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In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] (please grab yourself a copy!), I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him:

Is the “Empty Tomb” narrative historical?

When we examine the “Empty Tomb” narrative in detail, we find more and more problems with it (almost every verse is problematical), and sceptics begin to wonder if it ever happened at all.

Let me first examine the reasons the gospel writers would want to have a tomb in their narratives. I think the reasons are twofold:-

  1. If you want a “physical” resurrection, you need to have the body buried in a known location, so that one could point to a missing body and claim a resurrection. It would be no use having the body buried in a mass grave or communal criminal mausoleum, as it would be impossible to ascertain the body was missing. A tomb fits this criterium very nicely.
  2. You would like to believe that your revered leader had some semblance of an “honourable’ burial, rather than the indignity of his body being picked over by animals & birds, or just thrown into a mass grave – the normal fate of seditionists crucified by the Romans.

Let us now examine the writings of Paul & the Gospel authors:-

The earliest Christian writings that we have are Paul’s epistles.

 In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul writes:-

 “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures”.

Paul just said “buried” which is ambiguous; It could have been an earth burial, or burial in a tomb or communal mausoleum.

The next writing we have, chronologically, is Mark’s gospel.  Mark relates that, Mary Magdalene & Mary, mother of Joses (Joseph) witnessed the burial of Jesus in a tomb, and then, after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James & Salome visited the tomb, to anoint the body with spices. At the tomb, they find Jesus’ body missing, and are greeted at by a man (or angel) who tells them to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee.  However, they were afraid, fled, and according to the text “said nothing to anyone”. Some have speculated that this might be a “plot device” to explain why nobody had heard of this “Empty Tomb” narrative prior to Mark’s Gospel.

It gets worse. The whole idea of visiting the tomb to “anoint” the body (even assuming they could get access by rolling away a heavy stone, with no one to assist them in this task) is moot, as expounded by Rabbi Tovia Singer in his Youtube video –

To summarise Rabbi Singer’s argument, he maintains that “anointing” a body was not some arcane Jewish religious rite, or for the purpose of embalming the body (which was not a Jewish custom), but for the very practical purpose of masking the odour of a decaying body during any funeral procession or burial rite (no refrigeration in 1st century Palestine).  Once buried or entombed, there was absolutely no reason to further treat the body with spices, since they had already served their purpose.

The very idea of visiting a burial site, after three days, with the bloodied body in an advanced state of decay, unwrapping the linen cloth, treating this decaying corpse with spices, and re-wrapping is too gross to even contemplate.

It is pretty clear that, this is another “plot device” to get some “witnesses” to a missing body, and set the scene for resurrection appearances.  Otherwise, there would be no real reason for anyone to visit the tomb, as, presumably, no-one was expecting a resurrection event (If they had truly expected it to happen, all the disciples would have been gathered around the tomb waiting for it to happen).

Luke also mentions the women witnessing the burial and later going to the tomb to “anoint” the body, but Matthew (who was probably Jewish convert to Christianity), wisely doesn’t mention it, realising that it was an absurd narrative from a Jewish perspective. He just has the women going “just to see the tomb”, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but again he needs “witnesses” to an empty tomb.

Later, chronologically, John’s gospel tries to correct this situation, by having Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus treating the body with 75 lbs of spices, wrapping the body in a linen cloth, before placing the body in the tomb.

From my understanding of Jewish law, someone who handles a dead body would be ritually “impure” for seven days. If this is the case, then both Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus would be ritually impure from touching Jesus’ body. If all these events took place on the “Day of Preparation” (as John indicates), then both men would not be able to partake of the, culturally significant, Passover Seder the next day. I find it hard to believe that, devout Jews like Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus would compromise their attendance of the Passover Seder, by getting involved in the burial of a notorious criminal. Better to let the pagan Romans sort out the disposal of Jesus’ body.

If John’s account is to be believed, and the women, according to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke), were witnesses to the burial by Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus, (including treating the body with spices), then why would they consider it necessary to take spices to the tomb to “anoint” the body? Seems like an “exercise in futility” !!!

With John’s gospel making a trip to the tomb to, supposedly, “anoint” a body unnecessary, there was really no reason for Mary Magdalene to travel there. As a result, John’s gospel, has her, seemingly, making a “spur of the moment” decision to visit there.  John’s narrative, obviously, still needed a “witness” to an “Empty Tomb”.

It may be worth mentioning that, according to Jewish custom, men would prepare male bodies for burial, and women would prepare female bodies for burial.  It would be most unseemly for the women to go to the tomb and handle a man’s body, and also make them ritually impure for touching a dead body.

The “preparation of spices” by the women, is also problematic.

Mark has the women buying spices, after the Sabbath, and taking them to the Tomb.  This is very unlikely since most businesses would be closed for the Passover celebration.  On the other hand, Luke says that they prepared the spices upon returning from Jesus’ burial.  In other words, they already had the spices even before the Sabbath.  Are we expected to believe that the women had these spices, (probably very pungent), on hand, just on the off-chance they would need them for a forthcoming burial?  I doubt that they were expecting Jesus to be executed before it actually happened.

Another feature of the “Empty Tomb” narrative has always bothered me – namely, why, in all gospels, was the stone, conveniently, moved away from the tomb entrance allowing the various women & disciples access to the tomb?

We are told in the various gospels that, Jesus could appear & disappear at will (see Luke’s account of the ‘Walk to Emmaus”, where, after the disciples recognise Jesus, he just disappears), and he could, apparently, pass through solid walls into a locked room to appear to the disciples. So, if Jesus could do these things, in his new “super-human” body (although, apparently, still showing the scars of his crucifixion) then, surely, the rock blocking the entrance to the tomb would have presented no barrier to him exiting the tomb; He could just pass through it, without moving it. However, whenever the women visited the tomb, the rock had been rolled away.  If the rock had not been rolled away, the natural assumption, by the women, would be that Jesus’ body was still inside the tomb, and they would never even consider a resurrection had taken place.  It all sounds all too convenient, and most likely another “plot device” by the gospel authors. Also, it is never explained how the rock was moved, except for Matthew, who cites an “earthquake”, but amazingly, no other Gospel mentions this, literally, earth-shattering event. I guess we are expected to use our imagination as to how the rock was moved (It’s a miracle !!!).

I could go on, listing even more “differences”, inconsistencies, and anachronisms in the resurrection accounts, but I think the points I have highlighted here, make it highly unlikely, any of the events pertaining to the “Empty Tomb” ever happened, and demolishes the very idea that, there ever was an “Empty Tomb” to start with.

It might be myth, legend, wishful thinking or fiction, but it certainly isn’t history.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...