Doctrine of Christ (Part 30)October 05, 2017
Discovery of the Empty Tomb
We've been studying the Gospel narratives of the fate of Jesus of Nazareth following his crucifixion. Last time we reviewed the burial account of Jesus, and we saw that one of the principal features of this account is the interment of Jesus in the tomb by this enigmatic figure Joseph of Arimathea who was a Sanhedrist, a member of the council, all of whom, Mark says, condemned Jesus to death.
Student: Joseph of Arimathea, according to, I think, some of the accounts he was a secret disciple of Jesus and he dissented from the decision to deliver Jesus to be executed. Was Nicodemus also a member of the Sanhedrin? I think he was. So there must have been some dissent.
Dr. Craig: I don't think it says that Nicodemus was a Sanhedrist. He was a Pharisee, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was a Sanhedrist as Joseph was. You are right. The later Gospels, as I mentioned, make Joseph's discipleship explicit. They say he was a secret disciple. I think it is Luke who says that he did not participate in the condemnation of Jesus. Many scholars would see these as later Christian attempts to whitewash Joseph of Arimathea, to Christianize him so to speak, to baptize him, and make him a secret Christian, whereas in the earliest narrative in Mark he appears simply as a delegate of the Sanhedrin assigned to dispose of the corpse. But that was why I argued at some length last week that there are already indications in Mark's Gospel that Joseph is not simply an impartial disinterested delegate of the Sanhedrin assigned to get rid of these corpses in a proper way. He singles out Jesus of Nazareth for special care. He gives him a very proper burial in a tomb. He dares to go to Pilate even though he had no connection to Jesus on a personal level. And also Mark says he is looking for the Kingdom of God, which are the terms in which Mark describes the Gospel preached by Jesus in Mark 1. So I think that while these later Gospels make explicit Joseph's sympathies with Jesus, they are already there really in Mark's account and therefore we can't say that these are just later inventions.
Student: I guess it is John 19 where it says Nicodemus brought the spices to anoint the body as if he was working with Joseph.
Dr. Craig: Yes. And Nicodemus is another one of these very peculiar figures who only appears in John 3 when he visits Jesus by night, and you have the famous discussion about spiritual rebirth. Then all of a sudden he pops up here again at the burial to help Joseph of Arimathea and brings this king's ransom in spices to bury Jesus indicating, again, this enormous respect and worth that he would see in Jesus that he would give so extravagant a burial. But this is not mentioned anywhere else in the Gospel accounts. This is only in John.
Student: I had a question about the actual burial. I understand the resurrection you've got a whole lot of evidence for it. But from a skeptic’s standpoint though, you first off do have the body being turned over to somewhat of a mystery man. But secondly they didn't post a guard at the tomb until the following day – Saturday. So there was no guard that night. Another thing. I don't know if this is relevant or not, but Nicodemus, if he would have been a Pharisee, why would he have been handling a dead body on the Sabbath – right at sundown on Friday? Can you explain those?
Dr. Craig: OK, there are a number of questions there. First, I want to emphasize that in our discussion we are not attempting to assess the historical credibility of these stories. We'll do that later on. This is just a survey – a review – of what the Bible says about the resurrection of Jesus. So we are simply trying to unfold or exposit, as it were, these narratives about the fate of Jesus of Nazareth without making any assessment as to their historical credibility.
But your point is so interesting. In Matthew, the guard is sort of an afterthought. It isn't there until Saturday morning. It wasn't posted Friday night. So if this were just an apologetic legend that had been invented by Matthew, why does he have the guard posted on Saturday? The body might have already been stolen, the tomb resealed, and it doesn't say that they looked inside to see if there were any corpse in it. It could have been empty when the guard was set. By contrast, if you look at the so-called Gospel of Peter which is an apocryphal gospel from the second half of the second century after Christ, here the Roman guard (it is explicitly identified as Roman) is set on Friday. This is a failsafe apologetic. The guard is already there on Friday and the tomb is surrounded by not only the guard but a big crowd of Pharisees and people from the surrounding countryside. That is the way an apologetic legend looks. But the very fact, as you say, that Matthew's guard story isn't airtight, I think, lends more credibility to Matthew's account because that is not the way a later apologetic legend would portray it.
As for Nicodemus – I am going to make this comment actually in the lesson today – we shouldn't think that Joseph himself climbed up the ladder and pulled the nails out of the hands or wrists of Jesus and took the body down from the cross. A rich man like Joseph or Nicodemus would doubtless have servants to assist them in the process. So it may be that Nicodemus and Joseph didn't actually handle the corpse themselves so that they could be clean and eat the Passover. They may have had servants do this. We just don't know. Or it could have been that their overwhelming respect and admiration for Jesus simply overwhelmed their scruples about cleanliness. We don't know.
