A Case For The Resurrection: The Empty Tomb

Over the course of six previous blog entries, I have discussed the various lines of evidence supporting the historical proposition that Jesus really did appear to individuals and groups of people following his death by crucifixion. In this blog entry, I want to consider some of the evidence pertaining to the vacancy of the tomb. While an establishment of the empty tomb may not, in and of itself, constitute compelling evidence for the resurrection, when taken in the context of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (which I have evidenced previously), it adds to a very compelling cumulative argument.

Fact#1: The disciples first proclaimed the resurrection in Jerusalem
When the first Christians started preaching the resurrection of Jesus, they did so in Jerusalem, the very city where it was all supposed to have happened, under the noses of the very people who would have been able (and certainly willing) to dispute their assertions if they were not true. If the Christians had doubts about the historicity of the empty tomb, they would have been far better to do it far away from the city of Jerusalem where there resided a great number of hostile eyewitnesses, who could have checked out the state and purported vacancy of the tomb. The fact that the Christians preached first of all in Jerusalem, and so shortly following the resurrection, denotes tremendous confidence in their case.

Amazingly, Peter addresses the people of Jerusalem in Acts 2, declaring, “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses to the fact.”

As E.H Day comments, “If it be asserted that the tomb was in fact not found to be empty, several difficulties confront the critic. He has to meet, for example, the problem of the rapid rise of the very definite tradition, never seriously questioned, the problem with the circumstantial nature of the accounts in which the tradition is embodied, the problem of the failure of the Jews to prove that the Resurrection had not taken place by producing the body of Christ, or by an official examination of the sepulchre, a proof which it was to their greatest interest to exhibit.”

Dr. William Lane Craig further remarks, “When therefore the disciples began to preach the resurrection in Jerusalem and people responded, and when religious authorities stood helplessly by, the tomb must have been empty. The simple fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus’ resurrection, came into existence and flourished in the very city where he was executed and buried is powerful evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.”

Fact#2: The earliest Jewish polemic against the early disciples presupposes the vacancy of the tomb
The earliest Jewish allegation was that Jesus’ disciples had come during the night and stolen the body while the guards were asleep. According to Matthew 28:11-15, “While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”

The Toledoth Yeshu, (a compilation of early Jewish writings), alludes to the stolen body allegation, as does the record of a second century debate between Justin Martyr and the Jew Trypho, Chapter CVII: “…you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but His disciples stole Him by night from the tomb, where He was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that He has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.”

The allegation that someone had stolen the body is an implicit admission that the tomb was empty. The fact that Jesus’ opponents conceded the vacancy of the tomb is strong evidence in the eyes of historians. On top of that, the idea that the disciples stole the body is absurd, and scholars universally reject it today. It is highly unlikely that Jesus’ followers could have schemed to steal the body with the Roman guard protecting the tomb, much less the large stone. The theft hypothesis is a lame excuse. And it won’t suffice to charge them with inventing the account of the sleeping guards – such a story could only have served as apologetic propaganda had the guards remained awake. There is also the fact that the disciples were unlikely to risk their lives for the sake of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb. The Biblical record portrays the disciples as scared, disheartened and discouraged. The transformation from a company of terrified disciples who had lost their leader and feared for their own life to the fearless apostles who boldly preached and proclaimed the Gospel of the risen Lord begs explanation. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the disciples would be willing to suffer extreme persecution and ultimately martyrdom for something which they themselves knew to be an outright lie and deception. The disciples also had no motive for stealing the body, for the reason that the Jewish tradition and mindset precluded anyone rising bodily from the dead to glory and immortality until the general resurrection at the end of time. The disciples, therefore, had no necessary predisposition towards positing a physical resurrection, nor an empty tomb. As John records in his account (20:9), upon discovery of the empty tomb, “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Finally, a physical resurrection could have been relentlessly exposed with either the presence of a corpse or an occupied tomb. By speaking of a physical resurrection and an empty tomb, therefore, was an enormous and unnecessary risk to take.

