Did the Early Christians Believe in the Empty Tomb?

Did the first Christians believe in the empty tomb?
Did the first Christians believe in the empty tomb? (photo: Register Files)

The four Gospels all mention the empty tomb of Christ, which has become a mainstay of modern apologetics.

But some argue that the idea of the empty tomb was a late development in early Christianity—that it only arose decades after the Crucifixion, and that early Christians thought Jesus had been “spiritually” raised from the dead, not literally.

It was only with the passage of time that this spiritual resurrection was interpreted as a literal one, leading to the idea of the empty tomb.

In arguing for this view, advocates of this view might ask why earlier documents of the New Testament don’t mention the empty tomb.

This is, in fact, something that Philip Jenkins is wondering about . . .


Jenkins on the Empty Tomb

Over at his blog, Dr. Jenkins writes:

Let me pose the problem. From the time of Mark’s gospel, around 70, the empty tomb became central to the Resurrection narrative, so central in fact that Jews evolve rival stories to account for the absence of Jesus’s body (Matt. 28. 11-15). The story evidently mattered in religious polemic. Over the next thirty years or so, the story is repeated in various forms in three other gospels. Yet even Luke, who knows the story, makes no use of it in Acts. Before the 90s, moreover, (the time of Matthew and Luke), the one account that we do have of the empty tomb does not refer to visions of a bodily risen Jesus at or near the site.

Where is the empty tomb story before 70?

Suppose I face an atheist critic, who makes the following argument. Yes, he says, early Christians believed that they encountered the risen Jesus, that they had visions, but these visions had no objective reality. They just arose from the hopes and expectations of superstitious disciples. Even then, Christians saw that Resurrection in spiritual, pneumatic, terms. Only after a lengthy period, some forty years in fact, did the church invent stories to give a material, bodily basis to that phenomenon, and the empty tomb was the best known example.

How can I respond? Help me.

Some have already responded in his combox, but I’d like to provide a fuller response, so let’s go.


Challenging a Premise

My first response to an atheist critic would be that I don’t accept one of the premises—that the Gospels were written at such late dates.

The book of Acts suddenly stops, without resolving the story of Paul’s trial and imprisonment, in A.D. 60. Whether Paul was exonerated or executed, either would have been a fitting ending to Acts, and the best explanation for why Luke stopped writing without finishing the story is that those events simply had not happened yet. In other words, Acts was written in A.D. 60.

Since Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, that means Luke was written no later than A.D. 60 and possibly quite a bit earlier.

Depending on your theory of the order in which the Gospels were composed, either Matthew or Mark (or both) were written before Luke, and that would push them into at least the A.D. 50s, which is the same period that most of Paul’s epistles were being written.

Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 8:18, written in the mid A.D. 50s, Paul tells the readers that he is sending them “the brother whose praise is in the Gospel.” This may be a reference to either Mark or Luke, both sometime travelling companions of Paul and both authors of Gospels.

Even John shows signs of being written in the A.D. 60s. He refers to things in Jerusalem as still standing that would have been devastated in A.D. 70 (cf. John 5:2), and in the literal Greek of John 21:19 he speaks of Peter’s death—which took place in A.D. 67—as still in the future (“This he said to show by what death he [Peter] will glorify God”—future tense in the Greek). (There's also the fact that John expressly claims to be written by an eyewitness of the empty tomb itself.)

So, despite the dates you commonly hear assigned to the Gospels, the evidence is that they were actually written quite a bit earlier, and their composition overlapped the period in which the epistles were written (see John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament for more).


Challenging a Second Premise

The book of Acts doesn’t refer to the empty tomb? It would seem to do so in this passage, where Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost:

Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses [Acts 2:29-32].

Note the contrast between David and Jesus. David died and was buried in a tomb. Jesus died and, presumably, was also buried in a tomb, though the text is not explicit on this.

It is explicit on what happened next: David’s tomb is with us “to this day.” He’s still buried in it. But Jesus experienced “resurrection” he was “not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” He was “raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.”

Even if you interpreted “resurrection,” “raised up” and “we are all witnesses” as some kind of visionary, spiritual experience, that would not explain “nor did his flesh see corruption.”

If Jesus was still in his tomb—if his tomb was not empty—then he flesh did see corruption. It would have experienced quite a bit of corruption this many weeks after the Crucifixion.

Over all, this passage seems to envision a contrast between David’s non-empty tomb and Jesus’ empty tomb.


Challenging a Third Premise

Then there is the claim that the apostles, or their audience, would have understood Jesus’ resurrection as some kind of visionary or spiritual experience.


First century Jews were familiar with visions and the appearances of disembodied spirits after their deaths, but they did not identify either of these types of experiences with resurrection, which was understood as a bodily phenomenon.

I won’t argue this at length here, because it is argued at length by N. T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God.

But given that first century Jews understood resurrection as a bodily experience, every mention of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament implies the empty tomb.


The Empty Tomb and Apologetics

The fact that Christ’s tomb was empty is of apologetic significance, as it forces one to consider what happened to Jesus’ body, but it has not always played the same kind of role that it does in our age.

Apologetics has taken on different shapes in different ages. In our skeptical age, which is hostile to visions and miracles, the emptiness of the tomb strikes us with particular force.

Something happened to the body—so what was it? If the tomb was empty, we have to explain this by either natural or supernatural means.

