Historical Evidence for the Empty Tomb of Jesus
According 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.
3. 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!