Sunday, February 13, 2011 Login

The Empty Tomb: Introduction

I believe for what I consider many sound reasons….but the main one is “the empty tomb”.

To be sure, an empty tomb on its own does not prove that any divine miracle took place. There are many ways for a body to be removed from a tomb that are easier to pull off than a bodily resurrection.

Nevertheless, besides the four gospels, all of which mention an empty tomb, no other extant Christian document from the 1st century mentions a tomb burial or, for that matter, an empty tomb. Given the importance of the reality or fact of the empty tomb to Christian doctrine and, indeed, the importance with which you attach to it, it seems almost ludicrous that none of the following early Christian documents would bother to mention the empty tomb as one of their “main” points:

  1. 1 Thessalonians
  2. Philippians
  3. Galatians
  4. 1 Corinthians
  5. 2 Corinthians
  6. Romans
  7. Philemon
  8. Hebrews
  9. James
  10. Colossians
  11. 1 Peter
  12. Ephesians
  13. 2 Thessalonians
  14. Jude
  15. The Apocalypse of John
  16. 1 John
  17. 2 John
  18. 3 John
  19. Didache
  20. 1 Clement
  21. 1 Timothy
  22. 2 Timothy
  23. Titus
  24. The Epistle of Barnabas

Given that all of these authors believed that Jesus had risen in some fashion, why would none of them emphasize the historical fact of this resurrection by citing the empty tomb, or, for that matter, mentioning any of the gospels? Furthermore, why is there no evidence that the first Christians venerated or at least made pilgrimages to this alleged empty tomb? If the outline of an image that vaguely resembles the Virgin Mary on glass windows on the side of an office building can attract millions of worshipers in a couple of months, surely the site where Jesus allegedly rose from the dead – the central dogma of Christianity – could attract even more fervent attention by the early Christians and Christian writers. Yet this is decidedly not the case. Nowadays the site of the Holy Sepulchre is associated with Jesus’s burial site (though there is no particular reason to believe this is true), and obviously attracts millions of devotees for just that reason alone. The only answer to this lack of enthusiasm seems to be that either early Christians did not know where Jesus’ tomb was or that they simply did not care.

Of these early authors, the one who comes closest to mentioning an empty tomb – without actually doing so – is Paul. In the 15th chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15Open Link in New Window), Paul is attempting to persuade the Corinthians that faith in the the resurrection of Jesus is essential. He says, for example, “16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Paul could have justified his belief that Christ had been raised by pointing his readers to the fact that Jesus’s tomb in Jerusalem had been found empty! I can not think of any simpler way of justifying Christ’s bodily resurrection than appealing to the same “fact” that you do – the empty tomb. Yet this is not what Paul does. Instead, he says this:

3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…”

You might be tempted to say: Look, Paul says “in accordance with the scriptures,” which is obviously a reference to the gospel accounts of the resurrection. But this would be incorrect. In Paul’s day, the only “scriptures” consisted of what we now call the Old Testament. “In accordance with the scriptures” means nothing more than “as foretold in the Old Testament or Jewish scriptures.” Paul, remember, was formerly a Jew before his conversion on the road to Damascus, and his scriptures were the Jewish scriptures. Paul, instead, continues with the following:

“…5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

Paul does not make it explicit that he knew about a tomb, rather, his “proof” that Christ had risen was the various post-resurrection “visions” that himself and others had experienced. Let me say that again: Paul emphasizes that the apostles of Christ, himself included, believed that Jesus had risen because they all experienced some kind of vision of him, not based on any knowledge of an empty tomb.

Go to Part 2

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This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:17 pm


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