Is The Evidence For Jesus's Empty Tomb Genuinely Historical? (Part 1)

October 8, 2018

 

Hello Ben,

 

I recently watched your video, "Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?", and I don't think the empty tomb is historical. Moreover, I think there's a good cumulative case for this claim. So here it is: 

 

First, as far as I know, the empty tomb narrative is unlikely in light of the current scholarship on ancient burial practices. There's abundant literary evidence that crucifixion victims were left on the cross to decompose (the claim that they'd be taken off the cross for religious reasons is unsubstantiated, as far as I know). There's evidence (both literary and archeological) that crucifixion victims were sometimes given decent burials, but that seems to be exceptional (and therefore unlikely).

 

Second, Paul, being the earliest source, shows no knowledge of the empty tomb narrative and neither does the pre-Pauline creed. I think this is a strong argument from silence because there are numerous occasions in the Pauline epistles where it would be advantageous for Paul to bring up the empty tomb as evidence for the bodily resurrection (as opposed to a spiritual resurrection). The fact that Paul never mentions it suggests he's not aware of it, which is very unlikely if the empty tomb is historical, given that Paul personally talked to the leaders of the Jerusalem church and this is something they'd surely tell him about.

 

Also, have you ever noticed that in the Gospels, nobody becomes convinced of the resurrection based on the tomb being empty? The characters in the story are convinced by the post-resurrection appearances and not by the empty tomb. This is emphasized the strongest in the Gospel of John where Mary assumes that the tomb is empty because the body was moved, which is an obvious conclusion a person would make in that situation. She believes the body was moved even after Peter and the beloved disciple find physical evidence inside the tomb and she still believes it even after Jesus appears to her (she thinks he's a gardener!). Only after Jesus reveals his identity to her does she finally become convinced that he was resurrected. I wouldn't be surprised if the point the Gospel authors were trying to make with the empty tomb narrative was to show their audience how evidence for a resurrection doesn't look. 

 

There is a number of pre-Christian stories where a missing body is claimed to be evidence of divine exaltation. It could be the case that the Gospel authors wanted to contrast the empty tomb narrative with these earlier stories and emphasize that what counts as evidence for the resurrection are the post-resurrection appearances and not merely a missing body and some linen cloths. We'll of course never know whether this is the case or not, but if it is, it's ironic that by insisting that the empty tomb is a piece of evidence pointing to the resurrection, contemporary Christian apologists do something which the Gospel authors specifically wanted Christians not to do. 

 

Sincerely, Kamil  

 

 

Kamil,

 

Thanks for your recent interaction. I wish to encourage you not only to think, but also to soul search deeply on these important matters. I see that the case you have presented here is similar to others I have encountered. So let me see if can offer some insights that might be helpful to you. 

 

Firstly, the notion that the body of Jesus had not been honorably interred has been criticized for failing to explain why a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (which had conspired to kill Christ), would be falsely inserted into the passion narrative in such a positive way by the early Church. As some scholars have noted, there was an understandable hostility between the earliest Christians and the ruling religious party of the day—a point which would have made it unlikely that Josephus of Arimathea was a mere Christian invention.  

 

Secondly, we do have an example of a fairly contemporaneous crucifixion victim, named “Yehohanan,” who had received a proper burial afterwards. Archaeologist, Vassilios Tzaferis, excavated the Jerusalem tomb and discovered a bone box containing the remains of the crucified victim in 1968. Hence, the objection that “most crucified criminals were never interred” is easily dispensed of with respect to an isolated individual if we have good historical evidence to the contrary. In the case of Jesus, that is precisely what we have. Thus we would need some historical counterclaim to argue against the gospel record in regard to this finer point. 

 

Thirdly, the case you have made here with respect to the silence of Paul on the empty tomb may also be easily explained by the fact that Paul was not an early eyewitness. Furthermore, it is hard to see how a deductive argument could be constructed which demonstrated logically and inescapably that Paul’s silence was proof of his ignorance. In any case, proving that the empty tomb was a fable does nothing to explain the very origin of the earliest Easter proclamation. That Jesus of Nazareth had arisen to life and immortality prior to and wholly set apart from the General Resurrection of the dead is genuinely, religiously novel, and hardly comports well with antecedent Judaism. Hence the question still remains, where did the idea come from? And why, in the name of the sanity, be willing to risk dying for it? 

 

Fourthly, why say that no one in the Gospels or the book of Acts converted solely on the basis of the empty tomb? That isn’t it all the case that I am making. Rather, the case I have presented here is cumulative in nature, and is comprised of four key facts, which most New Testament scholars, Christian and agnostic, have readily admitted to. Furthermore, your suggestion that the disciples sought to contrast the resurrection of Jesus with other similar ancient cultic stories drawn from early mythology might just as well have been lost on a Jewish audience. Given the presence of strict religious guidelines for ritual separateness, why make up a story about an empty tomb only to contrast it with pagan prototypes largely unknown to a Jewish audience? The theory seems contrived for the purpose of debunking the empty tomb. 

 

In closing then, I don’t see how attacking the historical reliability of the gospels in this way accomplishes much. As even atheist scholars have admitted, these are early accounts and are clearly in touch with what is generally believed to be the early Jesus tradition. And that is why most experts are persuaded that at the very least, the few facts I have mentioned in the video you viewed are true. It may be therefore taken as historically reliable that the tomb was indeed found empty by a group of Jesus’ women followers.

 

So I hope we can talk again soon! And God bless!

 

Ben Fischer <><

 

[read part 2 of this conversation]

 

 

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