The historical fact of the empty tomb plays an important role in the case for the Resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus’ corpse really was missing from the tomb, we require some explanation as to where it went. Did the original disciples steal the body? Did the Jewish officials steal it? Or was the original testimony of the disciples true? Did Jesus really rise from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him? In what follows are 8 strong arguments for the empty tomb.
Historians are somewhat fragmented in their appraisal of the fact of the empty tomb. Gary Habermas has estimated that roughly 75% of contemporary New Testament scholars accept the fact of the empty tomb. Some claim the majority of these scholars cited by Habermas are Christians, so this figure is somewhat misleading. I do not wish to dispute that here. My goal in this post is to outline some of the popular (and perhaps not so popular) arguments for the empty tomb. Each could be expanded upon, so I would advise against treating them too rigorously.
Some final points. This post is pretty long, so prepare yourself. Secondly, the content is highly condensed and moves very quickly; it may take a couple read throughs to fully appreciate the arguments. Third, by no means is this an exhaustive list, there are many more arguments for the empty tomb listed elsewhere (some even cite the Shroud of Turin as evidence for the empty tomb). Fourth, by citing these arguments I am not necessarily endorsing them. My purpose here is to inform the reader of the dialectic.
1. The historical reliability of the burial account supports the empty tomb.
If the burial account is reliable, then the site of Jesus’ grave was well known in Jerusalem. However, if this is true then the grave must have been empty when the disciples began preaching his resurrection. This is true for at least 3 reasons. First, the disciples never could have believed in a resurrection faced with a tomb containing Jesus’ corpse. Second, no one would have believed the disciples had Jesus’ body still been in the grave. Third, the disciples’ opponents could have shut down the entire operation by simply pointing to Jesus’ body lying in the tomb.
So, if the burial account is reliable, this strongly suggests Jesus’ corpse was missing from the tomb. This is why detractors attack not just the empty tomb but the burial account as well. Here are just a few reasons for thinking the burial account reliable (these are a sample, there are more arguments for the burial account ).
a) Paul’s testimony provides remarkably early evidence for the burial account.
For several reasons, most scholars date the creed quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 to within 5-6 years of Jesus’ death (some date it as early as within 3 months). The second line of the creed states “he was buried.” Some theologians argue the burial wasn’t a separate event but if this were the case, the grammatical structure of the creed would contain unnecessary repetition (and creeds were constructed carefully to allow for easy memorization). This, along with the chronological succession of the events, suggests that the burial was in fact a separate event. But was the burial here the same event as described in the gospels? Not only does the saying in Acts 13:28-31 describe the exact same order of events, the same exact sequence is found in Mark. This correlation suggests that the burial mentioned in the summary statement quoted by Paul is the same as described in the gospels.
b) The burial account was part of the source material used by Mark and is therefore very early.
Mark’s gospel is considered the earliest gospel by virtually all scholars. It’s exact date is disputed but it’s commonly dated to around 70AD. This means that any source material Mark used had to have been dated earlier, probably back to the early days of Christian fellowship. For this reason, Mark is a very valuable historical source. The passion narrative in Mark (the narrative of the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus) doesn’t break between Jesus’ death (Mark 15:33-41) and the description of Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:42-47). This suggests that Mark’s source didn’t abruptly end with Jesus’ death. The continuous narrative implies that the burial account is very old and reliable. And if the burial account is very old, stretching back to the early days of Christian fellowship, it is likely that Paul knew the story.
c) The story itself is simple and lacks sign of legendary embellishment.
Rudolf Bultmann, a radical skeptic, wrote of the Markan narrative, “This is an historical account which creates no impression of being a legend apart from the women who appear again as witnesses in v. 47, and vv. 44,45 which Matthew and Luke in all probability did not have in their Mark.” Vincent Taylor, a respected commentator on Mark notes that Bultmann’s judgement is “a notable understatement.” Taylor asserts, “The narrative belongs to the best tradition.” The historical core of the passion narrative in the gospels does not show legendary traces and seems to be a straightforward, factual report.
d) The burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is likely historical.
Even many skeptical scholars admit that Joseph of Arimathea was probably the genuine, historical individual who buried Jesus, since it is unlikely that early Christian believers would invent an individual, give him a name and nearby town of origin, and place that fictional character on the historical council of the Sanhedrin, whose members were well known. Moreover, there was a strong resentment against the Jewish leadership in the Christian community, since in their eyes, the Jews basically murdered Jesus. So it is unlikely that Christians would invent such a person that instead honors Jesus by giving him a proper burial.
e) Jesus’ burial in a tomb is likely historical.