Michael Green cites a secular source of early origin that bears testimony to Jesus’ empty tomb. This piece of evidence is called the Nazareth Inscription. Green remarks, “It is an imperial edict, belonging either to the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) or of Claudius (A.D. 41-54). And it is an invective, backed with heavy sanctions, against meddling around with tombs and graves! It looks very much as if the news of the empty tomb had got back to Rome in a garbled form (Pilate would have had to report; and he would obviously have said that the tomb had been rifled). This edict, it seems, is the imperial reaction.” Green concludes, “There can be no doubt that the tomb of Jesus was, in fact, empty on the first Easter day.”

Fact#3: The gospels record that the primary witnesses to the empty tomb were women

All four gospels (including John, who was almost certainly writing independently of the synoptic gospels) make women the first witnesses of the empty tomb, and Matthew and John make women the first witnesses of the risen Jesus. Male witnesses appear only later and in two of the Gospels. This is incompatible with a dishonest intention to write an untrue but convincing account, because of the lowly status of woman as witnesses in the ancient world.

This fact is significant because in both first century Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed and their testimony was not highly regarded. Further, female witnesses were only permitted to be legal witnesses to matters within their knowledge if there was no male witness available. Women were second-best witnesses, and anyone wanting to artificially bolster a fictional account would have without question made male witnesses the primary discoverers of the empty tomb. The Jewish Talmud remarks, “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women,” and “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer).” Josephus states further, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and of their sex.”

This fact becomes even more significant in light of Luke 24:11, when Luke records that “…they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

The best explanation for why all four gospel writers would have included such an embarrassing and awkward detail is that that is actually what happened and they were committed to recording it honestly and with integrity, regardless of its blow to their credibility.

Fact#4: The breaking of the Roman seal

One point which is worthy of attention is the breaking of the seal that stood for the power and authority of the Roman Empire. The consequences of breaking the seal were extremely severe. Roman authorities would hunt down the men who were responsible. If they were apprehended, it meant automatic execution by crucifixion. People feared the breaking of the seal. Jesus’ disciples displayed signs of cowardice when they hid themselves. Peter, one of these disciples, went out and denied Christ three times.

Fact#5: Multiple, early attestation

Apart from mention of the empty tomb in the pre-markian passion narrative, the old tradition cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which probably dates just a few short years at most following the events, implies the empty tomb. For any first century Jew, to say that a dead man ‘was buried and that he was raised’ is to say that his tomb was vacated. Further, the expression ‘on the third day’ probably derives from the women’s visit to the tomb on the third day following the crucifixion as alluded to in the gospels.

Fact#6: The Security of the tomb

Jesus Himself spoke of his resurrection on repeated occasions, stressing that it was to happen on the third day following his death. Both his enemies and his followers were told to expect it. Those who sought to smother his teaching took elaborate steps to counter the possibility of His claim, including the placement of a Roman guard at the door to the tomb. The initial Christian proclamation that Jesus had risen was responded to by the allegation that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards were sleeping, to which the Christian retaliation was that the Jews had bribed the guards to say they fell asleep. If there had not in fact been any guards, the exchange would not have gone in such manner.

Archaeological evidence reveals that there would have been a slanted groove that led down to a low entrance, and a large disk-shaped stone was rolled down the groove and lodged into a place across the door. A smaller stone was then used to secure the disk. Although it would be easy to roll the big disk down the groove, it would take several men to roll the stone back up in order to reopen the tomb.

Conclusion

In summary, to quote J.N.D. Anderson, “The empty tomb stands, a veritable rock, as an essential element in the evidence for the resurrection. To suggest that it was not in fact empty at all, as some have done, seems to me ridiculous. It is a matter of history that the apostles from the very beginning made many converts in Jerusalem, hostile as it was, by proclaiming the glad news that Christ had risen from the grave – and they did it within a short walk from the sepulchre. Any one of their hearers could have visited the tomb and come back again between lunch and whatever may have been the equivalent of afternoon tea. Is it conceivable, then, that the apostles would have this success if the body of the one they proclaimed as risen Lord was all the time decomposing in Joseph’s tomb? Would a great company of the priests and many hard-headed Pharisees have been impressed with the proclamation of a resurrection which was in fact no resurrection at all, but a mere message of spiritual survival couched in the misleading terms of a literal rising from the grave?”

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11 replies
  1. Lion IRC says:

    I agree. Thanks for the succinct and well-presented case summary Jonathan.

    Jesus mythers and Resurrection skeptics seem to comprise the vanguard of atheist counter-apologetics. Why is that?

