Introduction to the Issue

There is a longstanding debate over the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus. Because many competent critics do not think that the historical evidence justifies belief in the empty tomb, it is fair to say that scholarship is divided on this point.[1] At the same time, many critics do accept the historicity of the empty tomb; moreover, as shown by the work of William Lane Craig, those who accept the historicity of the empty tomb tend to have written most extensively on the subject. Most of the comments from skeptics touch upon one or another aspect of the issue, but a skeptical study of the empty tomb story comparable in scope to the apologetic of W.L. Craig is something that I have not been able to find.[2] I have decided to write this essay in order to provide such a study. My first purpose in writing is to draw together the various strands of reasoning that support the skeptic's position into a single work. Secondly, I will provide a point-by-point refutation of Craig's arguments. Finally, I will evaluate the relative merit of the two positions in light of the historical evidence.

As in all debates, the first thing to do is to define the matter under debate. Murray J. Harris writes:

 

When we speak of the 'empty tomb,' we are referring to the Christian claim that on the third day after Jesus had been crucified, his body was no longer to be found in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where he had been buried.[3]

It is to this claim that the attention of this essay is directed.

A few presuppositions will be accepted in this essay. First, it is accepted that there was a historical Jesus, known to his disciples such as Peter, who was crucified by Pontius Pilate around the time of Passover c. 30 CE. Second, it is accepted that at least seven epistles of Paul are genuine: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thesslaonians, and Philemon. Third, it is accepted that the canonical Gospels appeared in the period during or after the First Jewish Revolt c. 70 CE. Fourth, it is accepted Matthew and Luke depend upon Mark. These presuppositions are generally accepted as sound by exegetes and are outside the scope of this essay, as they properly belong to the province of New Testament introduction.

This essay will defend a particular reconstruction of the events subsequent to the crucifixion of Jesus. This reconstruction will be outlined here. Either the body of Jesus was left to rot on the cross, or the body of Jesus was consigned to a criminal's shallow grave. Either way, the followers of Jesus did not have access to the body after the crucifixion. The followers of Jesus returned to Galilee after the Passover. While in Galilee, Peter and other disciples experienced visions of Jesus and came to believe that Jesus had been raised to the right hand of the Father. Believing that Jesus would soon be coming to establish the Kingdom of God, the disciples returned to Jerusalem in order to await his coming and to spread the gospel. While they may have believed that Jesus had risen physically and may have answered that the grave of Jesus must have been emptied if asked, the basis of the resurrection belief was the visions, and there were no traditions of the discovery of an empty tomb in the fledgling church. The story of the empty tomb was the invention of the author of Mark, or perhaps the immediate pre-Markan tradition, and the subsequent evangelists expanded on the empty tomb story as told by Mark.


Notes

[1] A list of 20th century writers on the NT, with references to relevant works, who do not believe that the empty tomb story is historically reliable: Gunther Bornkamm (Jesus of Nazareth), Rudolf Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition), Peter Carnley (The Structure of Resurrection Belief), John Dominic Crossan (The Birth of Christianity), Michael Goulder (Resurrection Reconsidered), Hans Grass (Ostergeschehen and Osterberichte), Charles Guignebert (The Christ), Uta Ranke-Heinemann (Putting Away Childish Things), Randel Helms (Gospel Fictions), Herman Hendrickx (Resurrection Narratives), Roy Hoover (Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment?), Hans Kung (On being a Christian), Alfred Loisy (The Birth of the Christian Religion), Burton Mack (A Myth of Innocence), Willi Marxsen (Jesus and Easter), Gerd Ludemann (What Really Happened to Jesus? A Historical Approach to the Resurrection), Norman Perrin (The Resurrection according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), John Shelby Spong (Resurrection: Myth or Reality?), and Rev. John T. Theodore (Who Was Jesus?). A list of other people who doubt that the empty tomb story is historical: Marcus Borg, Gerald Boldock Bostock, Stevan Davies, Maurice Goguel, Helmut Koester, Robert Price, Marianne Sawicki, and Howard M. Teeple. The majority of these twenty-seven writers are professing Christians. While I am not approving the use of an appeal to authority, this incomplete list is provided in order to offset the commonly advanced appeal to authority in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb. Even then, it is superfluous, for the appeal to authority is fallacious from the start.

[2] I don't know of any extensive skeptical work on the empty tomb in English. Based on references made to it, I think the closest thing might be Hans Grass' Ostergeschehen, but I am not able to read German. Jeffery Jay Lowder has independently written a rebuttal to Bill Craig's empty tomb apologetic titled "Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story" (<URL:http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html>, 2001), accessed 11 May 01.

[3] Murray J. Harris, From Grave to Glory: Resurrection in the New Testament: Including a Response to Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 107.

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