The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb)
The second piece of evidence that establishes the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is the fact of the discovery of his empty tomb in the days after his crucifixion.
According to the details of the four Gospels, the tomb where Jesus had been interred, the family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a Pharisee and secret supporter of Jesus, was empty upon the arrival of several of his female followers. The details are quite consistent: That on the third day after Jesus’ burial, Mary Magdelene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome (among possibly other unnamed companions), traveled to the sealed tomb to anoint his body with oil. Upon arrival, they found the tomb open and Jesus’s body gone, and were instructed by an angel to alert the apostles. I would like to examine several aspects of this account, which I believe reinforce its credibility and accuracy.
It is unlikely that the Jewish disciples, though they had followed and believed Jesus, would have conceived of a spiritual resurrection of Jesus, as many skeptics assert. Rather, the Jewish tradition regarding the resurrection was undeniably physical, as they meticulously preserved the bones of the dead to await the general resurrection at the final judgment. Because of this bodily focus, the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection would have required that his tomb be empty. Moreover, the earliest Jewish polemic in response to the alleged resurrection of Jesus was that the disciples had stolen his body! Their own response also required that the tomb be empty. The followers of Jesus, Jewish and Roman authorities alike, and many others would have known the location of Jesus’ burial, as the tomb was no secret and thus could have simply been checked out once believers were heard proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. So, for the authoritative response to accuse the followers of Jesus of stealing the body implies not only that the body was not in the tomb, but that the authorities themselves had verified this fact!
Incidentally, the apostle Paul, who’s letters are known to be the earliest documents among the New Testament manuscripts, passes along the tradition of Jesus’ bodily resurrection with the phrase ‘He was raised.’ As I mentioned before, the resurrection was strictly in physical terms for a 1st century Jew, so to further allege that the teaching of a bodily resurrection was a later Pauline invention would simply be a sequential error as well as an anachronistic application of modern theology.
The Gospel of Mark, thought to be the earliest among the four Gospels, certainly bears literary characteristics that are unmistakable clues to its age. In fact, when Mark mentions the high priest Caiaphas, he does not by name, but actually writes ‘the high priest,’ as if there would be no confusion as to whom specifically he meant. Of course, we know from parallel accounts that Caiaphas was, in fact, the high priest during the time of Jesus. This suggests that Mark was writing during the term of Caiaphas himself, who held office from AD 18-37, putting the account within at most seven years of the crucifixion!
In addition, the telling of the discovery of the empty tomb is quite simple and unmarked by theological motifs characteristic of later legendary accounts found among the apocrypha. To emphasize this, I would like to compare the incident as written in Mark 16 with that of the apocryphal gospel of Peter:
“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. "But go, tell His disciples and Peter, `He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.' "They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16)”
“But in the night in which the Lord's day dawned, when the soldiers were safeguarding it two by two in every watch, there was a loud voice in heaven; and they saw that the heavens were opened and that two males who had much radiance had come down from there and come near the sepulcher. But that stone which had been thrust against the door, having rolled by itself, went a distance off the side; and the sepulcher opened, and both the young men entered. And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, 'Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?' And an obeisance was heard from the cross, 'Yes.' (The Gospel of Peter)”
By comparing the two accounts, it is clear that the later account is overridden with theological motifs, such as the empty cross, the voice from heaven, and the over-glorified portrayal of Jesus. In addition, it is quite convenient that the account makes note that Jewish elders happened to be present for this event, as if in expectation of it! These things would be quite expected of an account written hundreds of years after the fact and heavily influenced by Gnostic tradition, as was the Gospel of Peter. However, such things would not be expected in an account written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, as was Mark.
A key element of the account of Mark is the fact that it was Jesus’ female followers who first discovered the empty tomb and brought news of it back to the disciples. But at the time, Jewish social culture regarded women as second class citizens, and according to the historian Josephus, the testimony of women was considered worthless! In fact, a quote from Jewish rabbinic literature should illustrate this well: “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women.” Considering these facts, it is highly unlikely that the Gospel writers would have reported the female discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb unless, despite its awkward and embarrassing nature, it was in fact the truth.
These points show the reliability of the account of the empty tomb so strongly, such that any accounts to the contrary are quite without merit. The details provided by Mark clearly show that the empty tomb was a recognized fact in the years immediately following the crucifixion, rather than a later theological invention. The absence of contrary accounts or explanations of these events, as well as the inclusion of details that might have hurt the disciples’ case at the time, such as the testimony of women, further emphasizes this.