Was Jesus’ Tomb Empty?

There are a surprising number of facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection that are accepted by both Christian and non-Christian scholars such as the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion and the fact that Jesus’ disciples claimed to have seen him alive again and were willing to die for this claim. Another element of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that his tomb was found empty. There is strong evidence to suggest that Jesus’ tomb was in fact empty, so much so that, according to scholar Gary Habermas the majority of New Testament scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, accept it as fact.

Peter von Cornelius - The Three Marys at the Tomb

Why should we believe that Jesus’ tomb was empty?

Jesus was a well-known public figure who suffered a gruesome and very public execution in Jerusalem. Jesus and his followers had powerful enemies in Jerusalem both with the Jewish religious leaders and the Romans. And yet, fifty days after his crucifixion, Jesus disciples began publicly proclaiming his resurrection in Jerusalem. Given their hatred of Jesus and his followers, this would have been an opportune time for the Jewish religious leaders to easily discredit the disciples by producing Jesus’ dead body.

This would have been easy enough. The location and owner of the tomb were known to the religious authorities; indeed, Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus was laid, was a Pharisee himself who followed Jesus and a member of the Jewish religious leadership. Jesus’ enemies knew where he was buried, had every motivation to produce Jesus’ body to stop his disciples and yet they do not, most likely because they cannot…the tomb was empty.

Further evidence of an empty tomb comes, remarkably, from those opposed to Christianity. Early church apologists and theologians Justin Martyr and Tertullian wrote against those who accused Christians of stealing Jesus’ body. Matthew 28:12-13 states that the chief priests cooked up the story that the disciples had come by night and taken Jesus’ body. So, in the early days of Christianity there was never any doubt that Jesus’ tomb was empty, the argument was over why it was empty; was it the resurrection or had Jesus’ followers stolen the body?

It should be mentioned that the tomb was guarded and the disciples had absolutely no motivation to steal the body. The disciples did not have a full understanding of what was going to happen until after the resurrection. Indeed, the very concept of a Messiah that would die was not easily understood as we can see in John 12. Furthermore, the disciples were persecuted and many even killed for proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. It seems absurd to think that they would steal his body, concoct a lie about him rising from the dead, and then be willing to suffer and die for this lie. What would they gain from this? Nothing. No, even if they could have taken Jesus’ body despite the guards, the disciples had no motivation to do so. It is absurd to claim that they did.

Finally, an interesting twist on the evidence for the empty tomb is that the first witnesses of the empty tomb were women. This is an interesting twist because in both Jewish and Roman cultures of the time, women were looked down on and their testimony seen as not credible. If the disciples had made up the story about the resurrection, why would they put forth as the primary witnesses a group of women whose testimony would immediately be seen as questionable? It would be much more likely to have a prominent man like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus function as a witness. But no, the first and primary witnesses of the empty tomb are a group of devoted women followers of Jesus. This detail actually supports the truthfulness of the biblical account.

Of course, as Habermas and Licona point out in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, the empty tomb by itself is not evidence enough for Jesus’ resurrection. But the empty tomb does not stand alone, it is part of a body of facts. Jesus was crucified. His disciples claimed to have seen him alive again after his crucifixion. The disciples were willing to suffer and die for this claim. Jesus’ tomb was empty. Paul, a persecutor of the church was changed after he claimed to have had an encounter with the risen Jesus and became a strong proponent of Christianity. James, Jesus’ half-brother who doubted Jesus messianic role during his lifetime, became a leader of the church after a what was claimed as an encounter with the risen Jesus.

These are facts that nearly every New Testament scholar, both Christian and non-Christian, accept. If these are the facts, what is the best explanation that fits all the facts. The best and only explanation that can account for all these facts is that Jesus was crucified and after three days rose from the dead and that he appeared to witnesses who were willing to attest to what they saw and heard, even under pain of death.

Jesus is alive!

