"The One Disconcerting Fact" - the Empty Tomb

The following is an extract (p 70ff) from the book "Where did Jesus Go? - The truth and meaning of the Resurrection" by DRJH.

The empty tomb

Some say that the early Christians themselves did not really believe in an empty tomb. All the stories about the empty tomb have been concocted late in the day and then inserted by the Gospel writers into their accounts. Paul, it is said, didn't believe in the empty tomb. He thought the bones of Jesus were still in the grave. The idea of a "bodily" Resurrection was a late addition, superimposed on an earlier "spiritual" resurrection tradition.

Others say the tomb was empty, but not because of the Resurrection, but because Joseph of Arimathea had removed the body; or Jesus had not really died - he had only swooned; or the women had gone to the wrong tomb; or even the disciples had stolen the body. This last was one of the first "alternative" hypotheses. It is mentioned in the New Testament (Matt 28.13). Another early "alternative" was, according to Tertullian, "the theory that the gardener of the tomb removed the body of Jesus and placed it elsewhere to protect his lettuces from the spectators!"

What can be said in reply to these suggestions? First, why on earth would the early Christians have wanted to create an "empty tomb" tradition? Had they wanted to do that, they would, surely, have made it fit in better with Jewish expectations of "resurrection". These were more in the way of a "resuscitation" - a restoration to normal human life as before, not a true resurrection.

And if Jesus' resurrection was "spiritual" only, why did they not say so? When the disciples saw the risen Jesus, we are told, they thought he was a "spirit" (Luke 24.37). If he had only been that, why deny it? Such a "positive" apparition of a "spiritual Jesus" could have made them revise their ideas about the "spiritual world". Jesus had made them revise a number of cherished ideas during his early ministry. Why should he not now be making them revise their ideas about this? If Jesus was now a spirit, why not say so?

The fact of the matter is that the earliest strata of the Gospel tradition makes it clear that the risen Jesus was believed to have flesh and bones!

It is then said that the early Christians created these empty tomb stories to counter Gnostic and docetic tendencies: the Gnostics and Docetics said that matter was bad and Jesus was "separate" from matter.

But why counter these views? They come easily enough to many people. There would be no reason for countering them unless there was something that led the early Christians to say that they were wrong! The belief that Jesus had a resurrection body would be one of the key factors in convincing the early Christians that matter was good. It was not bad.

But did Paul believe that the bones of Jesus were still in the tomb? The argument is that in the first epistle to the Corinthians chapter fifteen he says only that "Christ died ... he was buried, that he was raised" (verse 3-4). He doesn't explicitly mention Jesus leaving the tomb.

However, that is pure pedantry. It is clear that "what was raised on the third day" was "that which died and was buried" - the body of Jesus. "The natural implication would be that the resurrection was, so to speak, the reversal of the entombment" (C.H.Dodd). True it was a "glorified" body. But Paul is quite clear that such a body came about not by leaving the old body to rot and having a new body, but by a "change" of the old body. When he refers to the believer at the last day, he says this: "We will not all sleep (i.e. some, not all, will go to their graves first), but we will all (the dead and the living) be changed" (1 Cor 15.51). As he believes that the resurrection of Jesus was the "first fruits" of the resurrection of every believer, we must assume he saw the resurrection of the believer and the resurrection of Jesus as similar. We must assume, therefore, he believed that Jesus body changed.

Further, if the tomb was not empty, why didn't someone produce the body? This point has been made so many times but has never yet been satisfactorily answered. Professor D.M.Mackinnon speaks of "the inability of the opponents of the early Christian preaching to silence the message of the Resurrection once for all by producing Christ's remains."

One other point - why, oh why, if the empty tomb was being devised for "apologetic" purposes late in the day, were the majority of witnesses to the tomb said to be women? Why weren't the witnesses of the empty tomb made to be men and Apostles at that? In Jewish law the witness of women was discounted.

You cannot escape the empty tomb. Geza Vermes, a Jewish biblical scholar, wrote an article in the Observer Colour Supplement on "The Mystery Tomb". He is not friendly to the Christian account of things, but he has to admit "the one disconcerting fact - namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found not a body but an empty tomb." C.H.Dodd again sums it up well: "When they (the early Christians) said 'He rose from the dead,' they took it for granted that his body was no longer in the tomb: if the tomb had been visited it would have been found empty. The Gospels supplement this by saying, it was visited, and it was found empty."

The tomb was empty, but ...

It needs to be admitted that the early Christians did not base their belief in the Resurrection on the empty tomb. In fact they often seemed to have played it down. It was not the main plank of their early preaching, although it is implied by it.

