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.


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  • Just Sayin’

    Matthew and Luke may be significantly earlier, there’s a whole enormous scholarly debate about that, the 90s being only where most consensus rests *currently*. Plus the debate about their sources other than Mark, etc. Plus the debate about whether Paul mentions the resurrection or not, around the 50s, and on and on it goes!

  • philipjenkins

    “Debate” about whether Paul mentions the Resurrection? Excuse me?

  • Jakeithus

    According to William Lane Craig:

    “The old tradition cited by Paul in I Cor. 15.3-5
    implies the fact of the empty tomb. For any first century Jew, to say
    that of a dead man “that he was buried and that he was raised” is to
    imply that a vacant grave was left behind.”

    Maybe that’s not as strong as you are looking for, since it rest on an implication rather than a firm expression, but it makes sense to me.

    I can think of some other supporting arguments. The lack of the early disciples turning Jesus’ burial site into some sort of shrine or place of worship speaks to the lack of anything left to worship. The strength of this argument rests on whether or not you believe Jesus would have received a proper burial, or if he was unceremoniously dumped into an unmarked grave (I don’t buy that argument, but certain scholars like it because it defeats the need to explain the empty tomb).

    A stronger argument in my mind is that the stories we do have from the first century all seem to be fairly consistent. If the stories surrounding Jesus’ burial and resurrection were simply fictitious, I think you would find numerous accounts with a wide range of facts, as different stories would emerge out of different communities, rather than a consistent: death on a cross, burial by Joseph, discovery of an empty tomb on the 3rd day, with a lack of obvious embellishments, that we see in all the earliest sources.

  • philipjenkins

    See, that’s my issue. I don’t think that “he was raised” in the context of first century Judaism would necessarily have had that implication.

  • philipjenkins

    I also ask: “discovery of an empty tomb on the 3rd day” would be a very big deal indeed. How come no New Testament writer refers to the fact for 40 years or so afterwards?

  • Jakeithus

    Perhaps not, that would be up to New Testament scholars and historians to determine the most likely implication.

    I must confess, as I type this, I am also reading your biography, and see that you are very much the type of expert who I would turn to to help determine my own position in the debate, so beyond pointing to a lack of scholarly consensus, I’m not sure what else I can add on this point.

    (Knowing your background, it also gives me hope that the question posed in the blog is of the type to stimulate thought, and that if you have your own answer to this question it will be made known)

  • Jakeithus

    Well, the verse I quoted from Paul in 1 Corinthians makes reference to the fact that he rose on the 3rd day. That would likely be the 1st recorded reference and would appear to have been in place 20-25 years afterwards.

    My first thought was that you were objecting to the line about it taking place on the 3rd day, but it’s likely that you were referring to Paul specifically not mentioning the empty tomb. I must confess, that personally, if the resurrection was non-bodily, stating that it took place on the 3rd day doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but maybe there are ways that the earliest disciples could determine at what point Jesus was risen without reference to his actual body that were never recorded anywhere, and that I cannot think of otherwise.

    I think what Paul’s references to the resurrection and Christ being raised show is that there was an early understanding amongst Christians to the story of the resurrection. Some points like the 3rd day aspect were maintained in Gospel accounts, which helps show that Paul was familiar with the story. If the resurrection story was understood by and was working for the earliest Christians, why invent an empty tomb aspect that doesn’t exist in the earliest accounts, and where is the opposing account from the first century that teaches a spiritual resurrection instead?

    As to why Paul didn’t feel the need to reference an empty tomb, I cannot say for sure. Maybe it was such a well known part of the story of Jesus’ resurrection that Paul felt no need to add it? If we base what the earliest church thought of Jesus simply on what we read in Paul, then the answer is not very much, but just because Paul doesn’t mention something doesn’t mean that everything written later is an addition.

  • dougchaplin

    I think the nearest that Paul comes is in his convoluted discussion of bodies in 1 Cor 15. It is the body, which is transformed, no longer being animated by “soul” but by “spirit”. Clearly the language of body steers Paul away from any more obviously Platonic models of psyche / soul. Whether that language is sufficient to make a Pauline belief in an empty tomb probable is open to discussion, but I’m inclined to think that given the range of options open to him, it does.

