“How can we verify that Jesus’ tomb was really found empty? There’s no archaeological evidence to support that hypothesis except for some ancient unreliable, contradictory documents that are just fill of myths invented by the church.”
Let’s go through this step by step.
No Archaeological Evidence.
Many events of ancient history come down to us solely in textual sources and therefore we don’t have the archaeological evidence to accompany it. However, historians using certain criteria can establish, with a high degree of historical probability, that an event did occur based on textual sources alone. Of course, to have archaeological backing would be great and thus go a long way. Sadly, we just don’t have that for the historical Jesus, and we just don’t have that for most of ancient figures of history.
Rather, what we do have are various textual sources from our New Testament that establish Jesus’ empty tomb. Now, we don’t just have one single document that attests to the empty tomb but rather we have several, as scholar Gary Habermas informs us: “…the 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” (1).
On top of those gospel sources we have further affirmation in Paul’s early creed (1 Cor. 15: 1-11), the early Pre-Markan Passion Narrative, and within early Christian preaching as recordd in the book of Acts. Now, historians are often happy to just have two ancient sources corroborating an event of history and sometimes a single document can also be historical. Exegete William Craig articulates, “Historians consider themselves to have hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event” (2).
So, we have at least five independent sources affirming Jesus’ empty tomb with three of those going back very early. This is why 75% of critical historians hold to the historicity of the empty tomb even though we do not have the archaeological evidence to support it (3). As scholar Jacob Kremer says, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” (4)
The Nature of the Textual Evidence.
Your next challenge is that these texts are “unreliable, contradictory documents that are just fill of myths invented by the church.”
Firstly, since we have early & independent sources attesting the empty tomb, such as our Pre-Markan Passion Narrative (dated to within 10 years of Jesus’ death), our early creed in 1 Corinthians 15 (dated within three to five years of Jesus’ death), and our early Christian preaching as recorded in Acts (that goes back to within a single year of Jesus’ death), we can dismiss the challenge that the empty tomb was invented by the early church. Our texts are just too early and in unanimous agreement which makes it far too unlikely that it was invented whole cloth.
Secondly, the contradictory accounts is not necessarily an argument against the empty tomb. Even if we grant that our accounts differ, have errors within them and so on, it could be taken as a support for the eyewitness testimony as opposed to being against it. In other words, that they differ supports the empty tomb’s historicity. This is because differing account suggest that there was no collusion on the part of the authors, and that they were not simply making stories up. Nonetheless, when dealing with historical documents, our New Testament included, our sources do have many noticeable differences, however, what needs to be explained is what they all agree on, and we find that they all agree to the empty tomb.
Lastly, arguments play a pivotal role when trying to make sense of history. Regarding the empty tomb several strong arguments support its historicity, and I’ve outlined eight of them. Weaker arguments are rightly relegated and the more powerful arguments take their place. So, not only do we have the empty tomb well attested in textual sources but we also have arguments in its favour. This is good reason to accept its historicity.
Could one still deny that Jesus’ tomb was found empty? Sure. One could deny anything if he so wishes. However, such a person is not intent on doing history but rather, it would seem, have some presupposition that he is forcing into his investigation. Experience in dealing with skeptics has well validated for me that if one does not want to believe something no amount of evidence will ever persuade them, no matter the quality of that evidence. This would go for skeptics of the empty tomb because if Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty then it’s a powerful foot in the right direction for demonstrating the resurrection as a true event of history. That would clearly be a far too high of a price to pay for many skeptics, thus simply shrugging at the evidence would be far easier. However, if we are to simply apply consistency in our dealing with history then it remains that “the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty” (5).
1. Habermas, G. 2005. Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels. Available.
2. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
3. Habermas, G. 2012. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available.
4. Kremer, J. 1977. Osterevangelien. p. 49-50.
5. Grant, M. 1977. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. p. 176.