The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus

William Lane Craig

An examination of both Pauline and gospel material leads to eight lines of evidence in support of the conclusion that Jesus's tomb was discovered empty: (1) Paul's testimony implies the historicity of the empty tomb, (2) the presence of the empty tomb pericope in the pre-Markan passion story supports its historicity, (3) the use of 'on the first day of the week' instead of 'on the third day' points to the primitiveness of the tradition, (4) the narrative is theologically unadorned and non-apologetic, (5) the discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable, (6) the investigation of the empty tomb by the disciples is historically probable, (7) it would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty, (8) the Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.

Source: "The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus." 

New Testament Studies

 31 (1985): 39-67.

Until recently the empty tomb has been widely regarded as both an offense to modern intelligence and an embarrassment for Christian faith; an offense because it implies a nature miracle akin to the resuscitation of a corpse and an embarrassment because it is nevertheless almost inextricably bound up with Jesus' resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. But in the last several years, a remarkable change seems to have taken place, and the scepticism that so characterized earlier treatments of this problem appears to be fast receding.

2

 Though some theologians still insist with Bultmann that the resurrection is not a historical event,

3

 this incident is certainly presented in the gospels as a historical event, one of the manifestations of which was that the tomb of Jesus was reputedly found empty on the first day of the week by several of his women followers; this fact, at least, is therefore in principle historically verifiable. But how credible is the evidence for the historicity of Jesus' empty tomb?

In order to answer this question, we need to look first at one of the oldest traditions contained in the New Testament concerning the resurrection. In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (AD 56-57) he cites what is apparently an old Christian formula (

1 Cor 15. 3b-5

), as is evident from the non-Pauline and Semitic characteristics it contains.

4

 The fact that the formula recounts, according to Paul, the content of the earliest apostolic preaching (

I Cor 15. 11

), a fact confirmed by its concordance with the sermons reproduced by Luke in Acts,

5

 strongly suggests that the formula originated in the Jerusalem church. We know from Paul's own hand that three years after his conversion (AD 33-35) at Damascus, he visited Jerusalem, where he met personally Peter and James (

Gal 1. 18-19

). He probably received the formula in Damascus, perhaps in Christian catechesis; it is doubtful that he received it later than his Jerusalem visit, for it is improbable that he should have replaced with a formula personal information from the lips of Peter and James themselves.

6

 The formula is therefore probably quite old, reaching back to within the first five years after Jesus' crucifixion. It reads:

. . . hoti Christos apethanen huper ton hamartion hemon kata tas graphas,

kai hoti etaphe,

kai hoti egegertai te hemera te trite kata tas graphas,

kai hoti ophthe Kepha, eita tois dodeka.

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