The Empty Tomb narrative is a crucial component for Christian belief in the resurrection story. But the Bible itself renders the story untrue.

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The Empty Tomb has, for years, been a mainstay for Christian apologists, who claim Jesus rose from the dead in a glorious Resurrection. The Empty Tomb was used as one of the “minimal facts” to “prove” the resurrection of Jesus.

So, what exactly is the Empty Tomb apologetic?

According to all four gospels (attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) Jesus was executed by the Romans by crucifixion. His body was removed from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, washed and treated with spices, wrapped in a linen shroud, and laid in a new rock-hewn tomb. The tomb was sealed with a heavy rock, and guarded by Roman soldiers.

Three days later, several women followers came to the tomb to find the rock rolled back and the body missing but the linen burial shroud still present. After this, various women and disciples had encounters with a supposedly resurrected Jesus who showed that he had been physically raised from the dead. The disciples spread this “good news” which was the basis of the Christian religion. The Christian apologist will claim that the explanation that best fits these “facts” is that God supernaturally raised Jesus from death, physically, back to life.

Indeed, many secular scholars previously considered that the Empty Tomb narrative was feasible, especially as it had what might be considered as multiple attestation—being mentioned by all four Gospels.

In more recent times, this narrative has come under closer scrutiny, and gigantic holes have been found in this scenario, which has raised many red flags, leading many to doubt its veracity. Ironically enough, it is the Bible itself that refutes the Empty Tomb narrative, as I will hope to show. I will go through the main New Testament sources in chronological order.


Paul is our earliest Christian source for details about the resurrection of Jesus. His epistles are usually dated to around 50-60 CE (about 20 to 30 years after the supposed crucifixion of Jesus). He never met Jesus, and he says his information comes not from people, but from revelation and scripture (i.e., The Old Testament). His most important mention of the resurrection is in 1st Corinthians 15:3-8:

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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.

New Testament scholars have long opined that Paul is quoting some sort of creed that may have dated to shortly after Jesus’s death, and not Paul’s own thoughts indicated by the words “I in turn had received”. Notice that Paul said “he was buried,” which is ambiguous and could refer to either a normal earth burial or a tomb burial (Red Flag #1).

Paul states in his epistles that he visited Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem at least twice. If Paul visited Jerusalem and was obsessed with Jesus’ resurrection, it would seem highly likely he would have wished to visit the place where the resurrection took place, which would be considered by Christians as a sacred site. However, Paul makes no mention of any such visit, which seems very strange if an actual tomb existed (Red Flag #2).


Most biblical scholars maintain that the Gospel of Mark”= is the first canonical gospel written. It is normally dated to around 70 CE (thus about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus) since it seems to refer to the destruction of the Jewish Temple which occurred after the Jewish-Roman war of 66 to 70 CE. The original Gospel was anonymous and the name “Mark” was appended to it in the 2nd Century.

Mark is significant in that it has no post-crucifixion encounters with Jesus, and the Gospel ends in Chapter 16 in this way:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The significant section here is “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This seems highly suspicious and one could infer that Mark had invented the empty tomb in his Gospel, and the reason it was not widely known before was because the women “said nothing to anyone” (Red Flag #3). Also note that Mark mentions three women visiting the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary (Mother of James), and Salome.

Also, we have a paradoxical situation. If the women “said nothing to anyone,” then how did Mark know that, they “said nothing to anyone” (Red Flag #4)?

There are other events in Mark that raise red flags thatrelate to the women wishing to buy spices, then going to the tomb to “anoint” Jesus’s body. This is highlighted by Rabbi Tovia Singer in this Youtube video:

YouTube video

To paraphrase the comments in the video, the Rabbi explained that the use of spices on the body was not to embalm the body, or for some arcane Jewish ritual, but for a very practical purpose. Strong-smelling spices were placed around the body to mask the odor of a decomposing body, and they would be used after the body was washed (men washing men’s bodies, and women washing women’s bodies), so that the mourners in the burial procession from the place where the death occurred to the burial site would not be subjected to any offensive odors.

Once the body was committed to the grave (either an earth grave or a tomb), there would be no need for any further treating the body with more spices. As a convicted criminal, Jesus would have been denied an actual burial procession with mourners, and no burial procession is mentioned in any gospel, so this is also a moot point in the Gospel account. Thus. the whole narrative of women going to the tomb, handling a naked male decomposing body to add spices, would be unseemly and makes no sense. It would appear that Mark uses this event as a plot device to have people “discover” a missing body (Red Flag # 5).

As an aside, Mark has the women purchasing spices after the Sabbath, but the Passover festival lasts about 7 or 8 days, so it is doubtful any businesses would open during this time where spices could be bought (Red Flag #6).


