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Is There Evidence for the Empty Tomb?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I have been having an interesting discussion with a gentleman on the issue of the empty tomb.  We’ve touched on some of the evidence, but I decided to present a brief synopsis of William Lane Craig’s arguments for the empty tomb (from Jesus Under Fire).  Here goes!

  1. The historical credibility of the burial story supports the empty tomb.  If the burial story is accurate, the site of Jesus’ tomb would have been known to Jew and Christian alike.  Anyone could have, and would have, just marched to the tomb and produced the body.  In fact, the burial story is widely recognized as a historically credible narrative.
  2. Paul’s testimony implies the fact of the empty tomb.  The sequence in 1 Cor 15 is death- burial – resurrection.  Surely this sequence implies a tomb, or else where would Jesus be buried?
  3. The presence of the empty tomb narrative in the pre-Markan Passion story supports its historical credibility.  Scholars believe that Mark’s sources from which he wrote his Gospel contained the Passion story of Jesus.  Therefore, this source material would have been very old and date back to right after Jesus’ death (about A.D. 37).
  4. The use of the “first day of the week” (Mark 16:2) instead of  “on the third day” points to the primitiveness of the tradition of the empty tomb.  Scholars believe that the “third day” motif found in the New Testament developed later in Christian preaching.  The fact that Mark leaves those words out speaks to a very early date for the material in Mark.
  5. The nature of the narrative itself is theologically unadorned and nonapologetic.  Mark’s account of the empty tomb is simple and straightforward.
  6. The empty tomb was discovered by women.  Given the low status of women in 1st century Jewish society and their inability to serve as legal witnesses, it would be nonsensical for the New Testament writers to fabricate the story of the women finding the empty tomb.  The most reasonable explanation is that they really did.
  7. The investigation of the tomb by Peter and John is historically probable.  The visit of the disciples to the tomb is attested both in tradition (Luke 24:12, 24; John 20:3) and by John himself.
  8. It would have been virtually impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty.  When the disciples began to preach the resurrection in Jerusalem and people responded, and when the religious authorities stood helplessly by, the tomb must have been empty.
  9. The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.  Matthew tells us in Matt. 28:15 that the Jewish opponents of Christianity did not deny that the tomb was empty.  They claimed the disciples stole the body.
  10. The fact that Jesus’ tomb was not venerated as a shrine indicates that the tomb was empty.  It was customary in Judaism for the tomb of a prophet or holy man to be preserved or venerated as a shrine because the bones of the prophet lay in the tomb.  The only reason Jesus’ followers would not have venerated his tomb is because it was empty.

Aside from those 10 reasons, there is very little evidence.  icon smile Is There Evidence for the Empty Tomb?


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  • Andrew Ryan

    “Given the low status of women in 1st century Jewish society and their inability to serve as legal witnesses, it would be nonsensical for the New Testament writers to fabricate the story of the women finding the empty tomb. The most reasonable explanation is that they really did.”

    Isn’t this point self-defeating? If you wanted to fabricate evidence for something, wouldn’t it be easier to put forward as your witnesses people who can’t serve as legal witnesses? Putting forward LEGAL witnesses would make it easier for others to expose the fraud.

    “The investigation of the tomb by Peter and John is historically probable.”

    Hmm, that’s not really evidence for the tomb being empty. That’s like putting forward the fact that my father liked to go for moonlight walks at night as evidence that he saw a UFO at midnight.

    “Jewish opponents of Christianity did not deny that the tomb was empty. They claimed the disciples stole the body.”

    Are any of the ten pieces of evidence put forward above inconsistent with the Jewish opponents’ claim?

  • Andrew L

    I followed a link from 315 to get here, something I do when
    I have spare time on a Friday afternoon.
    I am a former believer in the resurrection (I use this form to avoid the
    argument whether I was a Christian) and current atheist. As I lack a PhD, I won’t have the opportunity
    to debate Dr. Craig. I do here suggest
    some points of thought for Pratt and others, non-professional apologist to
    non-professional apologist. I could
    nit-pick the list of 10 items above but my issues cross all of the points and
    fall into the four points made below.
    Too much of the list seems too bold an assertion given what is actually
    known.

