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The Empty Tomb: Fact or Fiction?

Dr William Lane Craig, PhD, first heard the message of the Christian gospel and yielded his life to Christ at the age of sixteen as a junior in high school. He obtained his doctorate at Birmingham University and his D.Theol from the University of Munich. He is now Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California.

An examination of both Pauline and gospel material leads to eight lines of evidence in support of the conclusion that Jesus' tomb was discovered empty…

1. Paul's testimony [1 Cor 15] implies the historicity of the empty tomb. Few facts could be more certain than that Paul at least believed in the empty tomb. But the question now presses, how is it historically possible for the apostle Paul to have presupposed so confidently the empty tomb of Jesus if in fact the tomb were not empty? Paul was in Jerusalem six years after the events themselves [Gal 1:18-19]. The tomb must have been empty by then. But more than that, Peter, James, and the other Christians in Jerusalem with whom Paul spoke must have also accepted that the tomb was found empty at the resurrection. It would have been impossible for the resurrection faith to survive in face of a tomb containing the corpse of Jesus. The disciples could not have adhered to the resurrection; even if they had, scarcely any one would have believed them; and their Jewish opponents could have exposed the whole affair as a poor joke by displaying the body of Jesus. Moreover, all this aside, had the tomb not been empty, then Christian theology would have taken an entirely different route than it did, trying to explain how resurrection could still be possible, though the body remained in the grave. But neither Christian theology nor apologetics ever had to face such a problem. It seems inconceivable that Pauline theology concerning the bodily resurrection could have taken the direction that it did had the tomb not been empty from the start. But furthermore, we have observed that the 'he was raised' in the formula [1 Cor 15:3b-5] corresponds to the empty tomb periocope in the gospels, the egegertai mirroring the egerthe. This makes it likely that the empty tomb tradition stands behind the third element of the formula, just as the burial tradition stands behind the second. Two conclusions follow. First, the tradition that the tomb was found empty must be reliable. For time was insufficient for legend to accrue, and the presence of the women witnesses in the Urgemeinde would prevent it. Second, Paul no doubt knew the tradition of the empty tomb and thus lends his testimony to its reliability. If the discovery of the empty tomb is not historical then it seems virtually inexplicable how both Paul and the early formula [1 Cor 15:3b-5] could accept it.

2. The presence of the empty tomb pericope in the pre-Markan passion story supports its historicity. The empty tomb story was part of, perhaps the close of, the pre-Markan passion story. According to Pesch, geographical references, personal names, and the use of Galilee as a horizon all point to Jerusalem as the fount of the pre-Markan passion story. As to its age, Paul's Last Supper tradition (1 Cor 11. 23-25) presupposes the pre-Markan passion account; therefore, the latter must have originated in the first years of existence of the Jerusalem Urgemeinde. Confirmation of this is found in the fact that the pre-Markan passion story speaks of the 'high priest' without using his name (14. 53, 54, 60, 61, 63). This implies (nearly necessitates, according to Pesch) that Caiaphas was still the high priest when the pre-Markan passion story was being told, since then there would be no need to mention his name. Since Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18-37, the terminus ante quem for the origin of the tradition is A.D. 37. Now if this is the case, then any attempt to construe the empty tomb account as an unhistorical legend is doomed to failure…

3. The use of 'the first day of the week' instead of 'on the third day' points to the primitiveness of the tradition. The tradition of the discovery of the empty tomb must be very old and very primitive because it lacks altogether the third day motif prominent in the kerygma, which is itself extremely old, as evident by its appearance in 1 Cor 15. 4. If the empty tomb narrative were a late and legendary account, then it could hardly have avoided being cast in the prominent, ancient, and accepted third day motif. This can only mean that the empty tomb tradition ante-dates the third day motif itself. Again, the proximity of the tradition to the events themselves makes it idle to regard the empty tomb as a legend. It makes it highly probable that on the first day of the week the tomb was indeed found empty.

4. The nature of the narrative itself is theologically unadorned and non-apologetic. The resurrection is not described, and we have noted the lack of later theological motifs that a late legend might be expected to contain [(1) the proof from prophecy, (2) the in-breaking of the new eon, (3) the ascension of Jesus' Spirit or his descent into hell, (4) the nature of the risen body, and (5) the use of Christological titles.] This suggests the account is primitive and factual, even if dramatization occurs in the role of the angel. Very often contemporary theologians urge that the empty tomb is not a historical proof for the resurrection because for the disciples it was in itself ambiguous and not a proof. But that is precisely why the empty tomb story is today so credible: because it was not an apologetic device of early Christians; it was, as Wilckens nicely puts it, 'a trophy of God's victory'. The very fact that they saw in it no proof ensures that the narrative is substantially uncolored by apologetic motifs and in its primitive form.

