THE EMPTY TOMB April 7, 2014

Beyond debate, the Christian church was founded on Christ’s Resurrection. What can surprise though is how interpretations of that event differ even within the New Testament itself. As I think over these ideas, I’d like to state an issue, and ask for a response. And I really am asking: this is not a rhetorical question.

Here’s the question. Outside the four gospels, does any part of the New Testament refer to the idea of Christ’s empty tomb?

For many modern Christians, the accounts of Resurrection are so obvious as to be beyond discussion. On the first day of the week, the  women found Christ’s tomb empty, with the body gone, and shortly afterwards, they received heavenly witnesses proclaiming Resurrection – perhaps from angels, or Christ himself. All four gospels offer some such account, although Mark’s is curtailed in mid-story. All four gospel writers believed absolutely in the empty tomb theme. For most Christian apologists in modern times, that fact is overwhelming proof of the Resurrection, and the ultimate truth of Jesus’s claims. This is evidence that demands a verdict.

All the New Testament writings believe in Christ’s survival beyond death, in some kind of Resurrection. To the best of my knowledge, though, other than the gospels, none refers to that empty tomb story. That does not necessarily mean that they do not know the story, or do not believe it, but they do not use it anything like a modern apologist would. Why not?

The best-known silence on this issue is from Paul himself, whose belief system depended absolutely on the truth of Resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). But he never once refers to the empty tomb.

Plenty of other New Testament documents assert that Jesus lives, Jesus is the Christ, and has some direct and special relationship to God; but they fail to mention an empty tomb. For the author of Hebrews, Jesus died and now serves as a high priest before God, “the God of Peace who brought again from the dead (ho anagagon ek nekron) our Lord Jesus.” James speaks of the “Lord Jesus Christ”, but nothing specific about Resurrection or the tomb. Even in the Johannine epistles, Jesus is the Son of God and the Christ; but nothing about the tomb, or indeed about Resurrection.

One of the oddest examples of this silence is from Acts, which all scholars acknowledge to be by the same author as Luke’s Gospel, and in fact part of a double volume, Luke-Acts. Luke’s gospel includes the account of the empty tomb and the women (ch. 24). Yet in Acts, the same author never once cites the story. It never appears in the sermons or discourses attributed to the apostles, as they try to spread faith in the Resurrection. Trying to fill the gap, some point to the supposed parallel with David’s tomb in Acts 2.29-33, but even if that is why the phrase is used there, it’s incredibly allusive and non-specific. I simply do not think the passage should be taken in that context. If that is the closest we can find to an empty tomb reference in Acts, it’s pallid in the extreme.

Many scholars of Acts believe that these sermons faithfully reflect the content of early Christian preaching as it would have existed in the later first century. But if that’s true, it’s curious that Peter or Paul never ask their audiences how they explain the mysterious empty tomb. Even if they were embarrassed about using the evidence of women, why do those early preachers not cite the male apostles who entered the tomb?

Why the silence?

Let me pose the problem. From the time of Mark’s gospel, around 70, the empty tomb became central to the Resurrection narrative, so central in fact that Jews evolve rival stories to account for the absence of Jesus’s body (Matt. 28. 11-15). The story evidently mattered in religious polemic. Over the next thirty years or so, the story is repeated in various forms in three other gospels. Yet even Luke, who knows the story, makes no use of it in Acts. Before the 90s, moreover, (the time of Matthew and Luke), the one account that we do have of the empty tomb does not refer to visions of a bodily risen Jesus at or near the site.

Where is the empty tomb story before 70?

Suppose I face an atheist critic, who makes the following argument. Yes, he says, early Christians believed that they encountered the risen Jesus, that they had visions, but these visions had no objective reality. They just arose from the hopes and expectations of superstitious disciples. Even then, Christians saw that Resurrection in spiritual, pneumatic, terms. Only after a lengthy period, some forty years in fact, did the church invent stories to give a material, bodily basis to that phenomenon, and the empty tomb was the best known example.

How can I respond? Help me.


Browse Our Archives