Doctrine of Christ (part 19)

February 12, 2012     Time: 00:20:12

Let’s go to our lesson, which is on the resurrection of Jesus. It is such a delight to be talking about this topic at this season of the year, as we approach Easter. Last time we looked at the evidence for the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.

Fact #2: The Empty Tomb

Today we want to come to the subject of the empty tomb of Jesus. That is my second fact that has been agreed to by the majority of New Testament scholars: On the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. When we come to the empty tomb story, we are immediately confronted with the difficulty that these accounts of the empty tomb in the various Gospels are not harmonious – they are inconsistent with each other. That has caused some persons to be worried about their historicity. For example, Bart Ehrman says that the accounts we have of Jesus’ resurrection – and he is thinking here primarily of the empty tomb narratives – are hopelessly contradictory in their details. He says it is an interesting exercise to make a list of the similarities and differences. He says the accounts don’t agree about who went to visit Jesus’ tomb on the third day, what they saw once they got there, what they were told when they arrived at the tomb, what they did as a result of being told to do something – all of these things are different in the Gospels in ways that are very difficult to reconcile. So you have the problem that the empty tomb narratives have various inconsistencies in the details.

However, what needs to be understood is, as Ehrman puts it, these are in the secondary details. These sorts of discrepancies are to be found among any collection of independent historical accounts of some event. The core of the narrative, however, is identical across the accounts, even if they differ in their secondary details. This is quite common in ancient history. For example, the ancient historians Livy and Polybius give two irreconcilable accounts of Hannibal’s crossing the Alps to attack Rome during the Punic Wars, but nobody doubts that Hannibal did mount such a campaign trying to use elephants to attack Rome during the war. So even though the accounts that we have are irreconcilable, the basic fact remains historically attested and acknowledged that, in fact, Hannibal did attempt to cross the Alps and bring an attack upon Rome.

When you look at the [Gospel] accounts, what you find is that we have very good grounds for affirming the historical reliability of their core. Ehrman himself admits this. Let me quote to you from Ehrman’s lectures with the Teaching Company. This is what he says,

. . . there are a couple of things that we can say for certain about Jesus after his death. We can say with relative certainty, for example, that he was buried. . . .

. . . the accounts are fairly unanimous in saying (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that that’s what happened.

We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. And so I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb.1

That is from Ehrman, one of the most sceptical of the New Testament critics about the historical Jesus!

Michael Grant is a historian who wrote a book called Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, and this is what he says,

True, the discovery of the empty tomb is differently described by the various Gospels. But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.2

That is a very strong statement by a secular historian that, despite the discrepancies in the secondary details, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was in fact found empty.3

Indeed, all four of the Gospels agree with the following set of facts:

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority during the Passover Feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and then slandered before the governor Pilate on charges of treason. He died within several hours and was buried Friday afternoon by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb, which was shut with a stone. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene – she is always named – having observed his interment, visited his tomb early on Sunday morning, only to find it empty. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples, including Peter – again, who is always named – who then became proclaimers of the message of his resurrection.

All four Gospels attest to those facts. You can add many, many more details if you will include facts attested in three out of the four Gospels.

So even though there are discrepancies between the empty tomb narratives, these are not significant enough to lead even sceptical scholars to think that the fact as I have stated it – namely, on the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers – is not historically well-attested. On the contrary, they think it is historically well-attested.

Let me go into the reasons that have led scholars to this conclusion. Remember, Michael Grant says when you assess these narratives by the standard criteria that historians use, then it is plausible and firm enough that this tomb had to have been empty. Let me mention some of the factors that lead to this conclusion. Five points:

1. The empty tomb story is also part of the old Passion source used by Mark. Remember last week we talked about the pre-Markan Passion Story that Mark used in writing his Gospel and how it goes back to the earliest days of the Jerusalem church. The Passion source that Mark used did not end with defeat and death. It did not end with the burial story – rather, it ended with the empty tomb story. It is after the empty tomb story that the Gospels then begin to diverge again in telling different appearances of Jesus that are appended to the empty tomb account. But grammatically speaking, we really have just one story – namely, the burial and empty tomb. These are grammatically and linguistically tied together and represent the close of the pre-Markan Passion source. So this empty tomb account is not some sort of late-accruing legend that came to pass decades after Jesus was dead and gone. No, this goes back to the very earliest sources in the Jerusalem church.

2. The old tradition that is quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-54 implies the fact of the empty tomb. Remember we said that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul is not writing freely in his own hand. He is quoting an old tradition that scholars date to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The second and third lines are “that Christ was buried and he was raised on the third day.” For any first century Jew to say of a dead man that he was buried and he was raised would imply that a vacant grave was left behind. A first century Jew could not have thought otherwise. The resurrection meant the physical raising up of the corpse.

Moreover, notice that peculiar expression “on the third day.” Since nobody actually saw Jesus get up and walk out of the tomb, so far as we know, why did the early church date the resurrection on the third day? Why not on the seventh day, God’s perfect number? Or the tenth day? Why the third day? I think that the answer is that it was on the third day after his crucifixion, according to Jewish reckoning, that the women found the tomb empty.5 So naturally the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day.

