A Case for the Empty Tomb (Part 2: Historical Evidence)

By Brian Chilton

The previous section examined the arguments posed against the empty tomb hypothesis. The blog demonstrated in the first article that the arguments against the empty tomb hypothesis fail greatly. This article will provide a historical argument for the empty tomb hypothesis. If the Gospels are correct in that the tomb was truly empty on the first Easter Sunday, then one would expect to find that the ancient burial practices of first-century Judaism would match the type of burial that is presented in the Christian tradition. Did people in first-century Palestine bury their dead tombs like the “new tomb…cut in the rock” (Matthew 27:60)?

The canonical Gospels’ account of Jesus’ burial indeed matches the burial practices of first-century Palestine. Elwell and Beitzel denote that “Bodies were buried in tombs, that is, natural caves or rock-hewn sepulchers, such as that belonging to Joseph of Arimathea where the body of Jesus was laid (Mt. 27:59, 60), as well as in shallow graves covered with rock heaps serving both to mark them and to prevent desecration of the body by animals.”[1] Thus, even if Jesus had been buried in a shallow grave, the practices of the time did not readily allow easy access to predators. Yet, as it was noted earlier, it is highly unlikely that the Gospel writers would invent Joseph of Arimathea. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Evangelists would invent the empty tomb especially due to the use of a rock-hewn tombs at the time.

N. T. Wright notes that “the burial so carefully described in the gospels was, as we would expect in first-century Palestinian Judaism, the initial stage of a two-stage burial.”[2]Families would bury their dead in a rock-hewn tomb. The families would prepare the body with spices. Then after a year, the family would return to gather the bones of the departed and place them in a family ossuary.[3] Why did they conduct this practice? Wright, paraphrasing Eric M. Meyers work, notes that “secondary burial…reflects a belief in a continuing nephesh, [sic] enabling the bones to provide ‘at least a shadow of their strength in life’, with the mortal remains constituting ‘the very essence of that person in death.’”[4]Since the Evangelists’ description of the burial of Jesus matches the practices of first-century Palestinian Judaism, the empty tomb hypothesis again strengthens. But, would Pilate have granted the body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea?

This ossuary holds an inscription that it is the burial box belonging to James, the brother of Jesus–traditionally held to be the writer of the Epistle of James and early leader of the church.

History demonstrates that the Romans often granted clemency under certain circumstances. Craig Evans notes that Septimius Vegetus, governor of Egypt; Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor; and an inscription from Ephesus all demonstrate that Roman officials often provided various acts of clemency towards various condemned individuals.[5] Evans goes on to say,

 This mercy at times extended to those who had been crucified. Clemency sometimes was occasioned by a holiday, whether Roman or a local non-Roman holiday, or simply out of political expediency, whatever the motivation. We actually have evidence that Roman justice not only allowed for the executed to be buried, but it even encouraged it in some instances.[6]

Therefore, one will find that history provides ample evidence that not only did Palestinian Jews bury in accordance to the method prescribed by the Evangelists, but also that the Romans provided clemency for the body of the condemned to be given to the family to bury. If one remembers that the crucifixion of Jesus occurred during Passover when the bodies of the condemned were not to be allowed to remain on the cross (John 19:31), then the empty tomb hypothesis gains further merit.

This section has reviewed the historical data that confirms the empty tomb hypothesis. However, one must also query whether evidence exists that the early church believed that Jesus’ was placed in a tomb and that the tomb was found empty on the following Sunday. That topic will be evaluated in the forthcoming article next week.

Visit Brian’s Website: BellatorChristi.com

Copyright, March 21, 2016. Brian Chilton.


[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 386.

[2] Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 707.

[3] Ossuaries were burial boxes where the bones of several family members could be kept after their bodies had mostly decomposed.

[4] Eric M. Meyers, “Secondary Burials in Palestine,” The Biblical Archaeologist 33 (1970): 15, 26, in Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 91.

[5] Craig Evans, “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right,” in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 75.

