Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: The Empty Tomb (Part 3 of 8)

3.0 The Empty Tomb

The first of the historical facts comprising our data to be explained is that of that empty tomb. All four Gospel accounts are in agreement on this core fact: on the Sunday morning following His crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was discovered to be empty. Remarkably, the majority of critical scholars affirm the empty tomb as historical. New Testament (NT) Scholar Dr. Gary Habermas has conducted a study1See here. of hundreds of scholarly sources on the resurrection. In which, he found nearly two dozen arguments for the empty tomb. What is more, approximately 75 percent of the scholars who were surveyed defend one or more of those supporting arguments. One of whom, J. D. G. Dunn, declares “I have to say quite forcefully: the probability is that the tomb was empty. As a matter of historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence points firmly to the conclusion. The alternative explanations are all worse” . What has led him and many other non-Christian scholars to such bold conclusions? I will sketch out some of the reasons in what follows.

3.1 The Historical Reliability of the Burial Texts

To object to the fact of the empty tomb, one must attack the historicity of the burial story. This approach is very unwise, though, due to the fact that the burial story is one of the most historically reliable traditions we have concerning Jesus. Indeed, here are just a few of the reasons for the historical bedrock of Jesus’ burial story:

  1. It is part of the ancient pre-Markan passion source material.
  2. It is mentioned in the kerygma quoted by Paul in 1 Cor. 15.4.
  3. It is strikingly simple and is conspicuously unadorned, containing no traces of legendary development.
  4. It is in accord with the archeological evidence concerning the types and location of tombs extant in Jesus’ day. Most of the tombs at that time were what are called “kokim” tombs. But that is evidently not the kind of tomb in which Jesus was interred due to how the texts describe the interior. What they suggest is that the kind of tomb that Joseph of Arimathea owned was either what’s called a bench tomb or an “acrosolia” tomb. Now what is interesting is these kinds of tombs were relatively rare in the first century; only the wealthy could afford them. Is it not curious that Joseph is described in the Gospels as “a rich man,” a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court at that time—just the kind of person who might be able to own a bench tomb or an acrosolia tomb?
  5. No other competing burial traditions exist.

Most scholars are united in the judgment that the burial story is fundamentally historical, for these and many other reasons. According to the late John A.T. Robinson of Cambridge University, Jesus’ interment is “one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” . But it therefore follows that if the burial account is historical, then the location of Jesus’ grave was known by not only his followers, but, more importantly, his enemies as well. This is highly significant: for if Jesus had not truly risen, then the Jewish authorities could have ended Christianity before it even got off of the ground! It goes without saying that they made every effort to dispel Christianity. Not only did they concoct an elaborate plan to have its leader crucified, they also hired the zealous Saul of Tarsus to hunt down and persecute all who proclaimed its truth afterward. To them, Christianity was an abhorrence; and they wanted nothing more than to see it gone forever. Strikingly, this could have been achieved by simply pointing to the rotting corpse in the tomb! As has convincingly shown, resurrection always entailed a raising of the body to new life. But they never did that. Instead, they wrapped themselves up in hopeless absurdities to explain away why the body was not in the tomb.

3.2 The Disciples could never have come to believe in the Resurrection

For a first century Jew, the idea that a man might be raised from the dead while his body remained in the tomb was simply a contradiction in terms. As mentioned above, Wright has spent around 800 pages explaining how “resurrection”—ἀνάστασις; transliterated anastasis—without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a married-bachelor or squared-circle.

3.3 The Disciples could never have generated a following

Even if the disciples had, by some inexplicable chance, come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, it would be absurd to think that they could have still generated a following large enough to launch the historical nuclear missile that is Christianity. No matter how strong their convictions might have been, as long as the body still occupied the tomb, a Christian movement founded on belief in the resurrection of a dead man would have been about as enticing as a real estate opportunity in Chernobyl.

3.4 The Writings of Paul Support the Fact of the Empty Tomb.

One of the earliest and most important traditions contained in the NT is found in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. In 15.3-9 he wrote,

παρέδωκα γὰρ ὑμῖν ἐν πρώτοις,

ὃ καὶ παρέλαβον,

ὅτι Χριστὸς ἀπέθανεν ὑπὲρ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν κατὰ τὰς γραφάς,

καὶ ὅτι ἐτάφη,

καὶ ὅτι ἐγήγερται τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ κατὰ τὰς γραφάς,

καὶ ὅτι ὤφθη Κηφᾷ,

εἶτα τοῖς δώδεκα

ἔπειτα ὤφθη ἐπάνω πεντακοσίοις ἀδελφοῖς ἐφάπαξ,

ἐξ ὧν οἱ πλείονες μένουσιν ἕως ἄρτι,

τινὲς δὲ ἐκοιμήθησαν

ἔπειτα ὤφθη Ἰακώβῳ,

εἶτα τοῖς ἀποστόλοις πᾶσιν

ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι ὤφθη κἀμοί.


For I passed on to you as most important what I also received:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

that He was buried,

that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

and that He appeared to Cephas,

then to the Twelve.

Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time;

most of them are still alive,

but some have fallen asleep.

