Doctrine of Christ (Part 37): The Work of Christ (30) - Facts of the Resurrection

December 12, 2017     Time: 29:31

Historicity of the Empty Tomb (Part 2)

We are talking about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. We have been looking at the fundamental facts that any adequate historical hypothesis needs to explain. The first of these, I argued, was in support of the empty tomb, namely the burial account of Jesus is historically reliable. We saw that the burial account has a number of lines of evidence that suggest that indeed Jesus was buried by this member of the Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea and that this goes to support the historicity of the empty tomb.

Today we come to the second line of evidence in support of the historicity of the empty tomb. You will remember we saw that the burial account is multiply attested in very early independent sources. The same is true of the discovery of Jesus' empty tomb. So our second line of evidence concerns the early independent attestation of the fact of Jesus' empty tomb.

You will remember that the burial account of Jesus was to be found in the pre-Markan passion story – the passion source that Mark used in writing his gospel – and that the burial of Jesus was also summarized and referred to in that pre-Pauline formula that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15. Exactly the same is true of the empty tomb.

First of all, the pre-Markan passion source in all probability did not end with the burial story, but it also included the story of the women's discovery of Jesus' empty tomb. In fact, the burial story and the empty tomb story are really one story, not two. They are a smooth, continuous narrative, and they are linked by grammatical and linguistic ties. For example, if you look at the empty tomb account you will find that the antecedent to the word “him” in verse 1 of chapter 16 (where it says, They brought spices that they might go and anoint him) the antecedent to that is found in the burial story, namely “Jesus” in 15 verse 43 (where it says that Joseph of Arimathea took courage and asked for the body of Jesus) and then in 16:1 the women go to anoint “him.” Similarly, the women's discussion in chapter 16 verses 1 to 8 about who is going to move the stone that is over the door of the tomb presupposes the burial account of the large stone that Joseph of Arimathea had rolled across the entrance of the tomb and sealed. Similarly, the women's knowing where the location of the tomb was presupposes what it says in 15:47 that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where Jesus was laid. They noted the location of the tomb and so knew where to go to anoint the body. Similarly, the words of the angel in 16:6 and following, He is not here; see the place where they laid him. That refers back to 15:46 where it says that Joseph of Arimathea laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock.

So I think you can see grammatically and linguistically these two stories are really one story. They are one smooth account of what happened to Jesus following his crucifixion.

Moreover, it is in any case highly unlikely that early Christians would have circulated a story of Jesus' passion which simply ended which his burial. That would be to end in death and defeat. The passion story is incomplete without victory at the end. You need to have the empty tomb in order to bring the passion story to an appropriate climax.[1] So the pre-Markan passion story probably included, and it may have ended, with the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. It is very interesting that the Gospels are harmonious right up through the discovery of the empty tomb, and it is after that that they begin to diverge in adding or appending to it different appearance stories such as they prefer. Then you have a divergence of the appearance stories. But they are all on the same page right on up through the discovery of the empty tomb. So the empty tomb account, like the burial story, is part of this extremely early source called the pre-Markan passion story.

Secondly, you will remember that we saw in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul is quoting from an extremely early four-line tradition that refers to Jesus' burial and resurrection. In this four-line formula the empty tomb is not explicitly mentioned, but you will remember how we compared the four lines of that formula to the passion narrative on the one hand and the apostolic preaching in the book of Acts on the other hand, and we saw that just as the second line of the saying (he was buried) corresponds to the burial story, the third line (he was raised on the third day) corresponds to the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. This concourse of independent traditions, I think, shows convincingly that the third line of the formula is in fact a summary of the empty tomb narrative. Paul's expression, He was raised, echoes the words of the angel in the pre-Markan passion story, He is risen. In both cases you have the proclamation of the resurrection.

Moreover, there are two other aspects of this pre-Pauline formula or tradition that plausibly imply the empty tomb. First, the expression, He was raised, following the expression, He was buried, implies an empty grave. The idea that a man could be dead and buried and raised from the dead and yet his corpse still remained in the tomb would have been absolute nonsense to a first-century Jew. For first-century Jews the resurrection is the physical raising up of the remains of the dead person in the grave. So there is no question that in the thinking of a first-century Jew the tomb of Jesus would have been empty. E. E. Ellis, who is a prominent New Testament scholar, remarks

it is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, “grave-emptying” resurrection. To them an anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.[2]

Virtually a contradiction in terms. So when the pre-Pauline tradition affirms that Christ was buried and he was raised it automatically implies that an empty grave was left behind.

Given the early date and the providence of this tradition coming out of the mother church in Jerusalem its drafters could not have believed such a thing if the tomb had not at that time been empty.

In addition to that, secondly, the expression “on the third day” I think implies the empty tomb. Paul's tradition says, and he was raised on the third day. Very briefly summarized, since nobody actually saw Jesus rise from the dead (no one actually saw him get up and come out of the tomb) why did the early disciples date the resurrection on the third day? Why not on the seventh day, for example? I think that the most likely answer is that it was on the third day after the crucifixion that the women discovered the tomb of Jesus empty and so naturally the resurrection came to be dated on that day. It was the date of the discovery of the empty tomb.[3] So this expression “on the third day,” I think, is plausibly a time indicator for the time of the women's visit to the tomb and their discovery of the empty tomb.