    I would be inclined to adduce one further general pattern in support of this. As far as we can tell, Jesus’ resurrection is interpreted in the earliest texts as a foretaste of a cosmic transformation of the material world. It may modify the Pharasaic and more general apocalyptic understanding of resurrection by applying that language to an individual rather than a universal and corporate aspect, but it doesn’t seem to modify the understanding of it as what we call a “physical” and “social” transformation. Again, to my mind that implies an understanding which seems more congruent with a belief in a change happening to Jesus’ material body.

  • Jeff Kennon

    This is a good question. I have just a few initial thoughts which no doubt, might lead to further questions…

    1. Could it be that no mention of an empty tomb was due to the writers not needing it as an apologetic defense? Paul is writing to specific churches and addressing specific needs. Evidently, objective evidence of the resurrection via the empty tomb was not needed.

    2. Along the same thought as the above comment, could it be that the concerns were not of the miraculous resurrection but of the meaning of it? In other words, the issue was not the empty tomb. Everyone knew the tomb was empty. The issue was why? It might be that the issue was not defending the resurrection as much as defending it’s meaning along with the person and work of Christ.

    3. On the other hand, is not the empty tomb implied? If Jesus is alive and the disciples saw him, does this not indicate an empty tomb? Instead of writing the tomb is empty, they wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have
    touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—(1 John 1:1-2).

    4. What would an empty tomb prove? It could prove that Jesus was alive but it could also mean that someone stole the body or moved it. It appears that the proof of the resurrection for the disciples and others was not due to the empty tomb but due to seeing Christ alive. It was this personal testimony along with their die-hard devotion to it, even unto death, that seemed to be the proof that was needed.

  • KAS

    If the issue of an empty tomb were problematic rather than a received tenet of faith for the very early Church, wouldn’t the pneumatic/physical interpretation of the Resurrection you posit have been reversed chronologically?

    It seems more reasonable to ask why the first Christians would accept some type of spiritual Resurrection and then complicate matters by insisting on a physical Resurrection – unless there were the datum of an empty tomb. Particularly as such a belief was anathema to the Hellenistic culture in which they sought converts.

    Again, it makes sense to me that the early kerygmatic proclamation “Christ is risen” simply implied the empty tomb and the gospels later served an explanatory function, handing on the tradition in a narrative way as the Church matured and the first-generation witnesses passed on.

  • Jerry Sather

    Is this part of the part of the argument Bart Ehrman is raising in his latest book? I haven’t read it but have gleaned this from reviews. How these questions get answered is extremely important. Without some sort of cogent explanation many will be drawn to the mythicism camp or even into skepticism.

  • Just Sayin’

    I know … 1 Cor. 15.

    It was late and I was sleepy!

  • Jimmy Akin

    Dear Dr. Jenkins,

    Here’s what my reply would be:

    Hope it provides food for thought!

    Jimmy Akin

  • NDaniels

    21:13 And Jesus cometh and taketh bread and giveth them: and fish in like manner.
    21:14 This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to his disciples, after he was risen from the dead.

  • autolukos

    The obvious interpretation is that the empty tomb is, most likely, a late elaboration on the resurrection story. This may or may not be indicative of an early belief in a non-material resurrection; if you had seen a dead man walking around, I doubt your first instinct would be to say, “his tomb is empty!” so much as, “he’s alive!” On the other hand, if you had seen a vision of a dead man and taught your followers that he was alive, it would be understandable for some to take it in a bodily sense.

