The Empty Tomb of Jesus – A True Story?


The Empty Tomb of Jesus

Ever seen that movie, Risen? It’s all about how a Roman soldier named Clavius was ordered to find Jesus’ body after it went missing shortly after the crucifixion. Although the movie is fiction, the premise is based on a true story: The story of Jesus’ empty tomb. You get a few seconds of it portrayed at the end of The Passion of the Christ, too.

Most historians and New Testament scholars actually agree that Jesus’ tomb was found empty by his women followers. Still, many of our skeptical friends have their doubts. Was the tomb really empty?

I don’t know about you, but I tend to get a lot of questions about the empty tomb of Jesus around Easter time because of something my skeptical relatives may have seen on TV or online. How can we respond to people who say we shouldn’t trust the stories about Jesus’ empty tomb in the Bible?


Talking About the Empty Tomb of Jesus

Is the Empty Tomb a True Story?

Is the Empty Tomb a True Story?

Today, we live in a society where the Bible isn’t often seen as the answer. Rather, the Bible is often the question in the minds of many people. Some want to know if there are good reasons to believe what the Bible says about Jesus’ empty tomb. But saying something like “It’s true because it’s in the Bible,” doesn’t help a lot of the time. That’s why we need to show our skeptical friends not that it’s true because it’s in the Bible, but that it’s in the Bible because it’s actually true.

There’s a big difference there. Approaching our friends for whom the Bible isn’t seen as an authority like this is one way to be more generous and loving in our spiritual conversations.

In this post, I’ll share a few talking points you can use in conversations about the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb. Is there any historical evidence that suggests Jesus was buried? What’s the ancient data that supports the idea that women found Jesus’ tomb empty?


Evidence for the Burial of Jesus

Joseph of Arimathea

In order for the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb to be a true story, he would have to have been buried. So let’s start with the burial story. The Gospel According to Mark mentions a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea (a city in Judea) who arranged for Jesus’ body to be buried (15:43-45). According to John 19:38, this man was a secret disciple of Jesus while maintaining his position as a member of the Sanhedrin–the same group that brought Jesus to Pilate to be condemned (although he most likely wasn’t at Jesus’ Jewish examination). Is this character really as historically implausible as some skeptics insist?

Think about it like this: If you’re going to make up a fake story about someone arranging for Jesus’ body to be buried in his own tomb, why say he was a part of the very group that condemned Jesus and called him a blasphemer and turned him over to Pilate to be crucified? Why bother even giving him a name when there were people living in Jerusalem who actually knew the members of the Sanhedrin? Why put this group in any kind of a positive light at all? Unless that’s how things really went down. Indeed, it seems unlikely that the earliest Christians made up the report about Joseph of Arimathea and his involvement in Jesus burial.

Objection to the Burial of Jesus

The Empty Tomb or A Shallow Grave?

Was Jesus buried in a tomb or dumped in a shallow grave?

Some skeptics like John Dominic Crossan have recently suggested that Jesus’ body wasn’t buried at all, but was either left on the cross to be eaten by birds or thrown in a ditch and eaten by dogs. This probably happened for many crucifixion victims. However, the Gospel writers say Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. How likely is it that they were outright lying about this?

We don’t have any ancient sources saying Jesus was not buried and the historical evidence seems to tell us that Jesus was probably buried. For example, The Jewish historian Josephus notes that many Jews did in fact bury their crucifixion victims before sundown (Jewish Wars 4.5). This makes sense in light of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which commanded Jews to bury criminals who were hung on trees before sundown. The idea that Joseph of Arimathea arranged for Jesus’ burial in a tomb doesn’t seem far fetched at all in light of this practice. 

But what about the report that his body went missing the Sunday after his burial? Here are a couple of talking points you can use in a conversation about the empty tomb of Jesus.


Evidence for the Empty Tomb of Jesus

The Preaching of the Ancient Church

Preaching about Jesus' Empty Tomb

The ancient church preached about Jesus’ death, burial & resurrection.

