Was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth found empty three days after he was crucified? If not, then Christianity is the biggest lie and the biggest waste of time in history. While the historicity of the empty tomb does not, by itself, constitute a convincing argument for the Resurrection, it plays an indispensable role as Jesus could not have risen from the dead if his tomb was not empty. There are several good historical reasons to accept the historicity of the empty tomb. Contrary to common belief, it is not something that needs to be taken solely on faith.
1. The belief in the empty tomb predates the Gospels and even the writings of Paul.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul lays down the earliest-known creed of the Christian church:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles”
1 Corinthians was penned by Paul in the mid-50s AD. Therefore, this creed had to have come about sometime before that! If Jesus died around 30 AD, that means this creed can be dated to, at most, 25 years after Jesus’ death! Furthermore, there are good arguments to show that Paul received this creed when he met with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem in the 30s AD, and this is recorded in Galatians 1:18-20. If this is the case, then the creed can be dated to no later than 9 years after Jesus’ death! Within 9 years of Jesus’ death, the early church was circulating a creed which affirmed that Jesus rose from the dead, and thus the empty tomb. Many New Testament scholars date this creed to between 2-5 years of Jesus’ death.
John Dominic Crossan, a prominent New Testament historian, says this about the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:
Paul wrote to the Corinthians from Ephesus in the early 50s C.E. But he says in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that “I handed on to you as of first importance which I in turn received.” The most likely source and time for his reception of that tradition would have been Jerusalem in the early 30s when, according to Galatians 1:18, he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days.”
2. Jesus’ body was buried in Jerusalem.
Ok…so what? How does that help us?
Think again. Where did Christianity start?
Did the implications hit you, yet?
The disciples started going out and preaching the message of the risen Jesus in the same city where Jesus was publicly crucified, buried, and had supposedly resurrected. It would have been so easy to crush this movement of unruly peasants who were causing a stir in the powder keg state of the Roman Empire. The authorities could have went to Jesus’ tomb, pulled out the body, and exposed the followers of Jesus as liars. Both the Romans and the Jews were fed up with this new group of Christians and they could have easily produced the body of Jesus to quench the Christian movement if the tomb was not empty. But this never happened. The body of Jesus was never produced from the tomb in an attempt to undermine the new Christian church.
3. Jesus’ tomb was first discovered empty by women.
In order to fully appreciate this fact, let’s look at how women were viewed in 1st century Palestine.
“But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment” -Josephus
“Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman” -Talmud (Rosh Hashannah)
“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” -Talmud (Sotah)
Harsh words, right? They were not celebrating International Women’s Day in 1st century Palestine.
Women were not considered credible witnesses. They were seen as being intellectually and morally deficient. Why, then, did the Gospel writers choose to have women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb and the risen Jesus? If the Gospel writers wanted to substantiate their message, they could have listed Peter and John or some other prominent disciples as being the first witness. Surely any of the disciples would have been a better pick than these women! Why did they choose to include women as being the first witnesses? Because they were intent on recounting the story as truthfully as possible.
The criterion of embarrassment is one method historians use to analyze the historicity of a recorded event. If an author chooses to include an embarrassing fact that may hurt his/her case, then it is unlikely that they are making up their story. The fact that the Gospel writers included the “embarrassing” details of the women being the witnesses to the empty tomb shows the unlikelihood of the empty tomb narratives being fabricated.
4. The Jews were claiming that the disciples had stolen the body.
“…some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” -Matthew 28:11-15
Why would the Jews circulate the story of Jesus’ body being stolen by the disciples if the tomb was not empty? Why would the author of the Gospel of Matthew say that this lie was circulating if he knew that Jesus’ tomb was not empty?
At the 2nd century, Justin Martyr records that this story was still being circulated in his day:
“his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.” (Diaolgue with Trypho)
Tertullian, in 200 AD, also corroborates this idea:
“This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” (De Spectaculis)
Thus, there would be no need to propagate the idea that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb if the tomb was not empty!
It is clear from the evidence that we can establish, with relative certainty, that Jesus’ tomb was found empty three days after his crucifixion, by a group of his women followers. Again, this is not an argument for the truth of the Resurrection, but it is in important link in the chain of evidences that can only be explained by the Resurrection. And it should give us pause. If the Gospel writers are faithful in the details surrounding the empty tomb, maybe we should take them seriously about other matters, as well.