Without an empty tomb, the case for the resurrection falls apart.  When I was teaching, I used to tell my classes that if someone could produce Jesus’ corpse, if they could point to the tomb it was still buried in, I’d be the first one to renounce my faith.  Of course, no one ever has, and most likely, no one ever will.  

However, one of the most impressive features of resurrection faith is that, confronted with an empty tomb, no one in those first few days and weeks after Jesus’ crucifixion (when his body would still be identifiable) was ever able to produce his dead corpse—even though many had strong motive to do so.  Most scholars recognize what a powerful piece of evidence this is. 

But, what if Jesus’ body was never buried in a tomb in the first place?  Then all bets are off.  The fact that no one could produce his body wouldn’t prove anything.  

For there to be an empty tomb, there has to be a tomb in the first place! 

Probably the best argument mounted against the resurrection to date—proposed by a very prominent Biblical scholar named John Dominic Crossan—makes this very point.  He contends that Jesus would have been treated the way most criminals crucified by the Romans were: either, his body would have been left on the cross to rot and for the wild beasts to devour until the next crucifixion when the soldiers would knock the bones down and scatter them among all the other remains around the site; or, his body would have been buried in a shallow grave (barely covered by dirt) where the wild dogs and other animals would quickly unearth it and eat the remaining flesh.  Either way, shortly after being crucified, Jesus’ skeletal remains would have decomposed in anonymity among the many others that littered that place (Golgotha or a shallow common grave, respectively), making them impossible to identify. 

Crossan then goes on to suggest that, driven by grief and guilt, Peter and the others eventually had vivid visions which convinced them Jesus was appearing to them risen from the dead.  Since Jesus’ dead corpse would have been unidentifiable, no one could contradict them when they began to claim he had risen.  Later on, when people both in and outside the church were no longer familiar with the original facts, the story of the empty tomb was invented to bolster this claim.  Without a body, the legend of the empty tomb and the myth of the resurrection couldn’t be challenged.  (John Dominic Crossan Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1994, p. 154ff.)  

So how do we know this didn’t happen?  How do we know Jesus’ body was buried and in a well-known tomb?  

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial say that Joseph of Arimathea requested the body of Jesus and buried it in a tomb he owned.  On the face of it, Joseph appears to be a very sympathetic character, one of the few good guys in an otherwise tragic story riddled with villains and cowards.  He seems to emerge as one of the rare heroes, performing a final act of kindness and respect for Jesus.  Joseph certainly seems to fit Crossan’s theory that the empty tomb story is a later legend—he exhibits all the attributes we would expect the early church to give him were they making the story up.

But here’s the thing.  The details the Gospels provide about Joseph betray the exact opposite.  In the eyes of the early church, the role he played isn’t heroic at all.  It’s utterly scandalous.  

Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin.  As a member of this leading council, he agreed to sentence Jesus to death.  He voted to have Jesus crucified.  He’s no hero.  He’s a villain!  

It’s true that the later Gospels will try to clean things up, to make Joseph a more sympathetic figure: Luke says that he disagreed with the decision to crucify Jesus; Matthew and John portray him becoming a disciple.  But this only proves the point.  They’re trying to play down the embarrassing fact which Mark, the first gospel written, so shamefully reports.  A fact which, therefore, is undeniably more historical—the man who buried Jesus, who has such a pivotal role in the story, took part in putting him to death.  

He wished Jesus dead! 

To get a sense of how absurd it would be for the early church to invent Joseph’s role, here’s a contemporary analogy.  It would be like a government press release informing the public about a terrorist attack that had recently been thwarted.  But instead of crediting the FBI or CIA, it credits a high-ranking member of ISIS for preventing the attack and saving the day.  No one writing a piece of government-sponsored propaganda would ever invent a story where such a detested enemy, such an active member and leader of a group which routinely engages in terrorist activity against the United States—which wants to destroy us!—plays such an honorable role.  Yet this is precisely what the early church would have been doing if the story of Joseph were a legend. 

The only way to account for Joseph’s role in the story is if he actually buried Jesus’ body. 

Adding insult to injury, the way Joseph treats Jesus’ body only serves to corroborate this conclusion.  Following his scourging and crucifixion, Jesus’ body would have been covered with blood.  Given Jewish sensibilities about ritual impurity, it would have been abhorrent to leave him this way.  The minimal honor one could show would be to wash the body.  In fact, family members were required, among other things, to do this for their deceased kin.  But Joseph doesn’t do this for Jesus.  Instead, he treats Jesus as a common criminal, essentially just binding him up as is and throwing him in the tomb.  

To get a sense of the horror the early church would have felt over Joseph’s treatment of Jesus’ body, here’s another analogy.  It would be like someone in your family wrapping your beloved grandmother’s corpse in a bedsheet shortly after she had passed away and tossing it down a ravine behind her house.  No embalming.  No casket.  No flowers.  No service to honor her life.  Just taking her dead body and disposing of it in the most expedient way possible.  

For all these reasons and more, no early Christian would have ever invented the story of Jesus’ disgraceful burial by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the detested Sanhedrin which was responsible for Jesus’ death and intent on destroying the early church—it’s simply too scandalous and embarrassing.  This is probably why very few scholars have followed Crossan in his theory.  (By the way, they’ve pointed out many other problems with his theory as well.) 

The story is firmly rooted in history.  And this means that we can know with “virtual certainty”—as several top scholars have described it—that immediately after his crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a well-known tomb.  

But how do we know that the tomb was empty because he actually rose from the dead, and that his body wasn’t simply moved or stolen?  Or that the disciples didn’t just go to the wrong tomb?  These questions will be addressed in future blogs. 

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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