We have then extraordinarily early and independent evidence for the fact of Jesus' empty tomb both in the pre-Markan passion story and also in the pre-Pauline formula quoted in 1 Corinthians 15. What that implies therefore is that the discovery of the empty tomb of Jesus cannot just be written off as some late-developing legend. The traditions are too early to allow that to be the case.

But, again, there is more to this story because once again we have good reason to think that there are other independent sources behind the other Gospels and Acts as well. Matthew, for example, is clearly working with an independent source in addition to the Gospel of Mark because Matthew relates the story of the guard at the tomb which is not found in the Gospel of Mark. Moreover, there are traces in this story of prior tradition in the non-Matthean vocabulary of this story. This story has a number of words or expressions which are in fact unique in all of the New Testament, expressions like “on the next day,” “the preparation day,” “deceiver,” “guard,” “to make secure,” “to seal.” These are expressions that are not simply unusual for Matthew but these are vocabulary and expressions that aren't found anywhere else in the New Testament. This is indicative, I think, of prior tradition that Matthew is here handing on and working with. In general, it is very interesting that when you look at the empty tomb stories in Matthew and in Mark, Matthew's story has 138 words and Mark's has 136 words. Of Mark's 136 words, only 35 of them are to be found in the Gospel of Matthew. So obviously Matthew is not simply reproducing Mark here. He has got some independent source of information that he is using to supplement what he learns from Mark.

In addition to this there is also indication that Matthew is responding to a prior tradition in his comment in Matthew 28:15 about the guard story. He says, This story has been spread among Jews until this day. This shows that Matthew is responding to a well-known Jewish counter-explanation of the fact of the empty tomb. So Matthew is working here with a prior tradition. He is not just writing out of whole cloth. Matthew 28:15 is the Matthean comment that this story (that is, the story that the disciples stole the body) that has been spread among Jews to this day. This is a prior tradition and Matthew is responding to it.

In addition to this Luke also has plausibly an independent source in addition to Mark. We know this because Luke tells the story which is, again, not to be found in Mark of two disciples verifying the report of the women that the tomb was in fact vacant. Luke reports that two of the disciples run to the tomb to verify that in fact the body is missing. He doesn't get this from Mark because it is not in Mark. Neither can you say Luke just invented this – that he made it up – because the visit of the two disciples to the tomb is also found in John which is independent of Luke. Luke didn't know John's Gospel. So you have independent attestation of the disciples' visit to the tomb in both Luke and John which shows again that Luke is using another source in addition to Mark.[4]

Again, in general, of the 123 words that are found in Luke's account of the empty tomb, he shares only 16 words with Mark which, again, I think, confirms that he is dealing here with more than just the Markan empty tomb story. So behind both Matthew and Luke we also have other independent early sources for the fact of the empty tomb.

Finally, given John's independence of the Synoptics (remember we said that John is independent of Matthew, Mark, and Luke), that gives us yet another independent source for the empty tomb.

Finally, the apostolic sermons in the book of Acts once again have indirect references to the fact of Jesus' empty tomb. For example, in Acts 2:29-32 Peter draws this sharp contrast. He says, “David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day, but this Jesus God raised up.” Clearly the contrast there is that although David's tomb is with us to this day Jesus' tomb is no longer occupied. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Or, if you look at Acts 13:36-37, again we have an allusion to the empty tomb,

For David, after he had served the counsel of God in his own generation, fell asleep, and was laid with his fathers, and saw corruption; but he whom God raised up saw no corruption.

So implying there that Jesus' body was raised from the tomb.

Historians think that they have hit historical pay dirt when they have just two early independent sources for some event. But in the case of the empty tomb we have an abundance of early independent sources – no fewer than six, and some of these are from the very earliest materials to be found in the New Testament. This, I think, provides very good evidence for the historical credibility of the discovery of the empty tomb.


Student: I am curious, have the sources been identified for those that are predating Luke or Matthew?

Dr. Craig: None of these sources exist in documentary form. In fact, they might have been oral, especially the pre-Pauline tradition behind 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. This may have simply been a memorized early tradition that was then passed on orally. When I speak of sources here I am not talking about documentary sources. Rather these are the traditions and sources upon which the New Testament authors drew in writing their Gospels. This is extremely important. People will often demand from you extra-biblical sources to show that, for example, the tomb was found empty or Jesus was buried. What evidence is there outside the New Testament to ratify these things? By the very nature of the case, any later sources from outside the New Testament will be derivative and secondary and therefore less reliable then the primary sources themselves. But when we are talking about the sources that the New Testament authors themselves used, these are the real sources outside the New Testament that are historically significant because these are even earlier and more primitive then the Gospels and the letters of Paul. These are the sources upon which these authors drew. If you can show that an event or saying in the life of Jesus is multiply and independently attested in these very early sources then you are on very secure historical ground.

