History Lesson

Do We Know if There Was Really An Empty Tomb?

What makes Jesus different from the prophets of the world’s other great religions? The claim that he rose from the dead and left behind an empty tomb. But how much do we know about it?

The discovery of the empty tomb presupposes that there was a tomb in the first place, and that it was known, and of course that it was discovered. But if serious doubt is cast on whether there ever was a tomb, then the accounts of its discovery are similarly thrown into doubt. Christian apologists often argue that the discovery of the empty tomb is one of the most secure historical data from the history of the early Christian movement. I used to think so myself. But it simply isn’t true. Given our suspicions about the burial tradition, there are plenty of reasons to doubt the discovery of an empty tomb.

Among other things, this means that historians who do not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead should not feel compelled to come up with an alternative explanation for why the tomb was empty. Apologists typically have a field day with such explanations. Anyone who says that the disciples stole the body is attacked for thinking that such moral men who firmly believed what they did could never have done such a thing. Anyone who says that the Romans moved the body is shouted down with claims that they would have had no reason to do so and would have produced the body if it had been theirs to produce. Anyone who says that the tomb was empty because the women went to the wrong tomb is maligned for not realizing that it might occur to someone else—for example, an unbeliever—to go to the right tomb and reveal the body. Anyone who claims that Jesus never really died but simply went into a coma and eventually awoke and left the tomb is mocked for thinking that a man who was tortured to within an inch of his life could roll away a stone and appear to his disciples as the Lord of life, when in fact he would have looked like death warmed over.

I don’t subscribe to any of these alternative views because I don’t think we know what happened to the body of Jesus. But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all “probability.” Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability. Of course, it’s not likely that someone innocently moved the body, but there’s nothing inherently improbable about it. Of course, it’s unlikely that one of Jesus’s followers stole the body and then lied about it, but, well, people do wrong things all the time and lie about it. Even religious people. Even people who become religious leaders. And no one should be put off by the claim, “No one would be willing to die for what he knew to be a lie.” We don’t know what happened to most of the disciples in the end. We certainly have no evidence that they were all martyred for their faith. On the contrary, almost certainly most of them were not. So there is no need for talk about anyone dying for a lie. (Moreover, we have lots of instances in history for people dying for lies when they think it will serve a greater good. But that’s neither here nor there: we don’t know how most of the disciples died.) My point is that one could think of dozens of plausible scenarios for why a tomb would be empty, and any one of these scenarios is, strictly speaking, more probable than an act of God.

But all of this is beside the point, which is that we don’t know whether the tomb was discovered empty because we don’t know whether there even was a tomb.

In this connection I should stress that the discovery of the empty tomb appears to be a late tradition. It occurs in Mark for the first time, some 35 or forty years after Jesus died. Our earliest witness, Paul, does not say anything about it.

Would Anyone Invent the Women at the Tomb?

Christian apologists often argue that no one would make up the story of the discovery of the empty tomb precisely because according to these stories, it was women who found the tomb. This line of reasoning believes that women were widely thought of as untrustworthy and, in fact, their testimony could not be allowed in courts of law. According to this view, if someone wanted to invent the notion of a discovered tomb, they would be sure to say that it was discovered by credible witnesses, namely, by the male disciples.

I used to hold this view as well, and so I see its force. But now that I’ve gone more deeply into the matter, I see its real flaw. It suffers, in short, from a poverty of imagination. It does not take much mental effort to imagine who would come up with a story in which the female followers of Jesus, rather than the male followers, discovered the tomb.

The first thing to point out is that we are not talking about a Jewish court of law in which witnesses are being called to testify. We’re talking about oral traditions about the man Jesus. But who would invent women as witnesses to the empty tomb? Well, for openers, maybe women would. We have good reasons for thinking that women were particularly well represented in early Christian communities. We know from the letters of Paul—from passages such as Romans 16—that women played crucial leadership roles in the churches: ministering as deacons, leading the services in their homes, engaging in missionary activities. Paul speaks of one woman in the Roman church as “foremost among the apostles” (Junia in Rom. 16:7). Women are also reputed to have figured prominently in Jesus’s ministry, throughout the Gospels. This may well have been the case, historically. But in any event, there is nothing implausible in thinking that women who found their newfound Christian communities personally liberating told stories about Jesus in light of their own situations, so that women were portrayed as playing a greater part in the life and death of Jesus than they actually did, historically. It does not take a great deal of imagination to think that female storytellers indicated that women were the first to believe in the resurrection, after finding Jesus’s tomb empty.