When one compiles the incidental details concerning Jesus’ tomb from the gospels, it becomes evident that either an acrosolia or bench tomb is in mind, with a roll-stone for the door. This is interesting because such tombs were scarce in Jesus’ day and were reserved for persons of high rank, such as members of the Sanhedrin. Further, Matthew, Luke, and John note that the tomb was never used. This was very likely since the body of a condemned criminal could not be placed in a preoccupied tomb. So Joseph would have to find an unoccupied tomb. Matthew says that the tomb was Joseph’s. This also seems likely, since Joseph wouldn’t be at liberty to lay the body of a criminal in just any tomb. These types of incidental and offhand details, which are also archeologically consistent, bear the mark of authenticity. For more on Jewish burial traditions, see this.
2. Paul’s testimony guarantees the fact of the empty tomb.
When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 “and He was raised,” this implies an empty tomb. The word used here is egegertai which means “to awaken” from sleep. Sleep is used as a euphemism for death in the bible, and so it is obvious that an awakening in this context means to reawaken from death. Thus, the picture here is a person coming back to life, which implies an empty tomb. The Jews at the time believed that at the end of time God would raise the bones of the people from the tombs and clothe them again with flesh and give them life. E. E. Ellis comments, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.” For more on this, see .
3. The empty tomb was part of the source material used by Mark and is therefore very old.
After remarkable agreement concerning the events leading up to and including the empty tomb, the gospels seem to disperse on the details of the appearances. This suggests that there were independent stories of the appearances by different witnesses about the appearances they had seen. The most natural explanation is that Mark’s source ended with the empty tomb. The verbal and grammatical similarities between the burial and empty tomb account additionally confirm this. Moreover, it seems unthinkable that the earliest story told by Christians ended in death and defeat with no mention of an empty tomb and resurrection. Thus, the empty tomb was likely included or implied by the story.
4. The story is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment.
The radical critic Bultmann even admits, “Mark’s presentation is extremely reserved, insofar as the resurrection and the appearances of the risen Lord are not recounted.” Around the third century a few authors wrote the fictional gospel “The Ascension of Isaiah.” In chapter 3 verse 16, Jesus comes out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. Mark’s account of the empty tomb isn’t filled with these kinds of fairy tails. This implies that Mark was simply reporting what happened.
5. The discovery of the empty tomb by women is highly probable.
In first century, women’s testimony was seen as less trustworthy than men. Luke says of the women’s report of the empty tomb to the disciples, “And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (Luke 24:11). Peter and John did consider it worth going to the tomb to see for themselves, but Luke’s account makes it clear that they thought the women unreliable. Any legendary account would certainly remove the women as the discoverers of the empty tomb, and replace them with men.
Second, it is equally unlikely that the early believers would have made up the story of the disciples’ hiding in cowardice, while the women boldly observed the crucifixion and burial and visited the tomb. The early believers would have no motivation in humiliating its leaders by making them into cowards and women into heroes. Moreover, the names of the women precludes the story being a legend, since persons who would be known in the early Jerusalem fellowship could not be associated with a false account.
6. It would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty.
The idea that Jesus rose from the dead in a different body while His corpse remained in the tomb is a purely modern notion. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded “immaterial” resurrection. Thus, the disciples never could have preached the resurrection, nor would anyone believe them if Jesus’ corpse were still in the tomb. And even if the disciples had failed to check the tomb, the Jews could not have been guilty of such an oversight. It wouldn’t have been difficult for them to locate a freshly dug grave, even after several weeks, and exhume the body. The fact that Christianity flourished right in the face of its enemies in Jerusalem strongly suggests that Jesus’ corpse was nowhere to be found.
7. The earliest Jewish propaganda against the Christian believers presupposes the empty tomb.
What were Jews saying about the Christian proclamation that Jesus had risen? According to Matthew, they were saying that the disciples came and stole the body (Matt 28:11-15). The Jews didn’t point to the tomb or a body, or say that the tomb was unknown. Rather they tried to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, the earliest Jewish propaganda presupposes the empty tomb. Even if the story about the guards and bribe is non-historical, the point is that Matthew unintentionally tells us exactly what the Jews were saying about the Christians.
8. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a credible claim to authenticity.
On a pilgrimage to collect and preserve artifacts from the Holy Land (325AD), Helena, Constantine’s mother, discovered that the previous emperor Hadrian (200AD) had a “temple built over the tomb [of Jesus] to assert the dominance of Roman state religion at the site venerated by Christians.” Eusebius records that the Roman temple was removed and excavations revealed a rock-cut tomb. To preserve the tomb, Constantine built a new Christian church over the site that was later destroyed but then rebuilt.
Archeology in the 20th century has revealed remains of Hadrian’s temple in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as walls from the original church built by Constantine. The latest evidence collected in October, 2016 shows us that the original limestone burial bed is still there! Thus, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proves Christian veneration of a tomb stretching back to well before Hadrian’s temple was built (prior to 200AD). For more on this, see the previous post.