Was Jesus's tomb empty?
Clarifying the question
Most historians conclude that Jesus's tomb was empty
- Gary Habermas: “Since 1975, more than 1400 scholarly publications on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus have appeared. Over the last five years, I have tracked these texts, which were written in German, French, and English. Well over 100 subtopics are addressed in the literature, almost all of which I have examined in detail. ... Of these scholars, approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it. Thus, while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority.” [“Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005), 135-153.]
- Jacob Kremer: “[b]y far, most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” [Die Osterevangelien—Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), 49-50.]
Denial is often grounded in rejection of miracles
Scholars who reject the empty tomb generally do so for philosophical reasons, because it can be hard to explain naturalistically. (This is not necessarily irrational, but it should be noted here.) For example...
- Bart Ehrman: “I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb. [Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” in From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity (The Teaching Company, 2003).]
Erhman has since radically reversed his position on this, now rejecting the empty tomb. This reversal occured shortly after being pressed in multiple public debates and venues to explain this alleged fact from his naturalistic worldview. Though he would perhaps deny it, Erhman plausibly felt unable to explain the detail comfortably from inside his worldview, and as a result decided to reject the ostensibly “certain” fact of the empty tomb instead as a recourse. Many scholars have noted similar behavior among naturalists who are pressed:
- D. H. van Daalen (NT Scholar): “Most people who object to the story, however, do so on other than historical grounds. It is commonplace to say that the story fits into an ancient view of the world but not into ours.” [The Real Resurrection ( Collins, 1972), 41.]
That is to say, most skeptics feel that miracles are impossible, aand consequently decide on philosophical grounds that Jesus's tomb couldn't have been found empty; it's not an historical argument. The sentiment seems to be that the evidence by itself is strong and very one-sided.1
- Geza Vermes (Jewish; Leading Jesus Scholar): “In the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be... that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb” [Jesus the Jew (Collins, 1973), 41.]
- Gerald O'Collins: “On the available evidence the substantial factuality of the empty-tomb tradition has much to be said for it and no convincing argument against it.” [The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Judson, 1973), 38-39.]
- Greg Herrick: “From the preceding evidence it is clear that the tradition of the empty tomb passes the historiographical tests of: 1) multiple attestation; 2) dissimilarity; 3) tendencies of the developing tradition; 4) semitisms and 5) embarrassment. Therefore, a belief in the empty tomb is reasonable historically speaking. It bears all the marks of being early, and not a later creation of the church. It is to be regarded as authentic.” [article]
- Michael Grant (Atheist; Classicist, Professor at Edinburgh]): “Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb. True, this discovery, as so often, is differently described by the various Gospels - as critical pages early pointed out. But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we apply to any other ancient literary sources than the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.” [Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (Scribner’s, 1977), 176. (cf. 200)]
- Paul Maier (Professor of Ancient Hist. at W. Michigan): “If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered in literary sources, epigraphy, or archaeology that would disprove this statement.”
- James Dunn: “As a matter of historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence points firmly to the conclusion that Jesus’ tomb was found empty and that its emptiness was a factor in the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus.” [Jesus: The Evidence (John Knox, 1985), 68.]
Critics never showed off the body
Jews and other critics of Christianity in AD 30 Jerusalem never visually demonstrated that Jesus's body was still in its tomb.
See this page to analyze 3 arguments:
- The belief that “he's alive” flourished in Jerusalem., which is right where Jesus died and was buried. If critics had shown off or even pointed to an occupied tomb of Jesus, this flourishing would not have happened.
- Jerusalem critics publicly granted that the body was missing. (cf. Mt 28:11-14 where we see Christians put effort into refuting the Jewish slander that Jesus's body must have been stolen). But Jews would not be granting that Jesus' body was missing if they could simply say his non-resurrected corpse was shown off.
- Critics weren't arguing “we showed the corpse.”, which is precisely what we would have expected to see if they had in fact shown it off or otherwise pointed at it.
But so what? Couldn't it simply be that…
- • Ernest Hermitage Day (c. 1946): “If it be asserted that the tomb was in fact not found to be empty, [then there is] the problem of the failure of the Jews to prove that the Resurrection had not taken place by producing the body of Christ, or by an official examination of the sepulchre, a proof which it was to their greatest interest to exhibit.” [On the Evidence for the Resurrection (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1906), 34.]
• Murray Harris (NT professor at TIU, Cambridge): “The earliest Christians could not have continued to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem or have continued to survive there as a community, unless the tomb had been empty. It is inconceivable that when the Christians publicly claimed that 'the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob' had overturned the Jewish rejection of Jesus by raising him from the dead (Ac 2:23-24; 3:13-15; 4:10; 5:30) the Jerusalem Jews would have maintained a conspiracy of silence if they had proof that the tomb was still occupied or could produce witnesses who could account for the disappearance and disposal of the body.” [From Grave to Glory (Zondervan, 1990), 109.]
• C. E. B. Cranfield (NT professor at Durham): “There is also the highly significant fact that neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities ever produced evidence to disprove the claim that Jesus had been raised.… The fact that with the will and the powers and resources they surely had, they never produced the body must count as a significant consideration in favour [of the empty tomb].” ["The Resurrection of Jesus Christ" in The Historical Jesus vol 3., ed. Evans (Routledge, 2004), 401.]
