Was the AD 30 Jerusalem church saying “Jesus' tomb is empty!”

  • Question

    ![Apostles proclaiming Jesus' empty tomb] Led by James (the brother of Jesus) alongside Peter and other of Jesus’s apostles, the Jerusalem church was the community of earliest Christians living in Jerusalem (AD 30-70) who were proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection. We mean to ask here, did this group of the earliest Christians specifically proclaim that the tomb Jesus was buried in was discovered empty?

“Yes, after all…
  • They agreed with Peter

    Regarding whether Jesus's tomb was empty, the Jerusalem church's public stance in AD 30 and Peter's stance matched.1 This is relevant because Peter was publicly affirming that Jesus's body was gone from its tomb.2

    1. This should be granted because Peter played a formative role in what the Jerusalem church was saying about Jesus's tomb. We know this because Peter was a living member of the Jerusalem church (this isn't controversial, e.g. see Gal 1-2, Acts 15 etc.) who was moreover regarded as an eyewitness authority on the events. This in turn is relevant because the church sought to conform itself to the testimony of eyewitnesses. There is a lot to say here[Forthcoming] For starters, however, consider:
      Richard Bauckham (NT professor, Senior scholar at Cambridge): “If they were close companions of Jesus throughout his ministry, as the Gospels claim they were, and if they were also, as most scholars agree, the first leaders of the mother church in Jerusalem and of its initial outreach elsewhere, we should certainly expect them to have been authoritative transmitters of the traditions of Jesus and to have had something like an official status for their formulations of those traditions.” [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 94.]
      F. F. Bruce (Biblical Criticism professor, head of Dept. of Biblical History & Lit.): “The earliest preachers of the gospel knew the value of this first-hand testimony, and appealed to it time and again. ‘We are witnesses of these things,' was their constant and confident assertion. And it can have been by no means so easy as some writers think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of His disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.” [Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?, 5th ed. (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960), 45-46.] Bruce here means to emphasize the fact that Gospel-history knowledge was not at all elusive.[Forthcoming]
      Michael Bird (Lecturer at Ridley Melbourne): “Immediately following Jesus’ execution there was in existence the group of the twelve disciples, an outer-rim of followers, general supporters and public spectators to Jesus’ ministry. The implication to be drawn is that there were to be found individuals and groups that would be able verbalize the impact Jesus had upon them and offer authentication of the stories circulating about him.” [“The Purpose and Preservation of the Jesus Tradition: Moderate Evidence for a Conserving Force in its Transmission” Bulletin for Biblical Research 15:2 (2005): 172.]
      Vincent Taylor (Professor of NT exegesis, languages): “…the influence of eyewitnesses on the formation of the tradition cannot possibly be ignored. The one hundred and twenty at Pentecost [my insert: or Jerusalem Christians in general] did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information” [The Formation of the Gospel Tradition (Macmillan, 1935), 42.]
    2. This should be granted for two reasons:
      • We have direct evidence that Peter was affirming the empty tomb, for example, within two months of Jesus's death, at Pentecost. (Acts 2:29-32 has Peter preaching there that "[In contrast to Jesus, David] both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. … he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay"). Acts itself is generally reliable[Forthcoming], and the words are non-Lukan--they are very early[Forthcoming]; there is no reason to believe they do not _accurately _represent at least the general contours of a Pentecost sermon by Peter.
      Peter witnessed the empty tomb on that first Easter[Forthcoming], and there is no reason to believe he would have waited after c. AD 30 to start publicly affirming it.
  • Mk 15's “buried” anticipates “body gone!”

    Mk 15:42-47 (the burial story) narratively anticipates an undoing of Jesus's burial.

    Consider these 3 arguments:

    • They story always ends in Jesus' resurrection.1
    • If not, the story ends in an awkwardly stark defeat.2
    • Mk 15:42-47 anticipates it. [Forthcoming]

    This is relevant because the Jerusalem church was publicly affirming/approving the Mk 15:42-47 narrative.3

    1. The tradition(s) concerning Jesus's end consistently end in his victorious resurrection.

      Christopher Bryan (NT professor at Sewanee): “It is evident, moreover, that… Jesus' resurrection is an integral part of that narrative: there never was a passion narrative that simply ended with Jesus' death.” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 48.]

    2. If Jesus's death burial was were undone, then we'd have an intrinsically absurd Jesus's story which ends starkly in his overt death by crucifixion and complete defeat.

      Ulrich Luz (NT professor at Göttingen): “Here it is assumed that the burial story was never the conclusion of the pre-Markan passion narrative of passion of the righteous man Jesus. Such a passion narrative was designed to show God's rehabilitation of the martyred righteous man. …its original conclusion can only have been Mark 16.1-8, not Mark 15:42-46.” [Matthew, trans. Crouch (Fortress, 2001-7), 3:580.].

