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#309 Local Knowledge of Jesus’ Empty Tomb

March 17, 2013

Greetings Dr. Craig!

I read some of your articles addressing the resurrection of Jesus and wanted to thank you first of all for your great work and effort.

Yet I noticed that - at least in the works I read - a specific argument was seemed not to be addressed, which my New Testament professor, who does not believe in the empty tomb, once used against a bodily resurrection of Jesus. The argument was: If the location of the tomb of Jesus was known to the disciples, it would have been remembered and would have likely become some sort of an early pilgrimage destination. Yet there is no evidence for any such thing, thus, it is unlikely that the disciples knew the tomb, therefore, they could have not known whether the tomb was empty or not.

So what is your take on this?

Thank you very much!


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Dr. craig’s response


I think we can agree that if the burial site of Jesus were known in Jerusalem and his bones continued to reside there, then that tomb would likely have become some sort of early pilgrimage destination for any kind of Jesus movement that continued to persist. Of course, any such movement would have to have been very different from the Jesus movement that did exist after his death, since it was founded on the belief in his resurrection. Perhaps Jesus would have been remembered by his admirers as a Jewish martyr whose tomb was now revered.

The fact that that did not happen should not lead us to doubt that the site of Jesus’ burial was known, given the very strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ interment in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, evidence which I have laid out in my published work and which has convinced the wide majority of scholars of the historicity of Jesus’ burial. Rather it should lead us to doubt that his bones continued to reside there. If the tomb were empty, then the gravesite would not have had the sort of religious significance that the tombs of Jewish kings and martyrs had.

But surely, you might say, Jesus’ empty tomb would have had significance as the place where his resurrection occurred. True; but there is no reason to think that the site was not treasured as such in the memory of the church in Jerusalem. On the contrary, we have good reason to think that the tomb which lies within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem today is, in fact, the actual tomb in which Joseph interred Jesus of Nazareth.

The story of how this tomb was discovered is fascinating. Coming to power in 324 as the first Christian emperor, Constantine was zealous to promote Christianity. He was responsible, for example, for convening the Council of Nicaea in 325, where the Nicene Creed was promulgated. He gave his mother Helena unlimited access to the imperial treasury in order to locate relics of Judeo-Christian tradition. In 326-28 Helena, then in her 70s, undertook a trip to Palestine. Arriving in Jerusalem, she enquired where the tomb of Jesus was located. The locals pointed to a spot where a Temple to Aphrodite had stood for over a century. Eusebius reports Constantine, upon learning of this, commanded that the temple be razed.

Nor did the emperor's zeal stop here; but he gave further orders that the materials of what was thus destroyed, both stone and timber, should be removed and thrown as far from the spot as possible; and this command also was speedily executed. The emperor, however, was not satisfied with having proceeded thus far: once more, fired with holy ardor, he directed that the ground itself should be dug up to a considerable depth, and the soil which had been polluted by the foul impurities of demon worship transported to a far distant place. This also was accomplished without delay. But as soon as the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared, immediately, and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hallowed monument of our Saviour's resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful similitude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light, and afforded to all who came to witness the sight, a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene, a testimony to the resurrection of the Saviour clearer than any voice could give.

We have here a very old tradition as to the location of Jesus’ tomb. There was memory of Jesus’ tomb on the site prior to the construction of the pagan temple there. The accuracy of that memory is rendered probable, first, by the fact that the location identified was inside the extant walls of Jerusalem, even though the New Testament says that the site lay outside the walls. People did not know the location of the city walls prior to 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed, and so did not realize that the location identified was, in fact, outside the walls existing at the time of Jesus’ death. Second, the memory was vindicated by the fact that upon excavating the site, lo and behold, they did find a tomb!

Thus, it is not at all unlikely that the early church in Jerusalem did remember the site of Jesus’ burial and that that site is known today. By contrast to hold that the early church in Jerusalem did not know the location of Jesus’ burial would require us to say that the story of Jesus’ burial and empty tomb are late-developing legends, which contradicts the multiple lines of evidence for the earliness of both these traditions.

- William Lane Craig