Episode 28 - Was Jesus Even Buried?
If Jesus's tomb was empty, then we need to explain where the body went. One way skeptics try to avoid this difficult question is by casting doubt on the idea of Jesus even being buried in the first place. In this episode we'll look at the arguments against Jesus' burial.
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Hello, and welcome once again to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
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If you’ve been listening to the podcast lately, you know we’ve been building up the case for the resurrection of Jesus by evaluating all the historical facts. This will be the last piece of data we’ll look at, but I’m breaking it up into two episodes, and then after that we’ll look at how all the bits of information fit together to form a coherent argument.
The past pieces of information we’ve gone through were interesting, because of the fact that basically every historian will admit those points we were looking at. This included the crucifixion of Jesus, the conversion of Saul from a persecutor of Christianity to one of its most dedicated adherents, the conversion of Jesus’ brother James, and the fact that Jesus’ disciples very strongly believed they had seen Jesus resurrected from the dead. Again, these facts are granted by basically everyone in the field, regardless of their religious views, and skepticism. This is because these points are so well attested by historical records.
For this episode and next, we’re going to look at a last fact, however, this one isn’t granted by nearly all historians. That said, it is admitted by about 70% of modern historians, which is still a pretty strong representation. The point we’re going to look at is the fact that Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
To begin, let’s look at the different references to the empty tomb. Firstly, we find explicit references to the empty tomb in all four Gospels. Now I’ve said this before, but the four Gospels do not necessarily constitute one source. The fact that we have different pieces of information showing up in each Gospel shows each has their unique contributions to add, which makes them four independent sources of the event. Each of these Gospels includes the fact that Jesus was buried, women went to the tomb, the stone was rolled away, and upon investigation it was discovered that Jesus’ body was not in the tomb, meaning, the tomb was found empty.
We have a couple of other references to the empty tomb in the New Testament, but they aren’t explicit, so they’re up for some debate. The first is found in Acts 2:29-32, where the disciples have just been filled with the Holy Spirit, and Peter goes out, newly empowered, in order to preach the resurrection of Jesus to the people. I think it’s a good idea for us to read this passage before we go into it.
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
There are a few important things going on in this passage. It’s not an accident that this passage in Acts refers to David’s tomb, because the last portion of this passage referring to Jesus’ resurrection is actually a quote from Psalm 16, which was written by David, and in which David gives a prophecy about the messiah. In Psalm 16 David is calling upon God, and rejoicing in how God provides, and then he writes in verse 10, “for you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption”. Sheol is basically the place the dead go, in Greek it would be hades, so in other words, David is saying that his soul won’t be dead, and that the holy one won’t see corruption. The term “holy one” is a messianic term, and never once refers to David. Because of this, David is actually giving a prophecy about the coming messiah. Now, we find in Acts 2, which we read before, Peter quotes this Psalm of David’s, says that this was a prophecy given to David, and says it refers to Jesus. He compares the fact that David died, was buried, and is still buried, and then contrasts this with the prophecy that Jesus’ fleshly body didn’t see corruption, and he finishes the point by saying this is the same Jesus that God raised up. So in other words, Peter was preaching a contrast, where David’s tomb is still there, and David is still buried in it, but Jesus was raised up, and His body didn’t see corruption. While it’s only inferred, the inference is so obvious that Peter clearly meant to convey it, and the audience would definitely have understood it this way: Jesus’ tomb is empty, in contrast to David’s tomb; Jesus was raised up bodily, and His flesh didn’t see corruption, because the tomb is empty. Some jump on this, saying that the empty tomb isn’t explicitly mentioned, but again, it’s impossible to get around the inference here. We also see a nearly identical point preached in a sermon by Paul, later on in Acts 13, where he uses the same argument structure, that Jesus was dead and buried, but that He was raised and His body didn’t see corruption. Again, this clearly infers the tomb would have been empty. It’s assumed in this context, and doesn’t need to be asserted, because the focus was on the bodily resurrection, which assumes the empty tomb.