  • Andrew Lincoln

    It’s not clear to me why you think the evidence of Acts is “pallid in the extreme.” In both Acts 2:29-32 and 13:29-37 Luke at least thinks he is giving readers the earliest preaching of Peter and Paul and in both cases has them cite LXX Ps.15:10 as the text that the resurrection of Jesus fulfils.The citation is slightly varied but in both cases Luke talks of God not allowing the holy one to experience corruption. In both cases what God has done for Jesus is contrasted with what happened to David, who is taken to be the speaker of the original words. David died and was buried and his tomb still exists. In that tomb his body experienced corruption (13:36) but when God raised Jesus, his body did not experience corruption (13:37). Isn’t the straightforward inference that Jesus’ body did not experience corruption (which was believed to set in after three days) because, unlike David’s, it was no longer buried in a tomb? This seems to be evidence of belief in an empty tomb outside the Gospels. Of course, this does not prevent anyone arguing still that Luke invented all this later and read it back into his depiction of the earliest preaching. But that is a different issue from whether it is actually in those depictions. Or am I missing something here?

  • philipjenkins

    Thoughtful indeed – but for better or worse, an overwhelming scholarly consensus holds that Matthew and Luke are significantly later than the 70s.

  • philipjenkins

    I say “pallid” because it is all by implication. Where is the explicit proclamation of “And his grave was found empty! The women who found it are among us as we speak! How do you answer that?”

  • Andrew Lincoln

    O. K., I was responding to your first posing of the 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?” – and suggested that Acts 2 and 13 do depend on the idea of an
    empty tomb and others have pointed to the natural inference of 1 Cor. 15:3. You have replied with a variation of your later equally good but different question about the empty tomb *story* – its absence “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?”
    Isn’t part of the answer in the question? The earliest Christians were not modern apologists. They did not need to try to prove to anyone that when they announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead, then, if Jesus had been buried in a tomb, his body was no longer there. They took it for granted that that was what resurrection meant. It seems reasonably clear that the corporate end-time resurrection of Jewish expectation involved transformed physical existence, with bodies emerging from tombs, and this is reflected, for example, in Matthew’s so-called “zombies” passage (27:52,53) and in John’s depiction of end-time judgment (5:28,29). Claiming that the end-time resurrection had begun ahead of time in what had happened to Jesus could involve no less in his case. When the earliest Christians turned to apologetics as part of their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, it was therefore about other matters – and one of the primary ones was the need to show that the resurrection was in line with the Jewish Scriptures.

  • philipjenkins

    Your response was weighty and thoughtful. Where we differ is this: I don’t believe that those two passages in Acts do necessarily demand knowledge of the empty tomb. We can read them thus if we choose, but if we didn’t know the gospel accounts, we wouldn’t do so.

  • Andrew Lincoln

    Hello again. Blogs and their comments, of course, have their limitations for this sort of conversation. Normally, I don’t get involved but yielded to temptation because I admire your various writings. It would be so much better to continue the
    discussion over a drink somewhere. Since I would have bought the drinks, I
    would want to push you to clarify a couple of assumptions behind your questions
    and comments.
    You say we would not read Paul or Luke’s version of early Christian preaching as having an empty tomb in view if we didn’t know the accounts in the Gospels. My previous comment has suggested why we should read them in that way in any case. Your response indicates that you have up your sleeve information that you have not yet divulged to us but is hinted at in your reply to one of the commenters – ‘See, that’s my issue. I don’t think that “he was raised” in the context of first century Judaism would necessarily have had that implication.’ We would need to explore what the evidence is for your thinking this. Where are the places that specifically resurrection language is used differently? Is the context clearly metaphorical? If there is not a uniform view within first century Judaism, what is the majority view? etc.
    The other questions you push in your blog and later comment are “Where is the empty tomb story before 70?” or “How come no NT writer refers to the fact for 40
    years or so afterwards?” Well, on the consensus view, there aren’t any NT
    writings other than the undisputed Pauline letters before that time, so it is
    hardly surprising that the story does not appear before it is found in Mark. Paul
    refers to the event and can assume the Corinthians’ agreement with this
    tradition in 1 Cor 15 and goes on to address some who, according to him, have
    not drawn the right conclusions for their own future bodily destiny from what
    they believe to have happened to Christ. If there is any historical tradition
    behind the portrayal of the early proclamation in Acts, then that proclamation
    refers to the event. Neither Paul nor Luke in Acts has any need to elaborate on the
    tradition by telling an empty tomb *story*. So where is an empty tomb story
    before Mark and 70? That depends on whether you think Mark made it up, whether some tradition history can be traced behind his account and whether the other Gospels are simply dependent on Mark or have any independent traditions that they employ. And that is a fascinating and not straightforward discussion. But none of this is at all surprising, since there weren’t any NT writings other than
    Paul’s before Mark wrote.
    So these are two further areas of discussion that hover behind the whole exchange but are probably too large to pursue much further in this forum.

