Sunday, March 11, 2018

Jesus' Burial And Empty Tomb Outside The Gospels And Acts

It's often suggested that Paul and other early Christians were unaware of, or even contradicted, much of what's said about Jesus in the gospels and Acts. Critics often object to the empty tomb accounts, for example, on the basis that Paul and other New Testament authors don't mention the empty tomb. What I want to do in this post is outline some of the evidence that what the gospels and Acts say about issues related to Jesus' tomb is corroborated elsewhere.

- Belief in a physical resurrection of the body that died implies an empty tomb and interest in it. We've written a lot over the years about the evidence that the early Christians held that view of Jesus' resurrection. See here, here, and here regarding Paul, for example.

- We have a lot of evidence that the earliest Christians and their earliest opponents had the ability and desire to research Jesus' tomb. For example:

"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 Sepulchre] 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: Eerdmans, 1999], 695)

See here concerning corroborating evidence from more recent research into the Holy Sepulchre site.

"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], 160-62)

As I've discussed elsewhere, there was early interest in the tomb and acknowledgment that it was empty among the Jewish opponents of Christianity. The most likely dating for the Jewish response to the empty tomb is just after the tomb became empty, as we see in Matthew 28:11-15. That's because the Jewish explanation of the empty tomb likely originated before the later suffering of Jesus' original disciples, since their later suffering made the argument that the disciples stole the body much less reasonable than it was initially. If the Jewish response to the empty tomb claim originated later, it's much more likely that it would have taken the form of denying that the tomb was empty, agnosticism on the matter, or an argument that some other individual or group moved the body (e.g., Tertullian's reference to how some people argued later on that the body was moved by a gardener in the area). The nature of the Jewish argument is best explained if it originated very early. Justin Martyr offers further evidence of the earliness of the Jewish claim, as I discussed in a recent post, and he seems to have reached his conclusions somewhat independently of Matthew.

- Jesus had many relatives, including some who were prominent in Christian circles for decades after his death (1 Corinthians 9:5). They not only would have been interested in Jesus' tomb for the same reasons other people had for such an interest, but also would have had the additional motives that come from a family relationship.

- The gospels and Acts refer to earlier sources that they're based upon (Luke 1:1-4, John 21:24), and the earliest comments on the origins of the gospels and Acts refer to how those documents were based on earlier testimony (e.g., Mark's use of what Peter said). Since the accounts related to Jesus' tomb in those documents are so prominent and extensive, it's likely that those accounts relied on earlier sources (e.g., Matthew 28:15).

- The earliest Christians outside the gospels and Acts made reference to Jesus' burial (Romans 6:4, 1 Corinthians 15:4, Colossians 2:12), including in contexts as significant as baptism and the early creed Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15 while discussing matters of "first importance" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Since the earliest Christians were so interested in the subject and included it in such prominent contexts, it's likely that they also discussed it in other contexts that we don't have access to today. They probably knew significantly more than they refer to in places like Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 15.

- The early Christians often referred to Jesus as a fulfillment of Isaiah's Suffering Servant passage, including in contexts outside the gospels and Acts (Romans 10:16, 15:20-21, 1 Peter 2:22). And Isaiah 53:9-10 refers to a grave from which the Suffering Servant rose. Notice that 1 Peter 2:22 even cites verse 9 of Isaiah 53 in particular. The reference to being with a rich man in his death in Isaiah 53:9 doesn't provide us with all of the details that the gospels give us about what Joseph of Arimathea did, but it does offer partial corroboration.

- 1 Corinthians 15:4, which reflects both Paul's views and the views of many other early Christians, refers to Jesus' resurrection "on the third day". That corroborates the gospels and Acts and suggests that Jesus left the tomb shortly after his body was placed there. Similarly, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that, after the execution of Jesus, "a most mischievous superstition [Christianity], thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome" (Annals, 15:44). The reference to Jesus' execution holding Christianity back "for the moment" seems to offer partial corroboration of what we see in the gospels and Acts about how soon after Jesus' death Christianity was revived by his resurrection, accompanied by the empty tomb.

- 1 Timothy 5:18 probably refers to Luke's gospel as scripture, which is an indirect affirmation of what that gospel says about issues related to Jesus' burial.

- If the Shroud of Turin is authentic, as I believe it is, it provides us with information on Jesus' burial and his resurrection, with the implication of an empty tomb.

- The traditional Christian view of Jesus' burial and related issues, like the empty tomb, is all that we see in the earliest generations of church history. There is no alternative to that view, much less the sort of widespread alternative we'd expect to see if individuals like Peter and Paul had advocated such an alternative (e.g., a non-physical resurrection, a resurrection involving a second body while the original body remained in the grave). The best explanation for the widespread nature of the traditional view and the absence of an alternative is that individuals like Peter and Paul and the earliest Christians in general held the traditional view.


  1. "It's often suggested that Paul and other early Christians were unaware of, or even contradicted, much of what's said about Jesus in the gospels and Acts."

    Yet if St. Paul's letters contained too many similarities to the Gospels, the skeptics would charge the Gospel writers with copying from him and would bolster the "St. Paul invented Christianity" myth.

    1. OTOH if the letters were earlier than the Gospels and Paul was preaching something Jesus never did (as Dawagandists often like to conjecture), why don't the Gospels refute his wrong teachings?