A Case for the Empty Tomb (Part 1: Arguments Against the Empty Tomb)

By Brian Chilton

Surprising as it may seem, several aspects of the life, death, and apparent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are agreed upon by the majority of New Testament scholars, both evangelical and secular alike. In his book The Historical Jesus, Gary Habermas provides twelve minimal facts about Jesus that nearly all scholars agree, but that the empty tomb is “not as widely accepted, [even still] many scholars hold that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later.”[1] Why is the empty tomb not as widely a held fact by scholars as other aspects of Jesus’ life? Seeing that scholars agree that “the disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus,”[2] would an empty tomb not be implied? It would seem so. William Lane Craig notes that “if the burial story is basically accurate, the site of Jesus’ tomb would have been known to Jew and Christian alike.”[3]

Therefore, this blog will defend the hypothesis that the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth was empty on the first Easter morning, demonstrating that it coincides with the notion that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead in a physical and literal body. To demonstrate such a case, the blog will first evaluate arguments offered against the empty tomb hypothesis. Next, the blog will provide historical reasons for holding that an empty tomb was possible. Then, the blog will assess the early church’s belief that the tomb was empty. Did the early church believe the tomb to be empty or was it a later legendary fabrication as some argue? Finally, the blog will evaluate the theological reasoning behind accepting the empty tomb hypothesis. The forthcoming section will first weigh the arguments provided against the empty tomb hypothesis.

Arguments Against the Empty Tomb Hypothesis

As noted in the introduction of the blog, many scholars concede that the disciples saw something on the first Easter morning, although differences exist as to what it is believed that the disciples witnessed. One would assume that an empty tomb would be implied. However, scholars do not always concede that the tomb was actually empty. Part of this skepticism comes from the apparent brief ending of Mark’s Gospel. Most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel ended with verse 8 with the words, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).[4] Daniel Smith argues that “Several features of Mark’s Empty Tomb narrative (Mark 16:1-8) suggest the possibility that it could have been understood as an assumption story, particularly in view of the fact that Mark describes no appearance of the risen Jesus.”[5] Even if Smith is correct, one would still have to acknowledge the words of the angel who said to the women at the tomb, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). The blog will address Mark 16 in a later section. So, how is it that skeptical scholars evade the empty tomb hypothesis? Antagonists to the empty tomb propose one of the following three arguments: the tomb was empty due to a conspiracy by the Christians, no actual burial took place, or the disciples simply traveled to the wrong tomb. While other naturalistic views exist, these three most directly affect the empty tomb hypothesis. The blog will now examine these proposals in greater depth.

Conspiracy by the Christians

The first theory against the empty tomb is the oldest. Matthew records that some of the soldiers who witnessed the resurrection came to the Jewish elders and told them what had occurred. The leaders then said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’” (Matthew 28:13). It is difficult to fathom why the disciples would desire to steal Jesus’ body and proclaim him risen all the while claiming that they were promoting the truth. Two problems immediately emerge with the stolen body theory.

First, resurrection as one finds it in the New Testament was not anticipated in the era of Second Temple Judaism. N. T. Wright notes that “‘Resurrection’ in its literal sense belongs at one point on the much larger spectrum of Jewish beliefs about life after death; in its political, metaphorical sense it belongs on a spectrum of views about the future which YHWH was promising to Israel. The hope that YHWH would restore Israel provided the goal.”[6] Wright adds insight to Martha’s acknowledgement in that she believed that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24) when Jesus stated that her “brother will rise again” (John 11:23). Richard Miller accurately notes that “most scholars have failed to classify properly how Mark’s ‘empty tomb’ narrative would have registered in its Mediterranean milieu. Indeed, it would have been the body’s absence, not its presence, that would have signaled the provocative moment for the ancient reader.”[7] If the early Christians were not expecting a physical resurrection of Jesus during their time, then why would the disciples steal the body of Jesus in the first place? But, another reason cuts away at the foundation of the stolen body theory.

