Historical Evidence for the Empty Tomb of Jesus

Jesus' Empty TombAccording to a survey conducted by Gary Habermas looking at works from a wide array of biblical scholars (including believers and skeptics alike) produced between 1975-2002, about 75% of scholars believe that the tomb of Jesus was discovered empty by a group of his women followers on the Sunday following his crucifixion (Habermas and Licona, 60, 70). New Testament critic Jacob Kremer agrees, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb” (Craig, 370).

This article briefly outlines some of the historical evidence for the empty tomb of Jesus that the consensus of scholarship finds most convincing. (If you are interested in learning how the historicity of the empty tomb supports the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, check out our Evidence for the Resurrection series.)

Five Reasons Why Scholars Believe the Tomb Was Empty

1. The empty tomb is attested in multiple early, independent sources. In historical scholarship, events and claims are judged to be either likely or unlikely, not the accuracy of documents as a whole. Therefore, in the case of the empty tomb, scholars will consider the sources available to determine how likely it is, without presupposing the inspiration or even the general trustworthiness of the sources used.

Upon doing this, they find that the narrative of the empty tomb is attested in Mark’s early passion source, which is dated to BCE 37, at most 7 years after the crucifixion. They find that it is also implied in Paul’s creed to the Corinthians (1 Corin. 15:3-8), which is dated to within no more than 5 years after the crucifixion. When these short time gaps between the events themselves and the sources that attest to them are compared with the time gaps of other well-established events in Greco-Roman history – in which the sources typically are written multiple generations after the events themselves – the empty tomb is found to be supported by extremely early sources.

Moreover, the empty tomb is mentioned independently in Matthew, Luke, John, and the early sermons in Acts.

2. The empty tomb narrative found in Mark is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment. The story of the empty tomb consists of the women discovering the tomb with the rock rolled away and an angelic figure telling them that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is very simple and devoid of poetic or mythological enhancements, especially when compared to later forged gospels. For instance, the later Gospel of Peter features Jesus bursting out of the tomb with the whole city watching, his neck stretching to heaven, and being followed by a talking cross. These kinds of things are what we expect in late legends, but the story in Mark is simple and thereby more likely to be a true account.

Historical Evidence for the Empty Tomb of Jesus3. The reliability of Jesus’ burial supports the empty tomb. It is well-established that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb just outside Jerusalem after he was crucified by a man named Joseph of Arimathea. The way in which this supports the empty tomb is as follows: If Jesus’ tomb were not empty, then as the disciples started proclaiming the resurrection in Jerusalem, all the Jewish authorities had to do was produce the body and stop Christianity right where it began. But because Christianity began mere weeks after the crucifixion in the very city in which Jesus was publicly crucified, it becomes inexplicable how it could have done so in the presence of an occupied tomb.

4. The earliest Jewish response to the disciples presupposes the empty tomb. When the Jewish authorities went out to refute the resurrection, they did so not by pointing to an occupied tomb, but by asserting that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:13). This response is an alternative explanation for why the tomb was empty; it implicitly concedes that the tomb is empty (by trying to explain it away) rather than denying the empty tomb itself. As such, we have what historians call “enemy attestation” for the empty tomb: we have testimony to the empty tomb by enemies of Christianity who have no reason to say that the tomb was empty unless Jesus’ body was actually gone.

(Whether or not this conspiracy hypothesis is a plausible explanation of the empty tomb is another issue. Some reasons to think that it is not plausible concern the state of 1st century Jewish cultural beliefs about the resurrection, along with the fortitude and sincerity of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. For more considerations like these, see Part 3 of our Evidence for the Resurrection series.)

5. The tomb was discovered empty by women. In Jewish patriarchal society, the testimony of women was devalued and considered to be untrustworthy. The Jewish historian Josephus explains, “let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of the sex…since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment” (Antiquities 4.8.15). Therefore, if the disciples made up the empty tomb, we would expect the male disciples, like Peter or John, to be the ones to find the tomb empty. However, the best explanation of the fact that women are the ones to discover the empty tomb is that they really were the ones to discover it.

Thus, the empty tomb narrative contains what historians call a “principle of embarrassment,” which refers to a feature not likely to be contained in a narrative unless that narrative is accurate. This principle of embarrassment provides strong confirmation that the empty tomb is historical, and is perhaps the most persuasive piece of evidence in the minds of historical scholars.

Conclusion: Jesus’ Tomb Was Found Empty

In summary, the empty tomb is supported by the following historical data: it is attested in multiple early, independent sources; the burial story is reliable; the empty tomb narrative is simple; the empty tomb is supported by enemy attestation; the empty tomb was discovered by women.