Student: Matthew 27:60 says that this was Joseph of Arimathea's own tomb.
Dr. Craig: Yes.
Student: So that argues that maybe this was a little more than just a duty that he was fulfilling.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and everybody admits that in the later Gospels – like Matthew and Luke – there Joseph is portrayed as a secret Christian. He lays the body in his own tomb which is new and unused. As I say, many critical scholars will say these are later legendary attempts to whitewash Joseph of Arimathea, make him look like a Christian, he gives his own personal tomb, and so forth. That would fit in with what they are saying. What you would need to do if you are defending a historicity of these narratives is to show that already in the earliest account there would be reason to think that these details are accurate and not later inventions. So, for example, Joseph could not just lay this condemned criminal's body in any tomb that he happened to find in the area because it would defile anybody else that was in the tomb. So it is highly likely that it was his own personal tomb because it would only be if it was his personal tomb that he would have the ability to lay the corpse of this condemned criminal in the tomb. For the same reason, it also makes the detail very likely that it was a new tomb that had never been used because then none of Joseph's other family members would be defiled by laying the body of this condemned criminal.
I think you can see in the approach that I am taking that already in Mark we have the clues that the later Gospel writers make explicit and would suggest that they are reliable in doing so and not creating legends.
Student: There are no manuscripts of Matthew that exclude that and later manuscripts include it indicating that a definite deception had been attempted.
Dr. Craig: No. This would have to be (according to these critics) something that took place in the evolution of the tradition between Mark and Matthew. That raises a question – doesn't it? - of the date of Matthew. If Luke, as I'm persuaded, was written prior to the AD 60s (prior to the death of Paul because Paul is still alive at the end of the book of Acts, right? He is under house arrest in Rome). I think it is very probable Acts was written prior to the AD 60s. In that case, Luke being the first half of the book of Acts (it is a double work) would have been written then sometime in the late or mid-AD 50s. If Luke used Matthew as some scholars think that would make Matthew even earlier, and you are pushing right back very close to the date of the Gospel of Mark which could be around the AD 40s – something like that. That closes that window during which these legendary influences are supposed to have evolved these details. It makes it more credible, as I say, to think they are simply making it explicit what they knew to be the case, namely that this was Joseph's own personal tomb and that it was new and unused.
Again, we are getting into historicity questions there which are important but right now we are simply reviewing what the stories say.
Student: Question on the writing that mentions Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the body – historically, is that proper for Pilate to have ownership of the body and for Joseph to ask for the body?
Dr. Craig: As a Roman crucifixion, this is under Pilate's authority. The Sanhedrin at that time lacked the authority to carry out capital punishment. If there was a crime deserving of death the Sanhedrin could condemn the man but they couldn't carry out capital punishment. They needed the Romans – the secular government – to do that. Well, the Romans would never execute Jesus for blasphemy of Yahweh – the condemnation he received at the hands of the Sanhedrin. Therefore his claims had to be represented before Rome as committing a crime that the secular government would recognize – not blasphemy. Rather, his claims to be the King of the Jews – the Messiah – could be represented to Pilate as an offense against Rome. He is claiming to be Caesar; he is claiming to be the King, not Caesar. In John you have this explicit where the crowd yells to Pilate, If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar's. And it is that motivation that makes Pilate then condemn Jesus and send him to the cross. So Jesus is condemned on the one hand by a religious court, but then to be actually executed he has to be condemned by the Roman court, and he is condemned by them for treason against Rome.
Student: If it wasn't Joseph asking for permission to receive the body, what would have been a normal practice at that point and what would have happened?
Dr. Craig: Pilate was generally very accommodating with Jewish sensibilities at that time. He had locked horns with the Jewish chief priests before, and it nearly caused a riot. This is in Josephus. It would keep the peace if Pilate would tend to accede to their requests and do what they want. Even though Jesus was a Roman criminal and executed under Roman authority, if a member of the Sanhedrin came to Pilate and said, Let me dispatch the corpse. I'll take care of its burial, he would be willing to go along with that. That would be especially (I think) true if he believed that the man was innocent as the Gospels portray – that he had been unjustly executed.
Student: Do you think Joseph's tomb is the one described in Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.5 of the two burial locations set aside by the Sanhedrin?
