The Empty Tomb is Most Likely not Historical


Even most Christian apologists agree that there are embellishments in the Resurrection Stories in the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament.  In particular, Matthew’s tale of dead saints coming out of their graves to roam the streets of Jerusalem on the day of the Resurrection.  In addition, many Christian apologists agree with skeptics that Matthew’s story of Roman guards guarding the tomb of Jesus is most likely an embellishment.  Only the most ardent of Christian fundamentalists believe that these two Matthean tales are historical.

So what if there are other embellishments in the Resurrection Story?  How can we know?  Since it has been two thousand years since the death of Jesus, it is going to be extremely difficult to say for sure what happened and what did not, but’s let look at the little evidence that does exist and make an educated guess as to the probability of this event in ancient history.

The most common argument used by conservative Christian apologists today for their belief in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus is the Empty Tomb claim.  But even if, for the sake of argument, skeptics accept the historicity of the Empty Tomb, the high probability that Matthew’s Roman guards is an embellishment would leave the tomb unguarded for three days and two nights.  Couldn’t the body have been moved or stolen?

“Highly implausible!”  cry conservative Christians.  “No Jew would move a recently dead body.  A miracle is more probable than an unheard of violation of Jewish Law and custom by a first century Jew.”

This logic seems very odd to non-believers such as myself who view miracles as the least probable of all explanations for any event.  But what if there was no Empty Tomb?  And what if there was no tomb at all?  What if Jesus’ body was left for days on the cross to be picked apart by scavengers, and then, what was left of him was tossed into an unmarked common grave with the remains of other executed persons of that particular week or month?  What would that do to the Christian argument for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus?

“But that isn’t what happened! The majority of New Testament scholars believe that the story of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus in his tomb is historical fact.” protest Christians.

Christians make the claim that the Empty Tomb is historical fact based on a “study” by conservative Christian New Testament scholar Gary Habermas in which he claims that 75% of New Testament scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb.  Many skeptics question the quality and accuracy of this study, but if we agree to accept it as fact, that still leaves a sizable minority of NT scholars who don’t believe that the Empty Tomb is historical fact.  Twenty-five percent in not a “fringe”.  And one must ask this question:  “Based on what evidence do the seventy-five percent of NT scholars hold this belief?  Did Habermas’ study explore this question?  Is it possible that since the majority of NT scholars are believing Christians that their belief in an Empty Tomb is based at least in part on faith—their devout desire for it to be true?

So it would be good to see the evidence for why the majority of NT scholars believe in the historicity of an Empty Tomb, and not accept it as historical fact simply because it is their opinion.  Scholarly opinion alone is a form of weak evidence.

The popular Christian belief that four independent eyewitnesses (the Gospels) make this claim and therefore their testimony should be given the same weight of evidence as the testimony of four independent eyewitnesses to a traffic accident has been proven false by scholars.  The majority of scholars do not believe that the four gospels are fully independent of each other nor that they were written by eyewitnesses.

And what if the majority opinion of scholars is wrong on the Empty Tomb?  What if the story of an Empty Tomb was an embellishment of the author of the Gospel of Mark, a book written circa 70 AD when most eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ death would have been old or dead?  What if the author of Mark added the story of an Empty Tomb to the Jesus Story for the same reason that the author of Matthew added the stories of dead people roaming the streets of a major city and imaginary guards at the tomb of Jesus:  Theology.  Maybe these stories were never meant to be understood as literal, historical events.

“But it was Roman custom to give the body of persons crucified to the family so the Empty Tomb story is very probable,” claim many Christians.

Really?  Let’s look at the evidence.

Christians like to quote Josephus and his account of General Titus ordering three of Josephus’ Jewish friends to be taken down off of their crosses and cared for due to Josephus’ tearful request as proof that it was Roman custom to give the bodies of executed persons to their families?  Really? 

Three cases do not a pattern of behavior or a custom make.

Christians also point to ONE ossuary of one rich Jew who shows signs of being crucified as an indication that Romans allowed some persons who were crucified to be given to their family and buried in the family plot.  Are you kidding me???  Tens of thousands of Jews were crucified in the first century and Christians find ONE corpse with signs of crucifixion as the cause of death and claim that this proves that it was Roman custom to give the body of one crucified to his family.  Give me a break, folks.  Where are the bodies of all the other Jews who were crucified in Palestine?  Answer:  most probably, in unmarked holes in the ground! 

One corpse in a family ossuary does not a pattern of behavior or custom make.

