The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection (Part 2 of 3)

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C.   The empty tomb

The third event to be examined in our historical examination is the empty tomb. That Jesus’ tomb was found empty shortly after his death is recognized by the majority of scholars.[55] There are eight arguments supporting this event’s historicity.

1. Multiple Attestation

The first argument is that Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in multiple independent sources. 

First, the empty tomb is implied in Paul’s letters.[56] If you recall, Paul conveys a primitive tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 and in verse 4 Jesus’ empty tomb is implied: “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”.  When the above tradition states that Jesus “was buried” and that he “was raised”, it implies an empty tomb (or grave, which coheres perfectly with an empty tomb).  There are four arguments supporting this position. One, as scholar Wright noted, the mention here of “buried then raised” no more needs to be amplified than one would need to amplify the statement “I walked down the street” with the qualification “on my feet”.[57] The words “buried” and “raised” stand in deliberate juxtaposition, with the latter undoing the former. Two, the expression “on the third day” implies an empty tomb.  As Craig notes: 

Since no one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead, why did the early disciples proclaim that he had been raised ‘on the third day’? Why not on the seventh day? The most likely answer is that it was on the third day that the women discovered the tomb of Jesus empty; and so naturally, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day.[58] 

Three, the disciples and Paul certainly believed that Jesus’ grave was empty, since Jewish belief in the resurrection was physical and bodily.  As scholar Earle 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’.[59] 

Four, there is a remarkable correspondence between the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, the gospel narratives (as represented by Mark, which is held to be the earliest gospel) and the sermon in Acts 13:28-31.  As seen in the chart below, the four elements of “died”, “buried”, “raised” and “appeared” are all present, with the second line of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition corresponding to Jesus’ burial in a tomb.

This impressive correspondence of independent traditions is compelling evidence that the burial mentioned in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition refers to the event in the gospels and Acts that is Jesus’ burial in a tomb. 

In addition to Paul’s letters, the empty tomb is also attested in Mark’s early passion source.  It is widely held among scholars that Mark drew upon an earlier source in composing his passion narrative.[60] The primary reason for this belief is that Mark’s Gospel, which is held to be the earliest written (around 70 AD), consists of short anecdotal stories about Jesus strung like “pearls on a string” but when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we get a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread until the empty tomb.[61]  According to prominent scholar James Dunn: 

The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels.  This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them.[62] 

When it comes to the earliness of Mark’s passion source, scholars date it within 30 AD to 60 AD (though it is held by many that this source is to be dated no later than the 40s).[63] In addition to the earliness of this source, there are also strong indicators that it originated in Jerusalem due to its familiarity with its topography and its surrounding areas, the naming of individuals who were a part of the Jerusalem church, the semitisms (traces of Aramaic) and its knowledge of the Hebrew Bible.[64]

Although a reconstruction of Mark’s early passion source cannot be accomplished with certainty, it is highly likely that the account of the discovery of the empty tomb was a part of it.  There are a number of reasons behind this position. One, it is hard to believe that the early passion source would end with Jesus’ death and defeat with no mention of the empty tomb or resurrection.  As scholar Wilckens rightly noted the passion story would be incomplete without victory in the end.[65] Furthermore, the disciples proclaimed the resurrection shortly after Jesus’ death in 30 AD.  Whatever historical occurrences caused the early Christians to proclaim a risen Christ, be it the empty tomb, resurrection experiences, or both, must have been mentioned in the early passion source to at least some degree — because whatever they were, they were already “being told”.  Two, if the empty tomb narrative was included in the passion source, then there would be a correspondence between the primitive Christian creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Mark 15:37-16:7 — Jesus died, was buried, rose and appeared — all of these elements would be present in both accounts (including Jesus’ appearance, which is mentioned as a future event in Mark 16:7).  Given that the 1 Corinthians 15 creed is foundational, it would make great sense for the four-element formula of died, buried, rose and appeared to be present in the early passion source as well. Three, Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb is simple and unadorned. It is not colored by apologetical or theological developments that one would expect from a later legend.  As atheist scholar Rudolf Bultmann noted: 

Mark’s presentation is extremely reserved, in so far as the resurrection and the appearance of the risen Lord are not recounted.[66]

Nauck, another scholar, also observes that many theological motifs that might be expected are lacking in the story. According to Nauck, the only theological motif that is present in the narrative is “the crucified is risen”.[67] These suggest that the empty tomb narrative is not a later legend but an old tradition. For all of the above reasons, it is highly probable that the empty tomb narrative was a part of Mark’s early passion source.  It must also be noted that even if the passion source ended prior to the empty tomb, the discovery of the empty tomb would still be attested to by Mark.  

In addition to Mark, the empty tomb is also attested to in the other remaining gospels — Matthew, Luke and John.  Although Matthew and Luke are said to have used Mark as one of their sources in composing their gospels, their gospels also contain independent traditions that presuppose the empty tomb (Matt 27:62-66; 28:11-15 and Luke 24:13-15).[68]  John on the other hand, is generally held to be separate from the synoptic gospels (i.e.  Mark, Matthew and Luke), so his attestation to the empty tomb is independent. However, John also contains an independent tradition that presupposes the empty tomb (John 20:1-10; 11-18).  

Lastly, the empty tomb is also attested to in Acts in the form of recounted apostolic sermons. Jesus’ burial in a tomb is attested to in Acts 13:28-31 and its emptiness after the resurrection is also implied (“they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead…”). The empty tomb is also implied in Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37.[69]  

In the end, the empty tomb of Jesus strongly satisfies the criterion of multiple attestation. Historians see two independent attestations as good evidence for an event’s historicity. However, when it comes to the empty tomb, we have a surplus of independent attestations beyond this number.

2. Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea is highly probable

The second argument is that there is strong evidence that Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is historical. There are seven arguments supporting this event’s historicity.  

One, Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph is multiply attested.  The event is mentioned in all 4 gospels, that is at least attestation in two independent sources Mark (early passion source) and John.[70] In addition to the gospels, Jesus’ entombment is also attested to in Acts 13:28-31.

Two, if the burial story were invented, it would be odd for a Christian fabricator to invent a fictional character and give him a name (Joseph), a place of birth in Judea (Arimathea), and claim that he was a member of a high profile group like the Sanhedrin (which was the Jewish leadership). This oddity is further enhanced if the fabricator was Mark because providing names is not standard fare in his gospel — so providing Joseph’s name was something that could easily have been avoided.  However, Mark does provide a name.  This suggests that Joseph of Arimathea belongs to historical memory like other names in Mark (e.g.  John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew, James, John, Judas, James the brother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, Herod Antipas and Pilate). In the end, by providing a name and Judean place of birth to Joseph’s character, and placing him in the Jewish Sanhedrin, the hypothetical Christian fabricator makes his burial narrative much easier to falsify, and on the positive end, confirm.  When it comes to the idea of falsifying an invented burial narrative, this would especially be of interest to Jewish leaders and critics of Christianity, who had every motive to disprove any fabricated Christian claims and tarnish the reputation of the early Church. Knowing fully well what happened to Jesus some time ago as engineers of his execution, and as a major event in their past, they would have been fully equipped to shoot down a fabricated narrative. 

Three, it is highly unlikely that a Christian fabricator would invent a member of the Sanhedrin, portray him as doing a kindness to Jesus, and give him the honor of burying Jesus.  The early Church placed the blame on the Jewish leadership for maliciously engineering the death of their leader, and this can be seen in the passion narratives.  As a result, any Christian invention would likely not end up giving credit to the Sanhedrin. As noted by critical scholar Raymond Brown: 

That the burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable, since a Christian fictional creation from nothing of a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right is almost inexplicable, granted the hostility in early Christian writings toward the Jewish authorities responsible for the death of Jesus…While high probability is not certitude, there is nothing in the basic pre-Gospel account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph that could not be plausibly be deemed historical.[71]

Four, the naming of Joseph of Arimathea strongly suggests that Jesus’ burial place was well-known.  As scholar Catchpole comments:

It is extremely difficult to believe that the recollection of his (Joseph’s) name would persist in connection with something he had done, while at the same time the location where he had done it remained unknown.  It is easier to associate a known agent of burial with a known place of burial, and therefore to be open to the possibility that there was indeed a specific tomb available for visiting shortly after Jesus’ death.[72]

Five, Mark’s burial narrative is simple and unadorned.  It can be described as told “matter of factly”. As scholar Bornkamm comments: “The report of Jesus’ funeral is concise, unemotional and without any bias”.[73] This argues against the account being a later legend. 

Six, the burial account in the gospels accords well with archaeological and historical evidence regarding 1st century Jewish burial practices.  As noted by Jew and renowned archaeologist, Jodi Magness, who is particularly an expert on 1st century Jewish burial practices (Magness herself affirms the historicity of Jesus’ entombment by Joseph):

[T]he Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial accord well with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.  The source(s) of these accounts were familiar with the manner in which wealthy Jews [like Joseph of Arimathea] living in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus disposed of their dead.[74]

Seven, there are no competing burial traditions.  If the burial narrative in the gospels were a later legend, we should expect other accounts or attestations of how Jesus was actually buried.  However, all of our sources affirm that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

In the light of the strong evidence for Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, liberal scholar John A.T.  Robinson concludes that Jesus’ burial by Joseph is “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”[75]

3. Mark’s account is simple

The third argument is that as mentioned earlier, Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and lacks legendary development. Since legends are created out of nothing, they tend to be optimized for convenience and richly developed. This however, is not the case in Mark’s account. In it, the resurrection is not witnessed or described, there is no description of the risen Jesus, no reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, no use of Christological titles, etc. Some critics might stumble at the presence of an angel but as Craig notes, there is no reason to think that the tradition ever lacked an angel.[76] Furthermore, as Craig also notes, the angel may be chosen to be excised, to appease those with skeptical palettes, as a purely literary figure which provides the interpretation of an empty tomb.  Anyway, in order to appreciate how restrained Mark’s account is, one has only to read the Gospel of Peter, which describes Jesus’ triumphant exit from the tomb, supported by angels, followed by a talking cross, and witnessed by guards and the Jewish leadership.[77] Another forgery would be The Ascension of Isaiah 3:16, in which Jesus emerges out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel.  These are what real legends look like. The simplicity of Mark’s account is further evidence that the empty tomb account is not a later legend, but an old tradition.   