Second, conspiracies generally collapse when the conspirators are challenged. J. Warner Wallace, a former atheist homicide detective turned Christian apologist, notes that successful conspiracies share the following attributes: “A small number of conspirators…Thorough and immediate communication…A short time span…Significant relational connections…Little or no pressure.”[8] Wallace adds that the “ideal conspiracy would involve only two conspirators, and one of the conspirators would kill the other right after the crime. That’s a conspiracy that would be awfully hard to break!”[9] Since the disciples faced brutal deaths and never stopped proclaiming Jesus as risen, the empty tomb hypothesis is strengthened. In addition, Kreeft and Tacelli add that the “disciples’ character argues strongly against such a conspiracy on the part of all of them, with no dissenters.”[10]Since the stolen body theory is the oldest, it was given more attention than the remaining antagonistic theories. Nevertheless, some hold that Jesus was never buried at all.

No Burial

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman eludes the problems found with the stolen body theory by promoting the idea that Jesus was never buried in the first place. Ehrman believes that scholars must decipher the Gospels “with a critical eye to determine which stories, and which parts of stories, are historically accurate with respect to the historical Jesus, and which represent later embellishments by his devoted followers.”[11] As it pertains to the empty tomb, Ehrman is led to believe that Jesus was never buried and that “the tradition that there was a specific, known person who buried Jesus appears to have been a later one.”[12] Another variation of this argument is propagated by John Dominick Crossan and posits that Jesus was buried in a shallow grave and was “dug up, and eaten by dogs.”[13]Crossan’s argument is basically rendering a variant of the theory that Ehrman proposed. Is there any evidence that Jesus was buried? Since the blog will handle historical reasons to believe that an empty tomb existed, the blog will provide such an answer in the forthcoming section of the blog.

Suffice it to say, it seems unreasonable that the disciples would invent a tomb that could be verified by the people living in the area at the time. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 contains early eyewitness testimony that predates the New Testament, a fact that nearly every scholar concedes. Licona denotes that “the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is quite early, very probably based on eyewitness testimony, and is multiply attested in term of a general outline of the sequence of events.”[14] How interesting it is that the tradition includes the words that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4, emphasis mine). If it is true that the tradition of 1 Corinthians 15 dates to the earliest church, then the idea that Jesus was buried cannot be a product of late legendary development.

Wrong Tomb

Another theory holds that the disciples were truly innocent in their claims, but sadly mistaken. The wrong tomb theory, as Geisler illustrates, holds that “the Roman or Jewish authorities took the body from the tomb to another place, leaving the tomb empty.”[15] This theory is simple to dismiss. If the Romans and/or Jewish authorities knew where the body of Christ lie, the authorities would simply have presented the body thus killing the Christian movement from the outset. Note that the disciples began preaching in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had been crucified and buried, a mere fifty days after the crucifixion of Christ (Acts 2:14). In addition, Geisler and Turek note that the Gospel writers “record that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the ruling council that had sentenced Jesus to die for blasphemy. This is not an event they would have made up.”[16] If the early Christians had a connection with Joseph of Arimathea, then any move by the Romans and/or Jewish authorities would have been noted by Joseph of Arimathea. Therefore, this theory fails miserably.

This article has handled the various naturalist theories that dismiss the empty tomb hypothesis. The next article will provide various historical reasons to believe that the tomb was empty the first Easter.

Visit Brian’s Website: BellatorChristi.com

Copyright, March 13, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Bibliography

Bird, Michael, F., et. al. How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd Edition. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.

Davis, Stephen; Daniel Kendall, SJ; and Gerald O’Collins, SJ, eds. The Resurrection. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Ehrman, Bart. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

_______________., and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004.

_______________. Systematic Theology: In One Volume. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011.

Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press, 2011.

_______________., and Michael R. Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004.

_______________. The Risen Jesus & Future Hope. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994.

Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010.

