Jesus’ Empty Tomb:
According to scholar Gary Habermas: “An intriguing development in recent theological research is that a strong majority of contemporary critical scholars seems to support, at least to some extent, the view that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was subsequently discovered to be empty” (1).
Habermas is the mind behind the minimal facts (14), as we will touch on below. Habermas having combed through the historical evidence claims that there have been “more than 20 arguments that have been cited in favor of the empty tomb.” Here we will review several of the most powerful arguments in favour of the empty tomb.
1. Early Pauline Creed:
A creed handed down to Paul can be found in 1 Corinthians 1-11 that has been dated to within five years of Jesus’ death. According to atheist scholar Gerd Ludemann: “…the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus…not later than three years…the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E” (2).
In this creed the Apostle Paul, though doesn’t state the empty tomb directly, implies the empty tomb. According to philosopher and exegete William Lane Craig: “For in saying that Jesus died — was buried — was raised — appeared, one automatically implies that the empty grave has been left behind” (3).
This suggests that Jesus’ empty tomb was a very early belief and thus one that did not evolve over time as a legend. According to Habermas:
“That Paul does not specifically mention the empty tomb keeps this from being as strong a point as it could have been. Still, to say so clearly that Jesus’ dead body was buried, raised, and appeared would be a rather strange process unless the tomb had been vacated in the process.”
2. Location and surrounding events:
According to Habermas one of the most powerful arguments that favours Jesus’ empty tomb is the location and events surrounding it. Our gospels all agree that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was located in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place that most scholars agree was where early Christian preaching first took place, and thus subsequently lead to the birth of the church. However, any Christian preaching at this very early time would run into a bit of an issue if Jesus’ tomb was not empty. If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb then Christianity would have buckled before it could have even got going. The easiest way to disprove the early Christian message of a resurrected saviour would be to go to the tomb where Jesus was laid, and expose it. Jerusalem would have been the last place that Christianity would have taken off if Jesus was still in his grave. Paul Althaus comments that the resurrection proclamation “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” (16).
Therefore, the best historical explanation is that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty. Like Althaus, William Craig writes: “It would have been impossible for the resurrection faith to survive in face of a tomb containing the corpse of Jesus.”
3. Women discoverers:
The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, perhaps our most significant source for scholars to understand and make sense of 1st century Judaism, informs us that: “A woman, it [the law] says, is inferior to a man in all respects. So, let her obey, not that she may be abused, but that she may be ruled; for God has given power to the man.” Later Flavius would write: “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.”
According to Flavius women are clearly seen as inferior to men and their testimony is alleged to be worthless. With this little detail in mind then how significant is it that our all four gospels agree unanimously that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb. The women are the heroes in the story of discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, but then comes the question: why would male writers, within a clearly patriarchal society with a very low view on a woman’s worth, testify (unanimously) that women were the first to discover the tomb if they never were?
This would be totally counterproductive to their cause and the value of their testimony, and to do so would be to weaken their case considerably in the eyes of most listeners. The gospel authors were clearly convinced that women found the empty tomb first and then reported this to the male disciples. If this was simply made up any 1st century writer would have this the other way around. According to Habermas: “This argument is very widely recognized and few scholars have challenged it, which testifies to its strength.”
The women discoverers of the empty tomb also passes what is known as the criterion of embarrassment. Theologian Chris Price explains:
“In light of this cultural context, if you are going to create a story about an empty tomb you don’t make women the first eyewitnesses. This is a counterproductive detail included by the writer simply because he was committed to telling the truth. In addition to this point, in the stories surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus you have the leader of the disciples (Peter) denying Jesus and many of the other disciples running away discouraged and hiding fearfully behind closed doors when Jesus is killed. The leaders of the church look like cowards! You don’t include these embarrassing details about your leaders unless you are a movement really committed to authenticity and telling the truth.” (4)
4. Independent Attestation:
All our canonical gospels (Mark 16, Matthew 28, Luke 24, John 20) mention the empty tomb, Paul implies it in an early creed (1 Cor. 15:1-11), and it is further implied by Peter’s sermon in Acts. There are as many as three, four or five independent traditions within the gospels that certainly heighten the probability of the empty tomb. One tradition can be found within Mark, known as the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative. “The idea of a pre-Markan passion narrative continues to seem probable to a majority of scholars” (11). According to William Craig this source is likely dependent on eyewitness testimony:
“The burial account is part of Mark’s source material for the story of Jesus’ Passion. This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion.” (9). It likewise attests to the empty tomb: “Mark’s Passion source didn’t end with Jesus’ burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial account verbally and grammatically.”
Scholar Gerd Theissen provides a date for the passion narrative: “The date could also be pinpointed: parts of the Passion account would have to have been composed within the generation of the eyewitnesses and their contemporaries, that is, somewhere between 30 and 60 C.E” (10). This suggests that it is a very early source.
Secondly, we can note that the Gospel of John is widely independent of our synoptic gospels in recorded details, events, words etc, and as one scholar puts it: “Careful comparison of the texts of Mark and John indicate that neither of these Gospels is dependent on the other. Yet they have a number of incidents in common: For example, the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea” (12). Thus John immediately counts as an independent source for the empty tomb recorded John 20.
