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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