Easter Doubt: Why Was Jesus’ Tomb Not Venerated?

To follow on from my Matthew’s guards post, here is another problematic scenario for the Easter story.

Thinking about the tomb, in the context of the last post, it is incredibly suspect that the place of the greatest spiritual and religious significance in the whole world seems not to have been venerated (at least not until the 4th century CE onwards). This then prompts these questions:

1) Was Jesus actually buried in a tomb?

2) Was the position of the tomb unknown?

And these sorts of questions lead onto others, such as

3) Did the death of Jesus actually happen as reported?

4) Did the resurrection take place?

So let us look at the veneration of the tomb, or lack thereof.

By veneration, I mean the worship or religious and spiritual respect given to (dead) people or places deemed as important to the religion or cult. In Catholic traditions, veneration of Saints has been a long-held tradition. Places like Lourdes garner particular reactions from Christians, and stories involving the spiritual powers and importance of such places abound. What we need to do is look at Judaism, since this is the bedrock upon which Christianity was built.

There are certainly records of Jewish veneration of tombs such as Joseph’s tomb dating back to around the 5th century CE and Rachel’s tomb to the 4th century CE. Thus, if such traditions did not pre-exist Christianity, then it was the Christians who brought veneration into the spiritual spotlight.

However, Raymond Brown, Catholic exegete, notes:

“There was in this period an increasing Jewish veneration of the tombs of the martyrs and prophets.”

To which William Lane Craig adds:

“During Jesus’s time there was an extraordinary interest in the graves of Jewish martyrs and holy men and these were scrupulously cared for and honored.”

As Jesus himself says, in castigating the Pharisees (Matthew 23):

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous”

As Nicholas de Lange agrees:

Of the many Jewish shrines of the Middle East, some of which are undoubtedly of very great antiquity, the most famous were traditionally the supposed tombs of the prophet Ezekiel at el-Kifl and of Ezra the Scribe at Kurna, both in Babylonia (modern Iraq).

Furthermore, Jews have always seemed to venerate ancient scrolls of the Torah, and buildings such as the Temple.

So I think we can successfully conclude that Jews did venerate sites and even artifacts. Would it then seem likely that early Jewish Christians would give the tomb of Jesus any such veneration? Absolutely. Remember, this is probably the greatest site of spiritual interest in the world. Bar none. This is where God, incarnate in man and dying nearby, was given life again to rise into heaven magnificently in order to pay for our sins and give us hope. It also acts as the birthplace, if you like, for the entire Christian religion. It would be insane to think that the site would not be venerated and given special accord.

empty tomb

Let us ask whether the site would be known and remembered. The tomb was that of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. Even if one didn’t know exactly where this tomb was, one could surely find out. His description within the New Testament hints at him being of some notoriety. Moreover, there are a number of people who visited the tomb who clearly HAD to have been, in some way, the sources to the resurrection accounts. Whether it was Mary, the other Mary, Salome or Simon Peter, we have a number of candidates who qualify for having such geographical knowledge. It would be strange if they could recount all the details of the resurrection to their fellow Apostles and disciples, and yet somehow forgot where it took place. This is almost a moot point since in describing the visitors to the tomb, it is clearly implicit that they knew where it was.

So if they knew where it was, and if they were culturally and spiritually highly likely to venerate the spot, why didn’t they? Let us look briefly at reasons why they would not want to do so.

The only real reason one can posit that they would not venerate the site is out of fear for their safety. The Sanhedrin had already, perhaps, placed a guard through worrying about such a site. They had sentenced this man (-God) to death and venerating such a tomb might get one into trouble. This is again a somewhat moot point since they (the early Christians) show later disregard for their own safety, dying, apparently, with relative ease for their beliefs. Such veneration, of course, would not have to be public, either. A secret pilgrimage of one or two local Christians would be well understood. And yet we have nothing. Not a single word about the tomb after the resurrection had taken place. As the Christian movement grew and gained credence, any such knowledge, kept within the early communities, of the site of the tomb would certainly have resulted in later veneration of the site. But nothing ensued.

Other reasons have been given, but they get the Christian into trouble. For example, as Byron McCane states:

The shame of Jesus’ burial is not only consistent with the best evidence, but can also help to account for an historical fact which has long been puzzling to historians of early Christianity: why did the primitive church not venerate the tomb of Jesus? Joachim Jeremias, for one, thought it inconceivable (undenkbar) that the primitive community would have let the grave of Jesus sink into oblivion.

The shame of a dishonourable burial, as McCane espouses, not only contradicts the Gospel accounts (I think he is right here), but would not stop the followers from venerating the tomb unless it was completely unknown. Thus the resurrection accounts themselves would be deemed as false under this theory. It certainly fits a good critical analysis from nontheists, and hardly does the theist any favours.

As James Dunn offers (The Evidence for Jesus: The Impact of Scholarship on our Understanding of How Christianity Began (London: SCM, 1985), pp. 67-68.):

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.

The problem for Dunn is that he goes on to reason that this lack of veneration in the early church was because there were no bones in the tomb, which is simply nonsense.

So the only real conclusion one can draw is that the early Christians simply did not know where the site of the tomb was. Where does this leave us? Well, one of these following further conclusions must follow:

1) The later Gospel writers made up such claims, thus the place did not really exist, and the resurrection accounts should be wholly doubted as accurate.

2) Jesus did die, but was actually buried in an unknown grave (a shallow grave) as is accustomed for a dishonourable burial.

3) Jesus did not exist. Similar to 1, but that the whole gamut of Gospel claims is false.

Any other ad hoc (Christian) rationalisation is simply not good enough – it doesn’t answer the question well enough, the question “Why was the tomb of Jesus, God incarnate, not venerated?”


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