    3. This should be granted because the content relayed in Mk 15:42-47 was formed by the Jerusalem church[Forthcoming]
  • Jews countered empty tomb apologetics

    In c. AD 30, Jerusalem critics strove to rebut the argument that “Jesus's empty tomb proves he resurrected,” saying "theft caused it!". This is relevant because critics would not strive to rebut such an argument if the Jerusalem Christians didn't even believe in the empty tomb. (Note: This remains true even if Christians were not themselves employing any argument that Jesus's empty tomb proves his resurrection.)

“No, after all…
  • Paul didn't report it in 1 Cor. 15

    Paul did not report in 1 Cor. 15 that Jesus's tomb empty. This is relevant because Paul's teachings (or lack-thereof) reflected those of the Jerusalem church [Forthcoming], and if Paul knew from them of a reported empty tomb discovery event, he would have chosen to cite it in 1 Corinthians 15.1 This should be granted because Paul willed to at least somewhat comprehensively evidentially support Jesus's resurrection in 1 Cor 15.2

    1. For examples of scholars forwarding this view:

      Alan Segal (Religion/Jewish-Studies prof. at Barnard etc.): “Notice too that Jesus' burial is part of Paul's earliest tradition but that the empty tomb is not. There is no doubt that this is the earliest Christian teaching with regard to the resurrection: it is part of the primitive kerygma, or proclamation, of the church. The empty tomb is a gospel innovation.” [The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue, ed. Stewart (Augsburg, 2006), 132.]
      Uta Ranke-Heinemann (NT scholar at Duisburg-Essen): “If Paul had ever heard of the empty tomb, he would have never passed over it in silence. Since he gathers together and cites all evidence for Jesus' resurrection that has been handed down to him (1 Corinthians 15), he certainly would have found the empty tomb worth mentioning.” [Putting Away Childish Things (Harper, 1994), 131.]
      G.W.H. Lampe (Div. prof. at Cambridge): “If Paul and the tradition which he cites lay no emphasis on the [discovered] empty tomb the question arises whether Paul nevertheless may have known of it. Many New Testament scholars hold that he did. …the situation in which Paul wrote I Corinthians 15 was that some of the Corinthians were denying that there is a resurrection of the dead (I Cor 15:12). … he adduces the known fact that Jesus was raised… If Jesus’ resurrection is denied, he says, the bottom drops out of the Christian gospel. And the evidence that he was raised consists in the appearances to himself and to others. Had he known that the tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.” [“Easter: A Statement” in The Resurrection, ed. Purcell (Westminster, 1966), 43.]
      Kris Komarnitsky (Resurrection studies enthusiast, author): “…it is hard to understand why Paul did not mention a discovered empty tomb if he knew about it. It would have been a great bolstering point for Jesus’ resurrection and for the future resurrection of all believers, and it is the only piece of major evidence missing from Paul’s argument for Jesus’ resurrection.” [Doubting Jesus' Resurrection (Stone Arrow, 2009), 12.]

    2. By way of response, however, there are two problems:

      First, Paul's readers already believed that Jesus resurrected. We know this for three reasons:
      • Paul starts by saying: "[Jesus' resurrection] which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand... unless you believed in vain." (v. 1-2).
      • Belief in Jesus' resurrection was essential to Paul's concept of a Christian. If Paul were having to convince them of it, then he wouldn't have spoken to them as Christians (e.g. calling them "brethren" just before [15:1]).
      • What the Corinthians rejected was this notion of themselves returning to life (in their same petty bodies). Paul's goal was to dispel this misunderstanding of the 'general resurrection', by noting that their flesh would actually be transformed into something new that they could eagerly anticipate (v. 20-58). Paul's opening argument (a reductio ad absurdum, v. 12) actually presupposes that they accepted Jesus' resurrection, so v.1-2 corresponds to his first premise [v3-11 just spells out this gospel "confession" they already accept]).

      Murray Harris (NT professor at TIU, Cambridge): “Νοw it is true that the primitive Christian formula Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5 contains no reference to the empty tomb, but, as Κ. Lake observes, the apostle was not attempting to convince the Corinthians that Jesus had risen but was reminding them (1Co 15:1) that he had already convinced them.” [From Grave to Glory (Zondervan, 1990), 113.] Second, Paul would not much care to have or use any would-be evidence from the empty-tomb discovery. We know this for two reasons:
      • Early Christians in general did not much care to have or use such an argument (that “his empty tomb shows Jesus rose!”).
      • Paul especially did/would feel that such an argument was relatively weak.