4. “On the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition

The fourth argument is that the phrase “on the first day of the week” reflects ancient tradition.  According to Mark, the empty tomb was discovered by women “on the first day of the week”. On the other hand, the primitive 1 Corinthians 15 tradition, dates Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day”.  As scholar E.L. Bode notes, if the empty tomb story were a late legend, it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the accepted and widely spread third-day motif.[78] The fact that Mark uses “on the first day of the week” indicates that this tradition is very old. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question  As Craig explains:

[A]lthough ‘the first day of the week’ is very awkward in the Greek (te mia ton sabbaton), employing a cardinal instead of an ordinal number and ‘Sabbath’ for ‘week’, the phrase when translated back into Aramaic is perfectly natural.[79]

This impressive semitism, linked to the day in the week of the discovery of the empty tomb, is evidence that the empty tomb tradition is not a late-developing legend but an old tradition that originated in a Palestinian setting. 

The semitism “on the first day of the week” also strengthens the position that the empty tomb is implied in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition when it says that Jesus rose “on the third day”.  This is because the third day after Jesus’ death, which took place on a Friday, was the “first day of the week” — Sunday. They are both referring to the same date. The Jewish day of worship and rest, called “the Sabbath”, took place on a Saturday.  So Sunday, being the first day after the Sabbath, was the “first day of the week”.

5. Only an empty tomb, together with post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief

The fifth argument is that the empty tomb, only in unison with the post-mortem appearances, could have produced resurrection belief. Jewish beliefs on the resurrection, despite the varying views on the matter, agreed on a single point — that the resurrection was a physical and bodily phenomenon.[80] Therefore, resurrection belief presupposes an empty tomb.  

Without confirmation that the tomb was empty, realistic sightings of Jesus would have been classified as hallucinations or visions, which, as scholar Wright notes, were well-known enough in the ancient world.[81] Visions, in fact, are mentioned in the Old and New Testament (see Dan 7:13-14, Acts 9:12, Rev 9:17, etc). Furthermore, if we are talking about interpreting an appearance of Jesus with no confirmation of an empty tomb as some sort of vindication of his personhood or identity, then this very likely would have been interpreted as spiritual assumption.  As critical scholar Dave Alison explains:

[P]erceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not, by themselves, have supplied such reason [belief in resurrection].  For there was more than one way for Jews to speak about postmortem vindication and to interpret the presence of one dead. Given the widespread dualism of the time, we would expect Jesus’ disciples to think in terms of the triumph of his soul or spirit and to imagine his resurrection, like that of everyone else dead and buried, as still belonging to the immediate future [The Jews believe that everyone would be raised by God on the last day. They call this event the “general resurrection”].

The ascent of a soul to heaven and its vindication were not the same as resurrection of the dead.  As already observed, the Testament of Job relates that its hero’s soul was taken to heaven immediately after his death, while his body was being prepared for burial (52:20-12).  The story of Moses’ end in Deut. Rab. 11:10 is similar, and in later church history we find that when people see the souls of saints, they speak of ascension, not resurrection.  The first Christians, to the contrary, did something else. They proclaimed that an individual had already been raised from the dead, that the general resurrection had begun (1 Cor 15:23).  Why? One good answer to the riddle is that they believed his tomb was empty. If there is another good answer, I have yet to stumble across it.[82]

On the other hand, if there were no post-mortem appearances and only an empty tomb, this would not produce resurrection belief either.  It would have been interpreted, of course, as evidence of grave robbing. However, with an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus, we have a strong and coherent reason for the emergence of resurrection belief in the earliest Christian community. 

However, as I will argue later in the section “Origin of the Christian Faith”, an empty tomb and post-mortem appearances would still not be sufficient to produce resurrection belief — if the post mortem appearances were hallucinations or visions.

6. The resurrection was proclaimed  in Jerusalem

The sixth argument is that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem — the very city where Jesus was executed and  buried. This could not have been possible unless Jesus’ tomb was empty. The Jewish leadership would have done everything in their power to produce Jesus’ body in order to squash early Christian proclamation in the resurrection.  As scholar Paul Althus notes, the resurrection “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned…In Jerusalem, one could not think of the grave as empty without being certain, without there being testimony, that it had been found empty”.[83] The fact that the resurrection was proclaimed and belief in it flourished in Jerusalem, is compelling evidence that the Jewish leadership was unable to produce Jesus’ body, because his tomb was empty. 