  • philipjenkins

    You are SO right about the limitations of exchanges in a blog context. But let me just thank you for your (commendable) pressing and testing of my arguments. I have learned much from your words.
    Now, about that drink…

  • NDaniels

    Dr.Jenkins, there Is only One Son of God, One Word of God Made Flesh, thus there can only be One Spirit of Perfect Love Between The Father and The Son in The ordered communion of Perfect Love that Is The Blessed Trinity. Denial of The Filioque is the source of all heresy:
    Some examples of false gospels that claim there is more than one Word of God:

    There cannot be various denominations of The Word of God; Christ Is One, there Is only One Word of God, The Word of God.

  • I applaud you in posing this soul searching question.

    I have read through some of the responses below and I find them light in evidence and heavy on assumptions and inferences. Yes, it is possible that Paul and all the other authors of the New Testament (other than the Gospels) fail to mention the empty tomb simply because “everyone knew it to be true”, but does that really hold water? Did the people in Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi, and Rome “already know” about the empty tomb, therefore Paul and the other writers NEVER needed to mention it in TWENTY THREE books?? Could you ever imagine a Christian missionary today going to a foreign land to preach the Gospel message and never say a word about the “empty tomb”.

    This idea strains credulity.

    Strip away what you WANT to believe and look at the evidence, friends: all evidence suggests that Paul and the earliest Christians knew NOTHING about an empty tomb. They believed that Jesus had died, that he was buried, and that he rose again. The question is: WHY did they believe this?

    The first gospel, Mark, states (in its original form), that the women who found the empty tomb, fled and told no one. So if Mark is correct, the women told no one…except “Mark”, and Mark does not write it down until circa 70 AD! Do you believe that? Or do you believe that the author of Mark invented the empty tomb to give the resurrection story more substantive evidence than what was available at the time, just a bunch of Galilean peasants claiming to have had visions and (mistaken) sightings of a risen Jesus?

    If we were discussing the supernatural claims of any other religion on the planet, you know which answer you would choose. So ask yourself, my Christian friends, based on what, do you jump to the conclusion that the women waited almost 40 years to tell their story to “Mark” writing a book in far away Antioch or Rome?

  • Jesus’ Tomb was not Guarded or Sealed the entire First Night!

    I had never heard of this until today: How many Christians are aware that Jesus’ grave was unguarded AND unsecured the entire first night after his crucifixion??? Isn’t that a huge hole in the Christian explanation for the empty tomb?? Notice in this quote from Matthew chapter 27 below that the Pharisees do not ask Pilate for guards to guard the tomb until the next day after Jesus’ crucifixion, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb’s door, he had not SEALED it shut!

    Anyone could have stolen the body during those 12 hours!

    The empty tomb “evidence” for the supernatural reanimation/resurrection of Jesus by Yahweh has a HUGE hole in it!

    “When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

    The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[a] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”[b] 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”
    —Matthew 27

  • Alternative Explanation for the Empty Tomb, #4:

    Martians done it!

    Late Saturday night, a Martian mothership hovers over the tomb of Jesus. The commander, a sinister fellow with one eye, commands five of his Martian soldiers to teleport down to the ground, enter the bodies of the Roman soldiers, roll back the stone, and take the body. The body is levitated into the mothership using a tractor beam.

    The Martian-possessed Roman soldiers go to the Sanhedrin and report that an angel has stolen the body. The members of the Sanhedrin all soil their undergarments and tell the soldiers to tell the people, “The disciples did it.”

    The soldiers leave the Sanhedrin and are immediately teleported up to the mothership which returns to Mars, where a slave class is created from the Roman soldiers…who continue to live on the red planet…to this very day.

    “Preposterous!” complain Christians.

    “Just as preposterous as your supernatural tall tale!” I retort.