By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the argument from Jesus’ resurrection. Please see Part 1 if you have not read it yet.

To read along with audio for this article, click here Resurrection-Part2

Jesus’ tomb was found empty

In talking about the historicity of the empty tomb, a qualification is certainly required.  In reference to the other facts, when Habermas states that they are accepted by the majority of scholars who study the subject, he means a percentage in the high nineties.  However, in reference to the empty tomb, the number is a bit lower, coming in around 75% (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.70).  Now, while this is certainly still impressive, it inevitably leads to the question of what reasons the other 25% of scholars have for doubting the historicity of the empty tomb.  After mentioning that he had compiled arguments both for and against the empty tomb, Habermas adds, “Generally, the listings are what might be expected, dividing along theological ‘party lines.’” (Resurrection Research, p.140).  Although there are a number of scholars who grant the empty tomb, while at the same time seeking a naturalistic explanation for it, there are still more scholars who reject the idea of an empty tomb altogether.  What might cause such hesitation on the part of skeptical scholars, you might ask?  Well, as mentioned above, here is an instance in which philosophical presuppositions are not good friends with historical evidence.  As I will discuss below, there are very good reasons for accepting the empty tomb on historical grounds, but what makes some scholars uneasy is the fact that granting the empty tomb makes naturalistic explanation even harder than it already is with the other facts I am presenting.  The philosophical presupposition that dead men do not rise and the failure of naturalistic explanations of the empty tomb lead to the conclusion that the empty tomb, not to mention the resurrection, was the product of later legend (Gerd Lüdemann, Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology).  John Dominic Crossan told Time Magazine what can also be found in his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,

“The tales of entombment and resurrection were latter-day wishful thinking. Instead, Jesus’ corpse went the way of all abandoned criminals bodies: it was probably barely covered with dirt, vulnerable to the wild dogs that roamed the wasteland of the execution grounds.” (In “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple”, p.32-33).

What specific evidence does he give for this assertion?  Well, none, for all he offers in support is a customary Jewish practice, but this is certainly not the only practice.  Not to mention that there is no ancient testimony to this in the case of Jesus.  It seems to me that Crossan would rather ignore historical explanation in favour of unfounded conjecture, because he finds the implications of the empty tomb unacceptable.  Good history is not arrived at by excluding evidence based on possible implications.  Since the idea that the empty tomb is a later legend is based on presuppositions, let us see how it fairs against some of the historical evidence, and thus, whether it is to be upheld or rejected.  There are at least four good reasons to accept the historicity of the empty tomb.

 1. The burial narrative, which naturally precedes the empty tomb narrative, has several marks of historical credibility.  First, it is attested in multiple sources, including all four Gospels and Paul (Acts 13:29; 1 Corinthians 15:4).  Also, as pointed out above, Paul is passing on what he received from the apostles in Jerusalem, so this is very early, within 8 years of the event.  Thinking about a legend developing in so short a time already appears to strain credulity, but there is more to come below (The claim is that Paul does not know of the empty tomb in these early reports).

Second, the mention of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council, as the one who buried Jesus is historically credible as well.  As Craig points out, “Even the most skeptical scholars agree that it is unlikely that the figure of Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, could have been a Christian invention.” From a Jewish point of view, those antagonistic to the Christian faith could either point to the fact that Joseph of Arimathea did not exist, or if he did exist, they would know about what he did and did not do with Jesus’ body.  From a Christian point of view, this man was a member of the Council that condemned Jesus to death.  Why have him take care of Jesus’ body, while having Jesus’ disciples cower in fear behind locked doors?  This would be both an embarrassment and an insult at the same time.

Third, that the women followers of Jesus were the only ones mentioned indicates that this would be an unlikely fiction.  The low credibility given to women in Jewish society makes the fact that they were witnesses historically very probable.  Again, there is no sign of Jesus’ male disciples, indicating that they were not there to be spoken about, while those of questionable witness in the prevailing attitude at the time, the women, did observe the burial.

Fourth, during Jesus time, the graves of Jewish holy men were remembered and honoured.  JP Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff speak of 50 such tombs in Jesus’ day that were sites of yearly veneration (The God Conversation, p.103).  This casts doubt on the proposition of those like Crossan that Jesus was buried in a common grave, but instead suggests that Jesus’ burial would have been noted.

Fifth, no other burial tradition exists.  If, by some chance, Jesus was buried in some other way, it is hard to explain why there is no conflicting Christian tradition, and even more so, no Jewish anti-Christian polemic.  There are more reasons to trust the account of the burial of Jesus, but these are sufficient for our purposes.  The connection then is to the empty tomb itself, to which I now turn (William Lane Craig, The Son Rises, p.46-67, in In Defense of Miracles, p.248-251, in Jesus Under Fire, p.146-149).