Negative evidence is of doubtful value; and the empty tomb is negative evidence. So it is not surprising to read in Mark that the women who discovered the tomb to be empty "said nothing to anyone" (16.8). Luke tells us that the other disciples treated the story of the empty tomb "like nonsense" (24.11).

The main reason why the disciples believed that Jesus had risen was that they saw him alive after his death. The empty tomb enabled them to understand a little of what actually they had seen. They hadn't just seen "visions".

But what serious alternative explanation of the empty tomb can you give? And remember all four Gospels admit to it. Remember, too, there are Semiticisms that show the accounts come from early Palestinian sources. How can you then account for the "emptiness" other than by the Resurrection?

Two hundred years ago Venturini tried to say that Jesus had never really died. The wounds of the Crucifixion merely made him "swoon". By mistake he was taken down from the cross too early before he had really expired.

This view ignored the evidence of John's Gospel that says measures were taken to make sure death had occurred. To continue to hold such a view today ignores the powerful criticism of D.F.Strauss (1808-74), a theologian who himself denied most of Christianity! But he showed the impossibility of someone who had gone through the horrors of crucifixion giving rise to "Resurrection" faith. A poor, dehydrated creature, racked with pain and requiring enormous care and attention to help survive could not, he argued, have generated such a belief.

But nothing daunted, Hugh Schonfield tried a modern version of this in The Passover Plot. He there tries to say that Jesus intended to fake death. He wanted a mock "sacrificial" death. He planned that collaborators should help him back to life. Unfortunately he hadn't banked on the "spear-thrust", so everything misfired. He may have revived for a short time, during which period an unknown person took messages from the dying Jesus to the disciples. This person was mistaken for Jesus. Hence the belief in the Resurrection.

All that can be said for this view is that it made Dr Schonfield's book a "million-copy best-seller"! That is on the cover of my edition. It is sheer fantasy. As J.N.D.Anderson pointed out, there is no suggestion "as to why the unknown messenger was mistaken for Jesus himself, why the conspirators never told the apostles what really happened, or what, indeed, would have been the outcome of this fantastic plot if it had succeeded." Frank Morrison called the "swoon-type" theories "really little more than an historical curiosity". But Hugh Schonfield shows that they have, for one reason or another, a certain persistence. They theory owe their strength to the evidence that the tomb was empty.

Earlier than Venturini, Hermann Reimarus put forward an even more bizarre theory. He said that the disciples had done quite well out of Jesus ministry. They had been able to live off it as a sort of "hippie band". "What a pity," they said, "if we have to give all this up" - or words to that effect. They did not fancy the more routine life of a fisherman or tradesman. So they stole the body of Jesus, hid it and told everyone that one day he would return! This enabled them to carry on as before. Beasley-Murray has said it all: "Suggestions of this kind are nothing less than contemptible." People will lie to make money; but they will not lie to die. We are asked to believe the disciples were prepared to be martyred for a lie.

But could someone else have stolen the body? Why? And how was the body concealed when all Jerusalem was talking about the Resurrection and the Jewish leaders wanted the body. The evidence of Judas' dealings with the chief priests shows that there was money to be made from co-operating with them (Luke 22.5).

Kirsopp Lake put forward another idea. The women went to the wrong tomb. They found a young man who most helpfully said: "he is not here [in this tomb]; see the place where they laid him." Professor Lake adds, he "probably pointed to the next tomb. But the women were frightened at the detection of their errand and fled." Some days later they assumed, in the light of what the Apostles told them, that they had been to the right tomb.

But Kirsopp Lake doctors or ignores the evidence. He bases what he says on Mark alone and then misses out crucial words. For Mark says the "young man ... in a white robe" said to the women: "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him (Mark 16.6). The other Gospels say the Apostles went to check on the tomb. Again, why didn't the Jewish authorities go themselves and explore and find the right tomb? They could have produced the body to silence things once and for all.

That they didn't, argues against the Jewish authorities themselves ever moving the body. Yet did Joseph of Arimathea do so? If he did and if he was a secret disciple, as the New Testament says (John 19.38), why didn't he tell the other disciples? If he was a Jewish plant, why didn't he tell the Jewish authorities?

It is important to remember that the only argument that the Jewish authorities at the time came up with was that the disciples had stolen the body. At that time they could not have realised that this would be disproved by the disciples' willingness to die for their risen Lord. At the time they must have believed this was the best they could try. Any other suggestions they knew held no water. In time the theory that the disciples had stolen the body was seen for what it was, a tissue of lies (Matt 28.12-13).

The tomb was empty, but ...

The resurrection faith was based more on the appearances of the risen Lord than on the empty tomb. But what were these appearances?