It’s tough to imagine that the earliest Christians would go around Jerusalem saying Jesus’ tomb was empty unless Jesus’ tomb was really empty. And yet, this is exactly what they did. This coheres with the existence of an ancient creed–a succinct, memorized formula–that was put together before any New Testament documents were ever written.

The Apostle Paul quotes this creed, which mentions Jesus’ burial and implies the empty tomb, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised up on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve…”

This creed shows us the core of the earliest apostolic preaching in Jerusalem (1 Cor 5:11). If there was a body in the tomb, people in Jerusalem would know it and that would be the end of the story. It would be pretty tough for the Christian church to even get up off the ground in Jerusalem if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. But this is exactly where the church started and experienced explosive growth.

The Testimony of Women

Did Women Really Discover Jesus' Empty Tomb?

Did Women Really Discover Jesus’ Empty Tomb?

While there might be some variation in how the gospel writers report the discovery of  Jesus’ empty tomb, the fact that women are specifically mentioned argues against this being a made-up story. Why? Because in the Jewish culture of the first century, women weren’t seen as reliable witness. They couldn’t be witnesses in court, except in rare cases. You see this sentiment show up in later documents like Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:8, “A woman is not eligible to bring any evidence.” If you were going to invent a fake story about Jesus’ tomb being found empty, why say the witnesses women?

This doesn’t sound like the best idea for keeping hope alive for the movement of a dead Messiah. Everyone would be skeptical about a resurrection story right off the bat. Why make it seem less credible by saying the people who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb were women….unless women were really the ones who made this monumental discovery?

This fact fits what scholars call the criterion of embarrassment. It’s the idea that the gospel writers wouldn’t make up a story like this because it would make the report seem less credible to the original audience. In fact, when it came time to condense the witnesses down to the creed we find cited in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 (written between AD 56 and 57), you only have male witnesses specifically named. This seems to corroborate the idea that most people in the ancient world saw the guys’ testimony as the ones that really counted.

Objection to the Empty Tomb of Jesus

objection-to-jesus-empty-tombStill, some skeptics look at the different reports about the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb and say the Gospel writers must have contradicted one another. For example, Matthew’s report identified a couple of women named Mary (28:1-10).  In Mark, we’ve got a couple Mary’s and a woman named Salome (Mark 16:1-10). And then in Luke, the two Mary’s and another woman named Joanna (Luke 24:1-10). John’s report mentions just one Mary (John 20:1-3). Is this an example of a contradiction in the Bible?

Not at all. You’re almost sure to get some variance when you have more than one person describing the same event. All this shows is that each Gospel writer didn’t decide to specifically report the names of every witness. It’s not like one author says women found the tomb empty and another author says the women anointed Jesus’ corpse! That’s what a real contradiction looks like. So, what we’ve got here are complimentary rather than conflicting reports.

The Gospel authors all say a group of women discovered Jesus’ empty tomb but each author only identifies certain people in the group. So what? Imagine for a minute, you’ve got Mary Magdalene, Mary (Jesus’s mom), Mary (James’ mom), Salome, and Joanna all discovering Jesus’ empty tomb. This scenario makes sense of the four descriptions of the discovery of the empty tomb. Despite some differences in the details, Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree there were at least two women named Mary and other women present. More importantly, they all agree that the women found Jesus’ tomb empty. This is the core of the historical fact supported by these ancient authors.

Conclusion on the Empty Tomb of Jesus

The historical data suggests Jesus was buried and that women found Jesus’ tomb empty. If a historical Roman soldier was really tasked with finding Jesus’ corpse, he wouldn’t have succeeded in his mission any more than the character of Clavius in Risen. Why? Christians believe that the physical resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the historical facts surrounding the resurrection reports, including the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb.

I hope you can use one or two of these talking points in your next conversation about Jesus’ empty tomb around Easter time. But instead of saying, “It’s true because it’s in the Bible,” let’s help our skeptical friends see that the report of Jesus’ empty tomb is in the Bible because it’s actually true.


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