Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Empty Tomb

The fact that Jesus’ tomb was found empty is reported early, by multiple sources, by eyewitnesses, and with non-Christian corroboration. Thus:

"Former Oxford University church historian William Wand writes, 'All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.'" (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case For The Resurrection Of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 73)

"Without addressing Jesus’ resurrection appearances, Vermes 1973: 41, another Jewish scholar closely acquainted with the primary evidence, opines that 'the only conclusion acceptable to the historian' must be that the women actually found the tomb empty." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 705, n. 308)

The large majority of scholars accept the empty tomb as a historical fact. See, for example, here.

Testimony to the empty tomb is found in every gospel and Acts, and it’s mentioned or implied in other sources. The accounts have some common elements, including details unlikely to have been fabricated. The tomb is first found empty by women, and the testimony of women was largely considered of little value in that culture, while the male disciples are in hiding and unbelief. The burial is associated with an individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who is named, has a prominent place in Jewish society, and belongs to a group that the early Christians wouldn’t have wanted to compliment with such an account (the religious leaders of Israel who had Jesus crucified and were persecuting the early church). The early Jewish opponents of Christianity affirmed that the tomb was empty (Matthew 28:11-15; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian, On Spectacles, 30). Contrary to what some people claim, Justin Martyr and Tertullian aren’t just repeating what they read in Matthew’s gospel. Both of them give details in their accounts that aren’t mentioned by Matthew, and both Justin and Tertullian were interacting with the Jewish opponents of their day, so they would have been in a position to know what arguments the Jewish opposition was using.

Sometimes people ask why we don’t know where Jesus’ tomb was if His burial place was known to the early Christians. But we do have a good idea of where the tomb was:

"That Jesus' followers would forget the site of the tomb (or that officials who held the body would not think it worth the trouble to produce it after the postresurrection Jesus movement arose) is extremely improbable. James and the Jerusalem church could easily have preserved the tradition of the site in following decades (Brown 1994: 1280-81), especially given Middle Eastern traditions of pilgrimage to holy sites (though admittedly evidence for early veneration there is lacking, perhaps because the body was not there – Craig 1995: 148-49, 152)….the Catholic Holy Sepulchre and tombs in its vicinity date to the right period. The tradition of the latter vicinity [Holy Sepulcher] is as early as the second century (when Hadrian erected a pagan temple there; he defiled many Jewish holy sites in this manner – cf. Finegan 1969: 164), and probably earlier. Good evidence exists, in fact, that this site dates to within the first two decades after the resurrection. This is because (1) Christian tradition is unanimous that Jesus was buried outside the city walls, and no one would make up a site inside (cf. Heb 13:12; Jn 19:41); (2) Jewish custom made it common knowledge that burials would be outside the city walls (4 Bar. 7:13; Wilkonson 1978: 146); (3) the traditional vicinity of the Holy Sepulcher is inside Jerusalem’s walls; (4) Agrippa I expanded the walls of Jerusalem sometime in the 40s A.D." (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 695)

Some people argue that the earliest Christians may have believed in a resurrection involving an exchange of bodies, with the old body remaining in the tomb, rather than a transformation of the body in the tomb. Or they suggest that the early Christians might have believed in the resurrection without ever examining the tomb to see whether it was empty. But both scenarios are highly unlikely:

"And although Jesus might have been embodied in a new body, this was not a possibility that would readily have occurred to first-century Jews; they would have expected his embodiment to go with an empty tomb. But if the Gospel writers felt that a Resurrection required an empty tomb, presumably Christians of a decade or two earlier would have felt the same – St Paul would have felt that. So if there was a belief held by anyone in the Church or outside it that the body of Jesus still lay in its tomb, surely St Paul would have felt the need to explain how really the fact that the body was still in the tomb made no difference to Resurrection faith. Those whom he is addressing in 1 Corinthians who held that 'there is no resurrection of the dead' would have had an argument to support them - even Christ’s body was still in the tomb - which would need to be answered. But of course there is none of that in 1 Corinthians or anywhere else in the New Testament (and no evidence of later deletions of any such passages)….it beggars belief that the disciples could have affirmed the Resurrection of Jesus without checking the tomb as soon as they could" (Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection Of God Incarnate [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], pp. 160-162)

We have good reason to believe that the account of a guard at the tomb is historical, so how could the body have been removed with a guard there? If the early opponents of Christianity knew of a common practice involving the transfer of a body from one tomb to another, and they thought that such a transfer might have occurred with Jesus, why didn’t they say so instead of using the argument that the disciples stole the body?

