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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Was Jesus' Tomb Really Empty?

The empty tomb is a huge part of the evidence arguing for the resurrection of Jesus. We know that the vast majority of New Testament scholars, from the very liberal to the very conservative, hold that Jesus's followers believed they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. "It is an indisputable historical datum that sometime, somehow, the disciples came to believe they had seen the risen Jesus,"1 claims New Testament scholar Alexander J. M. Wedderburn, cited by Michael Licona in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

Licona points to other scholars as well and highlights the work of Dr Gary Habermas who "cataloged the opinions of hundreds of scholars writing on the subject of Jesus' resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. His database divides the opinions into more than one hundred categories pertaining to the questions and subquestions related to the resurrection of Jesus. He comments 'As firmly as ever, most contemporary scholars agree that, after Jesus' death, his early followers had experiences that they at least believed were appearances of their risen Lord.'" 2

Dismissing Hallucinations and Groupthink

Because it's clear that Jesus' followers had some kind of experience they believed was seeing him after he rose from the dead, one must ascribe some kind of cause for their experience. Skeptics have tried to dismiss these as sincere but mistaken experiences. They've offered some kind of hallucination theory, cases of mistaken identity, a kind of "groupthink" (e.g. "I can see him, can't you see him, too?"), or dismissing these as spiritual visions instead of physical ones.

Any of the above scenarios must have happened rather quickly after the crucifixion. The gospels and Acts place Jesus' appearances no later than forty days after Easter Sunday excluding Paul's Damascus road experience. Thus, Jesus' corpse could have been produced by Jesus' foes to defeat any such claims. Yet, the corpse seems to not be available to them. In fact, it is the Jewish Sanhedrin who were worried about that very issue and asked Pilate if the tomb could be secured, a request that was granted. Even then, though, they could not counter the resurrection charge. Their claim was "the disciples came and stole the body."

There is only one reason why that story persisted and Jesus' disciples became more confident instead of less so: there was no body in the tomb. As historian Michael Grant states:
Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition [of the angelic messenger in Mark] as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb. True, this discovery, as so often, is described differently by the various Gospels—as critical pagans early pointed out. But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.3
Grant concludes that there must have been someone who had taken the body, though he doesn't know who. Still, Grant is right to say if the criteria one employ's for ancient history is leveraged, then we are left with the real historical fact that the tomb was indeed empty.

Adding the empty tomb to the knowledge that the disciples had real, sincere experiences they identified as seeing the risen Jesus, we have a much stronger case for Jesus' resurrection. The claims of hallucinations, groupthink, or spiritual visions become much less plausible since none of those can explain where Jesus' body actually went. The evidence leads to a resurrection.


1. Licona, Michael. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove,Il.: InterVarsity, 2010. 373. Print.
2. Licona, 2010.
3. Grant, Michael. Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels. New York: Scribner, 1977. 176. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Mk 16.8 is inconsistent with an oral or written tradition history behind the grave narrative. Several theories or ideas have been proposed to counteract dissatisfaction with this ending and its prima facie implications: It was lost, it's in one of the other gospels, the Longer Ending is original, several variations of Mark didn't really mean what he said, etc.

    None of these strike me as convincing.

    Several scholars have connected the story with ideas of translation/assumption, arguing that it was originally a translation story which Mark adapted to resurrection, while others believe it is a creation of Mark (as 16.8 indicates). This latter is the view I believe is most plausible.

    Why did no one produce the body? Even if the right people (typically thought to be the Jewish leaders) knew where it was, there is little real reason to think they would have occupied themselves with refuting what would have been to them a ridiculous, irrelevant claim. If Christians were causing public disturbances, they had more direct means available of dealing with them. It's not plausibly the theological truth or falsity of the resurrection that would have bothered them at all, but upsetting public order. The notion that they would have been concerned with cult polemics, that they interpreted the resurrection to be the central factor in any Christian problems they had, or the idea that Christians were the center of (apparently the world's) attention such as to distract them from running their more exigent affairs enough to go parading bodies around or hosting tours to gravesites, is a perspective apologists derive entirely from early *Christian* literature (really, just Acts mostly), not from Jewish sources. It is also a quite ludicrous caricature of the time, directed at those nasty Jews who are the enemies of Jesus in the gospels.

    But if the claim really was somewhat important to them, revealing the location of the site (not even considering the historically goofy scenario of disinterring and parading corpses) would only have invited theft. There's no reason to believe they had any reason to think the Christians wouldn't do this, and if you accept Matthew's guard story, you'd have to agree. Wasting manpower and resources invigilating over the corpse day and night for who knows how long seems ludicrous and out of the question as well.

    Regarding Matthew's guard story, it requires nothing but that local opponents of Matthew were responding to the claims in Christian texts (i.e., Mark), and that Matthew fabricated an ignominious etiology for the existence of the claim in his day, in mimicry of OT stories (i.e., 'to this day'). The story hardly requires factual knowledge of a tomb known to be evacuated of Jesus's corpse.

    If there was no empty tomb, could Matthew's opponents have 'investigated' this and gave Matthew a rationalistic response, such as, 'There's no evidence for that!' like modern skeptics engaging in armchair battles with apologists would? Maybe, but there's no reason they should have, any more than Celsus or rabbinic literature should have offered this kind of response when addressing gospel claims. They were hardly in a position so late to know the truth of the matter either way. They responded to Christian claims as they were presented to them in Christian literature or propaganda. For all we know, Matthew's opponents were just mocking the Christians.


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