[6] Ibid., 75-76.


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.

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30 replies
  1. Tom Rafferty says:

    “If the Gospels are correct – – – ” As I previously mentioned, if any premise in a syllogism is incorrect, the whole syllogism is incorrect. No one knowledgeable in the history of the NT can honestly say it is an historically reliable collection of writings.

    • Kevin Haug says:

      What you say is true, Tom. “If the Gospels are correct…” is indeed the lynch pin, and the answer comes down as to whether you trust the witnesses in this case or not.

      Richard Bauckham has made a very strong case in his book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” that indeed the canonical Gospels are trustworthy. Not all will agree with his argument, but there is enough reasonable evidence for a person to conclude that these texts are reliable.

      • Jeff D. says:

        That was a great book. Gary Habermas’s “The Historical Jesus” is another top notch scholarly investigation into the facts surrounding Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection appearances.

    • Atheist says:

      Bingo . This was such a poorly written article full of red herrings and equivocation fallacies. just because a tradition is found evident does not mean that the claim of the story is true . For example – loggers used to cut down trees by hand and oxen were used to haul the timber in the Lake Superior region of the United States – does this mean Paul Bunyan was real?! No ! Secondly – the gospels were NOT first hand accounts – EVERY biblical historian knows that they are interpretations of local legends Matthew , Luke And John used mark as a source and Mark used a sayings gospel (Q) that is what even the publishers of many of the different versions of the Bible account to – they were not first hand . There is NO first hand testimlony of the empty tomb – it’s a story- a tall tale

  2. Jeremy says:


    You didn’t even address what the article was talking about. You went on a whole different topic as to the reliability of text. The article is about burial practices of Jews mentioned in the Bible at that time, we all understand you don’t believe in the reliability of the text, fine we get it. Now address the burial practices and see if the what the Bible reports as to how Jesus was buried and if they match up. Or don’t and just not say anything.

      • Louie says:

        I disagree. The gospels would need to be proven false for the rest of the article to be useless. People have been trying to prove them false for 1000’s of years without success, so its seems like it is not going to happen.

          • Louie says:

            Do you not do the same when reading history books? Or do you claim them false until someone prooves to you that they are correct? I wouldn’t blame you either way, but would hope that you are consistant in your approach to history written from eye witness accounts.

          • toby says:

            If you don’t approach history books with at least some degree of skepticism you might well find yourself believing the Washington “I cannot tell a lie” story or some equally apocryphal tales. And, to be clear, I don’t think the bible is a history book.

          • Kevin Haug says:

            I challenge you to approach the history your significant other relays to you about his or her day with the same amount of skepticism you approach this history with and see what happens. 🙂

            Joking aside. Testimony is usually received with acceptance unless good reason is given to doubt such testimony. Are there reasons to doubt the biblical narratives? Yes. Does this doubt call into question the totality of their accuracy? No. Especially when the tools ancient historians use to decipher accuracy.

          • toby says:

            If she told me she saw someone flying on a carpet through the sky and left me with nothing but her say so I’d think she was in need of a mental evaluation. You recognize that there’s a huge difference between telling someone you spent $8 at starbucks earlier today and telling them you saw a lake turn into red wine and then split down the middle so you could walk across without getting stains on your pants.

          • Kevin Haug says:

            Of course there is quite the difference in the two scenarios you cited, but what if your wife had no history of making such claims before and continued to persist in her assertion of what happened? What if she continued to perform everyday functions in the same manner as before with no lapse in mental judgement or other strange behavior? What if she continued to assure you that she was not crazy and held firm no matter what sort of argument you used to the contrary? Do you trust her witness despite your presuppositions of contrary belief?

          • toby says:

            No, I wouldn’t trust her account. Eyewitness accounts are often wrong. And without producing some sort of real evidence I’d think she’d had a momentary lapse of sanity, been deceived, or been mistaken. The old nugget “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” rings true.

