Empty Tomb of Jesus

By James M. Rochford

All four biographies of Jesus claim that his tomb was empty on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion. But how can we know if this claim is true? Before we survey the evidence, note that even highly critical and credentialed historians agree that Jesus’ tomb was empty:

Jacob Kremer (NT scholar): “By far, most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.”[1]

D.H. Van Daalen (German NT critic): “Most people who object to the story, however, do so on other than historical grounds… It would be extremely difficult to object to the grave story on purely historical grounds.”[2]

William Wand (Oxford University church historian): “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.”[3]

Geza Vermes (Jewish NT scholar): “When every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be… that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.”[4]

Michael Grant (Atheistic classicist at Edinburgh University): “[The historian] cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb… If we apply the same sort of criteria that we apply to any other ancient literary sources, the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.”[5]

In his study of 1,400 scholars (in English, French, and German), Dr. Gary Habermas found that ~75% affirmed the empty tomb.[6] Why do these critical and highly credentialed historians affirm the empty tomb? To put this simply, it is because the evidence is so forcefully in its favor:

First, all four biographies record that women were the first eyewitnesses of the empty tomb.[7] Women were second-class citizens in the ancient world. Josephus states that the testimony of women shouldn’t be allowed into a court of law.[8] While women were allowed to testify in court on some legal matters, widespread misogyny in the Jewish sources abounds:

“Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a).

“Happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females” (Talmud, Kiddushin 82b).

“Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid… This is equivalent to saying that one who is… accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman” (Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8).

Luke even paints the disciples in a poor light when he states that they called the women’s testimony of the empty tomb “nonsense” (Lk. 24:11). Given the historical background, these men were products of their environment, dismissing the testimony of these women. If even the disciples themselves had difficulty accepting a woman’s testimony, then why would Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all record that women were the first witnesses of the empty tomb? Why do only two biographies include male witnesses at all? (Lk. 24:12; Jn. 20:3-9) It is hard to overestimate how unlikely it would be for all four biographies to record this. Unless, of course, it actually happened.

To put this in perspective, this would be similar to having two African American slaves as alibis in a Mississippi courtroom in 1860! If you were choosing alibis, you would never choose these men. You simply would never fabricate material witnesses like these, unless they really were the witnesses present.

Second, two members of the Jewish Sanhedrin bury the body of Jesus.[9] Members of the Sanhedrin (a fraternity of seventy religious leaders) were incredibly powerful, prestigious, and popular. It’s hard to believe that the authors of Jesus’ biographies would make this up, because everyone would know these men. This would be similar to using two U.S. senators as your alibis. If you were inventing the names, you’d be immediately discredited. However, if you were inventing the story, you’d be easily falsified. Conspirators wouldn’t write the story this way—only reliable witnesses would.

Furthermore, the “whole Council” voted to put Jesus to death (Mk. 14:55, 64; 15:1), and yet the New Testament documents tell us that two of the members of the Sanhedrin had the honor of burying Jesus’ body (Jn. 3:1; 19:38-40). It is very unlikely that Christian authors would fabricate a story like this, because these same Sanhedrists voted to put Jesus to death.[10] This would be similar to a survivor of the Holocaust claiming that a Nazi general paid for the funeral of her family. Who would write a story that made their enemies look this good?

Third, the Nazareth Inscription supports an empty tomb. Archaeologists discovered the Nazareth Inscription in 1878.[11] This marble slab contains a 14-line statement from the emperor of Rome that declares capital punishment for anyone who steals a body from a tomb. The inscription dates either to the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37) or Claudius (AD 41-54). Other edicts from the time gave a fine, but this one threated death! This would fit with the rumors at the time that the disciples had stolen the body (Mt. 28:11-15), even warranting an imperial decree of capital punishment.

Fourth, the description of Jesus’ tomb fits with modern archaeology. The description of Jesus’ tomb fits with tombs discovered in Israel, and these “all date from Jesus’ day.”[12] The acrosolia (or bench tomb) described in the gospels fits with those discovered by archaeologists that date to this period.

Fifth, the earliest explanation from the enemies affirms an empty tomb. In Matthew’s biography, we read that the religious authorities bribed the guards at the tomb to claim that “the disciples came by night and stole [Jesus’ body] away” (Mt. 28:11-15).[13] Notice what this explanation presupposes: the tomb was indeed empty.

Imagine leaving a hundred dollar bill in your dresser, only to find it missing days later. When you ask your wife and daughter about it, your wife says, “I never saw the money in your dresser,” while your daughter says, “The dog ate the money in your dresser.” Notice what the daughter is admitting: the money did exist, but it went missing. In the same way, it appears from our earliest sources (and no contrary sources) that the body left the tomb. Opponents of Christianity needed to explain the empty tomb, rather than explain it away.