The earliest record of the appearances is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians chapter fifteen. This takes us back a very long way behind the Gospels. Paul was writing about 25 years after the death of Jesus, but this account was passed on to him many years before that. It looks as though it was passed on to him at the beginning of his Christian experience. He considers this to be a matter "of first importance":

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor 15.3-8).

Paul is appealing to common knowledge. People can go and ask any of the people he has mentioned. There was Peter (Cephas), the leader in the immediate period after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. There was James, Jesus' brother. He became the leader of the Jerusalem Church when Peter moved out and about. Paul knew them both well and had spent a fortnight with Peter just a few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This was on his visit to Jerusalem. This is evidence very close to the events.

Something had happened. What had happened was not the occurrence of a "religious consciousness". No! People said they had seen Jesus. And it was a particular series of "seeings". They were quite unique. They were confined to a limited period. Everyone knew that at a certain point these events had come to an end. That is why Paul was so insistent that when he "saw the Lord" it was quite unexpected and abnormal, "an appendix to a series already closed" (C.H.Dodd).

One of the things that can be said with conviction about the Resurrection appearances recorded at the end of the Gospels is that they are so different from one another. But they all left those who had seen the risen Jesus with an unshakeable conviction: they had not seen a ghost or a spirit but at least a real person.

Some of the appearances are recounted in detail. We read of Mary in the garden, thinking she is seeing the gardener (John 20.15). We read of Jesus suddenly appearing to the disciples behind locked doors (John 20.19). We read of two unknown disciples walking along the road near Jerusalem with a stranger who turns out to be Jesus (Luke 24.13-31). Then he is by the lakeside in Galilee (John 21.1). These are familiar to many people. But we have no details of the appearance to James or the "more than five hundred".

How can we attempt to describe what happened? We can't. Nor could the Gospel writers with any precision. They could only record what the disciples saw and touched (or tried to touch). "In describing occurrences which ex hypothesi lay on the extreme edge of normal human experience, or beyond it, the writers are hardly to be pinned down to matter-of-fact precision in detail."


"This then is where you are arguing in the dark," someone says. "We can, therefore, never say anything useful about what happened."

A lot of play is made by some people of the fact that if these events happened, they must have been "beyond history"; so the historian might as well give up talking about them. They are maters for "faith" alone, not historical argument. The historian doesn't have the tools for dealing with what is "beyond history". He has nothing to compare this sort of thing with. "It is without analogy," as they would say. It is quite unique. How can you begin to talk about something that is so unique? That is a fair question. But you don't have to be reduced to silence when something strange comes along. True, we very often do explain things by "analogy". We say that something is similar to something else, but it differs in this or that respect. We "class" it along with something else of the same "class" of things, and then we define its "differences". We explain what a Bible is, for example, by saying it is a "religious book" - its "class"; we then mark it off from other religious books by saying it is the "Christian religious book" - its "differentia", as the philosophers would say.

But you can't do that with something that is unique. It has no "analogy"; there is nothing else in history to put it alongside, or a "class" of similar things to put it in. So you can't begin to mark it off and distinguish it from other similar events, which, it is said, is the essence of any sort of explanation.

You are not then, however, reduced to silence over explaining the Resurrection (or for that matter any other unique item). For not all explanation is undertaken in the way we have just outlined.

Take a "trick" in a game of cards. How do you explain that. It is quite unique. There is no analogy. To say it is like a "goal" in a game of football, doesn't help the "explanatory process". But you are not reduced to silence. In fact you explain things perfectly well. You explain, at this point, not the "trick" so much as the whole game itself. You explain how the game is played. In the course of doing so, it becomes quite clear what a trick is.

So it is with the Resurrection. When you read the accounts, you have an idea of what is being meant. And when you read about the Resurrection in the context of the whole Bible and its view of history, you understand more fully what it means.

Yes, we may have to talk about the Resurrection in paradoxical language sometimes. But we must expect to do that in "borderland situations".

J.L.Austen, the Oxford linguistic philosopher, once drew attention to this. Here is a (far fetched) example: I turn up at your home just after a mutual friend who lives with you has dropped down dead and his corpse is still in the house. I ask, "Is he at home?" What is the answer? "He is and he isn't," - you find it difficult answering in these terms. I ask further, "What do you mean?" You then explain the sad event, and I understand. And I understand why a certain type of language doesn't fit. But if you have to speak in those terms - of "being at home" - you have to speak paradoxically: "He is both at home and not at home."

Parodox and "word failure" doesn't always imply unreality. Situations that defy language are not necessarily false or unhistorical. If the Bible is true and God is real, we will inevitably have these sorts of problems as we talk about God and his action in the world. It is unfortunate that we have to speak less clearly than we would like. This is only what you would expect if you have conceptual limitations. The Christian, though, says that one day it will all make sense:

"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Cor 13.12).

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