But in the first century, which was by no means hostile to visions and miracles, the empty tomb was less essential to the apologetic enterprise.

People—like St. Paul—could be convinced of the Resurrection by having a vision of the risen Christ.

People who were witnesses of the risen Christ could then convince others by the force of their testimony, or by appeals to Old Testament prophecy, or by performing miraculous healings and exorcisms.

Indeed, the New Testament records the first evangelists convincing people by all of these means.

So they had additional tools in their apologetic toolboxes that people in the skeptical, 21st century find less persuasive. That tends to focus our attention on the empty tomb in a way that was not necessary for first century evangelists.

We thus should not expect them to focus on the empty tomb as much as we would.

That leads to a question . . .


Why Mention It at All?

If we look at the times when the empty tomb is clearly and explicitly mentioned (thus eliminating the reference in Acts and other references to the resurrection), we do have the mentions in the four Gospels.

Why would these mention it? Why would they mention it at all?

Because they’re telling the story of Jesus, and this is part of that story.

Acts isn’t the story of Jesus. It’s the story of what happened after Jesus’ ministry, and so we wouldn’t expect it to go through the events of how the Resurrection happened the same way that Luke—or the other Gospels—do.

None of the epistles are even narrative works. They are hortatory (like James) or polemical (like Galatians and Hebrews) or pastoral (like 1 and 2 Corinthians) or prophetic (like Revelation). But none of them are narratives, much less narratives of the life of Christ.

Thus we would not expect them to have anything more than passing references to the life of Christ.

Also, none of them are catechetical or apologetic works. They are not meant to be read by outsiders to introduce them to the Christian Faith and argue why Jesus is the Messiah or that he rose from the dead.

The speeches in Acts do provide that kind of material, and, as we’ve seen, one of the speeches in Acts does indicate the empty tomb in a way that goes beyond the ordinary references to Christ’s Resurrection.

The most directly catechetical/apologetic/evangelistic works in the New Testament—the ones that we would expect to mention the empty tomb most explicitly—are the Gospels, and it is precisely these that go into detail about it as they recount how the apostles and their associates first came to learn of the Resurrection.


Added Significance to Acts

It’s been noted that there is a progression in the speeches in Acts, so they don’t all cover the same material. It would be rather repetitious if they did! And so, having one mention of the empty tomb in Acts is quite sufficient.

But whether or one is inclined not to view Acts 2:29-32 as referring to the empty tomb, the fact that the matter is not presented as explicitly as in Luke itself reveals the relevance of the genre question to whether or not the empty tomb should be mentioned.

Acts isn’t as explicit as Luke on the subject, because Acts is the sequel to Luke, and the reader is expected to have already read Luke.

In the same way, the other books of the New Testament are all for an “in-house” audience that is expected to already know the story of Jesus, and so they don’t need to present apologetic arguments based on the empty tomb to their readers.

In short, they are not the kind of literature, they’re not written in the kind of genres, where we would expect mentions of the empty tomb.

The books that are written as types of literature where the empty tomb would be expected to appear “on camera”—the Gospels—do mention it.


If the Tomb Weren’t Empty

According to the evidence we have, the Christian movement remained centered in Jerusalem for quite some time. It was only in the A.D. 60s that the Christian population (apparently) largely left as the Jewish War loomed.

This means that they were living right there, right next to Jesus’ tomb for all those years.

Given the Jewish—not just Christian—understanding of resurrection as a bodily phenomenon, then, if Jesus’ tomb were not empty, their critics would have pointed this out. Repeatedly.

This would have forced the early Christian leaders to respond by making explicit the fact that they only believed in a “spiritual” Resurrection.

“Yes, we know Jesus’ body is a-molderin’ in the grave, but he’s been spiritually raised from the dead,” they would have had to say.

That statement would have been unintelligible to a first century Jewish audience, but it’s the kind of statement they would have been forced to make, explain, and defend—over and over again—during those formational decades in Jerusalem, with the tomb of Jesus right there.

And both word of Jesus’ non-empty tomb and the response would have spread throughout the Jewish and Christian communities around the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East (which were quite connected with Jerusalem, as the crowd gathered on Pentecost in Acts 2 illustrates).

But we don’t find either of those claims reflected in the New Testament or the Church Fathers or any other early writings.

Indeed, we don’t have any evidence that Jesus’ tomb remained full. There seems to have been general agreement that it was empty, as illustrated by Matthew’s citation of the alternative story that the disciples stole the body, which he says remained current among non-Christian Jews “to this day” (Matt. 28:15).

Whether “this day” was in the A.D. 50s or the A.D. 90s, the evidence points to a prior and widespread circulation of the alternative story for a significant period before these days, and thus a consensus among Jews and Christians before these dates that the tomb was empty.


Controversy Leaves Traces

Both of those dates are within a human lifetime of the Crucifixion, and if the original story had been of a “spiritual” Resurrection, there would have been Christians who remembered it and who objected to the change.

This would be a parallel to the Christians who understood Christianity originally as a Jewish phenomenon and who objected when Gentiles were admitted to the Christian community.

That left a marked trace on early Christian literature, and we would expect the same if an equally momentous change took place on the question of Jesus’ Resurrection.

It also would have given Christianity’s critics an additional charge to lay against them: that they had changed their story about what happened to Jesus.

But we have no evidence of such controversies.

The evidence points, consistently, to the empty tomb.


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