A Bizarre Tweetstorm on the Burial of Jesus image

A Bizarre Tweetstorm on the Burial of Jesus

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I came across a rather bizarre tweetstorm yesterday from Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the historicity of Jesus' and/or his burial. Professor Stavrakopoulou will be known to some British readers for her appearances on television, which (at least in the UK) are still pretty rare for biblical scholars, and the prompt for her comments was the Guardian's story about the restoration of the tomb in which Jesus was supposedly buried, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. She began with a very odd claim:

Jesus of Nazareth was probably buried in a mass grave after execution. But this is still an interesting excavation.

“Probably.” This, in spite of the fact that there is no first century (or any century, come to that) evidence for the idea, and four distinct first century sources that explicitly contradict it. Nevertheless, “probably.” Then this:

To clarify: no *direct* contemporaneous evidence that Jesus existed; just early Christian writings and disputed reference in Josephus.

Wait: is a biblical scholar in a mainstream university proposing that Jesus never existed? If she is, that really is quite a bombshell; if she isn’t, then what on earth does this comment have to do with anything? How do you bury a person in a mass grave if they never existed? And what exactly does this “clarify”? Next:

Ossuary inscriptions attest to common ancient Palestinian names, not specific personalities.

Except for the fact that every Palestinian name refers to a specific person, this is obviously true.

Some NT scholars think the gospels, Acts, etc, attest to ‘eyewitness’ accounts. But this approach is critically-flimsy & unpersuasive.

I love that compound word, “critically-flimsy.” I think it is an excellent descriptor for the tweet as a whole: the euphemistic use of the word “some”, the scare quotes around “eyewitness”, and the lack of reasons to believe that memory studies or the work of Richard Bauckham & co are “unpersuasive.” Then:

Particularly when they argue ‘supernatural’ or ‘divine’ acts are to be taken as a category of historical possibility.

Now we’re zeroing in on it. We cannot take seriously historical sources (or contemporary scholars) who believe that God acts in history, because otherwise, we might end up having to consider all manner of ancient nonsense (including bodily resurrection, presumably). So let’s double up on the scare quotes, and attempt to shame people who allow for the possibility that materialism might be untrue; after all, if it wasn’t, then secular Westerners might be wrong about something, and we can’t have that. I often think of Tom Wright’s comment at times like this: “What if the moratorium on speaking of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, which has been kept in place until recently more by the critics’ tone of voice than by sustained historical argument (‘surely,’ they imply on the edge of every discussion of the subject, ‘you cannot be so impossibly naive as to think that something actually happened?’), should itself turn out to be part of that intellectual and cultural hegemony against which much of the world is now doing its best to react?”

To my knowledge, we don’t find historians of the Armada agreeing with Elizabethan sources that God blew the invading ships off course.

It’s like talking to Eddie Izzard’s fictional “Captain Non Sequitur.” No, we don’t, because we know that winds blow on a regular basis, sometimes even in ways that favour the English. The same is not true of people walking on water, calming storms or healing the sick with a word, or rising from the dead.

So why should historians of the Bible entertain supernatural or divine explanations? It’s very silly.

So, just to be clear: there’s no contemporary evidence that Jesus existed at all. But if he did, he was buried in a mass grave. But if he wasn’t, he didn’t leave an empty tomb behind him. But if he did, it had nothing whatever to do with anything “divine” or “supernatural”. Got that?

“It’s very silly.” Quite.

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