Episode 29 - Evidence for the Empty Tomb
The idea that Jesus was buried, and then the tomb was found empty, is an incredible claim to make. In this episode we look at the historical pieces of evidence for this fact. If you're interested in the skeptical argument that Jesus was never buried, then check out the previous episode. This is our last episode on the evidences, and next time we'll piece it all together to form a coherent argument.
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Now that we’ve looked at the references to the empty tomb, and given a counter against the skeptic’s position that Jesus wasn’t buried, we will now look at further arguments in favor of the empty tomb. Our first argument that Jesus was buried, and His tomb was found empty, is that the events of His death and burial were quite public. The crucifixion, burial, and even the appearances of Jesus were all in Jerusalem, which was the largest city in Israel. Then, when the disciples start spreading the story of the resurrection, the first place they proclaim it is in Jerusalem. If the story of the empty tomb was a fabrication, invented by the disciples of Jesus, then proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection and the empty tomb in Jerusalem would have been the dumbest thing they could have done, because this was the location of the events. I love the way Gary Habermas puts it, where he says that a brief walk could have contradicted the empty tomb, if it wasn’t actually empty. If it wasn’t true, the people involved would have immediately contradicted their claims. These events were very public, so it would have been impossible to fabricate the story. This is one of the reasons the religious leaders never deny the core historical elements like the crucifixion and burial, because they were so public that they couldn’t possibly deny them, even if they wanted to.
Another reason to believe the empty tomb, as we’ve already shown earlier, is that there are multiple independent sources of this event, meaning, we have different authors, all with their own unique bits of information, showing they weren’t just copying each other. These accounts are also quite early, being only a few decades after the events at worst, and at best possibly within the year after the events, for example the earliest Christian creed found in 1 Corinthians 15, like we talked about last episode. Some skeptic’s try to claim that the accounts we have are embellished, but we see that Mark’s account is actually quite simple, without much detail, because his account was so early, and he was just trying to get the story out into the public. If we compare this to other writings that obviously were embellished, and came about quite a bit later, like the Gospel of Peter, which was a much later account, and never considered part of the New Testament, we see clear cases of embellishment, where a loud voice from heaven speaks, the stone rolls itself out of the way, angels come from heaven, and they’re so tall that their heads are in the clouds, and when heaven speaks, the cross comes out of the tomb, and speaks back. Now I don’t know why the writer of this book has the cross within the tomb, or why the cross itself actually speaks, but we can see a clear case of embellishment, where fact telling isn’t the goal. With the other Gospels, they’re quite a lot earlier, and don’t have these kinds of embellishments.
Within these accounts we read in Matthew 28:12-13 that the soldiers who were guarding the tomb went and told the religious leaders what had happened, so they would have been informed of the events basically immediately after they occurred. If this is the case, the authorities would have obviously confirmed that the tomb was in fact empty (after all, it would have been incredibly stupid to merely trust everyone that the tomb was empty). If the tomb wasn’t empty, then it would have been incredibly easy to destroy Christianity. All they would have to do is take the body of Jesus, and parade it around town; that alone would defeat all claims of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It seems the obvious answer here is, when the soldiers tell the leaders what had happened, and when the story starts circulating that Jesus’ tomb is empty, the religious leaders couldn’t possibly say the tomb was occupied, because there was no body to be found! Regardless of the different explanations of exactly how this happened, we can see that Jesus was buried, and later, the tomb was empty. If this wasn’t the case, then the religious leaders would have made the argument, either that Jesus wasn’t buried, or that the tomb wasn’t empty. The fact that the religious leaders nor anyone else made these arguments shows us that they weren’t viable options.
Another argument for the empty tomb is something that gets mentioned quite often by apologists, and which I mentioned back in episode 3, which is the idea of embarrassment. When we see something in a historical account that would have been embarrassing to the author or his goals, we have extra reason to find that part of the testimony trustworthy. After all, he almost certainly isn’t lying if he’s telling you something that works against his cause. In the story of the resurrection, something embarrassing found in all four Gospel accounts is the fact that the original witnesses of the empty tomb were women. A first century Jew would not consider the testimony of a woman to be worth anything; there was even a precedent to not respect the testimony of women, which we can find in writings like Josephus and others. The reason the sexism of the first century is important here is because of this: some skeptics will argue that the empty tomb is a fabricated story, however, if it were fabricated, the person telling the lie would not have women as the discoverers of the empty tomb. If the story were made-up, the liar would have had men be the original witnesses of the empty tomb. In fact, what would have made perfect sense would be for the writer to have himself be the original discoverer of the empty tomb, but that’s not what we find. Having women be the first witnesses would make no sense, if you’re inventing the story. This gives us extra reason to believe the story is true, because it seems the goal of the writers was to tell the truth of the situation, rather than fabricate or embellish the story.
