Did Christians in c. AD 30 emphasize or use empty tomb apologetics?
Clarifying the question
Early Christians were reporting that Jesus's grave was empty. Was their motivation for doing this apologetics? Were they using this report in order to convince hearers, by evidence, that Jesus resurrected?
This question plays a role in other debates, notably:
In the Gospels, it wasn't used as evidence
In the synoptic Gospel traditions, the empty tomb did not function as apologetics/evidence for Jesus's resurrection.1 This is relevant because, if Christians were employing empty tomb reports to substantiate Jesus's resurrection, then we would sooner see it play that role in the gospels.
- Robert Stein: “Yet P. Althaus,… has pointed out that if the story of the empty tomb arose as an apology for the resurrection, it is most strange that it does not serve this function in the accounts themselves…”2
- William Lane Craig: “Very often contemporary theologians urge that the empty tomb is not a historical proof for the resurrection because for the disciples it was in itself ambiguous and not a proof. But [t]hat is precisely why the empty tomb story is today so credible: because it was not an apologetic device of early Christians; it was, as Wilckens nicely puts it, 'a trophy of God's victory'. (Wilckens, Auferstehung, 64.) The very fact that they saw in it no proof ensures that the narrative is substantially uncolored by apologetic motifs and in its primitive form.” [“The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus”: online].
- This should be granted for two reasons.
a) Isn't interpreted as evidence for Jesus's resurrection by the protagonists in the gospels. (Notably, Mary failed to take the tombs vacancy as evidence of Jesus's resurrected [see Lk 24:21-24; Jn 20:13]).
• Stephen Davis (Philosophy and religion professor at Claremont): “Far from being presented as an irrefutable argument for the resurrection, the empty tomb is rather depicted as an enigma, a puzzling fact that no one at first is able to account for. … Only the appearances of Jesus himself moved these people to believe that he was alive. In other words, the fact that the empty tomb stories in the Gospels produce only puzzlement and ambiguity rather than proof a test of the primitive and non-apologetic character of the tradition.” [Risen Indeed (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 72-73.]
• James Dunn (NT professor at Durham): “…it has what J. B. Phillips calls 'the ring of truth' not least in the implication that the sign of the empty tomb is somewhat ambiguous: it was not immediately understood as evidence for resurrection.” [Jesus: The Evidence (WJK, 1985), 66.]
• Graham Stanton (NT professor at King's College, Cambridge): “In most of the traditions, discovery of the empty tomb is bewildering and does not lead to faith.” [Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge, 2004), 154.]
• W. Waite Willis Jr. (Religion professor at Florida Southern): “…in the stories that stress the empty tomb, the empty tomb is not sufficient to produce faith. In these stories, only one thing definitely brings faith in the resurrected Jesus, and that is an encounter with the resurrected Lord.” ["A Theology of Resurrection" in Resurrection: The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine, eds. Charlesworth et. al. (Continuum, 2006), 200.]
• Murray Harris (NT professor at TIU, Cambridge): “The discovery that the tomb was empty did not invariably lead to the belief that Jesus had risen. On the contrary, the discovery gave rise to trembling astonishment (Mk 16:8a), perplexity (Lk 24:3-4), doubt (1k 24:12), or awe (Mk 16:8b), while the report of the empty tomb was greeted with amazement (Lk 24:22-24) or downright skepticism (Lk 24:11). So far from prompting an immediate awareness that Jesus had risen, the empty tomb aroused the fear that his body had been stolen by enemies or removed for some other reason (Jn 20:11, 13, 15). " [From Grave to Glory (Zondervan, 1990), 119.]
b) The content of the reports is flagrantly suboptimal (or even counterproductive) as an apologetic for Jesus's resurrection. For example, we know Mark was not concerned with providing evidence for Jesus's resurrection, because if he were, he would have sooner done three things.
i) Mark would sooner have attempted a basic rebuttal of alternative explanations for the empty tomb, like theft.
Stephen Davis (Philosophy & Religion professor at Claremont): “If the story is an apologetic legend invented by later Christians, why does it (in Mark's original version) lead only to fear, flight, and silence on the part of the women? If the story is an apologetic legend invented by later Christians, why is it so openly admitted that some of Jesus followers were suspiciously in the vicinity of the tomb early on the morning of the discovery of the empty tomb? And why is there no mention made of any thorough investigation of the tomb or its environs, or of some verifying word from Joseph of Arimathea? As an apologetic argument, this one seems weak.” [Risen Indeed (Wm B. Eerdmans, 1993), 73.]ii) Mark would sooner have marshalled the more compelling evidence of Jesus's appearances, in the flesh, to eyewitnesses (which he didn't[Forthcoming]). For example,
• James Dunn (NT prfoessor at Durham): “…the fact that the earliest Gospel (Mark) ends without any record of a 'resurrection appearance', has to be matched with the fact that the earliest account of 'resurrection appearances' (I Cor. 15) has no reference to the tomb being empty. This degree of independence and lack of correlation between the two earliest records speaks favourably for the value of each. There is nothing to indicate that one was contrived to bolster the other.” [The Evidence for Jesus (WJK, 1985), 66.]iii) Mark would sooner have narrated the resurrection event itself with qualified witnesses. This is relevant because, in fact, neither friend nor enemy was reported to have seen Jesus's resurrection. (As put in Ignatius to the Ephesians 19:1, Jesus rose “in the silence of God”).
- “Was the Tomb Really Empty?” Themelios 5.1 (1979): online
In 1 Corinthians 15, the empty tomb wasn't cited
In the 1 Corinthians 15 creed (and Paul's usage of it), the empty tomb was not cited in the list of evidences.
- Kirsopp Lake (NT Exegesis & Early Chr. Lit. professor at Leiden): “Yet it does not appear to have been treated as evidence by the early Christians. According to St Paul, faith in the Resurrection was based on the evidence that the Lord had been seen, not that the tomb was open. …[it] was not used to produce faith.” [The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Williams & Norgate, 1907), 251.]
Jews objected, crying “theft!”
Jews cried “theft!”, as if responding to a circulating claim from apologists that “the empty tomb proves Jesus rose.
But, so what? This doesn't require that apologists were actively using empty tomb apologetics. After all, couldn't it simply be that the Jews were mostly responding preemptively?1 If they believed Jesus's body was gone, then they naturally would have expected it to be the work of ambitious Christians who wanted evidence for their cause; no better explanation would present itself.
- If it helps plausibility, one also say a few Christians did use the argument to some extent, but it was not that popular among them.