Moreover, the four-line tradition which is quoted by Paul here in 1 Corinthians 15, summarizes both the Passion Story on the one hand in the Gospels and the early apostolic preaching in the book of Acts on the other hand. Look at Acts 13:28-31 for an example. This represents the early apostolic preaching of the Gospel. In verse 28, it says, “Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed.” That is line 1: “Christ died for our sins.” Verse 29: “And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb.” That’s line 2: “and he was buried.” Verse 30: “But God raised him from the dead.” That is line 3 of Paul’s formula: “and he was raised on the third day.” Verse 31: “and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.” That is line 4 of Paul’s formula: “and he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.” So Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 15:11 this four-line formula as a summary of the apostolic preaching. Here we have independently in the book of Acts confirmation of that. This is like an outline of the apostolic preaching that Paul gives here.

When you turn over to the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels, what corresponds to these four lines that Paul gives here? Look at the Gospel of Mark, chapters 15 and 16. In chapter 15 from verses 33 to 41 you have the death of Jesus. That’s the first line. Then from verse 42 to the end of the chapter, verse 47, you have the burial in the tomb. That is the second line of the formula. Then chapter 16 verses 1 through 6 you have the story of the empty tomb. That’s the third line, “and he was raised.” Then the fourth line, “and he appeared” – that is foreshadowed in the words of the angel in verse 7, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” So the appearances, then, are foreshadowed. What corresponds to the third line of Paul’s formula, “and he was raised on the third day in accordance with scriptures,” is the story of the empty tomb. The verb “and he was raised” correlates to the words of the angel “he is risen” in the empty tomb account.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5Acts 13:28-31Mark 15:37-16:7
Christ died . . .Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed.And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
he was buried . . .they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tombAnd he [Joseph] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb.
he was raised . . .But God raised him from the dead . . .“He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.”
he appeared . . .. . . and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.“But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Again, we have significant, very early evidence for the empty tomb that is found in this pre-Pauline formula, which states that he was buried and he was raised on the third day. That correlates to both the apostolic preaching and the story of Jesus’ passion and resurrection in the Gospels.

3. Mark’s story of the discovery of the empty tomb is remarkably simple, and it lacks any signs of legendary embellishment. You don’t have in the Markan account the sort of theological and apologetical motifs that would characterize a later legendary account. It is lacking any sort of theological or apologetical reflection. The best way to appreciate this is to simply read the Markan account in contrast to the accounts of the resurrection found in the later apocryphal gospels. These were forgeries from the second century and later. For example, in the so-called Gospel of Peter, which is a forgery from the second half of the second century after Christ, the tomb is surrounded by a Roman guard – and it is explicitly identified as Roman! No doubt here now, this is a Roman guard according to the Gospel of Peter. Moreover, the guard is not set on Saturday; it is set on Friday – that ensures that no one could have had any hanky-panky going on Friday night before the tomb was guarded on Saturday as Matthew records.6 That apologetical gap has been closed now by the Gospel of Peter. The guard is set immediately, and it is a Roman guard. Moreover, the tomb is surrounded by all of the chief priests and the Pharisees, who are watching the tomb, and there is a huge crowd from the surrounding countryside who have all come to watch to tomb. So you have all the official witnesses there, not unqualified women. You have the Jewish leadership watching the tomb.

Now what happens? In the night, a voice rings out from heaven, and the stone over the door of the tomb rolls back by itself. Then two men descend from heaven and go into the tomb. And then a moment later three men come out of the tomb. The heads of the two men reach up to the clouds, but the head of the third man, who is apparently sitting on the shoulders of the other two – he is being supported by the other two, as they bring him out – his head overpasses the clouds! Then a cross comes out of the tomb, and a voice from heaven asks, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep?” and the cross answers, “Yea.” See, these are how real legends look! They are filled with all sorts of apologetical and theological motifs that are starkly absent from the Markan account, which is just remarkable in its simplicity. It is a bare-boned account that suggests this is not the product of legend.

4. The fact that women’s testimony was regarded as less reliable than men’s testimony in first century Jewish society counts in favor of the fact that it was women who discovered the empty tomb. The first century Jewish historian Josephus says that the testimony of women was regarded so lightly that it couldn’t even be admitted to a Jewish court of law. He says, do not admit the testimony of women because of the brashness and levity of their sex.7 In other words, females are brash airheads, and therefore do not admit their testimony into a court of law! Think of that. Any later legendary account of the empty tomb would surely have made male disciples, like Peter and John, discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, whose testimony was regarded as worthless, that are the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that, like it or not, they were the discoverers of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers recorded what, for them, was a rather awkward and embarrassing fact.

5.Finally, the earliest Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body shows that the body was in fact missing from the tomb. This is found in Matthew 28:15, where Matthew recounts the story of the guard at the tomb and how the Jewish leadership says to tell people, “his disciples came by night and stole him away while we slept.” Matthew says, “This story has been spread among Jews until this day.” What was the earliest Jewish response to the disciples’ proclamation, “he is risen from the dead?” Did they point to the corpse in the tomb in the hillside? Did they say, “These men are full of new wine!”? No, they said, “His disciples came and stole away his body.” Now think about that. “The disciples came and stole away his body.” The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection in Jerusalem was itself an attempt to explain why the body was missing! We have got evidence here for the historicity of the empty tomb that is absolutely top drawer because it comes, not from the Christians but from the enemies of the early Christian movement that Matthew was concerned to refute.

For these and many other reasons the majority of New Testament historians concur that, in fact, Jesus’ tomb was probably found empty on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion by a group of his women followers. According to Jacob Kremer, who was an Austrian specialist (he died this last year), “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.”89


1 Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].

2 Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977), p. 176.

3 5:21

4 “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

5 10:06

6 15:09

7 cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 8, Section 15, v. 219

8 Jacob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien – Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), pp. 49-50.

9 Total Running Time: 20:11 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)