We recently bought our first Smart TV.  While learning how to use it, I’ve run across several documentaries about 9-11 I had never seen before.  They feature some incredibly gripping interviews, including one with the Captain of a Harlem ladder company who’s been on the Fire Department for nearly forty years.

He tells how his was one of only a few companies to respond to the Towers to lose a member but have the rest of the company survive.  When their ladder arrived at the Towers, the Officer had the rest of the company stage while he reported in to the Command Post.  It was just then that the first Tower collapsed, trapping and killing him.

The Captain went on to say that he knew close to half the firefighters who died that day personally.  During his long career, he had worked with over one hundred of them.  His reflections about that day were heart-wrenching.

Then he made a point to add something else.  He went out of his way to stress how that day had ended a streak of miserably hot, muggy weather.  He talked about how beautiful the weather was; how perfect it was; how it was the best day in months.

Strangely, this is a common theme.  In all the interviews I’ve watched with those who experienced 9-11 first-hand, now or then, virtually all of them make some comment about how nice the weather was that day.  I remember that day well.  The weather was gorgeous.  The perfect temperature.  Low humidity.  Not a cloud in the sky.

But when it comes to the history of that day, the weather is an “incidental detail”.  It had nothing to do with the tragedy itself, with the impact and meaning of those events—they would have been the same if it was a miserably hot and muggy day.  It’s a throw-away remark: “By the way, it just so happened that it was a gorgeous day.”

It’s not in any way essential to the story.

John’s Gospel tells us that when the women discovered Jesus’ tomb empty, they ran to tell his male disciples.  Peter and the Beloved Disciple immediately ran to the tomb to see for themselves.  When the Beloved Disciple peered in, he saw the burial clothes and, as a result, believed. (John 20:5-8)

In Luke’s Gospel, however, Peter runs to the tomb alone and, looking in, sees the clothes lying on the ground, but doesn’t make anything of it.  He walks away totally perplexed. (Luke 24:12)  In other words, in Luke’s account, the burial clothes are an incidental detail.  They don’t lead to belief or anything else.  They have no symbolic meaning or importance to the story.  They’re not essential to it; just a throw-away remark: “By the way—incidentally—it just so happened that when Peter inspected the tomb, the burial clothes were lying there.”

The virtually universal consensus of biblical scholars is that John is the last Gospel written, which means that Luke’s account here is earlier and easily the more reliable of the two.  

Since the mention of the clothes in Luke is an incidental detail—there’s no reason to mention it unless it just so happened to be true—and historical scholars usually judge this kind of detail to be authentic, it is likely that those who found the tomb Jesus was buried in empty three days later also noticed that his burial clothes were still there, but had no idea what to make of that.  (John’s account interprets this incident from the perspective of later resurrection faith—it’s what the norms of ancient historiography in that period called for in order to tease out the meaning of historical events for the reader.)

There’s another great example of an incidental detail in the various Gospel accounts of Jesus feeding the five thousand.  Mark mentions that the grass Jesus had them sit on was green.  The fact the grass is green adds nothing to the story.  In fact, it is so irrelevant that both Matthew and Luke leave this detail out. 

Such “non-symbolic, illustrative details” could be the creative work of the Evangelist, a way to make the story more colorful (pardon the pun).  But it’s much more likely that such unimportant details stem from some kind of real historical memory—for whatever reason, the original eyewitnesses were struck by these irrelevant details and included them as they told of their experiences.

Why does any of this matter?

Outside of some kind of miracle, the two ways the reality of an empty tomb is most commonly explained is that someone either stole Jesus’ body or inadvertently moved it.

If someone stole Jesus’ body, they never would have left the burial clothes.  Grave robbers in that day would never take the time to remove the clothes from a dead corpse or, more importantly, leave the clothes behind.  The clothes and any articles left with the body were the only things of value in the tomb.  If anything, grave robbers would steal the clothes and leave the body!

If someone innocently moved the body for some unknown reason, they would have needed to keep the clothes on it in order not to risk defilement.  Jewish purity laws forbade contact with a dead corpse.  Anyone moving the body for an innocent reason would have been sure to keep the clothes on to guarantee they didn’t touch a decomposing body.

Since it’s likely that Jesus’ burial clothes were found in the tomb; and since it’s highly unlikely that anyone would take the body while leaving the clothes behind, the best explanation for the reality of the empty tomb is the one the disciples would later provide: the Resurrection. 

It’s exceedingly difficult to explain this incidental detail any other way.

While the burial clothes are not a major piece of evidence for the resurrection, they are one of those lesser but intriguing details that corroborates the larger body of evidence.

I would love to hear what you think!  You can leave your comments or questions by going to the “Contact E.J.” page of this website or by sharing them on the Raising Jesus Facebook Page.

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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