Another Empty Tomb Tale

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by Neil Godfrey

Just how unique are the empty tomb narratives in the gospels really?  Here is a narrative of a fictional empty tomb story from the same period, possibly slightly earlier, as the gospels.

Note the graphic details, the similarity of actions, settings and feelings to those found in the gospels; and even the conclusion that the missing corpse was a sign that the one buried had  been a divinity in the flesh, and was now a goddess in heaven.

It is from the story of Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton, translated by B. P. Reardon

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb – it was night, and they were in a hurry.

At the crack of dawn Chareas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that could cure his grief.

When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor – a swift messenger – told the Syracusans this amazing news.

They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. This man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately.

It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there.

Then Chareas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callihroe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing.

Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness.

One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off – it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse – where is it?”

Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd.

“Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callihroe and is now keeping her with him – against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly – so that she would not realize what is happening.

That is how Dionyus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station.

From pages 54/5 of Collected Ancient Greek Novels ed by B. P. Reardon, 1989

Of the date of this novel, Reardon writes that it was “written in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward . . . and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D.”  (p. 17)

Any study of the gospel empty tomb stories ought to be aware of the remarkably similar sorts of stories that were popular at the time.

For anyone not so familiar with the gospel narratives, the phrases I have highlighted are echoed in the following details of the gospels:

  • the women mourners coming early morning to the tomb of Jesus
  • to complete their mourning tasks
  • on reaching the tomb they are astonished to find the (stone) door open
  • and to find the tomb empty
  • in the Gospel of John Peter arrives first at the tomb but does not go inside
  • another disciple arrives soon afterwards and does go inside the tomb
  • and he sees for sure that there is no body
  • people (disciples) could not believe it
  • the empty tomb is a sign that Jesus was indeed divine and had returned to his place in heaven as a divinity
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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Another Empty Tomb Tale”

  1. Did the gospels inspire these stories? Hardly. There exists no evidence that the gospels were known even to most christians in the first century. Even Paul didn’t seem to know about them.

    1. I do have an actual issue (other than my teasing above). Steve Hays of Triablogue in “This Joyful Eastertide” which is his review of the skeptical anthology, “The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave” claims that Paul’s word “buried” in 1 Corinthians 15 means “entombed.” He says on page 77:

      “It should be noted, however, that the verb translated “buried” really
      means “en-tombed” (ejtavfh). Although each evangelist prefers the word mnhmei’on as the location of Jesus’ burial (Matthew 27:60; 28:8; Mark 16:2,3,5,8; Lk 24:2,9,12,22,24; John 24:1,2,3,4,6,8,11), the word tavfo /taphos is also used by Matthew as a synonym (Matthew 27:61,64,66; 28:1).”

      I haven’t seen any other apologists argue that. He seems to be a loner on that count. And the Young’s Literal Translation just says buried as well. Any insight?


  2. Let’s apply a bit of Hume here. Empty tombs and dead people existed before Jesus – all the core elements of the C&C story were present for thousands of years before the Christians came along. Neither has to cause the other.

    The fictional motif is suggestive that the gospel tale is equally fiction, but not much more. There is no moralizing or dying messiahs in C&C that I remember, and no melodramatic adventure in Mark.

  3. An argument from silence can be valid, as far as I know;

    «To be valid, the argument from silence must fulfill two conditions: the writer[s] whose silence is invoked in proof of the non-reality of an alleged fact, would certainly have known about it had it been a fact; [and] knowing it, he would under the circumstances certainly have made mention of it. When these two conditions are fulfilled, the argument from silence proves its point with moral certainty.» Gilbert Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method, 1946, § 149a.

    I think Pauls writings meet the criteria to make the argument from silence that Paul didn’t know about any empty tomb (regardless of whether you choose to translate the verb «entombed» or «buried».)

    1. That’s the trick, isn’t it? I have a pretty favorable opinion of the argument from silence in regards to Paul’s knowledge of Jesus-material, but ‘valid’ is the language of syllogistic proofs. I’d say ‘suggestive,’ ‘probable,’ or part of a larger conductive argument about Paul’s disource instead.

  4. But Paul isn’t silent.

    Paul is very vocal about where Christianity comes from.

    Romans 3
    But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify

    Romans 15
    For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

    Romans 16
    Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.

    For Paul, Christianity came through intepreting the Old Testament.

    And Paul is not silent about this.

    Paul is only silent for those people who are deaf to what he says.

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