Cracked argument, rhetorical questions and women witnesses at the tomb

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by Neil Godfrey

A wisdom-pearl in Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea reminded me of a host of gossamer arguments regularly touted by fundamenatists (not only Christian or religious fundamentalists, either).

I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (p. 178)

Rhetorical questions used to paper over cracked arguments – yes, so often.

A popular argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus goes like this:

A . . . problem for a made-up resurrection account is that the allegedly made up story relies on the presence of women witnesses at its start. In this culture females could not be witnesses. If one were making up this story, why would one create it with women as witnesses? The key role of women in the account suggests the women are there because the women were there at the start, not that the resurrection was made up. (Bock, 2006: p. 150)

N.T. Wright is a little more subtle (?) by embedding his rhetorical question in a barrage of rhetorical assertions.

Even if we suppose that Mark made up most of his material . . . it will not do to have him, or anyone else . . . 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 impact has not always been felt: women were simply not acceptable as legal witnesses. . . . The debate between Origen and Celsus shows that critics of Christianity could seize on the story of the women in order to scoff at the whole tale; were the legend-writers really so ignorant of the likely reaction? If they could have invented stories of fine, upstanding, reliable male witnesses being the first a the tomb, they would have done it. That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both. Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy? (Wright, 2003: p. 607)

One might construe Wright’s reference in this context to the debate between Origen and Celsus as a little bit mischievous. Wright is discussing the empty tomb so his citation of Celsus reads as if this ancient sceptic attempted to refute the empty tomb story on the basis of its reliance on women witnesses. But Celsus nowhere critiques the empty tomb story on this basis at all. His critique in relation to the women as witnesses has to do with their claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus:

Speaking next of the statements in the Gospels, that after His resurrection He showed the marks of His punishment, and how His hands had been pierced, he asks, “Who beheld this?” And discrediting the narrative of Mary Magdalene, who is related to have seen Him, he replies, “A half-frantic woman, as you state.” (Contra Celsus, Book II, ch. 59)

Celsus’ critique of the empty tomb story was based on a comparison with pagan claims for the tomb of Jupiter on the isle of Crete (Contra Celsus, Book III, chapter 43).

It is worth comparing the billowing rhetoric of these “arguments” with the facts of the text they claim to be supporting.

Darrell Bock writes (and N.T. Wright strongly implies) that the resurrection account “relies on the presence of women at its start”. If by “resurrection account” he means the canonical narratives, then it is true that each of these speaks of women being the first at the tomb. But if he means the evidence for the resurrection itself, the women play no direct role at all. The women witnesses are – as per the rhetorical assertions – not believed by the men.

In Mark’s gospel, which rightly ends at 16:8, they do not even tell anyone what they had seen.

In Matthew’s gospel there is no account of the women reporting anything to the disciples – a strange oversight if the proof of the resurrection “relied” on their witness. Rather, this gospel informs the reader that the tomb guards reported what had happened to the chief priests, and implies that the chief priests believed the account of the resurrection. Next, the disciples themselves witness the resurrected Jesus. By inference the reader understands that Christianity began as a direct result of this appearance of Jesus to the disciples. The story of the women being the first to witness Jesus serves as little more than a nice message to assure the world that the new religion has a special place for women as well as the men.

Again according to Luke’s gospel, the women are far from necessary for belief in the resurrection. No-one believes the women (Luke 24:11, 25, 37-38). Jesus has to appear in person to convince the disciples and start the church.

Finally in John’s gospel, only one (unnamed) male disciple believes, and he does so only after he sees the empty tomb for himself (John 20:8).

In all gospels the apostolic founders of Christianity believed in the ressurrection because they had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. In all gospels the women were disbelieved or there is no narrative about their informing the male disciples at all.

When I was in Sunday school I learned that the reason Jesus appeared first to women after his resurrection was to offer them some sort of affirmative action or positive discrimination to undo their hitherto subservient place in society.

If the women witnesses were not even believed in the story there can be little basis to the assertion that their witness is central to belief in the resurrection as a fact of history.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Cracked argument, rhetorical questions and women witnesses at the tomb”

  1. Perhaps the fact that women were viewed as such lousy witnesses was the very reason that Mark put them front and center. After all, if Mark is telling the story of the empty tomb for the first time thirty years after the crucifixion, he must have known that his readers would wonder why they had never heard the story before. Maybe Mark wanted to give himself an out: “Hey, those silly unreliable women ran off without telling anyone. We didn’t find out about it for a long time.”

    I think that the logic behind the criteria of embarrassment is reasonably sound, but it can’t be enough to simply postulate a reason why a particular story element might be embarrassing without weighing that against the extent to which the element might support the author’s narrative purpose. I don’t personally think that the legal admissibility of women’s testimony was terribly relevant to Mark’s literary purposes, however, if it were, I think it provides as much incentive as deterrent to having the women first on the scene.

  2. I’m interested in finding other nonbiblical examples the sorts of narratives explained by the “criterion of embarrassment”. I don’t recall ever hearing of it as a method for establishing a historical fact until I read gospel studies.