Sixth, the earliest Christians didn’t worship Jesus’ tomb. This is quite bizarre when you study world religions. Worshippers flock to holy sites and spaces, looking for spiritual blessings. Even today, secular people still pay their respects at the graves of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or JFK. But what about Jesus’ tomb? We simply possess no record that the earliest Christians venerated Jesus’ tomb as an object of religious worship. Why not? Because they didn’t believe he was there! The spiritual value left the tomb when Jesus walked out of it.

Seventh, Mark’s account of the empty tomb is very early. Two lines of evidence exist for thinking that Mark’s account of the empty tomb was very early.[14]

(1) Mark never uses the high priest’s name (Caiaphas). Instead, he simply refers to “the high priest” (Mk. 14:53, 54, 60, 61, 63). This would be similar to modern people referring to “the President” or “the Pope.” If the person had been in office for years, there would be no need to specify which leader you were referring to. Caiaphas reigned from AD 18 to AD 37. That means that this material (what scholars call pre-Markan material) must date before AD 37.

(2) Mark’s simple, straightforward account of the empty tomb lacks signs of legendary development. Critic Rudolph Bultmann refers to Mark’s account as “extremely reserved.”[15] By comparison, the apocryphal Gospel of Peter depicts Jesus leaving the empty tomb in this way: The soldiers and religious authorities all gather around the tomb Sunday morning, Jesus exits the tomb with two angels, a giant cross trails behind him, and finally, Jesus himself grows in size until he was “overpassing the heavens” (Gospel of Peter, 9:35-42).

Clearly, this is legendary development. Mark lacks all of this, simply giving us a terse transmission of the facts: Jesus was “crucified,” “risen,” and hence “not here” in the tomb (see Mk. 16:1-8).

Eighth, the early statement of faith in 1 Corinthians 15 presupposes an empty tomb. Paul writes, “He was buried… He was raised” (1 Cor. 15:4). To a Jewish Pharisee (like Paul), this directly implies a bodily resurrection, and thus an empty tomb.

Ninth, the early Christians began their movement and preaching in Jerusalem. If Jesus’ tomb still contained his body, either the religious or Roman authorities could’ve put a swift end to the Christian movement by producing the body.

Conclusion: Who moved the stone?

A number of theories about the resurrection break over the reality of the empty tomb. For instance, the thought that the disciples hallucinated the resurrection is not only implausible (see “Hallucination Theory”), but it doesn’t fit with the empty tomb. Even if 530 people all hallucinated the resurrection, the tomb would still have Jesus’ body, which would put an end to the resurrection. The fact that the tomb was empty leaves us wondering who moved the stone and emptied the tomb…

[1] Jacob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien—Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), pp. 49-50.

[2] D.H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection (London: Collins, 1972), 41.

[3] William Wand, Christianity: A Historical Religion? (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1972), 93-94.

[4] Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (Collins, 1973), 41.

[5] Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (Scribner’s, 1977), 176, 200.

[6] Gary Habermas, “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?” The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (Vol. 3, 2005).

[7] This evidence appeals to both the criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestation.

[8] Josephus writes, “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, Antiquities, 4.8.15.

[9] This evidence appeals to criterion of embarrassment.

[10] William Lane Craig writes, “A Christian fictional creation of a Jewish Sanhedrist doing what is right for Jesus is almost inexplicable, given the hostility toward the Jewish leaders responsible for Jesus’ death in early Christian writings. In particular, Mark would not have invented Joseph in view of his statements that the whole Sanhedrin voted for Jesus’ condemnation.” Craig in Jesus under Fire (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 148.

[11] The inscription reads as follows: “Ordinance of Caesar: It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain perpetually undisturbed for those who have made them for the cult of their ancestors or children or members of their house. If, however, anyone charges that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing on other stones, against such a one I order that a trial be instituted, as in respect of the gods, so in regard to the cult of mortals. For it shall be much more obligatory to honor the buried. Let it be absolutely forbidden for anyone to disturb them. In case of violation I desire that the offender be sentenced to capital punishment on charge of violation of sepulchre.” Cited in Paul Maier, In the Fullness of Time (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1991), 202.

[12] William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), p.56.

[13] Matthew adds that this explanation existed “to this day” (Mt. 28:15). Indeed, it continues even into the day of Justin Martyr in AD 150. Trypho states, “You have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilaean deceiver, whom we crucified, but 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” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch.108; cf. Tertullian, De Spectaculis, 30).

[14] See William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), pp.74-76.

[15] Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. John Marsh, 2d ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), p. 309.