Meyers, Eric M. “Secondary Burials in Palestine.” The Biblical Archaeologist 33 (1970): 2-29. In N. T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Volume 3. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Miller, Richard C. “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, 4 (2010): 759-776. Accessed November 6, 2015.ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Smith, Daniel A. “Revisiting the Empty Tomb: The Post-mortem Vindication of Jesus in Mark and Q.” Novum Testamentum 45, 2 (2003): 123-137. Accessed November 6, 2015. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Volume 3. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Notes

[1] Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2011), 158.

 [2] Ibid.

[3] Stephen Davis, Daniel Kendall, SJ, and Gerald O’Collins, SJ, eds. The Resurrection(Oxford, UK: Oxford University [4] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from theEnglish Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

[5] Daniel A. Smith, “Revisiting the Empty Tomb: The Post-mortem Vindication of Jesus in Mark and Q,” Novum Testamentum 45, 2 (2003): 129, retrieved November 6, 2015.

[6] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Volume 3, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 204.

[7] Richard C. Miller, “Mark’s Empty Tomb and Other Translation Fables in Classical Antiquity,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, 4 (2010): 767, retrieved November 6, 2015.

[8] J. Warner Wallace, Cold-case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 111-112.

[9] Ibid, 111.

[10] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1994), 185.

[11] Bart Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 13.

[12] Ibid., 142.

[13] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 387.

[14] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), 323.

[15] Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 644.

[16] Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 281.

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12 replies
  1. Frank Turek says:

    Tom, thanks for the link to Loftus’ article. What argument do you think he made that debunked the minimal facts approach?

    Reply
    • Tom Rafferty says:

      Hi, Frank. Hope you are well.

      Essentially, the biggest argument is that there is the unproven assumption that the Gospel is reliable. As you well know, a logic syllogism is only truthful is all the the premises are true. The “minimal facts” argument assumes the reliability of the gospels. Given they were written decades after the supposed events by unknown authors and there is no written evidence in support of them outside of Christian writings, the reliability of the Gospels is seriously in question. Add to this the ignorant and superstitious environment of the culture, as well as the oppression of the Christians, it is not hard to imagine the evolution of a mythical story designed for comfort and cohesion. Finally, a miraculous resurrection is going to be more improbable that even the most improbable events, as improbable events happen all the time in reality.

      Reply
      • Frank Turek says:

        Thanks Tom. I’m no expert on the minimal facts approach, but I’m having Gary Habermas on the radio program (and podcast) next week. I’ll ask him about this and we’ll see what he says. Blessings, Frank

        Reply
          • Frank Turek says:

            Hi Tom,

            Check iTunes for the show I just did with Gary Habermas on Minimal Facts (it should be on the app by Monday). I asked him a couple of your objections but ran out of time to ask them all. I plan on asking him the other two you mentioned when we do Part 2 later in April. The topic was too big to cover in one show.

            Blessings,

            Frank

      • Josef Kauzlarich says:

        If the reliability of the gospels is in question, wouldn’t this apply to every document we have from the same time period? Seems to me if historians apply the same criteria they use for the gospels to any document from that time era, then we would simply say that we know absolutely nothing about the first century. Everything would be legendary with those standards.

        Reply
        • Andy Ryan says:

          Yes, it does apply, Josef. They’re treated with scepticism – we seek corroboration from other sources. Do we know who the authors actually were? Do we have contemporary portraits of the people discussed, any direct quotes, handwriting etc. Do we have contemporary accounts of them from enemies as well as supporters etc. The Gospels score badly on all these fronts, and that’s before we get into the fact that they contradict each other and they describe events that are extremely unlikely.

          Reply
          • Josef Kauzlarich says:

            Thanks. My point is that most sources from the 1st century would score badly on these criteria, or at least not as well as we would like. At least this is what I have observed. I’m open to data that I haven’t seen that does a side-by-side comparison of gospel manuscripts to other first century manuscripts. From what I’ve seen, the gospels stand up pretty well when compared this way. Show me some evidence and I’ll believe the gospels aren’t as good as other 1st century documents. This is a sincere request. I haven’t seen this data and would be interested if it exists.