Dr. Craig: As I recall, in the Mishnah the burial plots for the criminals that are mentioned there are, one, for criminals who have been beheaded (I think), and then the other one was for those who had been burned (I believe). Those would not be what we are talking about here. If the later Gospel writers are correct, this would be a tomb that belonged personally to Joseph of Arimathea and was not an official criminals' tomb. Those who think that Joseph was not a Christian disciple (that he was just an impersonal delegate of the Sanhedrin) will say that this may have been a criminals' tomb in which he laid the corpse. They would deny these other details that we've talked about and claim that this is just a common criminals' tomb that was close enough to the execution site for the burial to take place there within the three hours between Jesus' death at three in the afternoon and the breaking of the Sabbath at 6pm. It is terribly interesting, isn't it? These details I find just fascinating.
Student: I think they took everybody down before the Sabbath. That is why they were going to break the legs.
Dr. Craig: Oh, yeah. They couldn't allow the bodies to remain on the cross overnight or it would defile the land. But it is so interesting that in Mark Joseph singles out Jesus. He doesn't request, so far as we know, the bodies of the others. He may have been content to say to the Romans, You take care of them. You bury them. But I want Jesus of Nazareth's corpse.
What follows next in Mark is the account of the discovery of the empty tomb. Mark 16:1-8. Let's read that account together.
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?’ And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back – it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’ And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.
Notice that the women are said to visit the tomb in order to anoint the body. What is this all about? Some scholars have speculated that Joseph was only able to carry out an incomplete burial of the corpse of Jesus. During the three hours that he had between 3pm when Jesus died and 6pm when Sabbath would be breaking Joseph could only give him a hurried and rushed burial and therefore the women were coming on Sunday morning to complete the burial of Jesus. It seems to me, however, that this is an ungrounded speculation. There is nothing in the burial narrative to suggest that this was a hurried burial. It would be a relatively simple burial. Joseph would doubtless have servants to assist him who would have taken the body down from the cross. They could have purchased the linen sheet well in advance since they knew that Jesus was going to die soon. And then the body would probably need to be washed as was typical. The wrists would be bound. The ankles would be bound. A jaw band placed around the head. Then the whole thing wrapped up in a sheet and packed with dry spices like sandalwood to offset the stench of decay, placed on the shelf in the tomb, and the stone rolled over the tomb. It is not improbable that such a thing could take place within three hours if the tomb in fact was close to the spot of the crucifixion.
In fact, it is very interesting to compare this time factor to the burial of Ananias in Acts 5:6-7. Ananias is struck down. This was not expected. There was no anticipation here. And yet it says in verse 6,
The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.
And poor Sapphira is struck dead as well. Here you have a three-hour time slot mentioned during which the burial of Ananias is able to be completed and the young men return to the place where the Christians are meeting together. So I think that it is not at all improbable that the body could have been washed, though if you believe the Shroud of Turin is authentic it appears the body was not washed but was simply tied, wrapped up with the dry spices, and then placed in the tomb, and the tomb shut with a stone.
The women are not coming to the tomb to complete an unfinished job. Rather, what they are doing is carrying out the typical ministrations to the corpse that grieving relatives or friends of the deceased would carry out. For three days after a person was placed in the tomb visitors could come and they would bring aromatic oils that could then be poured over the corpse as a sign of their devotion and their grief to the deceased person. This is evidently what the women are engaged in – these typical Jewish grieving processes. They come to the tomb wondering how in the world are we going to get the stone moved because it would be far too large and heavy for them to move themselves. But I think their devotion to Jesus, as well as their hope of finding some men who would do this for them, drove them to try to carry out these final devotions to Jesus.
When they arrive at the tomb in Mark's Gospel, they find what Mark describes as a young man who is sitting in the tomb on the right hand side of where the corpse would have been laid. Undoubtedly, I think, Mark intends this young man to be an angel. He doesn't call him an angel. He calls him a young man. But the young man is dressed in a white robe which is typical for angels. The white robe, I think, is a clear tip-off that we are dealing here with an angelic figure. Moreover, you find the proclamation of the resurrection in the mouth of the angel. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. Then he foretells the appearances in Galilee. So I think it is very clear that Mark intends this figure to be an angelic figure which is sitting in the tomb and proclaims to the women the meaning of the tomb, namely that Jesus has risen from the dead. It is noteworthy that the very earliest interpreters of Mark's Gospel also took this figure to be an angelic figure – namely, Matthew and Luke. They understood this to be an angel and called this person an angel.
Mark's Gospel, as we have it today at least, ends with verse 8 – with the women fleeing from the tomb. There may have been a lost ending to Mark. This is highly debated among scholars – whether or not Mark went on to relate a resurrection appearance such as you have in Matthew's Gospel when they go to Galilee just as the angel tells them to do and they see Jesus. But if this is the end of the Gospel in verse 8 it is very clear that Mark knows of resurrection appearances in Galilee even if he doesn't narrate one. Why? Because the angel says to the women, “He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him as he told you.” Very clearly Mark knows of resurrection appearances (at least one, anyway) of Jesus to the disciples and perhaps a wider group that included the women in Galilee even if he does not choose to narrate these appearances.
