Friday, April 15, 2011

The Empty Tomb Revisited

From time to time people ask, "what is the central truth of Christianity?" Is it God is love? Is it love thy neighbor? In reality, the most important and central truth of the Bible is that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:19). Among the so-called "minimal facts" case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the empty tomb is by far the most perplexing for skeptics and the most wonderful for believers. It seems there are good reasons to hold that Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of his female followers on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion. More than that, it seems virtually compelling. Let's revisit some of the important facts surrounding this "empty tomb."

1. After his crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb (Matt. 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-42).

Joseph of Arimathea was one of the bad guys. Being part of the Sanhedrin, no early Christian legend would have ever wanted to portray a Pharisee as a good guy! Jesus' burial is testified to in an early tradition itself. 1 Cor. 15:3-5 includes the very early tradition, repeated by Paul, that Jesus was crucified and buried. Note the words "delivered" and ":received." This indicates it dates back to before Paul's conversion (which was less than five years after Christ's death). If Jesus had not been buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, we surely would have heard an alternative story within that timeframe!

2. Note the people who discovered Jesus' tomb empty: a group of his female followers.

In this society, women were not even allowed to function as reliable witnesses in court! Jewish men would hardly have invented a story in which they were not the original finders of the empty tomb. Such an embarrassing detail makes it very probable, historically speaking, that this indeed happened. Hence, there was an empty tomb after all.

3. 1 Cor. 15:3-5 presupposes the empty tomb.

In this particular portion of Scripture, Paul is offering an early tradition he had received as a polemic. It must be pointed out Paul said he received the Gospel itself from Jesus Christ, then spent three years in Arabia/Damascus, and then went to "see" Peter in Jerusalem (1:18-19). This word is only used once, and is the Greek word ιστορησαι. This word means to "investigate" literally. What he was investigating is the apostles' claims themselves (cf. 1:19-2:2) There's no reason to suppose Paul is contradicting himself here. Habermas points out "Paul was so careful to assure the content of his Gospel message, that he made a second trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1-10) specifically to be absolutely sure that he had not been mistaken (2:2)." (Dialog: Experiences of the Risen Jesus)

Further, Paul uses παρεδωκα and παρελαβον, which are "formulaic" words used in the practice of introducing sayings ("delivered" and "received"). Next, the proper name of "Cephas" is used, instead of the predominantly used "Peter" by even the time of Paul's writing (to say nothing of later interpolation). The three-fold και οτι, or "and that," seems to be an oral tradition. This is why Habermas mentions even skeptics affirm a date in the 30s.

4. Next, the Jewish anti-Christian polemic presupposes the empty tomb.

Now, at first, some people may be surprised by this. But think about it: If Jesus' tomb was not empty (and hence occupied, presumably, by Jesus), why say "the disciples stole the body?" in response to the Christian claim he had risen? Why not just say "he's over here!"?

In Matthew 27:62-66 and 28:11-15, the chief priests expected the disciples to steal the body, and bribed the guards to say so. Now let's assume the story is embellished in Matthew. All that makes sense to make up is the guard story in response to the charge the disciples had stolen the body. There's no need to mention bribing of the guard. Craig mentions, "This arises only when the Jewish polemic answers that the guard had fallen asleep, thus allowing the disciples to steal the body. The sleeping of the guard could only have been a Jewish development, as it would serve no purpose to the Christian polemic." ("The Guard at the Tomb," New Testament Studies, 30)

Indeed, if the entire "guard polemic" (or any part) were a lie they would need only point that out! Craig:"it is even more improbable that confronted with this palpable lie, the Jews would...proceed to create another lie, even stupider, that the guard had fallen asleep while the disciples broke into the tomb and absconded with the body. If the existence of the guard were false, then the Jewish polemic would never have taken the course that it did...It would never have come to the point that the Christians had to invent a third lie, that the Jews had bribed the fictional guard...Rather the real value of Matthew's story is the incidental...information that Jewish polemic never denied that the tomb was empty, but instead tried to explain it away. Thus the early opponents of the Christians themselves bear witness to the fact of the empty tomb." (ibid)

There is a strong case for the empty tomb. This Easter, Christians should be grateful both for the fact of the empty tomb itself, bearing witness to the fact God raised Jesus from the dead for our sins (and not ours only, but that of the whole world), but also that there are compelling reasons to believe this. Skeptics should take another look at the evidence, and take another look at their hearts. Have you ever done anything morally wrong? If you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for these moral wrongs (that we call "sin"), believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and want redemption from your sins, you can have it. All you have to do is ask.

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  1. If the story of the empty tomb were unknown prior to the gospel of Mark, its author would have had to deal with the question from readers "Why haven't we heard this story before." By putting women in a prominent role, he gave himself a perfect explanation, "No one knew about it for a long time because those silly unreliable women ran away without telling anyone."

  2. Thanks for commenting Vinny! The antecedent clause is paramount here. The story just does predate Mark (even on the earliest dating of a mid-40s timeframe)! Remember the "delivered" and "received" motif being passed on by Paul, having received it within just a few years (cf. use of "Cephas" and not Peter, which had fallen out of use even by the time of Paul's conversion).

    Further, even if we grant the antecedent as true (notwithstanding this would seem to entail the Resurrection's being false, and hence the antecedent is question-begging), we just don't see this kind of embarrassing embellishments in legends. Historically, legends have great embellishments favoring the hero and good guys; Mark's writing of the story would explain why they did not hear it, but it would not explain why he wrote it at all. Why take the time to do it? It has become no less embarrassing. In short, it's implausible, it assumes what it tries to prove, it's counter to history, and it is unfalsifiable (that is, it assumes any evidence which would count in its historical favor are fabricated for that purpose, in effect counting as evidence against it).


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