    Wouldn’t the “rational” atheist simply put Jesus into the exact same “unbelievable” category as every other aspect of theism? What makes Jesus so special?

    On rationalskepticism.org one long-running thread constitutes the single most active subject on the entire board with a post count that makes other topics like cosmology, evolution, philosophy, atheology, pale into insignificance.

    The “historical Jesus” thread has 17,000 posts, 112,000 views, 860 pages, and is, itself, a continuation on from an earlier long running thread on the now defunct RDF from which rationalskepticism.org arose after the Dawkins site meltdown / internal rifts.

    (The next two most active threads on this (nominally atheist) discussion board have only 8,000 and 10,000 posts and relate to non-AvT subjects – favourite films and “fun & social” respectively.)

    Atheists seem quick to dismiss as simple “theistic mythology” the events which took place at Mt Ararat, Mt Moriah, Mt Horeb, Mt Sinai, etc.

    But when they get to the mountain called Golgotha, many atheists find it hard to look away.

    Reply
  2. Charles says:

    Man’s books, his philosphies, his character, his religions thoughout history have changed in one way or another. The Bible has stood the test of time and all sceptics and is still reigning, unchanged and completely true. It is, indeed, interesting that with all the scrutiny and painstaking dissection, Jesus is still this worlds number one topic…

    Reply
  3. Nightvid Cole says:

    #1 is flawed because you assume the first preaching is the same as the first recorded preaching.
    #2 is flawed because you are assuming the truth of the claims in Matthew, this is not strictly non-Christian evidence. Then, you make an argument from 2nd century stuff. Second century stuff is too late to be relevant; anyone old enough to remember any of it would be dead.
    #3 Maybe they invoked women precisely so they could make the argument you are making now – and at any rate, this does nothing except make it more reasonable that the NT authors sincerely believed it, but it does not strengthen the inference from that belief to the actual truth of the claims
    #4 is simply a red herring. Again it at most can demonstrate sincere belief, but cannot strengthen the inference from sincere belief to the truth of that belief. Read up on Elizabeth Loftus’s research on false memories for why I don’t think it is compelling.
    #5 “WIthin a few years”? I know of no serious scholarship that would support this conclusion. All the evidence we have points to a conclusion that there was a gap of several decades.
    #6 is irrelevant unless the polemicists had independent evidence for the guards other than the Christians’ claim. If they simply reacted to the claim, it only shows that the claim was made, not that it was true.

    In summary, you have failed to support the case for the historicity of the empty tomb, and I am still rational in being an atheist.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan McLatchie says:

    Nightvid —

    Thanks for your participation here. A number of points, if I may…

    First, I’m a bit puzzled as to why you require all the evidence to come from non-Christian sources. Ancient characters are very rarely impartial about the matters on which they write. And there are many historical criteria for establishing the veracity of the reports (e.g. criterion of embarassment; criterion of independent testimony; criterion of dissimilarity; earliness of the reports; etc etc). Furthermore, regarding the statement recorded in Matthew’s gospel concerning the earliest Jewish polemic against the Christian movement, there is independent evidence for it in both Justin Martyr’s dialogue with Trypho, as well as the Toledoth Yeshu.

    Second, the view that people of ancient history set out deliberately to fool future historians is a laughable notion which would be laughed off the stage in any serious scholarly discourse.

    Third, sincerity of belief is only half the argument — And it immediately raises the second question, “how did they attain such a sincerely held belief?” It is my contention that the only hypothesis which makes sense of all the data is the one that the disciples themselves gave — Jesus really did rise from the dead.

    Fourth, what scholars are you reading? It is the majority view that the text of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 comprises an creedal tradition that was passed down and is, in essence, a summary statement of the beliefs of the early church. There is a good case to be made that this creed dates to within 1-3 years of the passion events (as I show in a previous article on the resurrection). There is also reasonable evidence to suggest that the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2 may well be an early church hymn. And there is also very strong evidence for source documents underlying the gospel narratives which must date even further back than the gospels themselves. I have argued these things on this blog before.