 

Additional Resources

There are some great resources to learn more about the facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, The Case for Easter, The Historical Jesus, The Case for Christ, and Evidence that Demands a Verdict are all great books that can help both Christian and skeptic alike gain a better understanding of the evidence for the resurrection.

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2 thoughts on “Was Jesus’ Tomb Empty?

  • ‘Given their hatred of Jesus and his followers, this would have been an opportune time for the Jewish religious leaders to easily discredit the disciples by producing Jesus’ dead body.’

    I’m honestly at a loss to see how producing a body that would have been unrecognisable by that time would have helped discredit Jesus’s followers. What it would have done very thoroughly, however, would have been to discredit the people who opened the grave to produce this body.

    Under Jewish law, respect for dead bodies was important. Removing a body from a grave to show it to others would have been considered a sin and a crime (the two were pretty much synonymous under a legal system that was considered to have been originally laid down by God). Even if producing a (excuse me) decomposing or mummified body would have somehow helped discredit the Christian faith, why would people who were steeped in the Jewish law have committed such an offence just to discredit one cult?

    In Acts 5, we’re told that that Gamaliel (who was probably the most honoured of all the Jewish leaders of that time) spoke out in favour of leaving the Christians to do what they were doing, on the (to them) very sensible and logical grounds that if this new teaching wasn’t from God, it was doomed to fail anyway. We’re told that the rest of the Jewish council accepted this advice. Why would rabbis who felt this way take the extraordinary step of breaking the Jewish law in a way that wouldn’t help matters but would utterly rebound on them, as well as being against the very beliefs they held so dear?

    • Hi Dr. Sarah, thank you for your thoughtful reply! It sounds like you have given this some thought. As far as how producing a body might have discredited Jesus’ followers, they claimed that his tomb was empty and that he had risen from the dead. If the tomb had contained any sort of human remains, even unrecognizable, would have cast doubts on their claims and surely dissuaded some from joining them.

      I agree with you that the Jews would have taken burial very seriously. However, the Jewish law, as far as I have read, does not have any prohibitions about opening graves or handling dead bodies. Numbers 19 describes the purification process for those who had touched a corpse but I have not found anything that would prohibit the opening of a tomb. Maybe you have done more research into this than me, can you tell me where in the law this is? There are several examples in the Bible of people opening tombs and taking out the body. In Exodus 13:19 Moses takes the bones of Joseph with him as they leave Egypt. In 2 Samuel 21, David takes the bones of Saul and Jonathan back from the Philistines. So, I’m not sure that the religious leaders who opposed Jesus and his followers would have had any prohibition from the religious law for opening Jesus’ tomb. The tomb also belonged to Joseph of Arimathea who was both a follower of Jesus and a member of the Sanhedrin so he would have been opening a tomb that belonged to him.

      Even if there was something in the law which would have prohibited them from opening Jesus’ tomb, we have plenty of examples where the leaders put aside the law when it was in their best interest. The Jewish leaders sought to kill Jesus and Lazarus which contradicts the commandment given to Moses not to murder (though, at least in Jesus’ case they saw him as a blasphemer). In John 7, the chief priests and Pharisees send soldiers to arrest Jesus. When they return empty handed, Nicodemus reminds the chief priests that the law requires a trial and investigation, at which they reply mockingly. It seems they were willing to put aside the law when it came to putting a stop if Jesus.

      It is true that in Acts 5 Gamaliel counsels them to let Jesus’ followers be, advice which they follow at the moment. But the very next chapter in Acts 6, they have seized Stephen, interrogated him and stone him to death. In Acts 9, Saul of Tarsus obtains warrants from the chief priests to seek out and arrest Jesus’ followers. It does not seem that they heeded this advice for long.

      Anyway, that was a lengthy reply, but I guess what I am trying to say is that based on what we know of these leaders, what they thought of Jesus, and that there weren’t any prohibitions from opening a tomb, I don’t think they would have hesitated from refuting the claim of the empty tomb, if they were able.

      Thanks again for your reply! By the way, are you from the UK? Just asking based on your spelling :). I spent several great years there, so just curious!

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