It is for reasons such as these that, in the words of New Testament critic D. H. Van Daalen, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions” (Craig, 370).



Many of the insights of this article were gained from the following resources:
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig

See our reviews of these books here.

Which of these evidences do you find most persuasive? Leave any thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!

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6 Commentsto Historical Evidence for the Empty Tomb of Jesus

  1. Christine says:

    Kiefer, I have no doubt about the fact that the tomb was empty when found. But there is so much speculation going along with it. I have read Craig’s account before coming upon your site. I have many questions:
    Was the body removed by 1 or more individuals? The stone could only be rolled away by more than one person.

    Is the interpretation of the apostles correct? Translation is a subjective issue.

    Even just 5 years time difference can be huge when you take the human brain into consideration.

    Anyway, will leave it to the expert historians and I will continue to speculate.
    Christine.

    • Kiefer says:

      Hi Christine. Thanks for your thoughts and questions. Here are my brief answers; feel free to follow-up if you feel that any need more elaboration.

      Was the body removed by 1 or more individuals? The stone could only be rolled away by more than one person.

      Response: If the empty tomb narrative is correct, then presumably either the angels or the resurrected Jesus himself would have rolled it away. Matthew has an angel rolling it away (Matt. 28:1-2), whereas the other gospel accounts merely say that the stone was rolled away. Your question about the body being “removed” is harder to answer, as it appears to assume some alternative account to the resurrection. If Jesus rose then presumably he left on his own; if the disciples stole the body, then probably many of them were needed. However, as I explain throughout my Evidence for the Resurrection series, the resurrection hypothesis is the most plausible explanation of all the facts.

      Is the interpretation of the apostles correct? Translation is a subjective issue.

      I’m not sure how to answer this. Could you perhaps you could make your question more concrete for me by specifying what you have in mind?

      Even just 5 years time difference can be huge when you take the human brain into consideration.

      That’s a natural thought to have, Christine, but the general consensus of historians is that legendary embellishment takes much longer than five years to develop. Part of the explanation for this is that with only a five year time-gap, you are still dealing with the same people who were around at the time that Jesus died and allegedly rose. It would have been extraordinarily difficult to pull one over on those people and convince them that Jesus had risen if there were, say, people around who could verify that the tomb was still occupied.

  2. Jeff Benton says:

    Hey all, Nice article and great info for folks like me who have no formal background in apologetics…

    Was reading Luke 8 this morning and realized that Jesus Christ may not have wanted all to come to faith so easily…
    Comment on the Parables here – Luke 8-10 Darby –
    “And he said, To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest in parables, in order that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

    I wonder if you can tell folks how this may apply to the whole go out and spread the word deal… Is it just that some folks have already decided to be against Jesus Christ and Jesus is not interested in showing them the way as easily, perhaps in the hope that the harder they have to seek and look, the more they will be grounded if they do turn to Him??

    He clearly is saddened by those who choose darkness and wants all to come to God through him per other passages right?? Or no??

    Was just curious for someone knowledgeable in these slightly harder questions to see their explanation on this passage as it relates to bringing others to seek Jesus Christ…

    Thanks for your time…
    Jeff

    • Kiefer says:

      Hi Jeff! Thank you for your comment and detailed question. There are a lot of biblical issues at play here, but here is my understanding of this passage in a nutshell:

      In Luke the phrase “in order that” is ambiguous; it could either imply that Jesus speaks in parables in order to deliberately keep unbelievers from understanding, or that Jesus speaks in parables in order to fulfill the prophecy predicting that some would see and hear but not understand (likely because they are themselves resisting the Holy Spirit). I opt for the latter understanding. As evidence, note that in this passage Jesus references the prophecy from Isaiah 6:9-10.

      This is most clear in Matthew 13:10-15, where this same discussion is taking place. Here Jesus says explicitly that Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled through Jesus speaking in parables, with some hearing the word but not understanding. Matthew quotes the prophecy for us as well. If you look at his quotation, it has the prophecy saying of the unbelievers that “their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15; italics mine). This, I think, gives us a clearer picture of the situation: the unbelievers themselves resist Jesus, and for that reason do not understand, though Jesus would of course heal them were they not to resist.

      So I see this all as consistent with other passages expressing God’s love and desire for all people to be saved. I also see it as consistent with the call by Jesus after his resurrection to call all people to life through him. (The prime example of this is of course Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:19-20.)

      Anyway, this is my take, though I welcome others as well!

      • Jeff Benton says:

        Thanks so much… No need to post my thanks here… Just wanted to let you know I read your answer and found it helpful indeed 🙂 It makes good sense…

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