3.7 Fact 5. The tomb was empty (part 2)

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11 Reasons why that’s true

1. Paul’s testimony guarantees the fact of the empty tomb.

When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 “and He was raised,” this implies an empty tomb. The word used here is egegertai which means “to awaken” from sleep. Sleep is used as a euphemism for death in the bible, and so it is obvious that an awakening in this context means to reawaken from death. It’s clear the picture here is a person coming back to life, which implies an empty tomb. The Jews at the time believed that at the end of time God would raise the bones of the people from the tombs and clothe them again with flesh and give them life.

It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave emptying’ resurrection. To them anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.

E. E. Ellis, Biblical Scholar
More on this, see The Resurrection of the Son of God” by N. T. Wright.

2. The empty tomb was part of the source material used by Mark and is therefore very old.

After remarkable agreement concerning the events leading up to and including the empty tomb, the gospels seem to disperse on the details of the appearances. This suggests that there were independent stories of the appearances by different witnesses about the appearances they had seen. The most natural explanation is that Mark’s source ended with the empty tomb. The verbal and grammatical similarities between the burial and empty tomb account additionally confirm this. Moreover, it seems unthinkable that the earliest story told by Christians ended in death and defeat with no mention of an empty tomb and resurrection. Thus, the empty tomb was likely included or implied by the story.

3. The story is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment.

The radical critic Bultmann even admits:

Mark’s presentation is extremely reserved, insofar as the resurrection and the appearances of the risen Lord are not recounted.

Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament Scholar

In the 3rd century a few authors wrote the fictional gospel “The Ascension of Isaiah.” In chapter 3 verse 16, Jesus comes out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. Mark’s account of the empty tomb isn’t filled with these kinds of fairy tales. This implies that Mark was simply reporting what happened, he did not embellish like the Ancient Greeks or the Romans dramatisation, he reported it like a minimal facts witness statement which is what historians want. 

4. The testimony of women supports the empty tomb

If someone concocted a story in an attempt to deceive others, we presume that they would not knowingly in vent data that could hurt the credibility of their story. Many people make up stories of heroism, valour perhaps dramatise situations. But, Is it normal to make up a story that you’re a thief or a habitual liar? Not usually.

When we come to the empty tomb, women are listed as the primary witnesses, They are not only the first witnesses, they appear in all 4 gospels and come before male witnesses (Women are the first witnesses to the empty tomb (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-2; John 20:1-18). This would be a very odd invention since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, woman were lowly esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable, certainly not as credible as a man’s testimony. Why not list Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and avoids the female issue altogether? If you were to invent a story, using the testimony of women is counter productive. We can also state the empty tomb seems historically credible in the light of the principle of embarrassment.

Antiquity statements

Consider these Jewish writings from the Talmud, Rabbis and Jewish historians:

Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women 

Talmud, Sotah 19a

The world cannot exist without males and without females — happy is he whose children are males, and woe to him whose children are females 

Talmud — Kiddushin 82b, 

Any evidence which. Women [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 1.8

Let the words of the law be burned rather than committed to women

Rabbi Eleazar 

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 ignorability 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,

Here’s the best example of equal rights for women from antiquity we could find in the Jewish world:

Talmud, b.Mas. 31b

Wherever the Torah accepts the testimony of one witness, it follows the majority of persons, so that two women against one man is identical. With two men against one man. But there are some who declare that wherever a competent witness came first, even a hundreds women are regarded as equal to one witness…but when it is a woman who came first, then two women against one man is like half-and-half 

Origen: Contra Celsum 2.55

The Jews didn’t view the testimony of women’s very highly…

How about the Romans? Well unfortunately they shared a similar view. Historian Suetonius writes of Caesar Augustus who was emperor as the time of Jesus’ birth through to AD 14:

Whereas men and women had hitherto always sat together, Augustus confined women to the back rows even at gladiatorial shows: the only ones exempt from this rule being the vestal virgins, for women separate accommodation was provided, facing the praetor’s tribunal. No women were at all allowed to witness the athletic contests; indeed, when the audience clamoured at the Games for a special boxing match to celebrate his appointment as chief priest, Augustus postponed this until early next morning, and issued a proclamation to the effect that it was the Chief Priest’s desire that women should not attend the theatre before ten o’clock.

Suetonius — Gaius Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars,

Plutarch De Pythian, 25; Suetonius Augustus, 44; Fronto and Minucius Felix Octavius, 8-9 are other clear references to the status of women in Roman culture

What’s important is they were the first witnesses on the scene, their testimony is important and you wouldn’t make it up. Antiquity critics used women’s testimony against Christians in debate to prove essentially, that women’s testimony was reasoning their belief was false! Celsus (177AD) even uses this fact to try and discredit Christianity

That while alive he was of no assistance to himself, but that when dead he rose again, and showed the marks of his punishment, and how his hands were pierced with nails: who’s behind this? A half-frantic woman, as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged in the same system of delusion.