  3. I used to read a lot of American Civil War history in which historians would try to resolve conflicting accounts of events. I don’t remember anyone specifically referring to the “criteria of embarrassment,” but I think that kind of logic was applied. It has probably been ten to fifteen years since I looked at it, although I probably have most of the books still. I will see if I can track down any specific examples.

  4. I don’t doubt embarrassment impacts on how facts are narrated, or if they are mentioned at all. What I question, however, is the use of the “criterion” to establish a “fact of history”.

    Many Australians were for a long time embarrassed by their convict past, and for many years schools taught that the typical original convict was guilty of no more than stealing half a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, etc. (I never learned of Irish “rebels” or violent criminals and extortioners among them until years after leaving school.) Some families once attempted to hide their convict ancestry.

    Embarrassment affects the way events are told, the slant put on them, and to whom they apply etc, but it does not follow that embarrassment is “evidence” that Australia had convict beginnings. Embarrassment can be occasioned as much over misinformation, a myth, a theological metaphor, as a fact.

    Some Australian historians claim, for example, that national embarrassment over genocidal massacres of aborigines is misplaced since such events did not happen, and are the product of very vivid imaginations greatly exaggerating a few suspicions or a few relatively minor and misinterpreted isolated cases.

    If their denial is itself an embarrassed testimony to the fact of aboriginal massacres, then the criterion makes a claim unfalsifiable.

  5. Of course, the anonymous author of John has no idea that scholars have proved that a women’s testimony was not considered credible.

    John 4:39 ‘Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”

    And, who would believe a women’s testimony given that their reaction to seeing an empty tomb was to claim that somebody had moved the body!

    Idiots! Thank God a man was there to examine the evidence and come to a more sensible conclusion.

    In fact Jesus himself had to correct the testimony of a woman.

  6. I think it is a question of how much weight the criteria can bear. If a historian has ten different first person accounts of a battle, the fact that one of the officers includes details that reflect negatively on the performance of the soldiers under his command might be sufficient reason to think he is being truthful. In that case, we know enough about the context in which the report is being made to know how embarrassing it was to the author and how big a deterrent that would have been.

    On the other hand, if all you have is a single account of a fantastical event without the ability to corroborate any of the details, I don’t see how embarrassment could ever be a sufficient basis to determine historicity. Without a well-defined context, it seems impossible to weigh the potential embarrassment against all the other reasons the author might have had for telling the story the way he did.

  7. The idea underlying this “criterion” in gospel studies that I used to read about is that some event that is not supportive of an author’s perspective is so well known “out there” that it is futile or even self-damaging for the author to avoid mentioning it. He is compelled to address a fact that is “embarrassing” to his agenda.

    (This is different from Funk’s description of it. Funk would apply it when there is no other reason to mention something and that to mention it would be embarrassing. Some might wonder if a person goes out of their way to proclaim data that is damaging to their cause and themselves has a problem that goes beyond mere embarrassment. Best to ask if X is mentioned for a theological reason not entirely clear to us today and see how we might test such an idea.)

    If indeed this — the fact that a damaging fact is too well known to be avoided — were the reason for the evangelists to narrate a version of, say, the baptism of Jesus, one would surely expect to see reference to the event (portrayed in different hues) beyond the gospel sources.

    If, to continue the example of baptism, Jesus’ baptism had been so well known as a fact that evangelists could not avoid addressing it even if only sideways (e.g. Luke and John) then we have an additional problem: why Paul, when discussing baptism at length, made not a whisper of it. A common argument in the case of Paul is that X was so well known that there was no need for him to mention it. But when we want to apply the criterion of embarrassment to the baptism, we are arguing that it was too well known to be avoided!

    Or if we bring the example back to the women witnesses, we are again in a double-bind: the gospels cannot avoid narrating the event, indeed must deal with it because it is so widely known and to avoid it would be leave them vulnerable to enemy fire; while Paul finds reason to avoid a whisper about them when discussing his resurrection appearances.

    Or we can do a Bauckham and create a unique rule to explain each varying instance — embarrassment can explain NOT mentioning X when hypothetical A applies and it can explain times when we DO mention X when hypothetical B applies.

    The simplest solution is to ditch the criterion as a pillar of historicity and keep the psychological state reserved for the way a tale is told if told at all, not the fact of telling it.

    Or if we stick with Funk’s notion of it, then it is even less of a guarantee of historicity. To say that someone would only mention X if it really happened if that X were embarrassing and there were no other reason to bring it up is a very negative “criterion”. It leaves open the question of motive — why would someone publicize something that is an embarrassment to them? Just the “fact” of it being “true” is not a reason, let alone the only possible reason. We have learned enough since Freud to know how creative and self-deceptive the mind can be.

    No, we are on unstable ground if we attempt to divine the mind and feelings of an author we do not know, writing at a time and place we do not know, and for an audience and in circumstances we can only hypothesize.

    Sheesh, I’m beginning to write a whole new article! I’m embarrassed. Better stop.

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