William Craig continues: “As for the other Gospels, that Matthew has an independent tradition of the empty tomb is evident not only from the non-Matthean vocabulary (e.g., the words translated “on the next day,” “the preparation day,” “deceiver,” “guard [of soldiers],” “to make secure,” “to seal”; the expression “on the third day” is also non-Matthean, for he everywhere else uses “after three days;” the expression “chief priests and Pharisees” never appears in Mark or Luke and is also unusual for Matthew), but also from Matt. 28.15: “this story has been spread among Jews till this day,” indicative of a tradition history of disputes with Jewish non-Christians. Luke and John have the non-Markan story of Peter and another disciple inspecting the tomb, which, given John’s independence of Luke, indicates a separate tradition behind the story. Moreover, we have already seen that John’s independence of Mark shows that he has a separate source for the empty tomb.”
Thirdly, we have Luke’s detail of a sermon by Peter (2:29-32; cf. 13.36-7) which represents early apostolic preaching. The empty tomb is implied in the contrast between David’s tomb and Jesus’: “David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day.” But “this Jesus God has raised up” (2:29-32; cf. 13.36-7). Finally, the third line of the tradition handed on by Paul summarizes, as I have said, the empty tomb story.”
Habermas writes: Jesus’ “empty tomb is reported in at least three, if not four, of these Gospel sources. This helps to understand why these items are taken so seriously by contemporary critical scholars” (8).
Finally, we have Pauls early creed (1 Corinthians 1-11) that implies the empty tomb (refer back to point 1). So, as an independently attested event of history we have at least five independent sources that mention the empty tomb: the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative, the Gospel of Matthew & John, the book of Acts and Paul’s early creed (1 Corinthians 1-11). This is why scholar Michael Grant concludes: ““…the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty” (13).
5. Early Sermon in Acts 13:
Aside from the multiple attestation mentioned above many scholars hold the view that Acts 13 contains an early tradition in the form of an early sermon. This is an early sermon that was included in a book written later. This report in Acts 13:29-31 & 36-37 is attributed to Paul and clearly teaches that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb. After some time Jesus’ body was resurrected and he then appeared to many followers. Here we have an early text where Paul even more strongly acknowledged the empty tomb (refer again to point 1 above) as a result of Jesus’ appearance and that his body did not experience any decay.
6. Enemy Attestation:
Evidence found in Matthew 28:11-15, by Justin Martyr and Tertullian, which accounts for two centuries or more, tells us that the Jewish leaders tried to explain that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole his body. This suggests that the Jewish authorities acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, according to Flowers:
“The Jewish polemic against the Christian message was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30). Matthew writes, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (28:15)” (5).
Similarly, Paul Maier, (6), articulates that the Jews anti-Christian polemic is “positive evidence from a hostile source. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine.” (6)
7. Theologically unadorned and non-apologetic:
The empty tomb narratives evidence a lack of later theological motifs that a late legend might be expected to contain. This suggests that the empty tomb account is early and factual. According to William Craig the empty tomb is credible as “it was not an apologetic device of early Christians,” rather “it was, as Wilckens nicely puts it, ‘a trophy of God’s victory’” (8). That the disciples never saw the empty tomb as proof supports that the narrative is substantially uncoloured by apologetic motifs and in its earliest form.
8. The vast majority of scholars accept the empty tomb as historical & the minimal facts method:
While this is not an additional historical argument for the empty tomb, it is an appeal to the power of the evidence presented above that has convinced the majority of critical scholars of the empty tomb’s historicity. As I touched on at the very beginning, Gary Habermas is the brain behind the minimal facts theory/method. Well, what is this method? Let’s hear that from Habermas himself:
“This method considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones” (14).
Another commentator aptly writes: “It should be noted this approach does not assume the inerrancy or divine inspiration of any New Testament document. Rather it merely holds these writings to be historical documents penned during the first century AD” (15).
Habermas has, over the last half century or so, sifted through thousands of academic articles written by scholars in the fields of New Testament studies, Jesus studies, and ancient history. Having tallied them he has found out that all these scholars agree on four basic facts regarding Jesus, Habermas tells us: “My bibliography is presently at about 3400 sources and counting, published originally in French, German, or English” (17). The list of facts varies from a dozen facts upwards or downwards, but we need note only four that are accepted by an overwhelming majority, namely:
1- Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion.
2- Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
3- Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
4- Jesus convinced many that he had been raised from the dead.
All of these facts command near universal acceptance with the exception of fact three which commands roughly between a 67 and 75% majority. However, the several arguments provided here are exactly why the empty tomb commands a sizable majority. Although it is unfortunately a lower majority than the other three facts (99% upwards), we can be confident that it is still a powerful majority nonetheless – as Jacob Kremer concludes for us:
“By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” (18)
1. Habermas, G. The Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available: http://www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbjesus.aspx?pageid=8589952861
2. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
3. Craig, W. The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus. Available.
4. Price, C. 2015. Resurrection: Making Sense of Historical Data. Available.
5. Flowers, D. 2013. The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Available.
6. Paul Maier quoted by Christopher Persaud in: CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH: 22 Methodical Arguments for Biblical Truth. p. 467.
7. Wilckens. Auferstehung. p. 64.
8. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
9. Craig. W. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
10. Theissen, G. 1992. The Gospels in Context. p. 189.
11. Exploring Biblical Greek. 30-60 AD – Pre-Markan Passion Narrative. Available.
12. Barnett, P. 1997. Jesus and the Logic of History. p. 104-5.
13. Grant, M. 1977. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. p. 176.
14. Habermas, G. & Licona, M. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 44.
15. Brake, A. 2010. The Minimal Facts of the Resurrection. Available.
16. Althaus, P. quoted by Dale Allison in: Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters. 2005. p. 317.
17. Habermas, G. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available.
18. Kremer, J. 1977. Osterevangelien. p. 49-50.