The next passage that infers the empty tomb is a scripture that we’ve looked at a few times now, 1 Corinthians 15. Again, this passage is probably the earliest creed in Christianity, and here Paul is quoting it to the church in Corinth, to remind them of the Gospel. In this creed, it says that Jesus died, then in verse four, it says, “he was buried, he was raised”. Again, this verse doesn’t explicitly state that the tomb was empty, but it’s so strongly inferred that the author obviously meant to infer it, and the audience would have definitely understood the inference being made. Some skeptics try to say that the “raising” was just a spiritual concept, or a vision, and that Paul wasn’t referring to a bodily resurrection, or the idea of the empty tomb. There are a few problems with that. First of all, directly before this, it refers to the burial of Jesus. Why refer to the burial immediately before the raising, unless you’re implying the bodily resurrection? But there’s a worse problem for the skeptic here. The Jewish concept of resurrection has always been a bodily concept. The Jews had an understanding of spiritual experiences and visions, and they don’t use that kind of language for the resurrection. In Christianity, we only ever have reference to the resurrection being understood as being a bodily resurrection. Again, Christians had an understanding of spiritual experiences and visions, and even Paul talks about experiences and visions that he had had, and again, Christians in general, and Paul specifically, don’t use that kind of language in reference to the resurrection. The resurrection was always a bodily concept for Jews and the Early Church. If a skeptic wants to try and say that 1 Corinthians 15 only refers to a spiritual resurrection, then some kind of argument needs to be made, and there isn’t a good argument. Realistically, it’s ad hoc reasoning, which means that the skeptic invents this idea of a spiritual resurrection, with no real reason for it, simply because spiritualizing the resurrection saves them from having to explain some difficult pieces of historical data. If we just read 1 Corinthians 15 in the way Paul would have meant it, and in the way the audience would have received it, then it’s very clearly inferring the empty tomb when it says that Jesus was buried, and He was raised.
So in total, we have at least six independent sources either explicitly stating the empty tomb, or overtly inferring it. In historical circles, even having two independent sources is considered more than enough reason to trust an account, but even in this case, where we have six, skeptics will still try to say that the empty tomb isn’t mentioned enough. I can somewhat understand this point, because you do find many other cases where the writer will mention the death and resurrection of Jesus, but not explicitly mention the fact that the tomb was empty. From a skeptical point of view, the person can see this omission as evidence that the tomb wasn’t empty. However, it makes perfect sense that the empty tomb wouldn’t be explicitly mentioned more often, after all, the entire focus here is on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Why bother saying the tomb was empty? After all, it would be redundant. Imagine for a moment a case where a person is dying of cancer, and a surgeon goes in to remove it. After the surgery, the doctor comes out and tells the family that the surgery went perfectly, and their loved one is now the perfect picture of health. Now imagine for a moment that one of the family members then asks, “yes that’s all well and good, but did you remove the cancer?” That’s inferred by the surgeon’s statement! It would be redundant to say, “I conducted a surgery to remove the cancer, it was successful, and by the way I removed the cancer.” In the same way, the empty tomb doesn’t really need to be stated explicitly when the people were talking about Jesus being dead and buried, and then being bodily resurrected. In other words, the empty tomb is easily inferred every time anyone in the Early Church preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now that we’ve looked at the different references to the empty tomb, let’s begin looking at the skeptic’s argument against the empty tomb. Now when I say we’re looking at the reasons skeptics disbelieve the empty tomb, there’s a clarification that I need to make; it’s not that skeptics believe the tomb was still occupied, instead, it’s that they think Jesus was never buried in the first place. Now really, it makes quite a bit of sense for the skeptic to argue this way, after all, if they argue against the empty tomb saying that it was still occupied, then the obvious problem is that the Jewish and Roman authorities would have checked the tomb, found the body of Jesus, and paraded it through the streets. This would have absolutely destroyed all the claims the Christians were making. By arguing against the empty tomb by saying Jesus was never buried in the first place, they avoid this problem. There are a few ways that skeptics try and argue that Jesus was never buried.
The first complaint they make is that the evidence for the empty tomb is all very late. If the information is late, then it’s possible that the story developed over time, and the reason the earliest testimonies don’t include the empty tomb is because it wasn’t part of the original story. There are two problems with this; first of all, as I mentioned earlier, we have the creed from 1 Corinthians 15 which infers the tomb was empty. This book was written in about 54ad, which is only a little over two decades after the events within the story, so it’s very early. However, the creed being quoted in 1 Corinthians 15 goes back far closer to the events. Some will say it dates a couple of years after the events, and others will say only a few months. Additionally, even though the book of Acts may have been written decades later, even skeptical scholars like Bart Ehrman will admit that the sermons that are found in Acts likely date back to the 30s ad, which is what’s claimed in the book. In other words, no, the evidence does not come from late sources. Also, even if you don’t grant the data that only infers the empty tomb, you still have the Gospel of Mark explicitly stating the empty tomb. The latest scholars date the Gospel of Mark is still only a few decades after the events, so it’s still very early, and to try and treat that as though it’s late is a bit ridiculous.