7. The discovery of the empty tomb by women is highly probable

The seventh argument is that it is highly likely that the discovery of the empty tomb by women is historical.  There are three reasons supporting this event’s historicity. 

One, if the empty tomb narrative were fabricated, it is much more probable that more prominent disciples of Jesus would have been chosen to make the discovery.  However, instead of Peter or any of the other Eleven discovering the empty tomb, we have Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and other women.  As scholar Allison comments:

That it should be these devoted but humble and relatively insignificant followers who are given the credit for the discovery in every gospel is historically impressive.[84]

Two, in Jewish culture, women were viewed in a lowly light and occupied a low rung on the social ladder. To illustrate this point, consider the following Jewish writings, which show that women were held in low esteem, so much so that (according to the latter two writings) their testimony was considered unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law (per the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Talmud, with the latter source even equating the testimony of a woman to a robber).

Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women. (Talmud, Sotah 19a)

The world cannot exist without males and without females — happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females. (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b)

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probably that they may not speak truth, either out of hope or gain, or fear of punishment. (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15)

Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid, also they are not valid to offer.  This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman. (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8) 

If the empty tomb were a Christian invention, it is extremely difficult to see why women were made the primary witnesses.  As scholar Wright notes, the idea of making women primary witnesses to the empty tomb is, “from the point of view of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a skeptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot”.  However, Wright continues “But to us as historians, this kind of thing is gold dust.  The early Christians would never, never have made this up”.[85] If the empty tomb narrative were created for apologetic purposes (i.e. proof of the resurrection), men would have been made the main witnesses, since their testimony was credible and would pose no unnecessary difficulties in evangelization efforts.  It must be noted that women were also viewed lowly in Roman culture (they were viewed so in the ancient world by and large). In fact, in the second century, the gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb was derided by pagan and fierce critic of Christianity, Celsus, who said that the testimony of the event came from a “half-frantic woman” (referring to Mary Magdalene, who as a witness, is portrayed most prominently among the contingent of women in the gospels).[86]  

Three, if the empty tomb narrative were invented, it is difficult to see why it would paint the female disciples in a favorable light in contrast to the male disciples — for the appearance of the women coincides with the absence of men. Why would a fabricator, as a member of the early Church, show women disciples being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb, carrying out an act of piety while the male disciples, for whatever reason, remained indoors (possibly lying low in fear of the Jews). Why would a fabricated narrative paint the male disciples, the leaders of the early Church, in a less than optimal light, and behind the superior behavior of the women even? The fact that women followers of Jesus, and not men, are recognized as being the first to visit Jesus’ tomb is another point in favor of this event’s historicity.  

8. Early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb

The eight argument is that early Jewish polemics presuppose the empty tomb.  Matthew records that the response of the Jewish leadership to the early Christian movement was that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matthew 28:13)This accusation is further attested to in two more sources.  The first of these sources is Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (ca.  155-170 AD). In this Christian apologetic against Judaism, Justin captures the Jewish perception of Christianity through Trypho:

You have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he was risen from the dead and ascended to heaven”.[87]

The second source is Tertullian’s De Spectaculis (ca.  197-202 AD), in which he also mentions the Jewish accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body:

 This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen…[88]

Interestingly, Tertullian also mentions another amusing theory circling around in Jewish circles during his time, that a gardener stole Jesus’ body in order to protect his plants from visitors:

…or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crows of visitants![89]

As amusing as the gardener theory is, a variant of it is also used in the 6th-11th century Jewish polemic, Toledot Yeshu, which aimed to defame Jesus.[90]  In the end, the fact that all early Jewish polemics presuppose an empty tomb provides significant support for the event’s historicity.

Conclusion on the empty tomb

All in all, the above 8 arguments come together to form a very potent case for the historicity of the empty tomb and it is for this reason that its historicity is granted by the majority of scholars. 

As noted by prominent scholar James Dunn:

As a matter of historical reconstruction, the weight of evidence points firmly to the conclusion that Jesus’ tomb was found empty and that its emptiness was a factor in the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus.[91]

Scholar Geza Vermes, a non-religious Jew, comments:

In the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike – and even the disciples themselves – are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.[92] 

Historian Paul Meier comments:

If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter.[93]

Atheist historian and classicist Michael Grant comments:

Even if the historian chooses to regard the youthful apparition [(i.e. the angel)] as extra-historical, he cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb.[94]

D.   The origin of the Christian faith

The emergence of belief in Jesus’ resurrection within the earliest Christian community must also be explained, since it differed radically from Jewish resurrection belief.[95] Although Christians may point to Jesus’ resurrection as an event in history as the origin of the disciples’ resurrection belief, critics must explain how belief in Jesus’ resurrection emerged among the disciples given their Jewish worldview. As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ resurrection differed from Jewish resurrection belief radically.  Explaining Jewish resurrection belief, Craig says:

In Jewish thought, the resurrection always occurred (1) at the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all people, not just an isolated individual.[96]

The Jews referred to this future resurrection event by God at the end of the world and to all people as the “general resurrection”.  Jesus’ resurrection, in contrast to this belief, occurred within history and to a single person. In this sense, Jesus’ resurrection was conceptually, a dramatic departure from Jewish belief.