• Craig Blomberg (NT professor at Denver): “…the Jewish authorities, who had every reason to want to refute Christianity, could never produce the body of Jesus inside or outside a tomb.” [The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (IVP, 2007), 144.]
- • Peter Carnley: “…the success of the early proclamation may possibly have been guaranteed bγ the fact that, … the exact location of the tomb could not be traced.” [The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford, 1987), 55.]
- • Gerd Lüdemann (Early Christian Hist. & Lit. prof. at Göttingen): “At seventy or more degrees, decomposition will soon make a face unrecognizable and thwart the surest ways to identify a dead person (fingerprints, dental records, etc., were not available at that time). Therefore, no easy way existed for the Jewish opponents to confront the young Jesus movement with counterevidence.” [Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? Eds. Copan & Tacelli (IVP, 2000), 152.]
• Jeff Lowder: “[They] could have produced the body, but the disciples could simply have denied it was Jesus.” [“Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story.” Journal of Higher Criticism 8:2 (Fall 2001): online.]
• Kirsopp Lake (NT professor at Leiden; 1872-1946): “…there is no trace of any attempt to investigate the tomb. The emptiness of the grave only became a matter of controversy at a period when investigation could not have been decisive.” [The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Williams & Norgate, 1907), 196.].
Mary witnessed it being empty
Mary visited Jesus's tomb and found that it was empty.
This page analyzes 3 arguments:
The AD 30 Jerusalem church insisted “His tomb is empty”
The AD 30 Jerusalem Church's official position was “Yes, Jesus's body is gone from its tomb.
This page analyzes 4 arguments:
The AD 30 Jerusalem critics were crying “it's empty―theft!”
In AD 30, the public stance of the Jerusalem Jews was that, “Yes, Jesus's body is gone from its tomb”, crying “theft!”.
This page analyzes 2 arguments:
This is relevant because it seems “striking and puzzling” if skeptics could simply brush off the false claim that the tomb was empty; that is the natural and expected response.1
But so what? Plausibly…
- It was a lie, to counter claims that “Jesus's empty tomb proves He rose”?2
- They erroneously believed Jesus's body was gone?3
- • A.J.M Wedderburn (Non-Christian NT professor at Munich): “…[for any would-be skeptic of the empty tomb] it remains a striking and puzzling feature of the rise of the Christian church and of its proclamation of the risen Jesus that the only refutation offered of its claim that Jesus had risen from the grave seems to have been the Jewish counter-claim that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body….” [Beyond Resurrection (Hendrickson, 1999), 61.]
- This Jewish-lie hypothesis appears very ad hoc. In addition to making these Jews needless liars, it also implausibly has Christianity's enemies inventing for Christians the empty tomb evidence. The natural Jewish response would simply be a rejection of the empty tomb claim, and yet there is no trace of rejection--just acknowledgment. Unfortunately, as desperate as the option sounds, at least one intrepid scholar has actually put the implausible Jewish-lie idea forward:
• Maurice Casey (NT professor at Nottingham): “Some Jews who heard the story of Jesus' bodily Resurrection from an empty tomb will have found the story absolutely unconvincing and they responded with a story of their own, one which reflects their absolute and understandable mistrust of Christians. …it will have been made up far away from Israel some time after Jesus' death and burial,…”. [Jesus of Nazareth (T & T Clark, 2010), 478.]
- The idea that the Jews accidentally believed Jews believed Jesus's body was gone is commonly rejected for two reasons:
• Jews would have seen no persuasive reason to believe it was gone.
• Jews would have seen with their own eyes that it was not gone.
The original “body missing!” claim wasn't a lie
Whoever started the claim that “Jesus's body is gone from it's tomb” was not telling a apologetics-motivated lie.
This page analyzes three arguments:
But so what? Perhaps it was Mary; she mistook an empty tomb for Jesus's?
Tomb or not, the body was gone
The first Christians didn't report it
Christians in AD 30 [were not saying that Jesus's body was gone from its tomb. [Full page.] This is relevant because Christians would have known if Jesus's tomb was empty, and they would have reported it.
There is one circulating reason to affirm this:
But in response, consider six reasons to think Christians were in fact reporting that Jesus's tomb was empty:
- They were saying “Jesus's tomb is empty”, which seems to be a good indicator of their belief.
- They were saying Jesus was “buried,” then “raised” which seems to entail Jesus's tomb was empty.
- They weren't venerating Jesus' grave which fits suspiciously well with the belief that it was empty, insofar as Jews venerated the bones of their saintly heroes, if the bones were actually there.
- Their stance on the issue never changed which matters insofar as in the decades that the Gospels were written their position was that Jesus's tomb was empty.
- They were affirming the truth of the matter, and this is relevant because the truth is Jesus's tomb was empty.
- They were saying that “Jesus resurrected!”, and this plays into our question because a resurrection was a bodily event in Jewish thought; it means an empty tomb was left behind.
Jesus was not put in a tomb
After being crucified, Jesus's body was in fact not transferred to a tomb. [Full page.]
- Jesus's corpse was left on the cross
- Jesus's corpse was placed in a trench.
- Jesus corpse was thrown into a communal pit.