The real complaint skeptics make against the empty tomb is a bit of a better argument though. The main argument made against the empty tomb is that criminals executed by Romans were not buried. If the Romans killed a criminal, they would either toss the body in a common grave, meaning it would be dumped in with a bunch of other corpses, or they would simply leave the corpse out in the open, where the corpse would be eaten by birds or dogs. It was actually part of the punishment for a criminal that they wouldn’t receive a proper burial, as a way of adding insult to injury. The humiliation of a lack of burial was part of the punishment. I was reading an article this past week by a skeptic where they said there were a few different possibilities of what happened to the body of Jesus, and the goal is then to see which is the most likely explanation. The list given included these possibilities of what became of the body of Jesus after His crucifixion:
1. It was not buried, but instead was eaten by birds and dogs.
2. It was buried in a common grave.
3. It was buried in a tomb with other corpses.
4. Or, it was buried in a tomb alone.
When looking at these possibilities, and only looking at what normally occurred, I can definitely see why a skeptic would disagree with the entire premise behind the empty tomb. After all, if Jesus wasn’t buried at all, there’s no tomb to find empty. If Jesus was tossed in with a bunch of other bodies, without any names or identification given, it would be ridiculous to look into the pit and say that Jesus’ body has been removed; there would be no way to tell. Because Romans didn’t allow the burial of criminals, it would have been odd for Jesus to have been buried in a tomb at all, but if He was buried with other corpses, then the tomb wouldn’t be “empty”, and instead, the Christians would have to argue that Jesus isn’t one of the corpses still in the tomb. The only possibility for the empty tomb story to be true, is if Jesus was buried alone, which goes against the way things normally took place. A criminal who has been crucified wouldn’t have been buried at all, nonetheless in a freshly made and unused tomb. So again, I can understand why some would be skeptical about the empty tomb, given that Jesus’ burial in an unused tomb is very much against the normal way things would have been done during that time. However, this is only problematic if you “only” look at the options, without considering all the rest of the data.
To begin a counter argument to this idea that Jesus wouldn’t have been buried, we need to look at why Jesus was crucified. The crime Jesus was condemned for was the political crime of being “king of the Jews”, as opposed to a criminal charge. Regular criminals weren’t allowed to be buried in tombs, but Jesus wasn’t condemned like a regular criminal. We find the trial of Jesus with Pontius Pilate in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18 and 19. In these accounts, we read that Jesus is accused of many things that aren’t mentioned, and Pilate can see right through it, that the religious leaders are just jealous of Jesus. Pilate continues evaluating the situation, and we read in all four accounts that Pilate says he cannot find any guilt in Jesus, and that Jesus hasn’t done anything evil, or deserving of death. In the Gospel of Luke, which typically includes a bit more detail in these sorts of things, because Luke was quite literally researching the matter, we also read that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, and that Herod also found no guilt in Jesus. When Jesus is finally condemned, He is condemned for being the king of the Jews, which isn’t a criminal charge. He is only condemned because the mob was demanding for it, and not because Jesus was guilty. This isn’t really a criminal being condemned for his crimes, so much as it’s the authority figure turning his face away, to allow the mob to do what they want. In other words, Jesus was not found guilty like a criminal, and even the charge brought against Him wouldn’t make Him a criminal. When looking at the skeptic’s argument that criminals wouldn’t be buried, we can rightly say, yes, criminals wouldn’t be buried, and Jesus was not found to be a criminal, so it doesn’t apply to Him.
Now, with that counter argument in mind, a skeptic might be reluctant to accept it, because it’s based off of biblical data. After all, skeptics typically don’t just grant what the Bible says, so they could still very easily dismiss the evidence that Jesus wasn’t a criminal. However, there are still points to consider that make it still seem entirely possible that Jesus could be buried in an unused tomb. For example, the Jewish law commanded burial of people hung on a tree. We read this in Deuteronomy 21:22-23, where it says, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” In other words, Jesus was put to death, and hung on a tree, so his body should not remain all night on the tree, but instead, according to Jewish law, Jesus should be buried on the same day. The reasoning given was that someone hanged on a tree is cursed by God, and to allow the person to remain unburied would defile the land. Now I realize that a skeptic will consider this to be nonsense, and again, its biblical material, so why bother considering it? The point isn’t to try and convince the skeptic of the reality of this curse, instead, the point is to understand that this is how the Jews would have looked at this situation. This law was part of the foundation of Israel’s legal and religious system, called the Torah, and the Jews appreciated their laws, and didn’t want to bring this curse upon their land, so they had strong motivation to bury Jesus before the day was over. To confirm this part of the story, we even read this in John 19:31, where it says, “Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.” Here we read John explicitly referring to the law of the Jews, saying that the Jews actually asked for Pilate to hurry up the execution so that they could remove the body from the cross, in accordance with their law. If we follow the line of reasoning, based on what the law being referenced here actually says, they would have buried Him.