  2. Andy Ryan says:

    “My point is that most sources from the 1st century would score badly on these criteria, or at least not as well as we would like”

    Yes, this may well be true. That’s why we should be sceptical about all such documents. It would be way off the mark to claim that any documents from this area provide proof that a particular man was a deity.

    “Show me some evidence and I’ll believe the gospels aren’t as good as other 1st century documents”

    I’m not claiming that any 1st century documents would be reliable enough to show that a particular man was a deity, so I’m not making special pleading in the case of the bible.

    That said, I’m happy to take one commonly made claim – that we have as much evidence for Jesus as we have for Julius Caesar. This is nonsense. Here’s what we have for Caesar:

    Contemporary portraits of the man, made during his lifetime, including unflattering portraits.
    Coins made during his lifetime with his likeness on them.
    Caesar was an eyewitness to many events and we have lots of his own accounts of them.
    We have about 900 preserved letters to and from Cicero about Caesar, written during Caesar’s lifetime.
    We have about a dozen other contemporary witnesses of Caesar’s life who wrote about him.

    We have nothing equivalent for Jesus.

    Reply
  3. brian says:

    we have the fact that not even 5 years after his death there was an explosion of Christianity which is still vivrant today
    the fact that the apostles died most of them during tiorture , no one dies for a lie , they defo knew they were dying for the truth
    also I can almost guarantee you that the romans and the jews would have done everything in their power to provide the body of jesus so that they could squash any rumours of his resurrection but alas they could not
    and you are underestimating the fact that the gospels have the earliest source to its original by over 300 years.. the next closest source is at least 300 years the gospels are as close as 30 years and even sooner if you add paul and peter into the atgument.. when they had a discussion in galatians which is accepted by skeptics as well that it is a true book by paul who himself is accepted by even skeptics that he was a true jew philosopher….

    Reply
    • toby says:

      the fact that the apostles died most of them during tiorture ,
      Which ones and how? What are your sources?

      no one dies for a lie , they defo knew they were dying for the truth
      So you’re saying that there was an expansion of christianity after his death. So you have a bunch of people that weren’t there, probably couldn’t verify anything about it. They’re accepting word of mouth preaching. As you know, some people will believe anything regardless of proof against it. Like people that think Donald Trump is a christian and smart guy.

      also I can almost guarantee you that the romans and the jews would have done everything in their power to provide the body of jesus so that they could squash any rumours of his resurrection but alas they could not
      A few years go by, you have the gullible people mentioned above and do you think they’d be convinced by someone producing an unrecognizably decayed corpse? “Nope, that’s not him. He was resurrected.” ANY body produced would have been shrugged off. Even after a week or two the decay would have been so bad that no one could have recognized who the body was!

      the next closest source is at least 300 years the gospels are as close as 30 years and even sooner if you add paul and peter into the atgument.. when they had a discussion in galatians which is accepted by skeptics as well that it is a true book by paul who himself is accepted by even skeptics that he was a true jew philosopher….
      The earliest accepted fragment of the bible is from the early to mid 100s. Paul was his day’s Joseph Smith! He capitalized on the credulity of christians. Look at the passages where Paul talks about getting paid for preaching. He was a money grabbing charlatan!
      2 Thess. 3:9-10, “not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, that you might follow our example. 10 For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat.”

      1 Tim. 5:17-18, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”

      1 Cor. 9:3-18, My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? 7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock? 8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. 11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more?

      And check out this crap!

      Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.

      15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one. 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

      He makes this big case about how preaching is worth paying, even double what anyone else gets and then at the end says, “Yeah, don’t pay me, because my reward is just in the preaching. I don’t want you money.” Right. He’s shaking his head and waving off money with one hand, but the other had is stuck out taking that big sack of gold!

      Reply

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