By L. Alfred James
We are currently in a series of blog posts that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. After reviewing some arguments for God’s existence we observed that Christianity is a historical religion, a grace-filled religion, and that it played a major role in birthing modern science. We also took a brief detour to look at the evidence for an Intelligent Designer of the universe, along with the common claim that we live in a multiverse.
This week, there is another distinction of Christianity that I want to highlight as I begin to bring this series to a close. To see this distinction, consider the individual founders of four of the great world religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. (Just FYI: Hinduism is not attributed to an individual founder).
- Judaism’s founder, Abraham, died circa 1900 B.C. His body is entombed in Hebron.
- Buddhism’s founder, Buddha, died circa 480 B.C. He was cremated, and his remains are enshrined in different sites in Sri Lanka and India.
- Islam’s founder, Mohammad, died in 632 A.D. His body is entombed in Medina.
- Christianity’s founder, Jesus, died circa 30 A.D. He was buried in a tomb. But the tomb is empty. His body is no longer there.
I know what some of you might be thinking, “Big deal. Jesus’ body probably went missing within a couple of years. There have been plenty of bodies throughout history that have gone missing. Jesus’ body is just one more to add to the list.”
But I want to provide you with evidence that Jesus’ tomb is not merely empty today, but that it was known to be empty within a couple of days after his death, and that no one stole his body. Consider the evidence:
- The Jewish Authorities Did Not Produce Jesus’ Body.
The Jewish leaders had a vested interest in squelching the Christian movement. This movement was making them look very bad. The first Christians were excitedly proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah, and that these Jewish leaders had killed him! Everything about Christianity was undermining their authority. Therefore, if Jesus’ body were in the tomb they could have easily squelched this movement by simply producing the body. All they had to do was bring out Jesus’ dead body, point at it, and say, “Look! He isn’t risen. He’s still dead!”
Why didn’t they do that? The most likely reason is also the most obvious reason: Jesus’ body was not in the tomb.
- The Earliest Jewish Propaganda Presupposed That The Tomb Was Empty.
Matthew records the talking points of the religious leaders:
When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:12-15)
The Jews had fabricated a story to refute the proclamation that Jesus was risen. This prompts a very important question: Why would they try to come up with an explanation as to why the tomb was empty if the tomb was not empty?1
- The First Eyewitnesses Of The Empty Tomb Were Women
The fact that the empty tomb was discovered by women makes its historicity highly probable. Why is that? Because women were second-class citizens. They were not considered a reliable source of information. This is evident in Rabbinical sayings from ancient Israel. Two famous sayings are:
“Blessed is he whose children are male. But woe to him whose children are female.”
“Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women.”
In fact, the historian Josephus reported that women were not allowed to testify in a court of law because they were believed to be so unreliable.
Let’s just suppose, for the sake of argument, that Jesus’ disciples lied. Suppose that this whole story is made up. If that were the case then it was really naïve of them to tell folks that the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb were women. Such a move was hopelessly stupid on their part. It made the entire account seem way less credible. It turned off lots of their contemporaries. Indeed, the first thought of many first-century readers was surely something like this: “Women are the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb? Well that sounds pretty dumb. Why should I believe that?” It would be like fabricating an event in today’s newspapers and telling the world that your eyewitnesses are all four years old.
Instead of ascribing such severe stupidity to the gospel writers, it is more realistic to assume that they were just telling the plain and simple truth. Yup, it was awkward for them to report it, but it was what really happened. Women were the first eyewitnesses.
- The Body Was Not Stolen
When I’ve shared this information with skeptics they have sometimes said, “But Jesus’ body was probably stolen. That is why the tomb was empty.”
There is a fascinating passage in the gospel accounts that makes that theory virtually impossible. Look at what John wrote about the empty tomb:
And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. (John 20:6-7)
The “linen wrappings” and “face-cloth” are the burial clothes. They are what Jesus’ body was buried in. This seemingly minor detail refutes the claim that Jesus’ body was stolen. Why do I think this? Because of two conclusions we can draw:
- Jesus’ body could not have stolen by his friends. It would have been very crude, demeaning, and dishonoring to Jesus for them to strip his body naked and then tote him around in the nude.
- Jesus body could not have been stolen by his enemies.
- They would never have gone to the trouble to remove the burial clothes from Jesus’ body at the tomb. This would have taken a long time and made them much more likely to be caught in their illegal scheme.
- Removing the burial clothes also removed all of the perfumes and preservatives that would have kept the body from smelling. They certainly would not want Jesus’ carcass to stink horribly while they are transporting it.
- Finally, it is almost certain that they would not have gone to the trouble to neatly roll up the face cloth that is mentioned in John 20:7.
The Tomb Really Was Empty
Geza Vermes was a highly respected biblical scholar. He was Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies of Wolfson College within the University of Oxford. And he was one of the very first scholars who was allowed to examine and evaluate the Dead Sea Scrolls. In light of much of the foregoing evidence, he said that he believed in the empty tomb:
The evidence furnished by female witnesses had no standing in a male-dominated Jewish society. In fact, according to Luke, the apostles poked fun at the women. Furthermore, the identity and number of the witnesses differ in the various Gospels, as does also their testimony. Yet it is clearly an early tradition. If the empty tomb story had been manufactured by the primitive Church to demonstrate the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus, one would have expected a uniform and foolproof account attributed to patently reliable witnesses.2
That is a powerful statement from a revered scholar. Vermes’ credentials alone make this statement worthy of everyone’s consideration. But there is one more thing I failed to mention. Vermes was not a Christian. He was actually Jewish. His own religious convictions were not motivating him to assert the historicity of the empty tomb. Rather, as a scholar he was just honestly admitting that the historical evidence for the empty tomb of Jesus makes it very hard to deny.
Thus, another distinction of Christianity is that its founder’s tomb is unlike the tombs of the other founders of world religions. This tomb is empty.
1. Someone might object by saying, “Matthew just made this up! There was no such rumor circulating.” Well, if you know anything about the history of Matthew you know that that is not very likely. Matthew wrote his gospel to try to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. So, if he is here saying, “There’s this rumor circulating among the Jews that Jesus’ disciples stole his body,” and then the Jews read it and say, “I’ve never heard of that rumor. There’s no such rumor circulating,” then Matthew has just lost a lot of credibility with the very people he is trying to persuade. He would have come across as a myth-maker, and not as a historian.
Thus, it seems very probable that this was a real statement broadcast by the Jewish authorities, and this statement implies that the tomb really was empty.
2. Geza Vermes, The Resurrection: History and Myth (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 140.