Student: There is testimony from the negative. You don't see in general literature people denying that the tomb was empty.

Dr. Craig: That's right. That's fair, too. It is not until later that you get critics like Celsus in the second century attacking the Gospels. That's true.[5]


Let's go to our third line of evidence in support of the historicity of the empty tomb narrative, and that is that the phrase “the first day of the week” reflects very ancient tradition. Notice that Mark 16:2 – And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb. We've already seen that the Christian tradition which Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15 is extremely early and dates the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures says the pre-Pauline tradition. Yet in Mark the empty tomb narrative does not say “on the third day” they came to the tomb but rather “on the first day of the week.” As the New Testament scholar E. L. Bode explains, if the empty tomb story were a late-developing legend then it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the by-then widely accepted and prominent third-day motif. The fact that Mark uses instead the expression “on the first day of the week” confirms that his tradition is extremely primitive. It antedates even the third day reckoning which is itself extremely early.

I think this fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question for even though the phrase is very awkward in Greek – the first day of the week in Greek is te mia ton sabbaton; this is very awkward in Greek – mia is not an ordinal number. It is a cardinal number. It literally means “the one of the week” not “the first of the week.” Instead of using “the week” it uses the word for Sabbath (sabbaton). So this expression is awkward in Greek. But when you re-translate it back into Aramaic it turns out to be perfectly idiomatic and natural Aramaic. What this suggests is that this phrase reflects the original language spoken by the disciples in Jerusalem. It is an Aramaic tradition and expression and thus makes this tradition very primitive and very early, and that again reduces the plausibility of the hypothesis of late-developing legend.


Student: So what exactly is the literal Aramaic?

Dr. Craig: I thought you might ask that! As I recall it is [Aramaic pronunciation] – that is the Aramaic. In Hebrew it would be [Hebrew pronunciation]. It is good Aramaic, but it's awkward Greek.


Finally, let's go to point four. This is our fourth line of evidence in support of the historicity of the empty tomb, and that is that the Markan story is simple and lacks any signs of legendary development or embellishment. Like the burial account, Mark's account of the discovery of the empty tomb is extremely restrained. It is unembellished by any of the theological or apologetic motifs that you would expect to characterize a later legendary account. For example, it is remarkable when you think about it that the resurrection of Jesus is not witnessed or described. The temptation to describe the resurrection of Jesus is almost irresistible.[6] In passion plays, like the one that was held here at our church several years ago, on Easter morning in the passion play the stone over the tomb rolls back by itself and in blinding floodlights Jesus comes out of the tomb triumphantly risen from the dead. It is just almost irresistible to describe or portray Jesus' resurrection on Sunday morning. And yet in the Markan account this isn't done at all. They just go to the tomb and find it empty and the stone rolled away. There is no reflection theologically on Jesus' triumph over sin and death. There is no use of christological titles of Jesus in the story. There is no quotation of fulfilled prophecy in the story. There is no description of the risen Lord such as you might have in the transfiguration, for example. So the story is incredibly restrained and straightforward which I think shows that we have a narrative here that is very primitive.

To appreciate this point, all you have to do is compare Mark's account to the accounts of the empty tomb found in the later apocryphal gospels. For example, the Gospel of Peter is a forgery from the second half of the second century after Christ. In the Gospel of Peter the tomb is not only surrounded by a Roman guard (it is explicitly identified as Roman) but also by all of the Pharisees and the elders and the chief priests and a huge crowd from the surrounding countryside who have come to watch the tomb. Suddenly during the night a voice rings out from heaven and two men are seen descending out of the clouds. The stone over the door of the tomb rolls back by itself, and the two men descend out of heaven and go into the tomb. Then three men are seen coming out of the tomb. Two of the men are so gigantic that their heads reach up to the clouds, but the head of the third man overpasses the clouds he's so huge. Then a voice cries from heaven, Hast thou preached to them that sleep? Oh, oh! I forgot! A cross then follows them out of the tomb. After the three men, a cross comes out of the tomb. The voice from heaven says, Hast thou preached to them that sleep? And the cross answers, Yea! This is how real legends look. They are embellished with all sorts of theological and apologetical motifs, motifs which are conspicuously lacking from the Markan account. In contrast to these, Mark's account is stark in its simplicity. And I think that bespeaks the earliness and the primitiveness of the tradition that Mark relates.

I'm sure you're already seeing how these lines of evidence reinforce one another like a hand in a glove. The primitiveness of the first day of the week expression along with the earliness of the pre-Markan passion story and then the simplicity of the narrative. All of these go to suggest that we are not dealing here with later legend or myth, but we are in touch with a first century, early historical account of what happened on that day after the crucifixion.[7]


[1]          5:01

[2]          E. Earle Ellis, ed., The Gospel of Luke, NCB [London: Nelson, 1966] p. 273.

[3]          10:02

[4]          15:03

[5]          20:17

[6]          25:06

[7]          Total Running Time: 29.36 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)