2. Why do I bother mentioning the burial of Jesus first?  Well, if the burial account is accurate, the location of Jesus’ tomb was known (not to mention that Jesus was not buried in a way such as Crossan suggests).  If that is the case, it makes the arguments for the empty tomb stronger than they already are on their own.  First, if the location of the tomb was known, it was available to all for verification.  The disciples of Jesus first preached the resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem.  In Acts 2:22-32 Peter makes a comparison between King David, who was dead and buried, his tomb still being with them to that day, and Jesus, who was raised up by God, to which Peter and the other disciples were witnesses.  Now, if Jesus was actually still in the tomb He was buried in as Peter was proclaiming this, it would not take much to simply go and find out if his comparison is accurate.  People travel around the world to see various wonders like the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, but this wonder was only about ten minutes’ walk.  This would be a convincing presentation for some, but also implicitly through the actions/inactions of those who were thoroughly skeptical.

Second, the Jewish leaders would also know the location of the tomb.  Put together with the notion that they wanted to stop the preaching of the disciples, it is not too much to assume that they would have interest in bringing out the body of Jesus to the people, if indeed it remained in the tomb.  However, the earliest reports do not indicate that Jesus’ body was there for the taking.  On the contrary, the claim of the Jews, as attested in Matthew (28:11-15), Justin Martyr (Trypho 108), and Tertullian (De Spectaculis 30), is that the disciples stole the body of Jesus (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.71).  This is quite difficult to believe, as we will see below when discussing the experiences of the disciples.  However, for now it need only be mentioned that the earliest argument against the resurrection was not that the tomb was occupied, so the Jewish opponents implicitly affirm that the tomb was in fact empty.

Third, it was not only the Jewish leaders that had an interest in quelling the Christian movement, for Jesus was essentially convicted of sedition, claiming to be a king, when Caesar was supposed to be the only king.  Considering that several uprisings happened among the Jews, usually centered around some sort of so-called messiah (2 are even mentioned in Acts 5:36-37), the Romans would also be interested in stopping the spread of this new proclamation.  However, like the Jewish leaders, they did not bring forth the body of Jesus in order to put an end to the preaching of the disciples.  My contention is that they did not, because they could not, since no body was left in Jesus’ tomb (William Lane Craig, The Son Rises, p.46-67, in In Defense of Miracles, p.258, in Jesus Under Fire, p.151-152).

3. As mentioned above, the women were witnesses to the burial of Jesus, but they were also the first witnesses to the empty tomb.  Again, if a story was being made up and was to be passed off as reliable, it would not make sense to incorporate unreliable witnesses.  The fact that women could not serve as legal witnesses and that they were generally considered to be of low status in Jewish society makes the claim that the Gospel writers made up this account with the women as the primary witnesses quite incredible.  Conversely, why would the male disciples be depicted as cowards and deserters, for they were the ones who would lead the church and be the bearers of this testimony to Jesus’ resurrection?  I do not find it implausible to suppose that we see the narratives composed, with these peculiarities, because that is actually the way it happened (William Lane Craig, The Son Rises, p.77-78, in In Defense of Miracles, p.257, in Jesus Under Fire, p.151).

4. So what does the legend theory have left to hide behind?  Well, in spite of the fact that the Gospel reports are still relatively early compared with other ancient historical documents that are unquestioned, a tactic of the skeptic has been to suggest that Paul, who is an even earlier source, did not know of the empty tomb, as I alluded to above.  Such skeptical scholars will grant that there is early testimony to the resurrection and that the disciples truly believed this, but they would then discount the idea of the empty tomb, based on Paul’s testimony, being the earliest.  Well, first of all, it is one thing to point out that Paul does not mention the empty tomb, but it is quite another to suggest that he knew nothing of it.  I can imagine that there were lots of things that Paul knew that he did not choose to put in his letters to specific churches, but this does not in any way discount that he knew them.

Second, Paul certainly implies the empty tomb in his discussions of the resurrection.  In his sermon recorded in Acts 13 he both mentions the laying of Jesus in a tomb after crucifixion (verse 29) and that God raised Him from the dead (verse 30).  This sequence of death, burial, and resurrection is also found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, the early proclamation of the apostles.  Paul indicates here that he gave to the Corinthians what he received, that Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day.  If Jesus’ body was dead and He was laid in a tomb, Paul is not skipping over the concept of the empty tomb when he says that Jesus was raised.