We also have yet another argument from a previous episode of the podcast. In episode 4 we discussed the idea of enemy attestation. What this means is that, when an enemy of a person or movement says something good about that person or movement, then you can be pretty well guaranteed that it’s a reliable piece of history. In our current issue, what we find is that the religious leaders told everyone that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. In this claim, they accidentally admitted something crucial, which is that the tomb was found empty. After all, if the tomb wasn’t empty, then the disciples couldn’t have stolen the body, because it would still be in the tomb! Additionally, if the tomb wasn’t empty, then that would be the obvious go-to response, merely to show people that the tomb isn’t empty. The fact that these anti-Christian religious leaders argued against the resurrection by claiming the disciples stole the body means that they were admitting the tomb was actually empty. They knew this was a fact, and they didn’t even consider saying it wasn’t, because they knew they couldn’t get away with that. We find reference to this in Matthew 28:12-13, but I can understand if a skeptic doesn’t take this for granted, since it’s in the New Testament. However, we also find non biblical references to this claim in Justin Martyr’s work “Trypho” chapter 108, and also in Tertullian’s work “De Spectaculis” chapter 30.
Another reason to think the tomb was in fact empty is found in the surprising silence on the issue by other writers during the time that were vehemently anti-Christian. For example, Celsus wrote very scathing remarks against Christianity, around the year 170ad. He wrote against the virgin birth, that the Christian God seemed weak and vain, and that Jesus seemed like a coward. He also wrote about the problem of evil as it relates to Christianity, and he wrote that he believed Christianity was philosophically inferior to Greek philosophy, and that the Bible was unappealing compared to Greek religion. Celsus also wrote specifically against the resurrection. We can read his argument as quoted by Origen in his “Jesus and the Jewish Critic”. One argument in this work is found in book 2, verse 70, where Celsus argued that Jesus only appeared to His friends, and basically accuses Jesus of hiding, and that if Jesus had shown Himself openly, He would have gained more followers. He infers through this that the resurrection must not be true.
Another argument we see from Celsus comes from the same work, in book 1, verse 68. Here we read that Celsus argued against the resurrection and the other miracles of Jesus by saying that they were like the tricks of Egyptian sorcerers. It was like a magic trick, done to fool people. We can read additional comments from “Contra Celsum”, book 2, chapter 61, where Celsus seems to have believed that Jesus’ wounds really weren’t all that bad, and that He tricked everyone into thinking His wounds were worse than they really were, so that they would believe He had really died. We’ll go into that counter – called the swoon theory, meaning that Jesus didn’t really die – in a later episode of the podcast. We also see things like this in Porphyry, where he says similar things about Jesus’ miracles, explaining them away as a type of magic. We touched on this idea back in episode 23, where we discussed that the enemies of the faith referred to such things as “mischievous superstitions”. In Porphyry, we read that he wrote off the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ ministry, including the resurrection, because he knew that other people were capable of magic as well. The point I want to draw attention to in the arguments made by people like Celsus and Porphyry is this: They were writing in order to undermine the Christian faith, however, they never denied the core historical truths that we are talking about. They really wanted to convince people that Christianity was false, but they never denied things like the appearances of Jesus, or the empty tomb. If anything, they allude to the fact that they grant these things. For example, Celsus argued that only Jesus’ friends claimed to have seen Him, which obviously infers that Celsus is admitting that Jesus’ friends claimed to have seen the risen Christ. He also tried to argue that Jesus might not have actually died, which accidentally infers that he believed the empty tomb. After all, the thing he was trying to explain away was the fact that Jesus had appeared to His friends. Why bother even trying to argue Jesus didn’t die, if the tomb wasn’t empty? The fact that he says Jesus didn’t die naturally implies that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. Now why wouldn’t people like Celsus and Porphyry deny the historical facts? Because they knew they couldn’t! They knew the historical facts of the matter were true. There were too many witnesses, and too many written accounts. So, instead, they wrote in a way to try and explain the data in an anti-Christian way, because they knew they couldn’t deny the data itself. No one ever denied the empty tomb, not even the strongest opponents of the faith, because even though they were enemies of Christianity, they knew Jesus really was buried, and the tomb really was found empty.
Celsus, who was writing in order to destroy Christianity, wasn’t denying the historical elements that we are using in our argument. If anything, he admits those points! This is because he knew he couldn’t deny the core historical facts, so instead, he resorts to trying to create some alternative explanations to explain away the facts. His arguments end up being very ad hoc, meaning, while his explanations save his theory, there’s no reason to believe them. However, by making such arguments, he accidentally admitted the data that we’re trying to discover, so, he would be another case of enemy attestation, where we have additional reason to believe things like the empty tomb and the appearances of Christ, because even an enemy of the faith seems to have believed them.