Verse 8 has caused a great deal of discussion among scholars. The women “went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Some scholars have suggested that this meant that the women never told anybody about the empty tomb. They just went home and they never told anybody that they had visited the tomb and found it empty, and that is why the fact of the empty tomb remained unknown for so long until finally this legend would be mentioned in Mark's Gospel. I think you would agree that this is a pretty preposterous suggestion, that the women would never tell anybody ever that they had been to the tomb and found it empty that day even though that tomb would have still existed and been public knowledge that it was empty? The women never said anything? It seems preposterous. This is just too clever by half. I think it is very clear that what Mark means is that they didn't say anything to anybody as they ran to tell the disciples in fulfillment of the angel's command to go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before them into Galilee. Trembling and astonishment are very typical Markan reactions to the presence of the divine. So their silence as they run to tell the disciples would fit right in with Mark's theology of the overwhelming and terrifying prospect of an encounter with a divine person like this angel. It is interesting to compare what the women do with Mark 1:43-44 where Jesus gives a command to someone that he has cured of leprosy. Look at Mark 1:43-44. Jesus says to the man,
And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.”
Here Jesus gives him exactly the same command – Say nothing to anyone. But what he means is, On the way to go tell the priest say nothing to anyone. But then he tells him, Go to the priest and offer the sacrifice that you are supposed to. So it is not meant to be an enduring sort of silence. It is a silence as you go to carry out the mission that you have been given to, in one case, the priest, and in the other case, go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going before them into Galilee.
Finally, another interesting aspect of the empty tomb narrative that does not appear in Mark but does appear in two of the later Gospels is the inspection of the empty tomb by some of the disciples after receiving the women's report. This is mentioned in two Gospels: John and Luke. Let's look first at John 20:2-10. This is about Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb and finding it empty.
So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.
Here Peter and the so-called beloved disciple (who is later identified as the author of the Gospel of John), upon hearing Mary's report, run to the tomb and verify that in fact the tomb is empty. Intriguingly, this is also mentioned very obliquely in the Gospel of Luke 24 in the narrative of the appearance to the disciples on the Emmaus Road. Remember there are a couple of disciples leaving Jerusalem going back to their town of Emmaus, and Jesus encounters them on the way. He asks them what has been going on. They are amazed that he doesn't know anything about this. Then in Luke 24:22-24 these Emmaus disciples say to Jesus:
Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.
Here, again, you have a reference to a plurality of disciples who, upon hearing the women's report, went to the tomb to inspect it and verified that in fact the [tomb] was empty.
So we have in John and Luke's Gospel this very interesting story of the inspection of the tomb – the verification of the women's report – by two disciples at least, and they are identified as Peter and the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John.
Student: It is very interesting in the account you just read, the first few verses of John 20 . . . the three Greek verbs for “saw” or “seeing” that are used . . . John being the younger man got there first. In verse 5 it says, He looked in, he observed. The Greek word is blepo. It means just simply to have light impinged on your retina and you see; you observe. Understanding is secondary. John just bent, just peeked in. He didn't go in all the way. Then Peter got there, he looked in in verse 6, and the Greek word is theoreo which means “to behold and consider.” It is kind of interesting what is going on. Then in verse 8 John gets up enough courage and has thought about it long enough, he goes in and actually goes into the tomb and the Greek word there is horao which means “to discern, see clearly, and to understand.” This indicates that the stone was rolled back not to let Jesus out, but to let others in so that someone can look in there and have a reasonable assumption that, Hey, by the disposition of the grave clothes, a miracle has occurred. One way would be if he were wrapped with strips. In John earlier in the end of 19 it says, “He was wrapped with strips of linen.” The other ones did not use “strips.” Also myrrh can be a shellac-like substance. Some people have said if you wrap strips around a body with myrrh you are going to have a hardened cocoon. You said last week the argument against that is that actually even though the Israelites were in Egypt and they learned about embalming there is no evidence that they did it. Also if you wrapped with strips like that without embalming you have gaseous problems. That is one argument against it. The other argument against that is also what I believe to be a plausible explanation for the Shroud of Turin is a burst of radiant energy. That would argue of the cocoon thing. We would probably see that on the Shroud of Turin if that were the case. However, something happened. We wouldn't have to have a hardened cocoon. It was something about the disposition of those grave clothes that someone said, Wow, a miracle has occurred. There is no way that body could have been gotten out of here and those clothes look the way they did. That can account for perhaps many believers. Coming in that tomb. You know people came by and looked in there. That could account for the number of believers.
