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Peter Kirby Tomb Silence

Argument from Silence

I titled this section “Argument from Silence” because I am well aware that these are arguments from silence. Whenever an argument from silence is made, the objection invariably comes “that is just an argument from silence,” perhaps accompanied by the dictum, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I am recognizing these objections explicitly from the start in order to emphasize that I do understand the nature of this type of argument.

Once the type of argument is recognized, I would maintain that there are better arguments from silence and worse arguments from silence. If this is the case, then I would argue further that not all arguments from silence are worthless, or else there could not be better ones and worse ones. Why do I think that there are some better than others? I will give two examples. Suppose I claim that I sneezed at 5:03 pm PST on December 1, 2000 while in the kitchen of my Orange County home. You search the New York Times for December 2 and find no record of this incident. That is a very bad argument from silence. Now suppose instead I claim that the sky appeared hot pink from any point on Earth for a full minute at 5:03 pm PST on December 1, 2000. You search two hundred newspapers for December 2 and find no record of this incident. That is a very good argument from silence.

I submit that at least three criteria can be used to evaluate the strength of an argument from silence. The first criterion is the presumption of knowledge. This criterion asks, how likely is it that a particular writer knew of an event if it had happened? The second criterion is the presumption of relevance. This criterion asks, how likely is it that the writer would mention this event in this document? The third criterion is applied after we have a number of different writers and documents that have been evaluated through the first two. The third one asks, how likely is it that all these documents fail to mention this event? While perhaps it would be understandable if any particular one failed to make a note of the event, the argument is strengthened by several silences when it would seem a strange coincidence for every one to happen not to mention the event.

What should be expected if the story of the discovery of the empty tomb were true concerning knowledge or awareness of this event? I have a presumption that the story would be likely to be known by any particular Christian writer. The reason for this presumption is that the writers who have been preserved are likely to have been learned in the faith, if not church leaders themselves, and thus would be likely to have heard an important tradition concerning the resurrection of Jesus such as the empty tomb story is.

What occasions would provide a likely opportunity for a mention of the empty tomb story? Those writers that discuss the basis for belief in the resurrection could have some reason to mention the discovery of the empty tomb.

Of the writers that are relevant in this regard, the apostle Paul is foremost. For this reason, the evidence of Paul will be considered separately in the next section.

But Paul is not the only Christian author who wrote letters in the first century. A letter was written from Rome to the Corinthians around the year 95. This letter fails to appeal to the historical knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus (such as the discovery of the empty tomb would provide) and prefers instead to provide assurance of the resurrection on the basis of nature, scripture, and the legend of the phoenix. The author of First Clement writes:


Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead. Let us contemplate, beloved, the resurrection which is at all times taking place. Day and night declare to us a resurrection. The night sinks to sleep, and the day arises; the day [again] departs, and the night comes on. Let us behold the fruits [of the earth], how the sowing of grain takes place. The sower goes forth, and casts it into the ground; and the seed being thus scattered, though dry and naked when it fell upon the earth, is gradually dissolved. Then out of its dissolution the mighty power of the providence of the Lord raises it up again, and from one seed many arise and bring forth fruit.

Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five hundredth year was completed.

Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird He shows us the mightiness of His power to fulfil His promise? For [the Scripture] saith in a certain place, “Thou shalt raise me up, and I shall confess unto Thee; ” and again, “I laid me down, and slept; I awaked, because Thou art with me;” and again, Job says, “Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things.”[4]

The author of First Clement also describes the beginning of the Christian religion without reference to the empty tomb.


The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the Apostles from the Christ. In both ways, then, they were in accordance with the appointed order of God’s will. Having therefore received their commands, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with faith confirmed by the Word of God, they went forth in the assurance of the Holy Spirit preaching the good news that the Kingdom of God is coming.[5]

Since there was occasion for the writer to mention the discovery of the empty tomb and the writer did not do so, this writer and document may be included among those that form the argument from silence.

It should be noted that, outside of the four gospels, all Christian documents that may come the first century mention neither tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea nor the subsequent discovery of such a tomb as empty. Although there may have been no particular reason for any one of these writers to mention the story, it could be argued that, if they all accepted the story, perhaps one of them would have entered a discussion that would mention the empty tomb story. For example, if there were a polemic going around that the disciples had stolen the body, one of these early writers may have written to refute such accusations. In any case, it is necessary to mention these documents if only to note that there is no conflicting evidence that would show that the empty tomb story was an early or widespread tradition since the argument from silence would be shown false if there were. Here is a list of these early documents:


  1. 1 Thessalonians
  2. Philippians
  3. Galatians
  4. 1 Corinthians
  5. 2 Corinthians
  6. Romans
  7. Philemon
  8. Hebrews
  9. James
  10. Colossians
  11. 1 Peter
  12. Ephesians
  13. 2 Thessalonians
  14. Jude
  15. The Apocalypse of John
  16. 1 John
  17. 2 John
  18. 3 John
  19. Didache
  20. 1 Clement
  21. 1 Timothy
  22. 2 Timothy
  23. Titus
  24. The Epistle of Barnabas

Indeed, outside of the four canonical gospels, the Gospel of Peter is the only document before Justin Martyr that mentions the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea or the discovery of the empty tomb. If the Gospel of Peter as it stands is considered to be dependent on the canonical gospels, then there is no independent witness to the empty tomb story told in the four gospels.

