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.
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?”