In a debate on the resurrection with Gary Habermas in April of 2000, Antony Flew, who at that time was an atheist, replied to Habermas’ presentation of the historical evidence for the empty tomb:

"I don’t think you should be apologetic about this at all. These facts are facts and I could rather wish that in these topics more people were prepared to face facts rather than run away and say, 'Mustn’t say that.' No. This is a very impressive piece of argument, I think…Because, you know, it’s very difficult to get around this….Well, we have no independent witnesses. There are all sorts of ways of removing bodies. I’m not going to offer a theory because I simply don’t think one can reconstruct the story of what happened in the city and all that long ago and we haven’t got the sort of evidence that one might have today with the invention of cameras and all the rest of it….I don’t offer anything to cover the empty tomb evidence." ("Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?" [Chattanooga, TN: Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 2000], pp. 17-18)


  1. What need would there have been to venerate the tomb of a risen Savior? After all, why do you seek the living among the dead?

    If Loftus wishes to use this as an actual argument, he must provide a reason for why the early Christian Church would have thought venerating the tomb of Christ would have been a righteous thing to do, as opposed to a sin.

    To say that the fourth century Church did so says nothing about whether the first century church would have done so. After all, in the first century, Christianity was persecuted; thus, nominal Christians--who didn't really believe in Christ but instead thought there was some kind of spiritual benefit gained by venerating a hole in the ground--would not have remained steadfast under the persecution. By the fourth century, when it became first legal and then chic to be a Christian, all kinds of whackos entered into the faith, synchornizing claims to worship of Christ with their own superstitions.

    That the early Church didn't venerate the tomb says more about why the tomb ought not to have ever been venerated than it says about the non-existence of the tomb.

  2. Jason,

    What specifically were you referring to when you said that Justin mentioned details in his Dialogue with Trypho that are omitted from Matthew's account?


  3. John Loftus,

    We know that the early Christians believed that they knew of a tomb, because the gospels mention it. The type of veneration they would show the tomb would vary from one era to another and one person to another. The earliest Christians didn't have some of the beliefs about veneration and some of the social and political freedoms that later Christians had. Early on, factors such as opposition from the Jewish leadership and the use of the tomb by the owners would limit any veneration that could be carried out. I'm not aware of anything in the New Testament or earliest patristic literature that would demonstrate that nobody knew where the tomb was or didn't venerate it in any manner. If some people visited the tomb at times or spoke about it, why would such things necessarily be mentioned in the earliest literature? See Craig Keener's comments relevant to this subject in my original post. We have good reason to think that a tradition was passed down about the tomb site, even if the earliest sources don't discuss it as much as later sources would, later sources who wrote more, had different views of veneration, and had more social and political freedom to carry out such veneration.

  4. Simon,

    In Justin's Dialogue With Trypho (108), he mentions that the Jewish leadership sent out representatives "throughout all the world" to argue that the disciples stole the body. He then goes on to use the term "we", and refers to Jesus' disciples as if they're still alive, in such a way that it seems that he's quoting a Jewish document, perhaps something issued by the religious hierarchy. Justin seems to be aware of some efforts to spread the theory that the disciples stole the body, efforts that Matthew's gospel doesn't mention. Thomas Falls, Thomas Halton, and Michael Slusser, in their recent edition of Justin's Dialogue (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2003), have Justin referring to how the Jewish leadership "voted" (p. 162) on sending men out to say that the disciples stole the body, which is something Matthew's gospel doesn't mention, nor does Matthew's gospel mention the Jewish document Justin seems to be citing. Since Justin was in contact with Jewish sources, he would have known if they were denying that the tomb was empty or, more specifically, denying the account in Matthew's gospel. Much the same can be said of Tertullian. The idea that all three men - Matthew, Justin, and Tertullian - were mistaken is unreasonable.

  5. It's not unlikely that those items taken for granted by the early Christian community would not be written or discussed. No need to document what everyone will know. And it's possible that, if the tomb was considered important, that it was considered so important that everyone would always know it; at least as long as it would take for Christ to return, which was not expected to be as long as it has been (at least from what we see). So I don't find it strange that there is no mention of the tomb or it's "veneration", even if it were venerated.

    Also, there's the consideration that we've slipped in our worldview. The worldview that Christ was instilling in his apostles by calming storms, walking on water, raising the dead, and resurrecting himself, caused them to go and do likewise. Even to the point that they had to figure out why people were dying at all! In such a starkly different world view from later Christian thinking (including our own), it would be reasonable to think of the tomb as a location where something took place, but not a place of worship. After all, the Lord is to be worshipped, not images, creeds, places, or deeds.