This, then, is the argument from silence. The writers of the foregoing documents would be likely to have been aware of the empty tomb story if it were true as opposed to a late legend or gospel fiction. If all these writers were aware of the empty tomb story, there is some reason to think that one of them would have mentioned the empty tomb story. Because none of them did, the argument from silence provides a reason to think that the empty tomb story is false. This does fall short of proof, but this should be given consideration as admissable historical evidence. If this were the only count against the empty tomb and there were very strong evidence for the empty tomb, then the judgment would fall in favor of the empty tomb. Nonetheless, this argument should be placed on the scales so that a complete assessment of the evidence is made.

There is a different argument from silence, and this one is sometimes made by those who support the historicity of the empty tomb. James D. G. Dunn expresses this argument in these words:


Christians today of course regard the site of Jesus’ tomb with similar veneration, and that practice goes back at least to the fourth century. But for the period covered by the New Testament and other earliest Christian writings there is no evidence whatsoever for Christians regarding the place where Jesus had been buried as having any special significance. No practice of tomb veneration, or even of meeting for worship at Jesus’ tomb is attested for the first Christians. Had such been the practice of the first Christians, with all the significance which the very practice itself presupposes, it is hard to believe that our records of Jerusalem Christianity and of Christian visits thereto would not have mentioned or alluded to it in some way or at some point.[6]

I agree with Dunn up to this point but cannot agree with his conclusion:


This strange silence, exceptional in view of the religious practice of the time [of meeting at the tomb of a dead prophet], has only one obvious explanation. The first Christians did not regard the place where Jesus had been laid as having any special significance because no grave was thought to contain Jesus’ earthly remains. The tomb was not venerated, it did not become a place of pilgrimage, because the tomb was empty![7]

This conclusion is highly illogical. I agree that it would be most reasonable to conclude that early Christians did not know that Jesus was resting in his tomb because we would then expect tomb veneration. I agree that this is evidence against knowledge of a full tomb. But I would state further that this is equally evidence against knowledge of an empty tomb. It is plain to see that the site of the tomb of Jesus would become a site of veneration and pilgrimage among early Christians regardless of whether it were full or empty. The factors of nagging doubt, pious curiousity, and liturgical significance would all contribute towards the empty tomb becoming a site of intense interest among Christians. Contrary to Dunn, the obvious explanation is that early Christians had no idea where Jesus was buried. Peter Carnley writes:


I must confess that I do not understand this argument which suggests that the grave in which Jesus had been laid would have been interesting to Christians had Jesus’ body been found in it, but of no continuing interest even as the site of the resurrection, if it was found empty! Apart from the fact that a lack of early interest in the site of the tomb would also be congruent with the thesis that by the time the kerygma reached Jerusalem the site of the tomb could not be located, the pious interest in the alleged site of the Holy Sepulchre in our own day seems to render such an argument completely impotent.[8]

Like Dunn, Craig also accepts the “fact that Jesus’s tomb was not venerated as a shrine” as an indication in favor of the empty tomb.[9] Again, however, if it is granted that there was no tomb veneration among early Christians, the correct conclusion is that early Christians did not know where the tomb of Jesus was. This argument is effective not only against a full tomb theory but also against an empty tomb theory. As Craig states at one point in his essay, “Indeed, is it too much to imagine that during his two week stay Paul would want to visit the place where the Lord lay? Ordinary human feelings would suggest such a thing.”[10] Indeed, is it too much to imagine that other early Christians would have the same ordinary human feelings as Paul would? Raymond Brown states, “A particular reason for remembering the tomb of Jesus would lie in the Christian faith that the tomb had been evacuated by his resurrection from the dead.”[11] Thus, it is extremely likely that an empty tomb would become a site of veneration from the very start of Christianity. For this reason, the fact that there was no tomb veneration indicates that the early Christians did not know the location of the tomb of Jesus, neither of an empty tomb nor of a full tomb.

The best way to avoid this conclusion is, I think, to assert that there was tomb veneration despite the silence of any first, second, or third century writers on such an interest. However, as Dunn and Craig would agree, this is unlikely. So this consideration provides evidence against the empty tomb story.




[4] 1 Clement 24-26. Quoted from Roberts-Donaldson 1885. Available online at <URL:http://www.ccel. org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-05.htm>.

[5] 1 Clement 42:1-3. Quoted from Roberts-Donaldson 1885. Available online at <URL:http://www.ccel. org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-05.htm>.

[6] James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus: The Impact of Scholarship on our Understanding of How Christianity Began (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 67-68.

[7] Dunn, ibid., p. 68.

[8] Peter Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 58.

[9] William Lane Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewiston: E. Mellen Press, 1989), p. 372.

[10] William Lane Craig, “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus.” (<URL:http://www.origins.org/offices/billcraig/docs/tomb2.html>, 1985).

[11] Raymond Edward Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave: a Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 1281.