When it comes to the first point, of Jewish belief in the resurrection as occurring at the end of the world, this is seen in the gospels themselves.  In John 11, Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus would rise again and Martha responds by saying “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).  Hearing Jesus’ words, Martha was thinking about the general resurrection.  In another instance, in Mark 9:9-10, after Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus foretells his own resurrection, but his words flew over the heads of his disciples who did not yet understand what he was saying: 

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”.

The disciples here were rightfully confused because the general resurrection was an event that would happen at the end of history.  Yet, Jesus was telling them not to tell anyone what they had just seen (e.g. his transfiguration) until he had risen from the dead.  The disciples were wondering how they could even tell anyone of their witness to Jesus’ transfiguration if they would be dead until the general resurrection.  The fact that they were thinking of the general resurrection in the light of Jesus’ statements is confirmed by their following question to Jesus: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” (Mark 9:11).   In Judaism, the prophet Elijah is said to have been bodily assumed into heaven, where he would remain until his return prior to Judgement Day.  The disciples could not grasp the idea of a resurrection occurring within history and prior to the end of the world — because such a concept simply did not exist in Judaism.  As noted by prominent scholar Joachim Jeremias: 

Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history.  Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus.  Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life.  In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to glory as an event of history.[97]

As for the second point, in Jewish thought, resurrection always referred to a future event that pertained to all people.  They had no conception of the resurrection of an isolated individual. As noted by another major scholar, Ulrich Wilckens:

For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as “First of those raised by God” (1 Cor.  15:20).[98]

In the above quote, Wilckens also observes that there was no connection between the individual believer’s future resurrection and the Messiah’s prior resurrection in ancient Judaism — because there existed no belief or expectation that the Messiah would rise from the dead.  This is why we find no similar cases to those of the disciples for Jesus. As noted by scholar Wright, the followers of Jewish messianic movements around the time of Jesus (which were armed movements against Rome) had followers who were strongly committed to the cause but in no case did we hear from any of these groups, following the execution of their leader, that he had been raised from the dead and that he really was the Messiah after all.[99] Wright invites us to suppose that the disciples were convinced, despite his execution and on other grounds, that Jesus was the Messiah: 

This would not have led the early disciples to say he had been raised from the dead.  A change in the meaning of “Messiah”, yes (since nobody in the first century supposed that the Messiah would die at the hands of pagans); but not an assertion of his resurrection.  No second-Temple Jewish texts speak of the Messiah being raised from the dead. Nobody would have thought of saying, “I believe that so-and-so really was the Messiah; therefore he must have been raised from the dead”.[100]

In the end, Jesus’ resurrection within the worldview of Judaism was a completely foreign concept.  As Canadian polymath Allister Mcgrath comments:

The sheer oddness of the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus in human history, at a definite time and place, is all too easily overlooked by modern critics, even though it was obvious at the time.  The unthinkable appeared to have happened, and for that very reason demanded careful attention. Far from merely fitting into the popular expectations of the pattern of resurrection, what happened to Jesus actually contradicted it.  The sheer novelty of the Christian position at the time has been obscured by two thousand years’ experience of the Christian understanding of the resurrection – yet at the time it was wild: unorthodox and radical.[101]

As a result, belief in Jesus’ resurrection begs the question — from where did this belief come from? Is a combination of an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus enough to produce resurrection belief?  As Craig compellingly argues, the answer is no.

The answer is no, since hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new.  Therefore, given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples, were they to project hallucinations of Jesus, would have seen Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the resurrection.  And such visions would not have caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At the most, it would have only led the disciples to say Jesus had been translated or [bodily] assumed into heaven, not raised from the dead. In the Old Testament, figures such as Enoch (Genesis 5:24;Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-18) were portrayed as not having died but as having been translated directly into heaven.[102]

The disciples, seeing an empty tomb and realistic hallucinations of Jesus, would have concluded that he had been bodily assumed into heaven, from where he appeared to them.  They would not have concluded that a resurrection occurred within history, prior to the end of the world, and to a single person — since such an idea was completely unheard of within their Jewish worldview. The fact that they did proclaim resurrection, however, is amazing. As noted by scholar Dunn:

For them to have understood that they were seeing the crucified Jesus as risen from the dead rather than as (simply!) translated or glorified was quite extraordinary.  That it led them to the conclusion that God had raised Jesus from the dead, that Jesus had been raised as the beginning of the end-time general resurrection of the dead, was exceptional and unprecedented. That is why I am [confident] that this first Christian interpretation deserves a very high respect, and that Christians, on its basis, need have no qualms about affirming their faith in Jesus as risen.[103]

In the end, it seems then that on this point, critics are left with an unsolved puzzle. 


