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#45 On an Argument for the Empty Tomb

February 24, 2008

My question comes from a website that tries to rebut your statements. Is there evidence outside the New Testament given before the 50 days after the Pentecost? Given that people in Jesus’ time did not have the medical equipment we do now, does the following stand up? For example, the author states:

First, trading on the idea of a known tomb that should have been occupied but wasn't, Craig hauls out the old argument that if the tomb had not been demonstrably empty the authorities could have silenced the apostles' preaching by the simple expedient of producing the body. ‘Here’s your resurrected savior! Take a whiff!’ But this is absurd: the only estimate the New Testament gives as to how long after Jesus’ death the disciples went public with their preaching is a full fifty days later on Pentecost! After seven weeks, I submit, it would have been moot to produce the remains of Jesus. Does Craig picture the Sanhedrin using modern forensics? Identifying the rotting carcass of Jesus by dental records? In fact, one might even take the seven-week gap to denote that the disciples were shrewd enough to wait till such disconfirmation had become impossible.

Sorry for it being so long.


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Dr. craig’s response


In my mind, this is a quite weak response to one of the common arguments for the empty tomb, namely, that the historical reliability of the story of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea supports the fact of the empty tomb.

The thrust of the argument is this: if the burial story is basically accurate, then the location of Jesus’ tomb was known in Jerusalem to both Jew and Christian alike, since both were present when Jesus was laid in the tomb. But in that case, the tomb must have been empty when the disciples began to preach that Jesus was risen.

Why? First, the disciples could not have believed in Jesus’ resurrection if his corpse still lay in the tomb. It would have been wholly un-Jewish, not to say stupid, to believe that a man was raised from the dead when his body was still in the grave. Second, even if the disciples had preached Jesus’ resurrection despite his occupied tomb, scarcely anybody else would have believed them. One of the most remarkable facts about the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection was that it flourished in the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified. So long as the people of Jerusalem thought that Jesus’ body was in the tomb, few would have been prepared to believe such nonsense as that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And third, even if they had so believed, the Jewish authorities would have exposed the whole affair simply by pointing to Jesus’ tomb or perhaps even exhuming the body as decisive proof that Jesus had not been raised.

To this our sceptical critic retorts that by the time the disciples began to preach the resurrection in Jerusalem 50 days later, Jesus’ corpse would have been so decayed as to be unidentifiable. Now as a matter of fact, that’s not true: you don’t need dental records or modern forensics to identify the remains of a crucified victim lying in the tomb of a respectable Jewish Sanhedrist! But that actually misses the more fundamental point, namely, that even if the remains in Joseph’s tomb were no longer recognizable, the burden of proof would have been upon anyone who said that these were not Jesus’ remains, since that is where Joseph had placed the corpse. As I said above, so long as the people of Jerusalem thought that Jesus’ body was in the tomb, few would have been prepared to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In order to maintain that these remains were not Jesus’, the Jewish authorities would have had to come up with some remarkable story about how somebody else’s corpse came to lie just in the place where their own colleague had deposited Jesus’ body.

But no such dispute over the identification of Jesus’ remains ever seems to have taken place. Rather, the dispute between Jewish non-Christians and Jewish Christians in Jerusalem concerned how the tomb had become empty (Matthew 28:11-15). Had there been a corpse, however unidentifiable, in Joseph’s tomb, the Jewish polemic against the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection would have taken a quite different course. It is striking that the Jewish authorities did not deny the empty tomb but instead entangled themselves in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain it away.

It’s telling that our critic finally lapses into the conspiracy theories of 18th century Deism to make his point, a route which no contemporary historian or biblical scholar would countenance.

I think you can see in this light that the demand for extra-biblical sources for the date of the disciples’ proclamation of the resurrection is quite beside the point. Indeed, one of the other lines of evidence in favor of the empty tomb is that it is multiply and independently attested in very early sources. The account of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea and the women’s discovery of the empty tomb is part of Mark’s source material for the Passion story (the story of Jesus’ suffering and death). Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels, so this pre-Markan Passion story is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony. Moreover, in I Corinthians 15.3-5 Paul quotes an old Christian tradition that he had received from the earliest disciples. Paul probably received this tradition no later than his visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 36 (Galatians 1:18), if not earlier in Damascus. It therefore goes back to within the first five years after Jesus’ death in A.D. 30. Although the empty tomb is not explicitly mentioned in this tradition, a comparison of the four-line formula with the Gospel narratives on the one hand and the sermons in Acts on the other reveals that the third line is, in fact, a summary of the empty tomb story.

Not only so, but there are good reasons to discern independent sources for the empty tomb in the other Gospels and Acts. Matthew is clearly working with an independent source, for he includes the story of the guard at the tomb, which is unique to his Gospel. Moreover, his comment about how the rumor that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body “has been spread among Jews till this day” (Matthew 28.15) shows that Matthew is responding to prior tradition. Luke also has an independent source, for he tells the story, not found in Mark, of two disciples’ visiting the tomb to verify the women’s report that the tomb was vacant. The story can’t be regarded as Luke’s creation, since the incident is independently reported in John. And, given John’s independence of the other three Gospels, we have there yet another independent report of the empty tomb. Finally, in the sermons in the book of Acts, we again have indirect references to the empty tomb. For example, Peter draws the sharp contrast, “David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day,” but “this Jesus God has raised up” (Acts 2.29-32; compare 13.36-7).

Historians think they’ve hit historical pay dirt when they have two independent accounts of the same event. But in the case of the empty tomb we have no less than six, and some of these are among the earliest materials to be found in the New Testament. Thus, we have very strong historical grounds for affirming that Jesus’ tomb was already known by the disciples to be empty even before they departed Jerusalem for Galilee.

- William Lane Craig