Scholars date the Gospel of Matthew to around 80 to 90 CE, and as with Mark it is anonymous and the name was appended in the 2nd Century. It is not thought that it was written by the disciple Matthew, and in the text, Matthew’s interaction with Jesus is in the third, not the first person.

In “Matthew’s” narrative, he has the Chief Priests going to Pilate and asking for a guard to be placed at the tomb to prevent the chance of disciples stealing Jesus’ body and claiming a resurrection. The text (Matthew 27:62-66) reads thus:

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore, command that the tomb be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead,” and the last deception would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

One should ask, how was Matthew privy to this conversation when only Pilate and priests were in attendance (Red Flag #7)? In addition, how could the priests know that Jesus had claimed to resurrect after three days, when even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was claiming, since if they had understood it they would have camped out outside the tomb waiting for this to happen. (Red Flag #8)? [Sidenote: The text says that the priests went to Pilate “the next day”. This means that, the disciples could have stolen the body the previous night, before the guards were dispatched, so rather defeating the purpose of guarding the tomb.]

Also, the Chief Priests had their own Temple Guards, so why would they need to ask Pilate for Roman Guards; this doesn’t make any sense (Red Flag #9)?

More devastating than this is that, Matthew needed to introduce guards at the tomb in the first place. Why is that?

Let us assume that Jesus’ body was actually placed in a tomb, and later that tomb was found empty, and this was the basis for early Christians to truly believe Jesus was raised from the dead. This story would have been widely circulated, such that Jewish doubters would almost certainly have heard this claim and would have raised the possibility of theft by the disciples to claim a resurrection. Mark writing in 70 CE would have known all this, such that, when writing his Gospel, he would almost certainly have included some rebuttal to this accusation, but he did not. This really highlights that Mark was probably the initiator of the Empty Tomb narrative, and it was not part of early Christian history (Red Flag #10). It had to wait for Matthew’s Gospel some years later to fix this problem.

Matthew now describes Mary Magdalene and the “Other Mary” (presumably Mary, Mother of James, but note that Salome is not mentioned) arrive at the tomb. They experience an earthquake, and they notice the stone blocking the tomb entrance is still in place (contradicting Mark; Red Flag # 11). Then an angel descends, rolls away the stone, and sits on the stone (causing the guards to faint). The angel tells the women that Jesus has risen, and is no longer in the tomb. The angel then tells the women to tell the disciples that Jesus will meet up with them on a mountain in Galilee.

On the way back, the women actually encounter Jesus, whereupon they fall down and worship him. He then repeats the same message, about telling the disciples to meet him in Galilee. [Sidenote: Jesus could have visited the disciples in Jerusalem, since he was already there; Seems bizarre to send them all the way to Galilee to him, when he was already in Jerusalem.] The women return to the disciples, tell them about Jesus and his message. Thereupon, they leave for Galilee and meet Jesus and a mountain, but, strangely, “some doubted.”

In the meantime, the guards recover and go to tell the priests what happened at the tomb. This is related in Matthew 28:11-15 as follows:

While they were going, some of the guards went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Again, how was Matthew able to know the details of a private conversation between the priests and the Roman guards? (Red Flag #12).

The whole conversation makes no sense, given the circumstances of the events witnessed. The guards would presumably have seen a naked man pass through the solid rock of the blocking stone, and a shiny bright angel descending from the sky and rolling away the stone. (Remember that, the blocking stone was still in place before the angel rolled it away, and the tomb was already empty. Later gospels reported the linen shroud was left behind in the tomb, so Jesus would have been naked when exiting the tomb and passing through the blocking stone.) It’s no wonder the guards fainted. They were witnessing the most amazing event in all history (assuming it actually happened, which is doubtful).

Given these circumstances, why would the guards be willing to say that they slept whilst the disciples stole the body, when admitting they slept on duty would be signing their own death warrant, just for a few shekels (Roman discipline was very strict, and sleeping on duty would be a capital offense) (Red Flag #13)?


The Gospel of Luke is dated to around 80–90 CE, a timeframe similar to Matthew’s.

In this Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Mary (Mother of James), Joanna, plus other women (again, no mention of Salome) go to the tomb to “anoint” Jesus’s body with spices they had prepared (the same objection to this “anointing” as was raised in the section on Mark).

The women found the tomb-blocking stone already removed and no body inside (contradicting Matthew). Then two men/angels appeared and told the women Jesus had been raised (no mention of telling the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee—Red Flag #14). The women return to tell the disciples what they observed (Unlike Matthew, no meeting with Jesus happens on the way—Red Flag #15) but were not believed. However, Peter does go to the tomb to confirm that Jesus’ body was missing (other verses, in Luke say “some” visited the tomb, not just Peter).