Then He appeared to James,

then to all the apostles.

Last of all, as to one abnormally born,

He also appeared to me.

In the formula cited by Paul the expression “he was raised” following the phrase “he was buried” implies the empty tomb. As was already stated above, no first century Jew could think otherwise. Jews held that it was the remains of the man in the tomb which were raised. Thus, in the old Christian formula quoted by Paul we have extremely early evidence for the existence of Jesus’ empty tomb. He provides a straightforward explanation that he delivered—παραδίδωμι—to his audience what he had first received—παραλαμβάνω—from others (1 Cor. 15.3), which are the equivalent terms for passing rabbinic tradition to others . Besides this clear declaration of his actions, there are many other indications—such as sentence structure, diction, verbal parallelism, the threefold sequence of “and that,” as well as the presence of several non-Pauline words, the proper names of Cephas (cf. Lk. 24.34) and James, and indications that there may have been an Aramaic original—that all point clearly to this tradition being pre-Pauline. Critical scholars agree that Paul received it from others.2Of the dozens of scholarly publications attesting to this fact, the following are among the more helpful sources: ; ;

The most popular view among scholars is that Paul first received this very early material when he ventured to Jerusalem a mere three years after his conversion. On this trip, he visited Peter and James—the brother of Jesus (Gal 1.18-19)—, both of whom are listed as having seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15.5, 7). Further evidence supporting this conclusion comes from Paul’s use of the verb “ἱστορέω; transliterated historeō” in Galatians 1.18. This Greek term—from which the word history is derived—indicates that Paul visited Peter for the purpose of investigating a particular subject. The immediate context reveals that subject: ascertaining the nature of the gospel message (Gal 1.11—2.10); and Jesus’ resurrection was the focus of the gospel message (1 Cor 15.3-4; Gal 1.11, 16). Without it, Paul reminds us, faith is vain (1 Cor 15.14, 17). It cannot be overstated that, again, critical scholars usually concede that this pre-Pauline tradition originated at this exceptionally early date. For Ulrich Wilckens, this content “indubitably goes back to the oldest phase of all in the history of primitive Christianity” . Walter Kasper even thinks that this “ancient text” was possibly “in use by the end of 30 A.D” . Skeptical atheist Gerd Lüdemann asserts that “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus . . . not later than three years. . . . The formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in I Cor.15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” . Thomas Sheehan thinks that this pre-Pauline formula “probably goes back to at least 32-34 C.E., that is, to within two to four years of the crucifixion” . Michael Goulder holds that this resurrection report “goes back at least to what Paul was taught when he was converted, a couple of years after the crucifixion” .

Other skeptics are often not shy about expressing their agreement.3For a few examples, see  In fact, most of the critical scholars who date these events conclude that Paul received this material within just a few years after Jesus’ death, in the early or mid 30s.4Some other scholars who agree here include: ; ; ; ;

3.5 The Empty Tomb Story is Part of the Pre-Markan Passion Story

Since Mark is the earliest gospel, it follows that this source is therefore itself quite old. The following are two lines of evidence for this conclusion.

3.5.1 1 Cor. 11.23-5 presupposes the Markan account

As we have seen, Paul’s own traditions are themselves very old; thus the Markan source must be even older.

3.5.2 Reference to the high priest

If one were to say “The President is hosting a dinner at the White House,” everyone would know whom he was speaking of—the man currently in office. Similarly the pre-Markan passion story refers to the “high priest” as if he were still in power. Since Caiaphas held office from A.D. 18-37, it therefore follows that the latest the pre-Markan source could be is seven years after Jesus’ death! This fact entails that this source is thus ancient and reliable as a source of historical information.

3.6 Simplicity and Lack of Legendary Development

The empty tomb story is uncolored by the theological and apologetical motifs that would be characteristic of a later legendary account. Perhaps the most forceful way to appreciate this point is to compare it with the accounts of the empty tomb found in apocryphal gospels of the second century. These are how real legends look. Unlike the gospel accounts, they are colored by theological motifs.

3.7 Discovery by Women

It is not possible to overstate the weight of this fact. To appreciate its colossal force, one need only to consider the following three facts about the role of women in Jewish society.

3.7.1 Women’s position on the Jewish social ladder

Palestinian women in the first century occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a), “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female” (Kiddushin 82b), and “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman” (Berachos 60b).

3.7.2 The legal testimony of women

Contrary to often repeated statements, women were able to testify in some legal matters. Still, there was a general reluctance in the Mediterranean world at that time to accept female testimony in crucial matters. As Josephus wrote, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” (Antiquities of the Jews IV.8.15.§219). There is also the following: “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer) . . .” (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 1.8c) Nevertheless, if the empty tomb tradition is the product of deliberate fiction, then clearly it would be better—from the standpoint of enhancing credibility—to put a group of respectable males at the tomb to serve as the first to see the risen Christ than a group of women.