    J

    Reply
  5. Nightvid Cole says:

    Jonathan McLatchie ,

    1. I do not refuse to consider any such Christian evidence entirely, rather, I am responding to your claim that the sources are truly non-Christian. This is why I am objecting to the “Christianity” of the sources.
    2. You completely misunderstood my argument. I am not saying we do not have non-Christian evidence for Jewish polemic (we do) , rather, that the Jewish polemicists themselves had no evidence (as far as we can tell) of any of the purported miraculous events apart from the Christians’ claim, and thus this line of evidence is not epistemically independent of the early believers.
    3. You again misunderstood my argument. I agree that postulating that “the view that people of ancient history set out deliberately to fool future historians ” is on its face very ad-hoc and implausible, although your characterization still contains exaggerationalist ad-hominem language typical of Christian apologetics. What I was arguing was that they were trying to persuade people LIVING AT THE TIME whom they wanted to evangelize, and that one of them probably found the argument that you used useful for that end (or, at least, it isn’t so outlandish to admit the possibility) and it became incorporated in the text. (Again, this is not implausible, considering that a lot of preaching and evangelizing by the early Christians probably occurred before any of it made it way into the texts we have today) Read up on the “Insufficient Justification” effect in psychology, it is very relevant here.

    Claiming a supernatural explanation is needed to make sense of a sincere belief demonstrates gross ignorance of much of modern psychology. It is also a case of special pleading, because (I will assume) you accept naturalistic explanations for sincere belief in every religion (and associated miracle claims) EXCEPT ONE. I just accept them for one religion more.

    As to your last paragraph:

    [Citation needed]

    Regards,
    Nightvid Cole

    Reply
  6. Gary M says:

    Jesus’ resurrection after his death is the ultimate and defining proof of Jesus’ divinity. Just about everyone knows the story, which is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

    There is only one way for Jesus to prove that he rose from the dead. He had to appear to people. Therefore, several different places in the Bible describe Jesus’ appearances after his death:

    •Matthew chapter 28
    •Mark chapter 16
    •Luke chapter 24
    •John Chapter 20 and 21

    1 Corinthians 15:3-6 provides a nice summary of those passages, as written by Paul:

    For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, 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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    As you can see in this passage, Jesus appeared to hundreds of people a number of different times.

    Being like Paul: When we look at these Bible passages, there is a question that comes to mind — why did Jesus stop making these appearances? Why isn’t Jesus appearing today? It really is odd.

    Obviously Paul benefitted from a personal meeting with the resurrected Christ. Because of the personal visit, Paul could see for himself the truth of the resurrection, and he could ask Jesus questions. So… Why doesn’t Jesus appear to everyone and prove that he is resurrected, just like he appeared to Paul? There is nothing to stop Jesus from materializing in your kitchen tonight to have a personal chat with you.

    And if you think about it, Jesus really does need to appear to each of us. If Paul needed a personal visit from Jesus to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why wouldn’t you? It is an important question for the following reasons:

    •We are told by the Bible that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people.

    •We therefore know that it is OK for Jesus to appear to people — it does not take away their free will, for example.

    •We know that it would be easy for Jesus to appear to everyone all through history, since Jesus is all-powerful and timeless.

    •We know that, if Jesus did reappear to everyone, it would be incredibly helpful. We could all know, personally, that Jesus is resurrected and that Jesus is God. If Paul (and all the other people in the Bible) needed a personal visit to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why not you and me?

    Yet, we all know that Jesus has not appeared to anyone in 2,000 years.

    THINK, folks! Which is more likely: A dead man walked out of his grave 2,000 years ago, ate a broiled fish lunch with his fishing buddies and then 40 days later levitated into outer space, or, this entire story of a Resurrection is a legend: a legend based on false sightings and/or visions and hallucinations, of well-intentioned but uneducated, illiterate, hope-shattered, superstitious Galilean peasants, desperately trying to keep alive their only source of hope in their miserable, first century existence?

    Reply
  7. Gary M says:

    The only author in the Bible who mentions anything about guards being at the tomb, Matthew, says that the guards were not posted until the next day after Jesus body had been placed in the tomb, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb, he had not sealed it. So, the tomb of Jesus was left unguarded and unsealed the entire first night, in the darkness, and probably part of the next day. That would provide ample time and ample opportunity for someone to have moved or stolen the body.