To proceed to part 3 of this series, click here.


55. In his 2004 survey of scholarship on the empty tomb, Habermas records that roughly 75 percent of scholars favor one or more arguments for the empty tomb, while 25 percent favor one or more arguments against it (Habermas included scholars who appear to be leaning in either direction even with an absence of a direct statement for their own position).  Interestingly, Habermas also notes that the listings of scholars on this issue are divided along theological “party lines”. Commenting on this, scholar Licona notes: “This may indicate that scholars are allowing their horizons to exert excessive influence on their historical work — an observation that does not surprise us in our investigation of the resurrection of Jesus” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg.  462).

Although a significant number of scholars dissent against the empty tomb, Licona classifies it as a “second-order fact” due to the fair-moderate majority in favor of the empty tomb, as well as the small but noteworthy group of scholars who recognize the historicity of the empty tomb but argue for a natural explanation for it in their works.  

It is worth noting however, that recent scholarship has only pointed in the direction of the historicity of the empty tomb.

For scholars against the empty tomb, Hengels (1977) made the case that Jesus’ body was probably thrown in a mass grave, and eaten by dogs and wild animals. This view was further popularized by  John Dominic Crossan (1994), who made some intriguing statements such as “those who cared did not know where it was, and those who knew did not care”, when explaining what happened to Jesus’ body after the crucifixion. Bart Ehrman (2014) also stated that he changed his position when it comes to the empty tomb, following Hengels and Crossan. Unlike Hengels and Crossan however, Ehrman remains more agnostic on the issue. Nevertheless, he says that it is more probable than not that Jesus did not receive a proper burial.

The problem with the skeptical scholarly position on the matter is that Hegel’s work is dated, and neither Crossan or Ehrman are experts on 1st century Jewish burial practices or the crucifixtion. Ehrman, the most recent of the three, is also disappointing because he did not engage with any of the more recent scholarship in support of the empty tomb at all (to be clear, literally zero engagement).

On the contrary, scholarly works arguing for the historicity of the empty tomb (and that put forward new evidence) have only increased in recent times. See the works of Myllykoski (2002), McCane (2003), Evans (2005), Charlesworth (2007), Magness (2007, 2011) and Cook (2011). Among these scholars, Magness and Cook are especially noteworthy, since Magness is an expert on 1st century Jewish burial practices, and a Jew herself, while Cook is an expert on the crucifixion.

In addition to all of this, Gary Habermas, the leading scholar on the resurrection, will be releasing his multi-volume (5,500+ pages in total), magnum opus work on the resurrection in the near future (the writing is finished, it is currently in the editing process). Included in this future work of his will be a comprehensive treatment of the empty tomb.

A survey of recent scholarship on the subject shows that the momentum of is clearly and increasingly in favor of the historicity of empty tomb.

56. The reason why the empty tomb is not explicitly stated in the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is because it is a summary statement of the basic events of Jesus’ passion and resurrection.  This is why the specifics of the events (e.g. how Jesus died, how he was buried, what happened during the instances wherein he appeared after his death, etc) are not explained. Elaboration of the events would be carried out elsewhere (in preaching or in other writings that intend to give fuller accounts). 

As the esteemed scholar Dave Allison notes: “1 Cor 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller forms elsewhere” (Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  235).

Martin Hengel, another major scholar comments: “A Jew or Gentile God-fearer, hearing this formal, extremely abbreviated report for the first time, would have difficulty understanding it; at the least a number of questions would certainly occur to him, which Paul could only answer through the narration and explanation of events.  Without clarifying delineation, the whole thing would surely sound enigmatic to ancient ears, even absurd” (Begrabnis, pg. 127).

57. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  321
58. Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, pg.  225
59. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, New Century Bible, p.  273

60. Craig in a Youtube video entitled “Pre-Markan Source and the Resurrection of Jesus” says: “Most scholars today agree with this [that Mark had a source he used].  Any reconstruction of this source is controversial, and not widely accepted… That Mark was using and relied upon a pre-Markan passion story is one that is widely accepted by most scholars today, and because it goes back so early it is probably based upon eyewitness testimony”.

61. Craig, #103 Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb, par. 4. Retrieved from:

62. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg.  765-766.

63.  Bauckham notes that many scholars date the pre-Markan passion source very early, and at the latest, the 40s (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 243). 