3.7.3 The criterion of embarrassment

It is safe to assumption that very few men would be proud if a group of women had the courage to do something that he should have done himself, but instead cowered and hid in fear. Thus, how unreasonable is it to assert that members of the early church would invent false stories in which they portray themselves so negatively? As Norman Geisler and Frank Turek so aptly put it,

Would you depict yourselves as uncaring, bumbling cowards, and the women—whose testimony was not even admissible in court—as the brave ones who stood by Jesus and later discovered the empty tomb? Would you admit that some of you (the eleven remaining disciples) doubted the very Son of God after he had proven himself risen to all of you? Of course not.

What do you think the New Testament writers would have done if they were making up a story? You know perfectly well: they would have left out their ineptness, their cowardice, the rebuke, the three denials, and their theological problems, and depicted themselves as bold believers who stood by Jesus through it all and who confidently marched down to the tomb on Sunday morning right through the elite Roman guards to find the risen Jesus waiting to congratulate them on their great faith! The men who wrote it also would say that they declared the risen Jesus to the women, who were the ones hiding for fear of the Jews. 

We all know of cases where someone has lied to make themselves look good; indeed, most all of us have done so ourselves. But how many of us have ever told a lie just to make ourselves look bad?

In light of these three facts, consider how significant it is that women are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later, legendary account would certainly have made the male disciples the chief witnesses to the empty tomb. The fact that it is women who are the chief witnesses to the empty tomb is most plausibly explained by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb.

3.8 Jewish Response

In Matthew 28, we find the Christian attempt to refute the earliest Jewish polemic against the resurrection: that the disciples stole away the body. The Christians responded by pointing out that there were guards at the tomb. To counter, Jewish authorities claimed that the guards fell asleep. Nevertheless, the importance of this whole dispute is not whether there were in fact guards at the tomb; rather, it is acknowledgement by both parties that the body was missing. Indeed, the earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was itself an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Consequently, evidence from the adversaries of the disciples provides evidence—of the strongest sort—in support of the empty tomb.

3.9 Multiple, Independent Attestation

Ancient historian Paul Maier remarks, “Many facts from antiquity rest on just one ancient source, while two or three sources in agreement generally render the fact unimunimpeachable” . There are good reasons to discern independent sources for the empty tomb in the Gospels and Acts. As William Lane Craig explains,

Matthew is clearly working with an independent source, for he includes the story of the guard at the tomb, which is unique to his Gospel. Moreover, there are traces of prior tradition in the non-Matthean vocabulary in his narrative. And the comment “This story has been spread among Jews till this day” (Matt. 28:15) shows that Matthew is responding to prior tradition. Luke also has an independent source, for he relates the story, not found in Mark, of two disciples’ verifying the report of the women that the tomb was vacant. The story can’t be regarded as a Lukan creation, since the incident is independently attested in John. And, again, given John’s independence of the Synoptic Gospels, we have yet another independent attestation of the empty tomb. Finally, in the apostolic sermons in the book of Acts, we again have indirect references to the empty tomb. For example, Peter draws the sharp contrast, “David . . . both died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day,” but “this Jesus God raised up” (Acts 2:29–32 esv; cf. 13:36–7).

Historians think that they have hit historical paydirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event. But in the case of the empty tomb we have a surfeit of independent sources, no less than six, some of which are among the earliest materials to be found in the New Testament. 


While much more could be said on this topic, it seems to me that there is enough here to justify the judgment of the majority of scholarship on the historicity of the empty tomb. Historian and atheist Michael Grant explains that “the historian . . . cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb” since normal historical criteria attest that, “the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty” . According to the critical Jakob Kremer, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb” .5He furnishes the following list, to which his own name may be added: Blank, Blinzler, Bode, von Campenhausen, Delome, Dhanis, Grundmann, Hengel, Lehmann, Léon-Dufour, Lichtenstein, Mánek, Martini, Mussner, Nauck, Rengstorf, Ruckstuhl, Schenke, Schmitt, K. Schubert, Schwank, Schweizer, Seidensticker, Strobel, Stuhlmacher, Trilling, Vögtle, Wilckens. He should also have mentioned Benoit, Brown, Clark, Dunn, Ellis, Gundry, Hooke, Jeremias, Klappert, Ladd, Lane, Murshall, Moule, Perry, J. A. T. Robinson, and Schnackenburg, as well as the Jewish scholars Lapide and Vermes.




References Cited

Notes   [ + ]

1. See here.
2. Of the dozens of scholarly publications attesting to this fact, the following are among the more helpful sources: ; ;
3. For a few examples, see 
4. Some other scholars who agree here include: ; ; ; ;
5. He furnishes the following list, to which his own name may be added: Blank, Blinzler, Bode, von Campenhausen, Delome, Dhanis, Grundmann, Hengel, Lehmann, Léon-Dufour, Lichtenstein, Mánek, Martini, Mussner, Nauck, Rengstorf, Ruckstuhl, Schenke, Schmitt, K. Schubert, Schwank, Schweizer, Seidensticker, Strobel, Stuhlmacher, Trilling, Vögtle, Wilckens. He should also have mentioned Benoit, Brown, Clark, Dunn, Ellis, Gundry, Hooke, Jeremias, Klappert, Ladd, Lane, Murshall, Moule, Perry, J. A. T. Robinson, and Schnackenburg, as well as the Jewish scholars Lapide and Vermes.
Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.

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