Third, Paul teaches that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.  The contention of some critics is that the tomb of Jesus was either made up (against which the above reasons speak) or that His tomb was still occupied (against which I will now speak).  However, could Paul speak of Jesus being raised if His body was still in the tomb?  In a word…no!  A common misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 15 is to suppose that Paul posits a “spiritual” resurrection, as in immaterial.  In other words, when Paul speaks of resurrection throughout the chapter, and presumably other places, he is really thinking of some kind of disembodied existence; as a spirit.  However, this is fundamentally contrary to what Paul is trying to communicate, as evidenced by the following three considerations.

a. The words that Paul uses do not entail that Jesus’ resurrection was immaterial, nor do they convey a contrast between material and immaterial.  The words in question are often translated “natural” and “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15:44).  Though this is in reference to the future resurrection bodies in contrast to the present ones, the idea is that Jesus’ resurrection body is the same as the future resurrection bodies, since He is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (died) (1 Corinthians 15:20).  These words can give the impression that “spiritual” in contrast to “natural” means that our present bodies are physical, but our resurrection bodies, like Christ’s, will be nonphysical, resembling some kind of spirit.  The impression is understandable, but we should not interpret ancient texts based solely on how they sound to us.  As it turns out, the contrast is not between physical and nonphysical, and as I will bring attention to below, the passage would not make sense if it did mean that.  The contrast is between mortality and immortality, and between the weakness of flesh and the power of the Spirit of God.  Mike Licona surveyed the use of these Greek words in all the extant literature from the eighth century BC to the third century AD and came up with some interesting results.

“While πνευματικὸν [spiritual] can refer to something as being ethereal, ψυχικόν [natural] never referred to something as physical or material.  Consequently, while this exercise validates a number of interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:44 without endorsing any, it eliminated one that has long been held: Christians are buried with physical bodies but raised with nonphysical bodies.  This interpretation is no longer sustainable.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, p.620-621).

This was Licona’s summary, but it was dealt with extensively earlier in the book, where another crucial point is worth quoting at length.

“Of greatest importance is that Paul did not employ ψυχικόν [natural] and πνευματικόν [spiritual] to describe a contrast of ‘physical/material’ and ‘ethereal/immaterial’ in 1 Corinthians.  Moreover it is worth observing that had Paul desired to communicate this sort of a contrast, he had better words at his disposal, one of which he had employed just a few chapters earlier while using a seed analogy similar to that of 1 Corinthians 15.  In 1 Corinthians 9:11 he writes, ‘If we sowed spiritual [πνευματικὰ] things in you, is it too much if we reap material [σαρκικός] things from you?’” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, p.414).

NT Wright agrees that, even though the words used in English imply a physical-nonphysical contrast, the Greek does no such thing (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.348-350).  Wright goes even further when he submits,

“Had Paul wanted in any way to produce the kind of contrast suggested to a modern reader by ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’, not only would pneumatikos have been an unhelpful word to have used for the latter idea [spiritual], but psychikos would have been exactly the wrong word to use for the former [physical].  In fact, if Paul had wanted to find a word for ‘non-physical’, psychikos (which could literally be translated as ‘soulish’) would itself have been a possible option.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.351).

So, all that to make the point that if anyone takes Paul to mean that the resurrection body is immaterial, this is a meaning completely foreign to Paul, and for that matter, any other first century Jew.  In the final point, I will explain what I mean by that, but first I would like to take a look at what Paul was writing from another angle.

b. Even if a skeptic attempts to go through some semantic gymnastics to avoid the point above, which I clearly think to be a waste of his time, he is still met with having to explain why Paul is discussing this in the first place.  As it happens, the last chapters of 1 Corinthians contain a series of responses that Paul is giving in reference to a letter that the Corinthians sent him (7:1, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1), so he is actually writing into a specific situation involving real people with real questions.  In particular, the claim of some of the Corinthians was that there was no resurrection of the dead (15:12).  In fact, we can see the controversy already arising when Paul is first in Greece, for when Paul mentioned the resurrection in Athens, some mocked (Acts 17:16-32).  I can imagine that if Paul had come to the Corinthians and preached a “spiritual/immaterial” resurrection that did not involve Jesus’ body being physically raised, there would be no problem.  If it meant some kind of disembodied existence, that would coincide with what they already believed, and I might add, wanted to believe.  In common Greek philosophy, the body was a prison from which a soul would want to be released.  The fact that the Corinthians are doubting the resurrection already suggests that they had some problem with the bodily nature of it.  In addition, if Paul had preached a “spiritual/immaterial” resurrection, we might expect him to spend 1 Corinthians 15 explaining how this could actually be considered a resurrection at all, which ties into the final point.  Instead, we see Paul explaining that resurrection happens and what kind of body it involves, which, as we have seen above, is certainly not immaterial.