5. The discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable. Given the low status of women in Jewish society and their lack of qualification to serve as legal witnesses, the most plausible explanation, in light of the gospels' conviction that the disciples were in Jerusalem over the weekend, why women and not the male disciples were made discoverers of the empty tomb is that the women were in fact the ones who made this discovery. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that there is no reason why the later Christian church should wish to humiliate its leaders by having them hiding in cowardice in Jerusalem, while the women boldly carry out their last devotions to Jesus' body, unless this were in fact the truth. Their motive of anointing the body by pouring oils over it is entirely plausible; indeed, its apparent conflict with Mk 14. 8 makes it historically probable that this was the reason why the women went to the tomb. Furthermore, the listing of the women's names again precludes unhistorical legend at the story's core, for these persons were known in the Urgemeinde and so could not be associated with a false account.

6. The investigation of the empty tomb by the disciples is historically probable. Behind the fourth gospel stands the Beloved Disciple [Jn 21:24], whose reminiscences fill out the traditions employed. The visit of the disciples to the empty tomb is therefore attested not only in tradition but by this disciple [Jn 20]. His testimony has therefore the same first hand character as Paul's and ought to be accepted as equally reliable. The historicity of the disciples' visit is also made likely by the plausibility of the denial of Peter tradition, for if he was in Jerusalem, then having heard the women's report he would quite likely check it out. The inherent implausibility of and absence of any evidence for the disciples' flight to Galilee render it highly likely that they were in Jerusalem, which fact makes the visit to the tomb also likely.

7. It would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty. The empty tomb is a sine qua non of the resurrection. The notion that Jesus rose from the dead with a new body while his old body lay in the grave is a purely modern conception. Jewish mentality would never have accepted a division of two bodies, one in the tomb and one in the risen life. When therefore the disciples began to preach the resurrection in Jerusalem, and people responded, and the religious authorities stood helplessly by, the tomb must have been empty. The fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus' resurrection, could come into existence and flourish in the very city where he was executed and buried seems to be compelling evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.

8. The Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. From Matthew's story of the guard at the tomb (Mt. 27. 62-66; 28. 11-15), which was aimed at refuting the widespread Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body, we know that the disciples' Jewish opponents did not deny that Jesus' tomb was empty. When the disciples began to preach that Jesus was risen, the Jews responded with the charge that the disciples had taken away his body, to which the Christians retorted that the guard would have prevented any such theft. The Jews then asserted that the guard had fallen asleep and that the disciples stole the body while the guard slept. The Christian answer was that the Jews had bribed the guard to say this, and so the controversy stood at the time of Matthew's writing. The whole polemic presupposes the empty tomb. Mahoney's objection, that the Matthaean narrative presupposes only the preaching of the resurrection, and that the Jews argued as they did only because it would have been 'colorless' to say the tomb was unknown or lost, fails to perceive the true force of the argument. The point is that the Jews did not respond to the preaching of the resurrection by pointing to the tomb of Jesus or exhibiting his corpse, but entangled themselves in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain away his empty tomb. The fact that the enemies of Christianity felt obliged to explain away the empty tomb by the theft hypothesis shows not only that the tomb was known (confirmation of the burial story), but that it was empty. (Oddly enough, Mahoney contradicts himself when he later asserts that it was more promising for the Jews to make fools of the disciples through the gardener-misplaced-the-body theory than to make them clever hoaxers through the theft hypothesis. So it was not apparently the fear of being 'colorless' that induced the Jewish authorities to resort to the desperate expedient of the theft hypothesis.) The proclamation 'He is risen from the dead' (Mt. 27. 64) prompted the Jews to respond, 'His disciples ... stole him away' (Mt. 28. 13). Why? The most probable answer is that they could not deny that his tomb was empty and had to come up with an alternative explanation. So they said the disciples stole the body, and from there the polemic began. Even the gardener hypothesis is an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. The fact that the Jewish polemic never denied that Jesus' tomb was empty, but only tried to explain it away is compelling evidence that the tomb was in fact empty.

Taken together these eight considerations furnish powerful evidence that the tomb of Jesus was actually found empty on Sunday morning by a small group of his women followers. As a plain historical fact this seems to be amply attested. As Van Daalen has remarked, it is extremely difficult to object to the fact of the empty tomb on historical grounds; most objectors do so on the basis of theological or philosophical considerations. But these, of course, cannot change historical fact. And, interestingly, more and more New Testament scholars seem to be realizing this fact; for today, many, if not most, exegetes would defend the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus, and their number continues to increase.

© William Lane Craig 1985
Source: Excerpts from William Lane Craig, ‘The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus’ New Testament Studies 31 (1985) pp39-67 is used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the author.