I continue my survey of historical evidences for Jesus’ resurrection with an outline of evidences for the empty tomb. This is part of a continuing set of cumulative evidences, not intended to be complete in itself but to be read as part of the series on Evidences for the Resurrection. I am using William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith as my source again.
Craig lists six “lines of evidence” supporting the historicity of the empty tomb:
- The historical reliability of the story of Jesus’ burial
- Multiple, early, independent attestation of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb
- The use of the phrase “the first day of the week” in a way that reflects ancient tradition
- The simplicity of the way Mark presents the story: it lacks legendary or theological development
- The account of the tomb’s being discovered by women
- The earliest Jewish polemic, which suggests the empty tomb
I can’t (and shouldn’t!) re-write all of Craig’s support for each of these. I will just summarize a few significant points, beginning with this overall observation: the manner in which Craig and other current apologists approach these issues is historical, not faith-driven. There are historical reasons to consider each of these lines of evidence to be valid.
Concerning the multiple, early independent attestation of the stories of the burial of Christ, and of the empty tomb being discovered, we have already discussed the most contentious issue: the independence of the sources. In Craig there is much more by way of demonstration of the probable independence of the accounts, specifically on this issue. Whether one views the various Gospel accounts as having come from oral tradition, from other prior sources, or from the authors’ own experiences and recollections, the woven pattern of varying details indicates they did not draw all of their information from a single source, and they did not collude with each other to craft a single narrative of deceit.
The point regarding the “first day of the week” requires knowledge of the original languages. Craig points out that it is awkward Greek, but if the Greek is back-translated into Aramaic, the language used in Jerusalem at the time, the resulting phrase is perfectly natural and reflective of Jewish tradition (the term “Sabbath” is used). This suggests that the phrase was first used in Aramaic, which implies that it was used early.
Mark’s simple account of the resurrection is not what one would expect of a fable developing long after the events.
The discovery of the tomb by women is quite remarkable. The social status of women in both Judaic and Greco-Roman culture at the time was lower than most of us could even conceive (more here, mp3 file). They had the social status of children at every age. They were not allowed to give testimony in court; they had no credibility as witnesses. If the early church had been trying to create a believable story at some later date, it is highly unlikely they would have made women the discoverers of the empty tomb, or the first witnesses of the risen Jesus. The most credible explanation for their being recorded as the first witnesses is that it was true.
The Jews who wanted to deny the resurrection spread a tale that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15, especially the latter part of verse 15). How did they try to put an end to claims of the resurrection? It would have been simple to say, “These followers of Jesus are nut-cases.” If Jesus’ body were still in the tomb their rebuttals would have been easier still! Obviously there was a reason they did not use that answer: anyone could have checked and seen whether it was true or not.
We’re on a continuing path here. The fact of Jesus’ empty tomb does not prove the fact of his resurrection, but it contributes to a historical case that I will keep adding to as I continue this series.