Origen Celsus 2.55


Considering the disciples were Jews, Luke 24:11 sums up their response to the women’s testimony “But these words appeared to them [The disciples] as nonsense, and they would not believe them [the women].” 

The Greek word for nonsense used here means “idle talk, nonsense, humbug”. Peter and John did consider it worth going to the tomb to see for themselves, but Luke’s account makes it clear that they thought the women unreliable. Any legendary account would certainly remove the women as the discoverers of the empty tomb, and replace them with men, it would tarnish their case.

It is also equally unlikely that the early believers would have made up the story of the disciples’ hiding in cowardice, while the women boldly observed the crucifixion and burial and visited the tomb. The early believers would have no motivation in humiliating its leaders by portraying them as cowards and women as the heroes. Moreover, the names of the women precludes the story being a legend, since persons who would be known in the early Jerusalem fellowship could not be associated with a false account.

All the early sermons appear to skip over the fact that women were the first to discover the tomb (see passages 1 Cor 15; Luke 24:34; Acts 2:22-36; Acts 10:28-47; Acts 17:22-35; Acts 26:2-23). This doesn’t contradict the gospels but they tend not to use this as their unique selling point in their summary sermons, an interesting admission.

Paul on addressing status of women

Paul addresses the morning prayer on many men in Jerusalem. The men blessed and thanked God… “Who has not made me a Gentile,…a slave,… a woman.”

Think about how radical a statement is when Paul says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there’s neither male nor female, there is neither bond of free” You don’t think perhaps his Jewish audience knew he was referring to this prayer? They knew exactly what Paul was saying. This is a subversive statement, profoundly radical and risky if you wanted to build your case in a Judea-Roman world (Historical principle of embarrassment)


Scholars like Richard Bauckham have spoken well on the subject and treat it as serious claim

In these stories, women are given priority by God as recipients of revelation and thereby the role of mediators of that revelation to men”

Richard Bauckham

As historians we are obliged to comment that if these stories have been made up five years later, let alone thirty, forty or fifty years later, they would never have had Mary Magdalene in this role. To put Mary there is, from the point of Christian apologists wanting to explain to a sceptical audience that Jesus really did rise from the dead, like shooting themselves in the foot. But to us as historians this kind of thing is gold dust. The early Christians would never, never have made this up.

N.T. Wright

5. The Jerusalem factor

Jerusalem was the place where Jesus was executed. The post-mortem appearances and empty tomb were first publicly proclaimed here, It would’ve been impossible for Christianity to get anywhere if the body was still in the tomb. Jesus’ enemies; the Jews and Romans would only have to present the body for the hoax to fall apart. Not only are Jewish and Roman accounts absent of any such account but critics of Christianity are silent on this. If there was any evidence they would’ve jumped on such an account. It wouldn’t have been difficult for them to locate a freshly dug grave, even after several weeks, and exhume the body. The fact that Christianity flourished right in the face of its enemies in Jerusalem strongly suggests that Jesus’ corpse was nowhere to be found.

Unrecognisable body theory

A recent attempt was to say the body would’ve been unrecognisable to a crowd. If Acts is correct, 50 days after the resurrection, the disciples were proclaiming the Risen Jesus. The theory goes that if the Jews and Romans wanted to produce a body they couldn’t because he was no longer recognisable so the idea was abandoned. So this is the attempted theory but it has at least 2 problems.

  1. In the arid climate of Jerusalem, a corpse’s hair stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after 50 days. 
  2. Regardless of the condition of the body, enemies of Jesus would still have found benefit in producing the corpse. Even if unrecognisable, it would still fill many with doubt if they did such a thing. An occupied tomb and decaying corpse would’ve shaken many into seeing a hoax.

Such a hoax would have come to the attention of Christian apologists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries from Justin, Tertullian and Origen. Celsus, a 2nd century critic of Christianity would certainly have brought up the corpse being produced, but he didn’t. Had the information been available, it would have supported his case.

The importance of time

Also, how are they going to carry the body out without being seen? Carrying a body on Passover when thousands of Jews are coming into Jerusalem day and night, you couldn’t pick a worse time! Jacques Saurin summarises it like this:

The apostles proclaimed the resurrection he says “at Pentecost, when Jerusalem expected the spread of the report, and endeavoured to prevent it; while the eyes of their energies were yet sparkling with rage and madness, while Calvary was yet dyed with the blood they had spilt there. Do imposters take such measures? Would not they have waited till the fury of the Jews had been appeased, till judges and public officers, had been changed, and till people had been less attentive to their dispositions?