    -
    Insiders: When Pratt writes, “In fact, the
    burial story is widely recognized as a historically credible narrative”, he is
    leaving unsaid here that this is the consensus of New Testament Historians.
    This is largely a group of insiders – NT believers. I do give them points for applying the discipline
    of their field but it seems reasonable to challenge the objectivity of someone
    who likely was taught and affirmed the resurrection before they even understood
    what it meant to be dead. For comparison,
    consider the inclusion of Mary’s virginity being affirmed and recited in
    various creeds well before one even understands what it is to be a virgin. Further, witness the witch hunt that has gone
    on against Mike Licona, dissenter of a minor point of the resurrection
    narrative.

    -
    Corruption of Scripture: The points made here assume that the Gospel
    accounts are never materially altered and their authors are sufficiently beyond
    reproach. This seems an awfully high
    hurdle and the reliability apologetics currently in use dishonest. The publishing of Marcion, known second hand,
    suggest a very different respect for historical writings than we assume in our
    time. Further, do we have authors who
    are bending the truth, to the point of adding events, to better tell what they
    may well believe is a true story. Are
    Matthew’s guards an invention? Is the ‘Jewish’
    polemic a valid public polemic or is it fodder for the nearly converted? The apologetic of reliability is not without any
    merit but it is dishonest about the paper gap between resurrection events and
    the copies we now work from. It is a
    distraction, look over here, rather than an honest explanation.

    -
    Cake, eaten and had too: So one grave in all of
    history has had its occupant permanently raised from the dead and somehow
    Christianity managed to lose track of it.
    This makes the point about lack of veneration laughable. Other examples, apologists want to make 1 Cor
    15 the earliest creed but have no good explanation of how the account of the
    500 made the creed but but none of the Gospels, women visitors is probable
    because of legal unreliability but the accounts of John and Peter’s visits
    weren’t masculine story blustering, and that Mark did bury the headline by
    stopping his account at merely ‘He is risen, He is not here’.

    -
    Ignoring the Incovenient: This is for me the
    most problematic. We know that
    resurrection belief never achieved self-sufficiency among those who had a front
    row seat to these events that were supposedly a fulfillment of their own
    prophecies. This seems a verifiable
    claim in consensus of all historians of that time period, the absence of what
    would have been an least centuries long redefinition of Peter’s expectation that
    Jewish Christians would continue to live Jewish-ly, and then there is Paul’s
    hand waving in Romans 11-13 as to why Christianity was not adopted, at least
    widely, among the Jews (God did it). (I
    am aware John Loftus makes a similar argument; I’ve arrived at this conclusion
    separately)

    Finally, I want to point out that isn’t my position that I
    know for certaint any of the events that buttress the resurrection argument
    didn’t happen – such as the appearance to two on the road to Emmaus is as
    likely to be two disciples jockeying for position as it is to be an actual
    appearance. It’s conjecture on my
    part. But the apologist is also on
    unsure sand. One that doesn’t rise to
    the level of proven.

    As the headline is “Is There Evidence For the Empty Tomb?”,
    I accept that some may believe I am shifting the goalposts. I will read all replies posted in the next couple
    of weeks but cannot promise a response. That said, I do hope there is some discussion.

  • Andrew L

    Apologies for the rather hacked up response, I wrote my response outside of the message box and then pasted.

  • Andrew L

    Also, just realized I posting on something very old. Never mind.

  • emmzee

    A couple of points in response to your comments Andrew … I can’t promise that I’ll return to post more since I’ve already spent too much time on this comment when I should have been reading & writing for my classes!

    Insiders: The issues raised here seem largely irrelevant to me. Everyone who has a view is biased in favor of their own view; someone could (illegitimately) claim that a “former believer in the resurrection, now atheist” is obviously biased against the resurrection, but that (even if true) would make their opinions no less intrinsically valid than anyone else’s. (Essentially, genetic fallacy.) Also I don’t see what the internal disagreement re Mike Licona has to do with it?

    Corruption of scripture: When Craig puts forth his arguments re empty tomb (and resurrection in general) he does not assume the general reliability of scripture. He takes the Habermas/Licona minimal facts approach, which it sounds like you’re familiar with. So he does not presume that it’s generally reliable. (For others who read this post and might be interested, I wrote a free ebook on the topic of NT reliability after I became a Christian, which is available at whyfaith dot com slash nt … if you’re familiar with the usual arguments, ex that are found in J Warner Wallace’s new book, there probably won’t be much new to you, but others may find it a helpful summary or starting point for further reading.)