Dr. Craig: I do not think we should think of Jewish burial practices as being these sorts of cocoons involving mummies. The plurality of linen strips you are referring to are probably the strips that are used to tie the wrists and the ankles and the band around the jaw to keep it from falling open. So we shouldn't think that in John's mind he is imagining a mummy that is being wrapped up. Given that they didn't embalm the bodies, the corpse would explode and be destroyed. Probably what we are thinking of here – it says, “he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself.” This was probably a sort of jaw band that went around the head. It could have been twisted like you twist a towel and then tie it at the top. They see this loop lying off by itself next to the shroud. No grave robber is going to bother to untie the body and carry it off limbs flopping and leaving the grave clothes behind in the tomb. I think that this is what caused John to believe, as you say. They didn't know the Scripture, but it was the presence of seeing these grave clothes that made John think, Yes, he is risen from the dead.
Student: I assume the women who went to the tomb did not know the measures that had been taken so the body couldn't have been stolen. If the resurrection had not happened, they would have been met with the Roman guard as well as an official Roman seal that could not possibly be broken. Right? So there is no way they would have been able to get into the tomb.
Dr. Craig: Let's remember, as I already indicated, if Matthew's guard is historical it wasn't set Friday evening when the women observed the burial. Mark says they were at the cross, they were at the burial, they saw how the body was laid, and then they came on Sunday morning when the Sabbath was past. If there was a Roman guard there, as Matthew says, they wouldn't have been aware of it. I think you are quite right. They would have rested on the Sabbath. They wouldn't have know of the presence of this guard.
Student: Right. So if the resurrection had not happened, there would have still been a seal over the tomb and s Roman guard on Sunday morning when they showed up.
Dr. Craig: Right. What we have to say, I think, from Mark's empty tomb story is that if the Matthean guard story is historical then the guard had already fled and gone back to the chief priests by the time the women arrived. So when the women in Mark arrive, they don't see the guard. The guard, rattled and shaken by seeing the angel and the stone rolling back, had already fled. So in Mark's Gospel you don't have it mentioned. So it is not impossible to harmonize these accounts.
Student: That makes sense. This would have prevented them from being able to do what would have been normal. Going and putting the Roman guard and the seal over the tomb – that was the Romans and the Jewish people – the Sanhedrin – who wanted that done . . . prevented these women from being able to do what would have been normal to do.
Dr. Craig: Probably, yes.
Student: I am curious about Mark 16:7, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” Is that because he denied Jesus and Mark wanted to be able to confirm the fact that he had been restored? What is your opinion on that?
Dr. Craig: There are a number of interpretations of Peter's being singled out there. I think at the end of the day we don't know for sure. Some have said: is this indicative of an appearance to Peter? That there was a special appearance of Jesus to Peter in Galilee that he would see, and that is why he says, Tell Peter and the disciples, there you will see him. Or is it, as you say, a reflection of Peter's having betrayed Jesus and denied him? This is Jesus reaffirmation of Peter that he will see the risen Lord. Or, and I think this is very plausible, this could just be, frankly, a reflection of Peter's leadership in the New Testament church. By the time this was written Peter was the chief apostle, a leader in the Jerusalem church, and so he is singled out here for attention as being someone to whom Jesus was promising this resurrection appearance. Any of those, I think, would be plausible and we can't be sure of which is correct.
Student: So we think that a lot of Mark's information came from Peter. Is that right?
Dr. Craig: Yes. That is the tradition. Papias and other very, very early sub-apostolic fathers – the church fathers that knew the apostles – attribute the Gospel of Mark to Mark who was a co-traveler with Peter and served as his interpreter.
Student: That would make it really bizarre that he ended the story with the women and nothing about Peter having come to the tomb. Right?
Dr. Craig: Right. It would seem ridiculous to say that if he is aware of the belief in the resurrection in the early church that Mark would pretend that this was a permanent silence. I find this just far too clever by half. It is just utterly implausible to think that Mark was intending this to be a permanent silence.
Next time we will turn to a discussion of the postmortem appearances of Jesus in the Gospel traditions.
 “And they did not bury him [the executed person] in his ancestral tomb, but two burial places were prepared by the court, one for those who were decapitated or strangled, and the other for those who were stoned or burned” (Sanhedrin, Chapter 6, Mishnah 5). See http://learn.conservativeyeshiva.org/r-3/ (accessed September 12, 2017).
 Total Running Time: 42:37 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)