Jacques Saurin

If the evidence was not in their favour, and Jesus didn’t rise, it would make sense for the early church to go elsewhere as cults often do. Cult leaders round up their followers, take them away from civilisation (or a different area) where you they can’t be disproven. Even with recent Mormonism, Joseph Smith lead his people away from New York, but the disciples walked straight up to the Sanhedrin and stated that they crucified their Messiah! And that he has been raised.


Finally let us remember Tacitus mentioning Christianity began in Judea and spread from there;

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome


6. Enemy attestation

If your mum says you’re a nice person, we sort of believe her. If someone who hates you says you’re a nice person we have more reason to believe them than your mum. The empty tomb is not only attested by Christian sources, their enemies indirectly indicate the empty tomb is known.

Early critics accused the disciples of stealing the body (Matt 28:11-15). When a boy tells the teacher a dog ate his homework, it’s an indirect admission that there is no homework available for assessment. The earliest Jewish claim reported regarding Jesus’ resurrection was to accuse the disciples of stealing the body, an indirect admission that the body was unavailable for public display like the homework). This was the only opposing theory that we know of at the time offered by Jesus’ enemies

In the middle of the second century, Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho, points out that the Jews are still sending people from the city spreading the story. This is a tacit confession that the Jews could not find the body. In the Jewish source Toledot Yeshu, a very anti-christian Jewish work, mentions Jesus being buried in a tomb, and mentions of him not being in the tomb later with the disciples claimed he was risen. 

7. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has a credible claim to authenticity.

On a pilgrimage to collect and preserve artifacts from the Holy Land (325AD), Helena, Constantine’s mother, discovered that the previous emperor Hadrian (200AD) had a “temple built over the tomb [of Jesus] to assert the dominance of Roman state religion at the site venerated by Christians.” 

Eusebius records that the Roman temple was removed and excavations revealed a rock-cut tomb. To preserve the tomb, Constantine built a new Christian church over the site that was later destroyed but then rebuilt. Archeology in the 20th century has revealed remains of Hadrian’s temple in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as walls from the original church built by Constantine. The latest evidence collected in October, 2016 shows us that the original limestone burial bed is still there! (where Jesus would’ve been laid)

Thus, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre proves Christian veneration of a tomb stretching back to well before Hadrian’s temple was built (prior to 200AD).

8.  Sacred land

Medical doctor, philosopher and ethicist Calum Miller has argued that, from non-Christian sources alone, it is almost historically certain that Jesus would have been buried in a known tomb. Throughout the Old Testament there is an imperative to bury the dead. The primary reason for this was because the Jews considered the land sacred. Leaving a body out in the open air, or in a mass grave, would defile the land. Given the burial protocols laid out in Jewish sources, we have ample reason to believe that Jesus would have been buried in a tomb. In addition to this we have archaeological evidence for a buried crucified victim from the 1st century in the form of Yohanan Ben Ha’galgo (we have his crucified skeletal foot). Josephus confirms crucified victims were allowed a proper burial (Josephus: Jewish War 4.317), Jewish law demanded even foreigners and criminals had to be buried (Deuteronomy 21:23; Josephus, Against Apion, 2.211) So we know that Jewish criminals were still allowed to be buried in tombs.

Yohanan Ben Ha’galgo’s foot with a 7 inch nail through it
Tzaferis, V. 1970 Jewish Tombs at and near Giv'at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal Vol.20 pp. 18-32.

9. No other account 

Another reason is that no other burial story exists. Basically, if some other burial account were true, we would expect to find mention of it somewhere. But instead the only burial account that shows up is the one involving Joseph of Arimathea and as we know Joseph of Arimathea was part of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the group responsible for Jesus’ death. It’s unlikely Christians would have invented this historical person that honours Jesus by having him buried in his own tomb. All of this leads an atheist historian like Michael Grant to say,

If we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was, indeed, found empty.

Michael Grant, Historian, Atheist

10. The Nazareth inscription

Romans allowed certain freedoms for the Jews under their leadership such as temple worship (despite it not being their pagan gods); let them conduct their own trials; have their own temple guards; Keep the Sabbath etc. So activities like burying a dead person would be surely ok amongst all of these.