It is also worth noting the views of scholar Pesch, who dates the early passion source within 7 years after the death of Jesus — for his reasons for doing so are interesting.  In the early passion source, the high priest Caiphas is not mentioned by name, he is simply referred to as “the high priest” (unlike Matthew and Luke). This happens in a passion narrative that is replete with names, while in Mark’s gospel, the naming of individuals is not standard fare.  Caiphas not being named implies, nearly necessitates even according to Pesch, that Caiaphas was still the high priest when the pre-Markan story was formulated, since back then, there would have been no need to mention his name as a result of familiarity. It would be like how someone could refer to “the President” today as a matter of familiarity since everyone would know who “the President” was.  Since Caiaphas was the high priest from 18-37 A.D., Mark’s early passion source must be dated within 7 years after the death of Jesus. Pesch also notes that this familiarity with Caiaphas in the early passion source is also found with Pontius Pilate — who is referred to as “Pilate” without his title of governor being stated (unlike Luke and Matthew). If Pesch is correct, then the value of this early passion source as historical evidence is extremely valuable, similar to that of the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition.

64. Scholar Rudolph Pesch, an expert on the gospel of Mark in particular, notes these reasons in his Das Markusevangelium for the early passion source originating in Jerusalem (Kok, “A Passion Narrative from the Jerusalem Church”, par. 1) .

65. Wilckens, Auferstehung, pg.  61: “The passion story could not have ended with the death and burial of Jesus without assurance of victory; the discovery of the empty tomb by the women was part of the passion story”.

66.  Bultmann, History, pg.  309

67. There is also more evidence from word usage and variances in the accounts that the empty tomb is multiply attested.

As Craig says when it comes to word usage: “In general, only 35 of Matthew’s 136 words in the empty tomb are found in Mark’s 138 words.  Similarly, only 16 of Luke’s 123 words are found in Mark’s account. Moreover, Matthew and Luke have only a dozen words in common, which shows the independence of their traditions” (Reasonable Faith, pg. 366). 

As scholar Stein says on the variances in the empty tomb accounts: “The very variation in the different narratives of the empty tomb, which are in one sense embarrassing, argues that these accounts stem from separate and independent traditions, all of which witness to the tomb’s being empty” (Was the Tomb Really Empty?).  

68.  Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  320

69. See Acts 2:29-32 and 13:36-37 below:

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.  But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne.  Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah [referring to Psalm 16:8-11], that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it (Acts 2:29-32).

“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed.  But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay (Acts 13:36-37).

Acts 2:29-32 says that Jesus’ body did not see decay and that “God has raised this Jesus  to life. The mention of Jesus’ body “not decaying” implies an empty tomb because the reason why Jesus’ body did not decay is because he was raised up — no longer being dead but alive, and leaving an empty tomb behind him.  There is also a possible parallel in the verses in question between King David being buried in a tomb and Jesus being buried in a tomb.

In Acts 13:36-37, King David is again related to Jesus.  In these verses, King David is mentioned to have been buried, and his body is said to have suffered decay.  However, in contrast to David, the verses state that the “one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay”.  Like the previous passage in Acts, the mention of Jesus’ body not decaying implies an empty tomb for the same reason, Jesus’ body did not decay because he rose from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind him. 

70. There is good evidence, however, of further independent attestation for Jesus’ burial by Joseph in Matthew and Luke. There are differences in the accounts that are not easily explained as editorial changes (e.g. Mark’s “tomb which had been hewn out of rock” vs. Matthew’s “tomb which he hewed in the rock”). There are also instances wherein Matthew and Luke agree in their wording against Mark (e.g. “This man went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” and “wrapped it in linen”).

71. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1240-41

72. Catchpole, Resurrection, 199. 

Reinforcing this point by Catchpole, other scholars put forward other reasons for why the location of Jesus’ tomb must have been known.  These reasons are (1) the Crucifixion was a public event and (2) Jesus was a religious sensation whose Crucifixion would have been watched by many, and whose death and resulting burial would have been the subject of street gossip.  As noted by prominent scholars Brown and Allison:

“It is inconceivable that they showed no concern about what happened to Jesus after his arrest…The crucifixion itself was public, and nothing suggests that the burial was secret. (Brown, The Death of the Messiah, pg.  14)

There is, finally, a general presumption that probably favors Mark’s tradition about Joseph of Arimathea.  Crucifixions were public events. Intended as deterrents, they were set up to call attention to themselves.  Surely it was not otherwise with Jesus: he was publicly displayed as crucified in order “to deter resistance or revolt.” When one adds that Jesus was surely some sort of religious sensation whose fate would have been of interest not just to sympathizers, that his torture would even have been of entertainment value to some, it is hard to imagine that there was no cloud of witnesses.  That the Gospels say there were passersby is no reason to think that there were not. It is instead quite likely that people, friendly, hostile, and indifferent, witnessed Jesus’ end and its immediate aftermath, and that his crucifixion and burial became immediately the stuff of street gossip, so that anyone who wanted to learn what happened could just have asked around. Crossan [an agnostic scholar] says that those who knew did not care and that those who cared did not know.  My guess is that most everyone knew whether they cared or not”.  (Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, 362)

73. Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, 168

74. Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg.  171

75.   Robinson, The Human Face of God, 1973
76.  Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg.  367 Bode, Easter, pg. 161
77.  Gospel of Peter 8:35-42  
78.   Bode, Easter, pg.  161
79. Craig, Reasonable Faith, pg.  366

80. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  324: “Within Judaism was a variety of eschatological beliefs and so no “norm”; but when Jews in the Holy Land spoke of resurrection, they were, from everything we know, thinking about corpses and bones, graves and ossuaries”.

81. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  686: “Sightings of an apparently alive Jesus, by themselves [without an empty tomb], would have been classified as visions or hallucinations, which were well known enough in the real world”. 

Wright, Surprised by Hope, 69: “If the disciples had simply seen, or thought they had seen, someone they took to be Jesus, that would not by itself have generated the stories we have.  Everyone in the ancient world took it for granted that people sometimes had strange experiences involving encounters with the dead, particularly the recently deceased. They knew at least as much as we do about such visions, about ghosts and dreams (elsewhere, Wright specifically states that “ancient literature is full of it”) — and the fact that such things often occurred within the context of bereavement or grief .  They had language for this, and it wasn’t “resurrection”.

82. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg.  325
83. Althaus, Die Wahrheit des kirchlichen Ostergaluens, pgs.  25-26
84. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, pg.  326

85. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  207.

The strength of this argument, however, cannot be understated.  Listing other prominent scholars on the issue:

Adela Yarbro Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel, pg.  127: “[On the empty tomb] The status of women in the ancient world was such that a story fabricated as proof or apology would not be based on the testimony of women”.

James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pg. 832-833: “Mary has the honour of reporting the empty tomb to the other disciples — apostola apostolorum.  Yet, as is well known, in Middle Eastern society of the time women were not regarded as reliable witnesses… Why then attribute such testimony to women — unless that was what was remembered as being the case? In contrast, can it be seriously argued that such a story would be contrived in the cities and/or village communities of first-century Palestine, a story which would have to stand up before public incredulity and prejudice?”

C.  F. D.  Moule, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, pg.  9: “…it is difficult to explain how a story that grew up late and took shape merely in accord with the supposed demands of apologetic came to be framed in terms almost exclusively of women witnesses, who, as such, were notoriously invalid witnesses according to Jewish principles of evidence.  The later and the more fictitious the story, the harder it is to explain why the apostles are not brought to the forefront as witnesses.”

86. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, pg.  327

Atheist scholar Bart Ehrman notes the impressiveness of Mary Magdalene being named in different independent sources: “As a historian, I am struck by a certain consistency among otherwise independent witnesses in placing Mary Magdalene both at the cross and at the tomb on the third day.  If this is not a historical datum but something that a Christian storyteller just made up and then passed along to others, how is it that this specific bit of information has found its way into accounts that otherwise did not make use of one another? Mary’s presence at the cross is found in Mark (and in Luke and Matthew, which used Mark) and also in John, which is independent of Mark.  More significant still, all of our early Gospels—not just John and Mark (with Matthew and Luke as well) but also the Gospel of Peter, which appears to be independent of all of them—indicate that it was Mary Magdalene who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb. How did all of these independent accounts happen to name exactly the same person in this role? It seems hard to believe that this just happened by a way of a fluke of storytelling.  It seems much more likely that, at least with the traditions involving the empty tomb, we are dealing with something actually rooted in history” (Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History & Legend).

The fact that Mary features prominently in the accounts indicates that she did stand out in an event in history (i.e. informing the disciples about what had happened at the tomb and witnessing the first post-mortem appearance of Jesus), and was, as a result, remembered and recognized for it by the early church.

87. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108
88. Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 108
89. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, chapter 30

90. “Diligent search was made and he [Jesus] was not found in the grave where he had been buried.  A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden” – Toledot Yeshu quoted by Butt, “The Case of The Empty Tomb”, par.  4. Retrieved from:

91. Dunn, Jesus, The Evidence, pg.  68
92. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, pg.  41

93. Independent, Press-Telegram, Long Beach, Calif., Saturday, April 21, 1973, p. A-10.

94.  Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pg.  176

95. The fullest and most sophisticated development of this point (the origin of the Christian faith) is N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. In this magisterial work, Wright argues for the historicity of the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb from the fact of the origin of the Christian faith alone. This understates the evidence for both the post-mortem appearances and the empty tomb but it does go to show how powerful this fourth point is.

96. Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, pg.  129

97. Jeremias, Die alteste Schicht der Oseruberlieferung, pg.  194
98. Wilckens, Auferstehung, Themen der Theologie 4, pg.  131

99. Wright, videotaped lecture presented at Asbury Theological Seminary,  November 1999.

It must be noted that these messianic movements were both perceived and claimed, though mostly the former. The only leader of these messianic movements who we can say definitively claimed to be the Messiah is Simon bar Kochba.

100. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.  25.
101.  McGrath, The Resurrection, par.  4. Retrieved from:
102. Craig, The Son Rises, pg. 132
103. Dunn, In Grateful Dialogue, pg.  321-322.

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