c. One tendency of modern scholarship has been to read modern concepts back into ancient documents.  The idea of a non-bodily resurrection is a textbook example of this, suggesting that Paul could refer to a resurrection of Jesus without any reference to His physical body, which could still be in a tomb.  However, as EE Ellis comments, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave-emptying’ resurrection.  To them an anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.” (Quoted in The Son Rises, p.68).  A great strength of the work of NT Wright is his extensive survey of beliefs about resurrection within Judaism, but also from the Greco-Roman world.  As far as those outside of Judaism at the time, there was a fundamental skepticism.  So they knew what resurrection was, returning to earthly life from death, but they just would not accept it.  Wright sums it up as follows.

“When the ancient classical world spoke of (and denied) resurrection, there should be no controversy about what the word and its cognates referred to: it was a coming back again into something like the same sort of life that humans presently experience.  ‘Resurrection’ was not one way of describing what death consisted of.  It was a way of describing something everyone knew did not happen: the idea that death could be reversed, undone, could (as it were) work backwards.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.33).

Wright adds 2 pages later, “Christianity was brought into a world where its central claim was known to be false.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.35).  This anti-resurrection atmosphere shows how revolutionary the spread of the Christian faith really was, but that question can wait.  For now, it is sufficient to point out that the concept of resurrection was not where the disagreement lay between Christians and the rest of the ancient world; it was in whether such a thing could happen or not.  Turning to the concept of Judaism, there is fundamental agreement on the concept of resurrection between the majority of Jews (Sadducees denied the resurrection) and the Christians.  In addition, they both believed that this is something God would do, but the disagreement comes concerning whether God raised Jesus in confirmation of Him as the Jewish Messiah.  Wright discusses Jewish texts, both from the Bible and from second-temple Judaism, and comes to the conclusion that the picture of resurrection is uniform.  Though I could pick various references, I want to point out his comments in relation to the Corinthian correspondence with Paul, because this accentuates Paul’s views.

“There was, in any case, no indication in Judaism either before or after Paul that ‘resurrection’ could mean anything other than ‘bodily’; if Paul was going to argue for something so oxymoronic as a ‘non-bodily resurrection’ he would have done better not to structure his argument in such a way as to give the appearance of articulating a Pharisaic, indeed biblical, worldview in which the goodness of the present creation is reaffirmed in the age to come.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.314).

Because of Paul’s association with Christianity, it can be forgotten that he was also a Pharisee, so even before Paul became a follower of Christ he believed in the resurrection of the dead, as he testifies to many times (Ex. Acts 23:6-8).  If Paul were to all of sudden claim that there could be a resurrection without an empty tomb, it would be a strange thing indeed.  It is for the above reasons that Wright can affirm, in reference to Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “…the mention here of ‘buried, then raised’ no more needs to be amplified in that way than one would need to amplify the statement ‘I walked down the street’ with the qualification ‘on my feet’.” (Resurrection of the Son of God, p.321).  Resurrection meant bodily resurrection and it is a modern reconstruction foreign to the ancient context to think that the early believers in Christ thought that He was raised from the dead in history, while His tomb remained occupied with His decaying body (William Lane Craig, The Son Rises, p.67-72, in In Defense of Miracles, p.252-254, in Jesus Under Fire, p.149).

In spite of the fact that there are some scholars who are hesitant in regard to the historicity of the empty tomb, I hope I have illustrated that these hesitations are unfounded as far as history goes.  Attempts to assign the empty tomb accounts to legend ignore several lines of historical evidence, and attempts to reinterpret the concept of resurrection both do violence to the text of the New Testament it draws from and ignore overwhelming external evidence.  Again, the comments of the same two skeptical scholars, Gerd Lüdemann and John Dominic Crossan, seem appropriate, as quoted by Mike Licona and Gary Habermas in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (p.164).  Even though they have their philosophical hesitations toward the empty tomb, they do not deny what the claim of resurrection is:

“Let me hasten to add that I do not question the physical nature of Jesus’ appearance from heaven…In the rest of chapter 15 Paul develops his idea of a bodily resurrection, which according to the apostle can be deduced directly from the proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.” (Lüdemann)

“For Paul…bodily resurrection is the only way that Jesus’ continued presence can be expressed.” (Crossan)

Click here to see part 3 of the article


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