In this post, I want to revisit an argument from silence used by William Lane Craig in his case for the historicity of the empty tomb. According to Craig, the absence of competing burial traditions (to the pre-Markan burial story) is evidence for the historicity of the pre-Markan burial story. Craig then argues that the historicity of the pre-Markan burial story is, in turn, evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus.
For the record, Craig does not present his argument as a Bayesian or explanatory argument; in fact, Craig does not explicitly state the logical structure of his argument at all. The following is my attempt to formulate an explanatory argument, using the relevant points from his discussion. My intent here is to be as charitable to Craig as possible; I believe that formulating his argument as an explanatory argument strengthens his argument.
The Argument Formulated
B: The Relevant Background Evidence
E: The Evidence to be Explained
E1. There is an absence of competing burial traditions to the pre-Markan burial story.
H: The Proposed Explanatory Hypothesis and Its Alternatives
H: The reliability of the pre-Markan story of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
~H: The non-reliability of the pre-Markan story of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
(1) E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E | B) is close to 1.
(2) ~H is not intrinsically much more probable than H, i.e., Pr(~H | B) is not much more probable than Pr(H | B).
(3) E is antecedently more probable on H than on ~H, i.e., Pr(E | H & B) > Pr(E | ~H & B).
(4) Therefore, other evidence held equal, H is probably true, i.e., Pr(H | B & E) > 0.5.
All three premises of this argument can be challenged.
Objection to (1)
(1) appeals to historical, as opposed to contemporary, silence. Therefore, we need to ask two questions. First, is there any evidence today that there were competing burial traditions in the first and perhaps the early second centuries? If the answer is “yes,” then (1) is false. If the answer is “no,” then we move onto the second question. Were there any competing burial traditions in the first and perhaps the early second centuries?
These two questions suggest two corresponding objections to (1). First, some critics have suggested that we do, in fact, have evidence of competing burial traditions. For example, Robert M.Price argues that Acts 13:28-29, John 19:42, 20:15; and the anti-resurrection polemic mentioned by Tertullian (De Spectaculis 30) contain competing burial traditions. (For the record, I mention this objection in an effort to be complete; I am undecided on whether I agree with Price on this point.)
Second, the inference from “no known competing burial traditions today” to “no competing burial traditions then” is far from certain. The fact, if it is a fact, that “there there are no known competing burial traditions today” does not entail that “there were no competing burial traditions then.” It is at least possible that there were, in fact, competing burial traditions which have been lost. At best, the former is merely evidence for the latter, i.e., the former makes the latter epistemically probable. But does it? So far as I can tell, Craig has not yet provided an argument that this scenario is improbable.
Objection to (2)
(2) is false. Here it is useful to revisit a distinction I made in my original critique of Craig’s arguments for the empty tomb story, namely, the distinction between two explanatory hypotheses. On the one hand, there is the generic burial hypothesis and, on the other hand, there is the highly specific hypothesis that Jesus was buried as described in the Markan (or pre-Markan) burial story. According to the former, Jesus was buried. Period. It says nothing about who buried Jesus, why they buried Jesus, or where Jesus was buried. In contrast, the latter includes all of these details. Since there are so many more ways for the latter to be falsified than the former, ~H is intrinsically much more probable than H, i.e., Pr(~H | B) >! Pr(H | B).
Objection of (3)
Craig has not shown that E is antecedently more probable on H than on ~H, i.e., Pr(E | H & B) > Pr(E | ~H & B). In plain English, he has not shown that the alleged lack of competing burial traditions is unlikely on the hypothesis that some alternative to the pre-Markan tradition is true. Assume, for the sake of argument, that, contrary to Mark 15:46, Joseph did bury Jesus, but Joseph did not buy some linen cloth and wrap the body in the linen. Then the Markan burial story would be false but the generic burial hypothesis would be true. Why should we expect there to have been a competing burial tradition in the first or second century, denying the very specific part about the linen cloth? This is far from obvious. I, for one, am much more confident that the absence of a competing tradition of Jesus’ non-burial is evidence favoring (generic) burial over non-burial, than I am of (3).
In fairness to Craig, I should mention it’s possible that is the argument he intended to make; his brief argument does not make the kind of distinctions I am making here. Perhaps in a future post I can test the argument from the absence of competing traditions of Jesus’ non-burial for the generic burial hypothesis.
 William Lane Craig, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Grand Rapids, MI: 1995), 147-182 at 147-49.