Then Christians use the writings of Philo as evidence for this alleged universal Roman custom of allowing the body of one crucified to be given to his family for burial.  But let’s see what Philo actually says in his own words (emphasis, mine):

Rulers who conduct their government as they should and do not pretend to honour but do really honour their benefactors make a practice of not punishing any condemned person until those notable celebrations in honour of the birthdays of the illustrious Augustan house are over… I have known cases when on the eve of a holiday of this kind, people who have been crucified have been taken down and their bodies delivered to their kinsfolk, because it was thought well to give them burial and allow them the ordinary rites.  For it was meet that the dead also should have the advantage of some kind treatment upon the birthday of the emperor and also that the sanctity of the festival should be maintained.

Note that releasing the body of persons crucified to the family was an exception; only done for the birthday of the Emperor; the wording suggests it may have only been done for certain families (probably the aristocracy); and this discussion only applies to Alexandria, Egypt.  We have no proof that this was a universal Roman custom, and in particular, no proof that this custom was observed in Palestine.  Regardless, releasing the body to the family was a rare exception to the rule, not the rule.

So the evidence indicates that the bodies of most persons crucified by the Romans were not given to the family for a decent burial.  Here is what usually happened to the bodies of persons crucified:

Horace, a Roman author, describes a slave protesting to his master that he had done nothing wrong, to which his master responded, “You shall not therefore feed the carrion crows on the cross” (Epistle 1.16.46-48).  Juvenal, a Roman satirist, commenting on crucifixion said this,  “The vulture hurries from the dead cattle and dogs and corpses, to bring some of the carrion to her offspring” (Satires 14.77-78).   Artemidorus, the famous Greek interpreter of dreams, said this in describing crucifixion, “a crucified man is raised high and his substance is sufficient to keep many birds” (Dream Book 2.53).  Satyricon of Petronius, a one-time advisor to the emperor Nero, spoke about a crucified victim being left for days on the cross (chs. 11-12).

So the Roman custom was to leave the crucified dead body up on the cross for days, allowing carrion to pick apart the corpse, for every passerby to witness as a vivid reminder not to mess with Roman authority, NOT to quickly hand over the body to the family on the same day the crucifixion took place.

So now we come to Pontius Pilate.  The Gospels paint Pilate as a man of conscious, or worse, a timid man who feared the wrath of Jewish mobs.  But let’s look at the historical record:

When Pilate first assumed office in Palestine, he ordered symbols of the Emperor to be put up in Jerusalem, the Jewish holy city.  The Jews howled.  Did Pilate back down?  Yes, but only after the Emperor ordered him to do so.   (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.1).  In another situation, Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct.  To pay for it, he raided the Temple treasury.  The Jews gathered in the tens of thousands to protest.  Did Pilate back down?  No, he had undercover Roman soldiers infiltrate the crowds and club many of them to death. (Antiquities 18.3.2)  Pilate was not conscientious, nor was he timid and afraid of Jewish mobs.  He was a ruthless, brutal man.  This is how Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Pilate, described him after Pilate was forced out of office by the Emperor:

“his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.” (Embassy to Gaius 302)

So is it possible that the Sanhedrin caught Pilate on a good day and were able to persuade him to give them the body of the crucified Jesus, the self-proclaimed “King of the Jews” (The crime for which the Romans executed him.  Even most Christian scholars agree on that point)?  Sure!  Anything is possible!  It is even possible that a last minute order arrived from the Emperor ordering Pilate to leave Jesus alone…and this document is lost to history.  And many other scenarios are possible.  But what is the likelihood that the brutal Pilate would release the crucified body of someone convicted of treason against Caesar to his family…uh, er…the Sanhedrin…even if he, Pilate, was in a good mood that day?  The evidence suggests, not likely.

Christians like to quote a sixth century document which allegedly summarizes first century crucifixion practices as proof that this is a strong possibility:

The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life said that this rule had been observed.  At present the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.  Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried.  (Digest 48.24.1)

Do you notice one very important phrase in this sixth century document? 

sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.”

This statement clearly says that the bodies of persons who had been crucified due to being convicted of high treason were usually NOT given to their relatives!  Get that everyone?  The bodies of persons crucified for high treason were usually not given to their families!

Jesus was crucified for high treason.  Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the brutal Pilate would give his body to his family, or anyone else, even if he were having a good day…because Jesus was guilty of treason against Caesar!

So dear Reader.  Ask yourself this question.  Which is more probable:  The brutal Pilate gave the body of a man executed for high treason against Caesar to Joseph of Arimathea for a decent burial, or, the author of the gospel of Mark invented this story and decades later, the other three gospel authors simply added their own embellishments to Mark’s fictional story of an Empty Tomb?  Remember, Paul says not one word about an empty tomb.  The first time we hear about an empty tomb is in the Gospel of Mark, written many years after Peter and Paul’s deaths and possibly the deaths of all the Apostles.


Was this how Jesus was really buried?
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