Moreover, this claim that women found the empty tomb makes the best sense of the realities of history. Preparing bodies for burial was commonly the work of women, not men. And so why wouldn’t the stories tell of women who went to prepare the body? Moreover, if, in the stories, they are the ones who went to the tomb to anoint the body, naturally they would be the ones who found the tomb empty.

In addition, our earliest sources are quite clear that the male disciples fled the scene and were not present for Jesus’s crucifixion. As I stated earlier, this may well be a historical fact—that the disciples feared for their own lives and went into hiding or fled town in order to avoid arrest. Where would they go? Presumably back home, to Galilee—which was more than one hundred miles away and would have taken at least a week on foot for them to reach. If the men had scattered, or returned home, who was left in the tradition to go to the tomb? It would have been the women who had come with the apostolic band to Jerusalem but who presumably did not need to fear arrest.

Moreover, one can imagine strictly literary reasons for “inventing” the women at the empty tomb. Let’s suppose that Mark invented the story. I personally don’t think he did; there is no way to know, of course, but my suspicion is that Mark inherited the story from his tradition. But suppose he did invent it. There would be plenty of reasons, just from his literary perspective, to do so. The more you know about Mark’s Gospel, the easier it is to think of reasons. I’ll give just one. Mark makes a special point throughout his narrative that the male disciples never understand who Jesus is. Despite all his miracles, despite all his teachings, despite everything they see him do and say, they never “get it.” And so at the end of the Gospel, who learns that Jesus has not stayed dead but has been raised? The women. Not the male disciples. And the women never tell, so the male disciples never do come to an understanding of Jesus. This is all consistent with Mark’s view and with what he is trying to do from a literary standpoint.

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Again, I’m not saying that I think Mark invented the story. But if we can very easily imagine a reason for Mark to have invented it, it doesn’t take much of a leap to think that one or more of his predecessors may also have had reasons for doing so. In the end, we simply cannot say that there would be “no reason” for someone to invent the story of women discovering the empty tomb.

The Need for an Empty Tomb

In short, there are lots of reasons for someone wanting to invent the story that Jesus was buried in a known tomb and that it was discovered empty (whoever would have discovered it). And the most important is that the discovery of the empty tomb is central to the claim that Jesus was resurrected. If there was no empty tomb, Jesus was not physically raised.

I want to stress that adjective. Without an empty tomb, there would be no ground for saying that Jesus was physically raised. As we will see more fully in the next chapter, some early Christians believed that Jesus was raised in spirit but that his body decomposed. Eventually, this view came to be prominent among different groups of Christian Gnostics. We can see evidence of its presence even in the communities of the authors who produced our canonical Gospels. The later the Gospel, the more the attempt to “prove” that Jesus was raised bodily, not simply spiritually. In our earliest Gospel, Mark, Jesus is clearly raised physically because the tomb is empty—the body is gone. Later, in Matthew, it is even clearer that Jesus is raised physically (not just in his spirit) because Jesus appears to his followers and some of them touch him (Matt. 28:9). In Luke it is even clearer because when Jesus appears to his disciples, he flat-out tells them that he has flesh and bones, unlike “a spirit,” and he tells them to handle him to see for themselves (Luke 24:39—40). Then he eats some food in front of them to convince them (24:41—43). Later still in John, Jesus not only cooks a meal for the disciples (John 21:9—14), but when one of them doubts, he invites him to place his finger in his wounds to know for sure that it is he and that he has been raised physically from the dead, wounds and all (20:24—29).

Some Christians doubted that the resurrection was a physical affair. The Gospels that made it into the New Testament—as opposed to a number that did not—stress that the resurrection was indeed the resurrection of Jesus’s physical body. These debates may have been raging in early Christian communities from the beginning. If so, then the empty tomb tradition not only worked to show unbelievers that Jesus was resurrected, it worked to show believers that the resurrection was not a matter just of the spirit but of the body as well.

This article is excerpted from How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, published by HarperOne in March 2014. It has been reprinted with the permission of the publisher.