    Cake, eaten and had too: I actually read about this just last week, since someone raised the “lost tomb” objection to me. I came across this article which argues that the Church of the Holy Seplechur site was venerated in the 1st century and is a plausible candidate for the empty tomb: I’m not sure if it’ll let me post links here so Google “have tomb will argue” and it should be the first result. If it turns out the tomb site really has been lost, that would constitute a valid negative argument against the empty tomb argument, but I don’t think it’d be sufficient to overcome the positive arguments.

    Ignoring the Inconvenient: I’m not sure how to respond to this challenge since I don’t see it being relevant. To ask “If it’s true why didn’t more people believe it?” assumes that people are generally motivated to believe what they know is true even if they don’t want to accept it, which I don’t think is always the case. Why person X or group Y don’t believe, we’re not really in a position to know, all we can do is look at the situation and determine what seems most appropriate for us to believe.

    I wouldn’t say that the resurrection needs to be proven in order to be accepted as truth. IMHO the “Jesus story” would be good news if true, so even if the plausibility of the statement that the resurrection occurred is slightly better than its negation, then it should be believed. And so to me the kind of arguments noted in the blog post are important but not the whole story; they’re part of the larger cumulative case which includes history, philosophy, and personal experience.

  • Andrew L

    Thanks Darren (emmzee) for the fast response. As always, I struggle with how to be brief, how to be interesting, and how to be fair to the argument. From your site bio, It seems that we have crossed the same fence moving in opposite directions.

    Insiders – my argument isn’t that we all come with a bias. We do. My argument is that when beliefs are formed young and well before the concepts in play can be understood – that extra circumspection is warranted. Concerning the ill treatment of Licona, if the argument is for historian consensus, if strong measures are taken to enforce orthodoxy at least among the complimentary historians, I am confused as to how you see that as not relevant. How much of it is consensus, how much of it enforcement?

    Corruption of Scripture – I am aware of minimal facts. Minimal facts are still built up chiefly, if not wholly, from the Gospels. There is almost no attestation elsewhere. We can’t cross examine the Gospel writers and are left with cross checking and drawing conjectures about the post resurrection events and Gospel writing. Will a writer who will invent tomb guards fudge the fact about whether they saw Jesus in flesh? Without the Gospels there are no minimal facts.

    While my Cake, Eaten and Had was more broadly about the positive spin apologists take of resurrection and post resurrection events, let me address the point you make, we might have the right tomb. 15 minutes from my childhood home there is a memorial marker commemorating a 45 minute speech candidate Eisenhower made to a group of farmers on tractors. Had Jesus walked out of an identifiable tomb there would be no question – we would know almost for CERTAIN where it was today. And this would have always been true. In the heads I win, tails you lose of Christian apologetics, the religious leaders not producing the body, we win; us not knowing where the tomb is, you lose (see original article). Bad form, bad argument.

    As to Ignoring the Inconvenient, the minimal facts is an attempt to affirm the supernatural through a naturalistic/historical argument. If the front row observers both in time and place, the observers who know the credibility or lack there of the disciples and Gospel writers, and the observers for whom this is fulfillment of prophecy reject an event this is a full on failure at a naturalistic or historical argument. It would be like Americans believing Kennedy died of natural causes, while Peruvians (correctly) believe he was assassinated.

    I’m hard pressed to think of a comparable true event that wasn’t believed by its witnesses but was embraced by a distant population. Perhaps, you can think of one?

    You also wrote, ‘look at the situation and determine what seems most appropriate for us to believe.’ Given the lack of adoption of Christianity among Jews, it is more reasonable for us not to believe.

    Finally, I want to note that this is a post about the historical resurrection and more specifically about the empty tomb within that history. To argue ‘history, philosophy, and personal experience’ is beyond the scope. You are also being disingenuous in that Paul wrote, my paraphrasing, ‘If the resurrection isn’t true, then the rest doesn’t matter’.

    Thank you again for you kind reply. I hope you are able to return and reply.

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