Meanwhile, two disciples on the road to Emmaus meet Jesus, but they do not recognize him. Later, when they ask Jesus to eat with them, he breaks bread, and then they recognize him, but then he disappears. They quickly return to Jerusalem, where they are told Peter had also seen Jesus (the location and time are unspecified and this is not mentioned in any other Gospel, only by Paul).

Then, Jesus appears in the locked room where the disciples are gathered (seems Jesus can pass through solid walls, just like passing through the blocking stone in Matthew). There, Jesus eats fish to prove he is not a ghost. Jesus tells his disciples not to leave Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (contradicting Matthew, who told them to travel to Galilee). Later, that same day, Jesus leads the disciples out to Bethany where he ascends. If Jesus ascended on the same day as the resurrection, there is no possible way that the disciples (in Matthew) met Jesus on a mountain in Galilee (Red Flag #16).


The Gospel of John is normally dated to around 95 CE, and is considered the last gospel in the New Testament canon. As with the other gospels, it was originally anonymous, and, as with Matthew, it is not believed that the disciple John wrote this gospel.

In John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepare Jesus’ body for burial, and treat it with 100 pounds (100 Roman pounds; equivalent to 75 in today’s pounds) of aloes and myrrh, whilst women look on. This makes the idea that women would later prepare spices to “anoint” Jesus’ body completely absurd (Red Flag 17). Even Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus using spices on Jesus’ body seems redundant, as he is just going to be placed directly in a tomb, and no burial procession is contemplated. What’s more, 75 pounds of spices is a ridiculous amount, since normally 4 pounds would be sufficient. Nicodemus must have staggered carrying such an enormous weight.

Later, only Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb (Purpose unstated) where she finds the tomb open, and the body missing (contradicting Matthew). She immediately returns to tell the disciples, being convinced that the body has been moved. Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved” go to the tomb to check Mary’s report, and also find the body missing but Jesus’ linen shroud still there. The two disciples return to join the other disciples.

Mary Magdalene goes back to the tomb, and finds two men/angels at the tomb, and asks them where the body of Jesus has been taken to (obviously she still thinks Jesus’ body has been moved, not resurrected). Leaving the tomb, she encounters Jesus but does not recognize him. Thinking he is a gardener, she asks Jesus where the body was taken. Then Jesus calls Mary by name, and then she recognizes Jesus but is told not to touch him.

Notice here that, Mary Magdalene, on first reaching the tomb, has no idea that Jesus had resurrected, and only discovers this after she returns from telling the disciples Jesus’ body is missing. In Matthew, she is told straightaway by an angel at the tomb that Jesus had resurrected, and she even encounters Jesus before she meets up with the disciples (Red Flag #18).

Later, Jesus appears in the locked room to the disciples (minus Thomas). A week later, when Thomas is present, the other disciples tell Thomas that they saw the resurrected Jesus, but they are not believed. Then, Jesus again appears in the locked room and allows Thomas to touch his wounds, and then Thomas is convinced of the resurrection (This second meeting is not mentioned by any other Gospel—Red Flag #19).

Much later, seven of the disciples travel to Galilee to the Sea of Tiberius where they meet up again with Jesus who helps them to land a big haul of fish. This contradicts Luke’s account, which says Jesus ascends on the day of the resurrection, so there is no way he could have met up with the disciples in Galilee (Red Flag #20).


I believe there is enough evidence to “prove” that the Empty Tomb narrative is completely bogus, first initiated by Mark. I think his purpose was two-fold.

First, it gave the perception that Jesus had some form of honorable burial (normally denied for criminals).

Second, it gave a specific location, so that a “missing body” could be “discovered” to indicate a resurrection, since, normally, the bodies of criminals would be dumped in a mass grave or put in a communal criminal mausoleum making the discovery of a missing body unlikely.

There are enough red flags to already doubt the Empty Tomb narrative, but Mark stating the women at the tomb “said nothing to anyone” invites suspicion, and Matthew’s guards at the tomb to counter a stolen body scenario (lacking in Mark) puts the final seal on being skeptical that an Empty Tomb ever existed.

As I say in the title, this biblical claim is refuted by the Bible itself.

[Many of these arguments are detailed in Jonathan MS Pearce’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story]

David Austin is a retired Englishman now living in Australia. He is a life-long atheist who moved from being more of an apatheist when he was a guest in a church and was harangued by the pastor. He felt he needed to understand the arguments concerned that he has now studied at great length. As a former Senior Electronics Engineer working mostly in Digital Technology (with a Bachelor of Technology degree), and working in computing for so long, logic is important to his work. He is passionate about church and state separation and is active in secular groups to try to reduce the negative influences of religion in society.

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,...

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