A Stone found in Nazareth has written on it an imperial decree from around 41AD which states that the penalty for grave robbing was death, which is fascinating as this is very severe for how Romans punish thieving. The Romans would not normally give such a high punishment for stealing something, normally they would need to pay for damages 2 or 4-fold, possibly face a flogging worst case scenario by Roman Law. However this decree makes sense with the rise of Christianity and with what Suetonius tells us:

“Since the Jews constantly made riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome”

Crestus, Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4

Crestus was a common mispronunciation of Christus, Christ. Claudius eventually expelled all the Jews because of this. Some Jews were presenting Christ’s resurrection and riots resulted from it. If the tomb was not empty there would be no need for this imperial decree about grave robbing because the Romans could just produce the body and dispel the riots. Because the only alternative explanation was the body was missing or stolen, Rome’s only option was to combat the accounts of a missing body. In the life of Claudius it states:

With the body, the Romans could have ended such a riot. (

Life of Claudius 25.4

Would Rome steal the body? Of course not. Would the Jewish leaders? They wanted him crucified, shamed, buried and forgotten. What about the Christians? Their rabbi had just been killed and the disciples had dispersed, they were in fear the Jewish authorise would come after them as well. Even if they had the body, it would make little sense to report the story the Jewish leaders were spreading. If it was true, the last thing they would have done is to help the Jewish leaders rumour spread by mentioning in their own gospel, which could have led to some potential Christians holding back in case they believed the rumour (Matthew 28:13-15).

Luke 24:10-11 states if they had stolen the body, they would not report to their shame and dishonour that they had not believed the reports of the women when they found the empty tomb. Nor would they have reported that they did not understand that Jesus said he would rise. These are embarrassing and shameful things to report. Later Christians would not have made this up to attack their earlier leaders, nor would the original disciples have wanted to shame themselves.

11. Expectation

This image (above) features several thousand Jewish ossuaries all facing the Temple Mount. Only the richest of the richest can afford to have their bones placed here. What interested me most about this picture is that it proves physical resurrection at the end of the world is a thriving Jewish theology. So to announce that your Rabbi, Jesus is physically rising before the end of the world? It was inconceivable and you would not announce such a thing in a Jewish context, unless you were sure of what happened.

Sources on ‘Women’s testimony’

  • Male and female witnesses — Luke 24: 12; John 20: 3–9.
  • Value of the testimony of women — Josephus, The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, William Whiston, ed. and trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1987).
  • Nonsense meaning — W. Arndt, F. W. Danker, and W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. leeros.
  • Suetonius — Gaius Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Augustus 44, Robert Graves, trans. (New York: Penguin, 1989), 80.
  • Women at the tomb — Osiek, Carolyn, “The Women at the Tomb: What Are They Doing There?” in Ex Auditu 9 (1993): 97–107.
  • Making more sense for men to be the first tomb witnesses — That the disciples did not believe when they saw the empty tomb and were recorded as being stubborn doubters was unquestionably embarrassing to them. Thus we have a double use of the principle of embarrassment regarding the empty tomb.
  • First at the tomb — Atheist philosopher Keith Parsons argues that the women naturally would be the first to see the risen Christ in an invented story, since it was their responsibility to anoint the body. However, this does not square with the Gospels’ testimony that Joseph of Arimathea and/ or Nicodemus prepared the body for burial with a substantial amount of spices. This was before the women’s visit (Matt. 27: 57–61; Mark 15: 42–47; Luke 23: 50–56; John 19: 38–40). Moreover, an invented story of the resurrection could have recorded the appearance to the men while waiting at the tomb for the women to show up or after the women did their part in dressing the corpse. The women need only have played a secondary role.
  • Fact of scientific history — William Wand, Christianity: A Historical Religion? (Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson, 1972), 93–94.
  • Talmud, Sontag 19a, 
  • Talmud — Kiddushin 82b, 
  • Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 1.8, 
  • Rabbi Eleazar. 
  • Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15, 
  • Talmud, b.Mas. 31b
  • Origen: Contra Celsum 2.55
  • Richard Baukham, Gospel Women, p275
  • N.T. Wright, There is a God, p207

Notes & sources on ‘Jerusalem factor’

  • First proclaimed here — Not only is this the testimony of the New Testament (Acts 2), but Tacitus reports that the church started in Judea (Annals 15: 44).
  • Pentecost — This comes fifty days after Passover. It was not until after receiving the Holy Spirit that they began their public preaching concerning the risen Jesus.
  • Unrecognisable body theory — This is much the view of New Testament critic Gerd Lüdemann. See Copan and Tacelli, eds., Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? 153.
  • Distinctive after 50 days — This information was obtained from the Medical Examiner’s Office for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The physician in charge said that even in Virginia, which has a climate warm and damp enough to promote quick decomposition, an unprepared corpse undergoing a normal rate of decomposition should still after fifty days have its hair and an identifying stature. The wounds would “definitely” be identifiable. Thus, a corpse in a much worse state than what would be expected for arid Jerusalem would still be identifiable after fifty days.
  • Jacques Saurin
  • Tacitus, Annals 15.44

Sources on ‘Enemy attestation’

Sources on Jehohanan

Tzaferis, V. 1970 Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal Vol.20 pp. 18-32.

Source on image ‘Expectation’

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