossession. The closer you look at it the less there is to it...

As for James I can only applaud him. He is to be commended for his intellectual honesty. Keep up your work!

PS! Oops I almost forgot. Nope, I still do not agree with James that the historical method does not allow us to come to any firm conclusions about the claimed resurrection of a galilean 2000 years ago. It´s not like a historian should stay content with looking for clues in the NT alone. There is a whole world out there that has been running around for 2000 years that give additional clues, not the least church history...

At 11/09/2008 10:16 AM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

'It is virtually indisputable that Jesus existed and that he was crucified. While history will encounter some who from time to time seek to deny these facts, the historical record is really rather clear. '

I wonder how the evidence for Jesus compares with the evidence for the Maitreya, who his followers claim was seen by over 6000 people.

At 11/09/2008 2:07 PM, Anonymous Steven Carr said...

Joachim Jeremias recognized the 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 as a creedal formula from the earliest post-resurrection days, therefore maintaining that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus was not a later invention.

Sadly, 1 Corinthians 15:-5 never claims a flesh and bone Jesus walked the earth.

No early Christian creed did.

In fact, we know that early Christian converts scoffed at the idea that their god would choose to raise a corpse.

Paul says flat-out that Jesus became a spirit.

At 9/29/2012 11:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cycnism run amok. Completely revisionist. Denial based on multiple assumptions and then substitute your own "group think" This is a form of "propaganda".

Someone in 1st Century experiences something and talks about it. 21st century people slice and dice the words until group think century says the person telling of his experience didn't know what he was talking about. Good propangda technique.


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