While I’ve given quite a few arguments for the empty tomb so far, there’s a final argument that I think is one of the strongest. This last argument is based on the fact that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, so that he could prepare and bury Him. Joseph of Arimathea was part of the Sanhedrin, which was a very high-ranking group of religious officials, like a team of judges. They were the big-shot religious figures in Jerusalem, and they were the ones responsible for bringing about the execution of Jesus. While Joseph of Arimathea was on the Sanhedrin, the Gospels tell us that he was a follower of Jesus, and the Gospel of John adds that Joseph was a secret follower of Jesus, because he was afraid of the Jews. Luke 23:51 also tells us that Joseph did not agree with the Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Jesus, which makes sense, since he was secretly a Christian. In the Gospel accounts we learn that Joseph approached Pilate boldly, and asked for Jesus’ body.
This aligns with what we known about crucifixion victims not being buried, with the exception of special requests made to governors. Additionally, the Gospels tell us that Joseph buried Jesus in a new tomb of his, that hadn’t been used yet, which is why we believe Jesus was buried alone, and why the declaration of the empty tomb would have been meaningful, since there weren’t other corpses in there. Also, the fact that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in the tomb that was meant for himself confirms a prophecy from Isaiah 53:9 which says that the Messiah would die and be buried in a rich man’s tomb. This is because Joseph, being on the Sanhedrin, would have been wealthy. Now once again, I can completely understand how a skeptic might not appreciate this point; after all, the data we’re getting comes from the New Testament. However, the real punch to this point comes from the fact that Joseph of Arimathea was on the Sanhedrin. This point helps solidify the fact that we can trust this information. This is because the Sanhedrin was incredibly famous, and by virtue of that, Joseph would have been very well known in his area. If all these stories weren’t true, it would have been easily and immediately contradicted by anyone and everyone. For example, suppose Joseph was not actually on the Sanhedrin; everyone would have known it, since it was such a position of religious prominence. On the other hand, suppose Joseph wasn’t actually a follower of Jesus; Joseph would have immediately contradicted the claims, washing his hands of anything to do with the burial of Jesus. Or, for another attempt, suppose Joseph was a follower of Jesus, but he didn’t actually ask Pilate for the body to bury Jesus; again, this would have been immediately contradicted. People would have known Joseph, known his burial plans, known if he approached Pilate, known if he was granted the body, and known if he had “outed” himself as a Christian. The scandal of it all makes it completely impossible to have been untrue, because if it weren’t true, there would have been too many people, including Joseph himself, or at least his family, who would have contradicted the claims. The fact that the Gospel writers included Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus gives us a very strong reason to believe that this is actually what took place, and gives us additional reasons to believe Jesus was actually buried.
In the last episode I mentioned that there were a handful of different explanations of what happened to the body of Jesus. So, which ones are possible, and which one is the most likely? There are literally zero historical accounts that align with any of the explanations, except for the fact that Jesus was buried alone in a tomb. There are also multiple independent historical accounts that tell us explicitly that Jesus was buried alone in a tomb. If people claimed Jesus was buried and rose bodily, all they would have to do is check the tomb to disprove it, if Jesus hadn’t actually been raised, and the tomb wasn’t actually empty. If they hadn’t buried Jesus at all, that would have been the first thing that the many critics of Christianity would have claimed, but they couldn’t claim that, because everyone knew Jesus had been buried. They knew this because it was incredibly public, and you had a public official in Joseph or Arimathea being part of the burial. Even if this story sounds strange, we can confirm that the Romans allowed for crucifixion victims to be buried at times, and the fact that Jesus wasn’t a criminal, along with the fact that a member of the Sanhedrin asked for Jesus’ body, perfectly lines up with cases where the exception would be made. Additionally, the fact that the Jews were known for taking the crucifixion victims and burying them, in accordance with the law found in Deuteronomy, gives us additional reason to think Jesus would have still been buried. Again, we have many early accounts, from multiple independent sources, all saying the same thing. We have different sources all saying that even the enemies of Christianity admitted the tomb was empty. All of these points bring about the resounding conclusion that Jesus was in fact buried, and that His tomb was later found empty.
Now that we’ve gone through the main historical facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, next episode, we’re going to piece them all together to form a coherent argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After that, we’ll start evaluating the different counter arguments that scholars have given to try and explain the data in a naturalistic way.
But before we wrap up, 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 resurrection argument, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.