Let’s start with the ten lines of evidence that support the factuality of Jesus’ empty tomb:
1) *Historical credibility of the burial story.* The two are closely connected. If the burial story is basically correct, both Jews and Christians would have known the site of Jesus’ tomb. If the body was still there, even if the disciples convinced themselves of Jesus’ resurrection, who would have believed them? The Jewish authorities would likely have produced the body and exposed the whole sham right away.
2) *Implications of Paul’s testimony.* One can hardly doubt that Paul accepted the fact of the empty tomb as he did the burial account. We see this from: a) the death-burial-resurrection sequence in I Cor. 15:3-5; b) the Jewish concept of resurrection; c) Paul’s Pharisaic background and language; d) the phrase “on the third day”; e) the expression “from the dead” (Rom. 4:24); f) Paul’s teaching on the resurrection and transformation of the body (I Cor. 15:35-50); and g) his belief in the imminent return of Jesus Christ (I Thess. 4:14-17). This all implies a bodily resurrection, and thus an empty tomb.
Could Paul have believed in an empty tomb if it weren’t actually so? The disciples (including Peter and James, the Lord’s brother) that he met with shortly after his conversion obviously believed that the tomb had been empty since the moment of the resurrection. If not, we would see a different direction in Paul’s theology, trying to explain the resurrection with a body still in the tomb. Furthermore, we have Paul’s use of the phrase “he was raised”, which parallels the “he is risen” from the Gospels.
We must conclude two things: a) The empty tomb tradition is reliable. There was not enough time for a legend to build by the time the formula of I Cor. 15 was drafted, and eyewitnesses to the events would have prevented it. b) By summarizing the empty tomb tradition in the I Cor. 15 formula, Paul undoubtedly knew it and testified to its reliability. If it wasn’t historical, how could Paul or any of the early Christian leaders/writers accept it?
3) *Presence of the empty tomb narrative in the pre-Markan Passion story supports its historical credibility.* Evidence for the tradition in Mark 16:1-8 being part of the pre-Markan Passion story comes from various similarities and interconnectedness between the burial narrative, the empty tomb account, the Passion story, as well as the formula of I Cor. 15:3-5. It has been argued that various references in the events indicate Jerusalem as the source for the pre-Markan Passion account and that it is presupposed in Paul’s Last Supper tradition (I Cor. 11:23-25). This would mean that the pre-Markan Passion story originated in the earliest years of the Jerusalem “church”. The account’s references to the “high priest”, without naming him, suggest that Caiaphas was still in office; this dates the tradition at no later than AD 37, Caiaphas’ last year as high priest.
4) *Mark’s use of “the first day of the week” rather than “on the third day” indicates the primitiveness of the tradition.* The “third day” motif conspicuous in the earliest Christian preaching (summarized in I Cor. 15:3-5) is completely absent in the empty tomb tradition, indicating its very early origin. A later, legendary narrative would almost definitely have incorporated the “third day” motif.
5) *Plain and non-apologetic nature of the narrative itself.* As with the burial story, the empty tomb narrative contains no specifics on the action (i.e., the resurrection) itself. Nor does it include the theological themes typical of later legends. We don’t see any of the colorful, larger-than-life imagery found in apocryphal gospels like the Gospel of Peter (e.g., a talking cross). Instead, there is just the simple, straightforward reporting of what happened.
6) *Empty tomb was discovered by women.* Even non-outcast women were second-class citizens in Jewish society at the time and were not even considered reliable witnesses in legal cases. If one male had been among those to first discover the empty tomb, he would likely have been given the credit. The fact that women were attributed the discovery makes it most probable that they were in fact the ones to make it. Why humiliate the male leaders unless they couldn’t get around the raw truth of it? Plus, those women named would be known amongst the early believers, making it difficult to associate them with some legend.
7) *Investigation by Peter & John is historically probable.* The two disciples’ visit to the empty tomb is attested not only by tradition (Luke 24:12,24 and John 20:3) but by John himself, writer of the Gospel. (That is, as an eyewitness, John could “flesh out” the traditions used.) Since there is no evidence that the disciples had already “flown” to Galilee at this time (as some critics propose), the implication is that they remained in Jerusalem as stated in the Gospels, making Peter and John’s visit quite plausible. The historicity of their visit is also strengthened by the credibility of Peter’s denial during Jesus’ trial (Mark 14:66-72); since he was in Jerusalem, surely he would want to verify the women’s story.
8) *It would have been practically impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem if the tomb was not empty.* If the disciples had not checked the tomb, the Jewish authorities surely would have. (Perhaps the Romans, as well.) When the disciples began preaching the resurrection in Jerusalem, these authorities didn’t interfere, probably because the tomb was in fact empty. Furthermore, powerful evidence comes from the fact that the Christian “church”, founded on this very belief that Jesus had physically risen from the grave, began and thrived in the very city in which He had been executed and buried.
9) *Earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.* They didn’t try to claim that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb or had been eaten by dogs in the criminals’ graveyard, as some modern skeptics have proposed. Even from the start, the explanation that the religious leaders prepared and spread was, “His disciples came during the night and stole Him away…” (Matt. 28:13) The obvious implication is that, not only was the correct tomb known, but it was indeed empty.
10) *Fact that Jesus’ tomb was not venerated as a shrine indicates it was empty.* Jewish custom was to preserve the tomb of a holy man or prophet, even venerate it as a shrine. The site’s religious significance came from the prophet’s remains entombed within. There is absolutely no trace of any such treatment of Jesus’ tomb, which makes sense if there were no remains.
In the end, we see there is good evidence that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Sunday morning by a few of His female followers. Remarkably, even two well-respected Jewish scholars, Pinchas Lapide and Geza Vermes, are convinced of the factuality of the empty tomb based on the historical evidence. Most who object today to the fact of the empty tomb find they must do so on theological or philosophical grounds, rather than historical. According to resurrection research specialist Jacob Kremer,
“By far, most exegetes hold firmly… to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.”
To be continued in Part 3…
Meanwhile, have a very Blessed Resurrection Day this coming Sunday!
Credit where credit is due: The material for defending the historical burial & resurrection of Jesus was primarily adapted from William Lane Craig’s “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in the book Jesus Under Fire, eds. J.P. Moreland and Michael J. Wilkins.