The Historicity of the Empty Tomb is Rock-Solid

16 01 2011

This is a general defence of the historicity of the empty tomb as well as a response to the YouTuber myintellectualjourny. Well, I hope you can appreciate it and that this clarifies my position.

When it comes to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, most skeptics will cast doubt upon the general reliability of the Gospels and rest their case. Needless to say, their case normally hinges on some philosophical presuppositions biased against miracles and the supernatural or grounded in some theory that is without any plausibility and without a shred of evidential support, such as the conspiracy theory or apparent death theory. Such forms of scepticism turn out to be at best question begging or a feeble attempt at humour.

I won’t be tempted to give a defence of the Gospels’ general reliability, not just because this would take me a book or three, but also simply because it is unnecessary. I don’t believe there is any good reason to doubt their reliability. For now, one remark by C. S. Lewis will suffice:

  • “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage — though it may no doubt contain errors — pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”
    (Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, Christian Reflections)

However, a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t depend on my demonstration that the Gospels are generally trustworthy historical documents. Even if they were unreliable, they could still contain a historical core that the historian will be able to find properly using the methodology he has.

Thus New Testament scholars have come to the conclusion that the following facts are historical, namely that Jesus Christ died on a Roman cross, that he was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, that the tomb was found empty shortly after, that the apostles sincerely believed that the risen Christ really appeared to them bodily, such that some of them would die for their belief and, finally, that the apostles preached and testified to the resurrection in Jerusalem, where eyewitnesses were still alive. The case for the resurrection of Jesus depends on the established historicity of these facts and on its theoretical adequacy as the explanation inferred from these facts.

One of these facts, the discovery of the empty tomb, I am going to discuss with you now. First of all, very early independent sources report Jesus’ burial. We have the sermons in the book of Acts and four independent historical biographies based on eyewitness testimony. They relate Jesus burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and the women’s discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week. The three synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts were most likely written independently within about 35 years after the events, far too early for legendary influences to wipe out the historical core. It is implausible that the figure Joseph of Arimathea is a legendary embellishment, for one because the Gospels are extremely polemic against the Jewish Council and rich people in general.

But that’s not all, we also have an extremely early apostolic tradition that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15, which probably goes back no later than the first five years after Jesus’ death. A formula or creed that Paul hadn’t made up himself, but had received as such from the apostles.

“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 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
  • Then he appeared to James,
  • then to all the apostles.”

Is this the same empty tomb tradition as we find elsewhere? Probably, it is. If we compare the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 with the sermon in Acts 13:28-31 and the narrative in Mark 15:37-16:7 (see image below), you’ll find that the correspondence of these independent attestations is sufficient to conclude that the Pre-Pauline creed is a summary of the core events, incl. Jesus’ burial in the tomb.

The fact that the tomb was empty is also implied by the statements “he was buried” and “he was raised on the third day”. But the emphasis is on the appearances of the risen Messiah. This tradition doesn’t simply proclaim the belief or profession that Jesus was raised from the dead, but also has the audacity to demand a verdict, as if it says: if you don’t believe it, ask these witnesses and make your own judgement.

Interestingly, the first Jewish objections to Jesus’ resurrection didn’t deny the empty tomb, but claimed that the disciples stole his body. This is something we wouldn’t expect, if Jesus’ body was still there or, as MIJ seems to suggest, if they were at all ignorant of Jesus’ burial site. Instead of questioning the integrity or credibility of the apostles or asserting that Jesus’ body was still there in the grave, they openly accepted the fact that the tomb was found empty, but explained it differently by way of body theft.

The idea that Jesus was buried in a criminals’ common graveyard cannot be substantiated and seems rather contrived to me. Indeed, if you want to avoid the early literary evidence of the family tomb, you will have to resort to some sort of conspiracy theory, which is the last thing a good historian would propose. There is also no good theological reason for a first century Jew to invent the burial in the tomb.

If Jesus’ body was still in the grave, why wouldn’t anybody correct the disciples in their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection? Especially knowing, as I said before, they proclaimed it in the very city of Jerusalem where Christ’s judgement execution and alleged resurrection occurred. Like MIJ, you might argue that his corpse was no longer identifiable. But this is actually false, since Jewish burial customs included excavating the bones of the deceased after a year and deposing them in an ossuary. So Jews would keep a close eye on every Jewish burial site, even in case of so-called criminals.

COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.