    So even if the biblical account of the “guards at the tomb” story is correct, the fact that there is a time period when the tomb was left unguarded, blows a hole in the Christian claim that a resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb and the disciples’ belief that Jesus had been resurrected. For instance, if grave robbers had taken the body, the Jews would say that the disciples took the body and the disciples would say that Jesus had fulfilled his prophecy and had risen from the dead.

    Reply
  8. gary says:

    Christian apologists use the alleged “fact” of an empty tomb as their trump card for evidence for the Resurrection.

    Let’s assume that the entire account in Matthew regarding Aramathea burying Jesus in his private tomb, the great stone in front of the door, and the Roman guards are all fact. Let’s assume that on Sunday morning the women really did find an empty tomb. How strong of evidence is this “fact”? I assert that the empty tomb is only strong evidence IF Christians can prove that the body was guarded 24/7 from the very moment that Aramathea placed Jesus’ body in the tomb to the moment the women found the tomb empty.

    If there is even a ten minute window when the tomb was unguarded, that is enough time for a group of men to roll back the stone, grab the body, and make off with it. Christians will assert that NO ONE would do this for a long list of reasons, including breaking the Sabbath. I assert that Jews breaking the Sabbath is much more probable than that an invisible middle-eastern deity reanimated the dead body of a Jewish prophet and sent angels to move back the stone. Yes, in a world where anything is possible, the latter is possible, but it just is not probable. It is much more probable that devout Jews would break the Sabbath. We have evidence of the disciples breaking the Sabbath in the Gospels, so why not do it again? Also, maybe it wasn’t the disciples. Maybe it was some of Jesus’ family who wanted the body buried in Galilee. Or maybe it was just grave robbers who thought they could make a profit selling the remains of a messiah pretender. Maybe a small group of the Sanhedrin didn’t like the idea of a blasphemer being buried in a respectable tomb, so they stole the body and tossed it into a hole, and did not tell the high priest and the other members. Or, maybe Aramethea only put the body in his tomb until Sabbath was over. After sunset Saturday night, with Pilate’s permission, he removed the body and threw it into an unmarked grave.

    Again, all of these scenarios are much more probable than the Christian supernatural explanation. Bottom line: We do NOT have evidence that the tomb was guarded 24/7 from the moment that Aramethea placed the body in the tomb and rolled the stone in front until the women found the tomb empty on Sunday morning. Below is the passage from Matthew:

    Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. 58 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. 59 When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed. 61 And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the tomb.

    Pilate Sets a Guard

    62 On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, 63 saying, “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night[m] and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first.”

    65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.

    Reply
    • gary says:

      Were Jesus’ disciples capable of differentiating between a vivid dream and reality?

      In the Gospel of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph twice, once to tell him that he should go ahead and marry Mary, even though she is pregnant (not by him), and then again a couple of years later to warn him of Herod’s plan to kill Jesus and that he should take the family to Egypt. The author of Matthew tells us that both of these “appearances” occurred in dreams.

      The question is: Did Joseph believe that God had sent a real angel to him to give him real messages?

      If first century Jews were truly able to distinguish dreams/visions from reality, why would Joseph marry a woman who had been impregnated by someone else just because an angel “appeared” to him in a dream? If first century Jews knew that dreams are not reality, Joseph would have ignored the imaginary angel and his imaginary message. For Joseph to go through with his marriage to a pregnant Mary was a very rare exception to the behavior of people in an Honor-Shame society. His act of obeying an angel in a dream is solid proof that he believed that the angel was real and the message was real.

      And if Joseph understood that dreams are not reality, why would he move his family to a foreign country based only on a dream?

      And how about Paul’s dream/vision? Paul saw and heard a talking bright light in a dream. Paul saw the men accompanying him to Damascus collapse to the ground with him…in a dream. Paul reported that these men also saw the light but didn’t hear the voice…or heard some kind of noise but didn’t see the light…in a dream….depending which passage of Acts you read.

      So it is obvious that first century Jews were just as likely to believe that a dream is reality as some people do today! People have been seeing angels, bright lights and dead people for thousands of years…in their dreams…and have believed that these events are reality.

      So the fact that four, anonymous, first century books contain stories of people “seeing” dead people and even “seeing” large groups of people “seeing” dead people, should come as no surprise.

      They were vivid dreams. Visions. Nothing more.

      Reply

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