          • Louie says:

            I was reading the back and forth here, and I agree the story of your wife seeing those things would be hard to believe. But, now lets pretend that you had 3 other accounts that verified the main points of her story! That is what you are dealing with in the new testament.

          • Kevin Haug says:


            There are many tools that ancient historians use to decide whether or not sources are credible or not. These not only apply to the biblical witness, but to other such things like the life of Alexander the Great. Ancient history is not like lab science. It’s more like forensics. The vast majority of ancient historians consider the biblical witness to be trustworthy in establishing that Jesus of Nazareth existed, that he had a following, and that some of his followers believed he was resurrected from the dead.

            Whether or not the miraculous actually happened is not as closed as your blog post seems to indicate. Science deals in the realm of probability, and it is extremely improbable that a dead person could come back to life. Science cannot rule it impossible, however. Even science has its limits.


        • Atheist says:

          Lol but just because it mentions burial practices does not validate the soundness of the story – it’s called a Hasty Generalization fallacy

          • Louie says:

            You missed the point of my reply. Tom took one extreme, and I mentioned the other only to level the field. The burden of proof lies with both view points.

  3. Jeremy says:


    “If the Gospels are correct in that the tomb was truly empty on the first Easter Sunday, then one would expect to find that the ancient burial practices of first-century Judaism would match the type of burial that is presented in the Christian tradition.”

    The articles sole purpose is to point out the practices used to bury the dead used by the Jews at the time of Jesus, (its in the sentence you picked out) then go on to make the statement that how the Bible describes Jesus as being buried fits, as that’s how Jews were buried at the time. The article is not using the Bible to tell us how Jews carried out their burial practices as that has been determined from outside sources, mostly archaeology and other texts. So why does the Bible have to be verified to know anything about the burial practices of Jews, In fact please throw out the Bible and we would still know how Jews were buried at the time. If the burial practices can be verified without the Bible then that lends credibility that the Bible is correct in stating how Jesus was buried. If you cant accept any of that, then im going to accuse you of being intellectually dishonest or blind to what evidence means.

  4. Jeremy says:


    As you note the title, A Case for the Empty Tomb (Part2:Historical Evidence)

    This implies a case is being built based on the evidence outside of the Bible and then how the Bible matches up with what we know about Jews at that time. The article is not stating that Jews were buried the way Jesus was because thats how Jesus was buried. It is stating the FACT that Jews were buried by wrapping them and prparing them with spices and then placing them in tombs and then collecting the bones later, we know this because archaeology has provided that evidence. The Bible reports this as happening to Jesus so the Bible makes factual a statement as to how Jesus was buried, its a not fictional way that writers made up. This article talks about this specific piece of evidence, so once again your going to have to address how this is fiction or accept that the Bible claims that Jesus was burried in the normal fashion. Does Jesus being buried in the normal fashion mean the story is true, NO! But it does lend credibility to the story being true as it claims to be. So the only way for you to address this article is to attempt to debunk the burial of Jesus and what we know about burial practices at the time. To state that the Bible is made up so the burial is made up is not dealing with the evidence its just hand waving at supposed non-sense. By the way we are not talking about Him resurrecting, crucifixion, who saw Him after. ONly the claim that the Bible states He was buried in the normal fashion.

    • Atheist says:

      Whether or not he was buried in the typical Jewish fashion does not validate the entire bible or the resurrection story – all it shows is that the writer was familiar with Jewish customs – that’s it . No more – no less

      • Louie says:

        Agreed. However, if the bible text said Jesus was buried at sea, you’d be screaming that this was not what they did at the time, in that culture; and so the whole bible must be false. It is a reinforcement of the text. The other item you bring up, is that it was written by someone familiar with the customs. Yes, your getting there little by little; and I often find that is the best way to get somewhere.

  5. Mike A. says:

    Great article. Habermas has written extensively on the near universal historical acceptance of the Pauline epistles, the early creeds, and the gospel authorship, especially as they relate to eyewitness accounts dated to within a year or two of the crucifixion.

    Looking forward to the next contribution in the CE series.


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