There’s still a final problem with the skeptic’s idea that Jesus wouldn’t have been buried. We do find historical precedents for the Romans allowing an exception to this rule that criminals wouldn’t be buried. For example, we find a very interesting passage in Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, in his work “Jewish War”, 4.317. Here we find Josephus commenting on the fact that the Romans were dishonorable, casting the bodies of crucifixion victims away without burial. However, he then mentions that the Jews would take the crucifixion victims, and bury them before sundown. Why would they do this? The obvious answer is what we just read in Deuteronomy; it was quite literally a part of the Jewish law that they should bury crucifixion victims!
We also find exceptions being made to allow burial of crucifixion victims if it was a Roman holiday, or if a friend of a Roman governor asks to bury the victim. In the story of Jesus, we find that it was a Jewish holiday, and that Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate directly if he can have Jesus’ body, so that he can bury it, and Pilate gives him permission. So, we find that the biblical situation lines up quite perfectly with Jewish laws and traditions, and with Roman exceptions, to make it not only possible, but incredibly probable that Jesus would in fact be buried.
While there’s good reason to think Jesus would have actually been buried, some skeptics try to attack the empty tomb argument in a different manner. Some will say that, since the Christians didn’t start proclaiming the resurrection until 50 days after the crucifixion of Jesus, on the day of Pentecost, that the body of Jesus would have become unrecognizable during that time. In this case, even if the tomb was occupied, when the disciples were shown the corpse in the tomb, they would have merely said, “nope, that’s not Jesus. Jesus has been raised.” However, there’s a few glaring issues with this. First of all, there was an armed guard at the tomb. If Jesus’ body was still in there, rotting to the point of being indistinguishable from someone else, and people were claiming that they had visited the tomb while the guards were there, and that the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was found empty, the guards would have been the first to speak up. You can imagine the conversation taking place, where the guard says, “I was there the entire time, the stone never moved, and still hasn’t moved. No one went inside, and I’ve never seen you before. In fact, let’s roll the stone away now, and I’ll show you the corpse.” This is not what we find in any historical account. Additionally, how and why was the stone rolled away, if Jesus’ body hadn’t been taken out? Was the stone still where it had always been? How then could anyone claim the stone had been rolled away? Also, given the arid climate in Jerusalem, professionals have noted that the body would actually have still been recognizable, even given the time period of 50 days. However, even if we grant that the body wasn’t recognizable, you would still be able to tell that it was a crucifixion victim, and you would still be able to note that this is Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. If they roll the stone away of the very tomb Jesus was supposed to be in, and they found a body with crucifixion marks on it, this would absolutely destroy the case for the empty tomb, and the resurrection of Jesus. Even if for whatever reason you couldn’t tell the body had been crucified, merely the fact that there was a body in the tomb would defeat the argument that the tomb was empty! Even if you had die hard fans of Jesus willing to still believe, this would have been used as the main argument against the movement, and it would have been devastating.
After looking at the skeptic’s argument against the empty tomb, we can see that it just doesn’t work that well. We have multiple independent accounts, going back very early, all saying the same thing; that Jesus was buried, and the tomb was found empty. The main, if not only argument against the empty tomb is the fact that criminals executed by crucifixion wouldn’t be buried, and again, we find very large problems with this. Firstly, Jesus wasn’t a criminal, so the situation doesn’t apply to Him to be denied burial. Second, the Jewish laws demanded that someone in Jesus’ case should be buried, and thirdly, we find that the Jews had a history of doing exactly that, where they would go out and bury the crucifixion victims. Fourthly, we find cases where the Romans did make exceptions on this rule, which included things we find in the Gospels that perfectly line up with this fact. It was a holiday, and Pontius Pilate was asked by Joseph of Arimathea, a religious official, for permission to bury Jesus. All these things considered, not only do we have reason to think it’s possible, but we have reasons to think it’s highly probable that Jesus was in fact buried. All that said, and we haven’t even begun to look at the arguments in favour of the empty tomb. So, you can look forward to that next time on the podcast, since the next episode will be the arguments in favour of the empty tomb.
Before we finish this episode, if you’re interested in talking to someone about these things, or just have spiritual questions in general, or even just want to have someone to talk to about life, Power to Change has a great mentoring program available for free online. There are hundreds of people plugged into this mentoring program, from all over the world. If you’d like to get in touch with someone to try it out, I have a page on my website to fill out a form for someone to contact you. The address of this form is jontopping.com/mentoring, and remember that Jon is spelt without an “H”. Hopefully that can be encouraging and helpful for you, and I hope that you’ll join me next time, for the arguments in favour of the empty tomb, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.