I have previously stated on this blog and on other online forums that it is possible that the Empty Tomb Story was an invention of the anonymous author of the Gospel of Mark, written in circa 70 AD. It is possible that no one on the planet had ever heard of Joseph of Arimathea or his newly hewn rock tomb until “Mark”, writing in a far away land, many decades later, invented it.
“Wait a minute,” Christians counter, “the empty tomb seems to be a cornerstone of the early Resurrection faith. The apostles seem to have believed, despite every disposition, that Jesus had truly risen bodily from the dead.”
I agree that an empty grave seems to be the cornerstone of the early Resurrection belief, but what evidence is there for an early, empty rock tomb belief? There is no mention in Paul’s epistles of a “rock” tomb only a presumed “grave” as one must be in a grave of some sort to be “buried” and then “raised up” .
It is therefore possible and consistent with Paul’s writings and the Creed found in First Corinthians 15 that Jesus’ body was “buried” in an unmarked dirt trench, along with other persons executed that week, covered over, and the location forgotten. Shortly thereafter, some of Jesus’ followers had experiences which led them to believe that Jesus had appeared to them in bodily form and, therefore, that he had been bodily resurrected. They believed that the grave of Jesus was empty because they had (they believed) seen his resurrected body, not because they had been given the opportunity to inspect an actual grave for a missing corpse. One can believe that the dead Elvis has appeared to you, without traveling to Graceland to verify that his tomb is empty.
This isn’t my invented theory, it is what Bart Ehrman thinks probably happened.
Even if the rest of the Crucifixion story is true, why would a Galilean peasant be buried in a rock tomb? Scholars tell us that in first century Palestine, poor people were buried in dirt trenches. Only the rich were buried in rock tombs. Even assuming that the Romans did allow the Jews to take the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves down before the Passover/Sabbath, why would the Sanhedrin bury Jesus in a rock tomb? Why not toss his body along with those of the two thieves into a dirt trench? That would not be a violation of Jewish law. How long does it take to dig a dirt trench? The Sanhedrin knew Jesus was going to die. They knew the Sabbath was approaching. So the very minute that Pilate gave the ok to crucify Jesus, the Sanhedrin could have sent out a detail of grave diggers to dig a dirt trench for Jesus and the two thieves. The idea that a member of the Sanhedrin, who just the night before had unanimously voted to execute Jesus, would now want to bury him in his expensive, rock-hewn family tomb, is just preposterous.
The empty rock tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is most probably an embellishment. The Resurrection belief was based on “sightings of a dead person” by superstitious, mostly uneducated peasants. For the first forty years of Christianity, there was no claim of physical evidence for this belief: an empty tomb. The author of Mark invented this detail for theological reasons—to counter the claim of Jews and other skeptics that the Resurrection Belief was based on nothing more than ghost sightings by a bunch of grieving, emotionally hysterical, uneducated, Galilean peasants and fishermen.
“The poorer classes of Jewish society — the majority of the population — buried their dead in simple, individual trench graves dug into the ground, similar to the way we bury our dead today. This involved digging a rectangular trench in the ground, placing the deceased (wrapped in a shroud) at the bottom, and filling the trench back in with earth. Usually a crude headstone was set up at one end of the grave. Ossuaries are associated only with rock-cut tombs, since once bodies were interred in trench graves they were not dug back up for deposition in an ossuary.”
—Jodi Magness, NT scholar
Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature.