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Here is another guest piece by the inimitable David Austin, this time on the topic of the Empty Tomb.

The “Empty Tomb” & The “Minimal Facts” argument

The “Empty Tomb” claim has been the mainstay of Christian apologists’ arguments for a long time. The apologists love to say, whenever the resurrection is challenged by a skeptic “But, how do you account for the Tomb being empty?”.

It also underpins the “Minimal Facts” argument for the physical Resurrection of Jesus by many apologists including Gary Habermas & William Lane Craig. Even agnostics like Bart Ehrman (a renowned New Testament scholar) had accepted the historicity of this claim, but now the thinking on this claim seems to have shifted.

Gary Habermas now removes this claim from his six important minimal “facts”, and now cites it as a seventh “fact”, but accepts that it is supported by a lesser number of researchers. Mike Licona, a well-respected apologist, now says that the “Empty Tomb” cannot be accepted as a “bed-rock” historical claim, and Bart Ehrman has changed his opinion about it being a verifiable historical claim.

This seems to be because:-

  1. details of the treatment of Roman crucifixion victims has been studied more deeply, and
  2. persistent skeptical scrutiny around the gospel accounts.

For (a) It seems that depriving the victim of an honourable burial was part of the humiliation of the miscreant, since the main reason for executing a seditionist by crucifixion was to send a strong deterrent message for anyone considering challenging the ruling Roman authorities. Usually, the victim’s body was left on the cross to be attacked by animals or birds, before being buried in a mass grave, criminal graveyard, or a criminal mausoleum. No mourning rites were allowed. It is very unlikely that Jesus’s body would have been entombed, although it is possible his body was removed shortly after death by a pious Jew, as Jews were allowed certain “freedoms” to follow certain Jewish practices, even under Roman rule. An entombment was very unlikely as the tomb would have been thought of as being “defiled” if it held the body of a criminal.

For (b) Skeptical analysis of the early Christian writings (ie The Epistles of Paul, and the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John plus Acts) has brought up various objections to the “Empty Tomb” narrative, since there are wide dis-similarities between the different gospels. (eg. How many women went to the tomb, what were their names, what/who did they see there, what were the actions of the Disciples etc etc)

Paul is the earliest source available and in 1st Corinthians 15:3-4 he states:-

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”.

The phrase “he was buried” is ambiguous, and does not necessarily imply an entombment.

Mark’s gospel is considered the earliest of the four gospels in the “New Testament”, and is the first time an “Empty Tomb” is referenced.  It is thought likely that Mark, or one of his sources, introduced the “Empty Tomb” for two reasons:-

  1. To imply that Jesus received an “honourable” burial, as befits a “Messiah”, and
  2. To enable a “missing body” claim, since the body’s location would have been known. (If buried in a graveyard or mausoleum it could not be claimed the body had gone missing, if the exact location was unknown)

Mark ends his gospel with the words “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”. This is often considered to be a “plot device” to explain why no-one had heard of the “Empty Tomb” before Mark included it in his gospel.

It seems that Mark had not thought this through exhaustively, as it appears critics of Mark’s story were saying something to the effect “Maybe the tomb was empty because the Disciples stole the body, and just claimed Jesus resurrected”.

It seems likely that this was the trigger for Matthew to claim in his Gospel that, Roman guards were posted at the tomb to defend against this possibility. However, this introduces more problems than it solves, when considering that, the guards had a “front-row” seat to the most amazing miracle in history (A dead body coming back to life after 3 days). Even after this experience, they did not convert to Christianity, and, in addition, they were easily bribed to “forget” the whole incident. This makes absolutely no sense.

Luke, wisely, does not include this dubious claim by Matthew, instead focussing on Jesus’s appearance to two Disciples on the “Road to Emmaus”, an appearance to Peter (unspecified time & location) and later in the “locked room” to all the Disciples. He still included an “Empty Tomb” narrative, since it was already a motif in both Mark & Matthew’s gospels.

John, too, does not endorse Matthew’s claim, and still has Mary Magdalene going to the tomb, and two disciples visiting there and confirming a missing body. Thus, he would have included the “Empty Tomb”, as the motif had already been established.

It is interesting to consider the ramifications of discarding the “Empty Tomb” from the various gospel narratives.

Straight-away, the Gospels of Mark & Matthew can be ignored for “proof” of the resurrection since:-

  1. Mark’s original gospel (ignoring verses 16:9-20, which are not in early manuscripts) has no post-mortem sightings of Jesus, only a man at the tomb telling the women to tell the Disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee. However, the women, supposedly, did not pass on this message, so it is moot whether any of the Disciples witnessed the risen Jesus. With no “Empty Tomb”, this whole section can be discarded.
  2. Matthew has the post-mortem sightings of the risen Jesus at the Tomb (by the two women), and by the Disciples at a mountain in Galilee. If there was no tomb for the women to visit, and thus no instruction for the disciples to visit Galilee, it is moot whether any post-mortem sightings of Jesus occurred at all, according to this gospel.

So already, half the gospels have been eliminated for having no relevance to the sightings of the risen Jesus.

Luke has no sightings of the risen Jesus at the tomb, just the women encountering two men/angels. The women, supposedly, report back to the disciples, but their story is not believed. Later, Luke has sightings by two disciples on the “Road to Emmaus”, an appearance to Peter, and, finally, an appearance to all the disciples in a “locked room”. After this encounter, Jesus “ascends” that same day (although “Acts”, supposedly also written by Luke, has Jesus only ascending after 40 days).

John has Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Jesus at the tomb, and also two disciples visiting the tomb, confirming it was empty. Presumably, these events can now be rejected if there was no tomb. John then has two appearances of Jesus, about a week apart, in a “locked room”, and later an encounter with seven disciples at the “Sea of Galilee”.

So, if there was no “Empty Tomb” then, there were no women visiting a non-existent tomb, so any such mention in any gospel can be ignored. Maybe, this is the reason Paul makes no mention of any women in his list of witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection as detailed above. One small positive, to deleting any reference to women visiting the tomb, is that it removes the contradiction between Matthew’s narrative regarding the actions of Mary Magdalene, and that of John’s description of her actions (Matthew has Mary being told, at the tomb, Jesus had risen, and then she meets him upon leaving the tomb, whereas John has Mary arriving at the tomb and finding the body missing. She then jumps to the, reasonable, conclusion that the body had been moved, having no clue he had resurrected).

As stated above, the “Empty Tomb” has been a mainstay of Christian apologetics when claiming there is convincing “evidence” for the resurrection. Apologists will probably still claim there is still enough evidence to “prove” the resurrection, even if the “Empty Tomb” is discounted. The truth is, the “evidence” has always been very weak, so removing this “fact”, makes it even weaker, and makes it even less convincing to skeptics.

[JP – please grab my book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK], which goes into much detail about the whole narrative.]

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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,...