Was the Empty Tomb the Invention of the Author of Mark?

The following excerpts are from a fascinating article written by author Peter Kirby.  He believes (as do I) that the Empty Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was the invention of the author of the Gospel of Mark.  I will give a link to the entire article below the excerpts.  It is fascinating.  I strongly encourage you to read it:

Several scholars doubt the historicity of the empty tomb.  I intend to set out the reasons for disbelieving the empty tomb story. I will argue that the empty tomb narrative is the invention of the author of Mark. This conclusion will be supported by showing that all reports of the empty tomb are dependent upon Mark, that there are signs of fictional creation in the empty tomb narrative in Mark, that the empty tomb story as told by Mark contains improbabilities, and that traditions of the burial and appearances support a reconstruction of the events that excludes the discovery of an empty tomb.

If Not an Empty Tomb, then What?

There are at least four other possibilities.

1. Jesus was left hanging on the cross for the birds.2

2. The Romans disposed of the body, perhaps in a “limed pit.”

3. The body of Jesus was buried in a criminal’s grave by Jews.

4. The body of Jesus remained buried in a tomb.

…Many make much fuss over the contradictions between the [four] resurrection narratives, but my interest in them lies solely in their function as a linch-pin in the argument that the empty tomb stories are all dependent on the Gospel of Mark. I will not list such discrepancies, not only because this has been done many times before, but more importantly because the matter under contention is not biblical inerrancy. My interest is in under-standing the cause of these discrepancies. My theory is that the evangelists freely shaped their resurrection narratives with theological concerns, not on the basis of historical knowledge, and that their few agreements derive from dependence, particu-larly dependence on the account in the Gospel of Mark for the empty tomb story.

…Since all accounts of the empty tomb are dependent on Mark, the story hangs by a slender thread indeed. The evidence that follows will cut that thread by showing that the story in Mark is most likely fictional.

…There is a final reason to think that Pilate would most likely have ensured that Jesus did not receive an honorable tomb burial. Raymond Brown notes, “There was in this period an increasing Jewish veneration of the tombs of the martyrs and prophets.”  If Pilate considered the historical Jesus to be an enemy of the state, how much more would Pilate have to fear not only making him a martyr but also establishing a shrine to Jesus right in Jerusalem? It is in Pilate’s best interest to make certain that Jesus would have been buried without honor and in obscurity.

There is a tradition in the Secret Book of James that the body of Jesus was, shamefully, buried in the sand. There is a tradition in the Gospel of Peter that the body of Jesus was taken down by the Jews. Finally, there is a tradition in the Epistula Apostolorum that the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross along with the two thieves.  Even if these documents might be harmonized with the Gospel of Mark using a little ingenuity, that does not negate the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that they contain the vestiges of a different tradition or traditions.

So the evidence would indicate that the story of the tomb burial by Joseph of Arimathea was not seared onto Christian consciousness as an indisputable historical fact. But can we say that these other traditions are likely to be pre-Markan? There is reason to think so. After all, there is little cause for Christians to imagine that Jesus was buried shamefully when in fact he was properly interred in the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. On the face of it, it is more likely that the tradition would develop in the direction that would provide Jesus with a more hospitable burial. Thus, it is likely that the earlier tradition was that Jesus was buried in a shameful manner, what Reginald Fuller describes as “the final insult done to him by his enemies.”47 In the words of J.D. Crossan, “It is most probable that Jesus was buried by the same inimical forces that had crucified him and that on Easter Sunday Morning those who knew the site did not care and those who cared did not know the site. The major reason for this conclusion is that the tradition has protested too much: an indifferent burial by Roman soldiers becomes eventually a regal entombment by his faithful followers (cf. Jn 19:31-32 and 38-41)”.


Link to full article here.



17 thoughts on “Was the Empty Tomb the Invention of the Author of Mark?

    1. I read your article and will post a few excerpts and comment.

      “The concern here is whether lack of mention of the empty tomb in certain documents represents a significant “argument from silence.” While Kirby lays out some wise criteria for determining when or if an “argument from silence” carries any strength, I believe he has not considered a critical point of application with respect to social differences between our world and that of the New Testament: That is, the matter of high versus low context. As I have written, against Doherty’s Christ-myth theory based on the “silence” of Paul and the epistles…”

      Gary: Christians ALWAYS have a harmonization! So Paul never mentions the Empty Tomb because in a high context society he didn’t need to. I guess Roman Catholics can say the same thing for the doctrines of Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary. Paul nor any other writer of a new Testament book mentions these historical facts…because their readers, living in a high context society WOULD HAVE ALREADY KNOWN ABOUT THEM!


      The absence of mention of the Empty Tomb, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the Assumption of Mary in the writings of Paul does not mean that these concepts are not real or that these events did not happen, it simply means that Paul did not mention them in his writings. This absence PROVES nothing. The point of Kirby and other skeptics is, the absence of any mention of an Empty Tomb prior to the writing of the Gospel of Mark is POSSIBLE evidence that the author of the Gospel of Mark invented the Empty Tomb Story. That’s it.


    2. Here is another thing to think about on the subject of “High Context Society”.

      This excuse can be conveniently used to excuse EVERY discrepancy in the four Gospel Resurrection accounts! The fact that three of the four Gospel authors do not mention Roman guards at the tomb can be chalked up to a “High Context Society”. Mark, Luke, and John knew that the guards were there…they just didn’t bother to mention them because the guards didn’t fit into their particular “theme”: they knew their first century, HIGH CONTEXT, audience would know about the existence of the guards anyway!

      And the same is true about Matthew’s dead saints being shaken out of the graves by a great earthquake at the moment of Jesus’ death story. Mark, Luke, and John didn’t need to mention this detail because their HIGH CONTEXT audience would know about this event so these authors wouldn’t need to repeat it. Isn’t it strange, however, that evangelical Christian scholar Mike Licona believes that this detail is not a historical fact but a theological embellishment. Hmmm. So how can we today know for sure which case it is??? Did the author of John, writings decades later, leave out Matthew’s Roaming Dead Saints Story due to a High Context Society or because he knew it was not historical; it was a theological embellishment which John did not find useful?

      So this brings us back to the absence of Joseph of Arimathea’s Empty Tomb in Paul’s writings: can we always assume that Paul’s silence regarding this subject is due to the High Context Society argument, or is it possible, that similar, but in the reverse, to Matthew’s Roaming Dead Saints Story, the Arimathea Empty Tomb Story was a LATER theological embellishment which Paul had never heard of?


    3. “Kirby lays Paul aside for a separate section and proceeds at once to the letter of 1 Clement. He notes that Clement:

      …fails to appeal to the historical knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus (such as the discovery of the empty tomb would provide) and prefers instead to provide assurance of the resurrection on the basis of nature, scripture, and the legend of the phoenix. “


      1. Clement of Alexandria was born in circa 150 CE. According to Kirby, Clement never mentions a known location of an Empty Tomb as proof of the Resurrection. I have read some of the writings of Origen, a pupil of Clement. Origen toured the holy sites of Palestine. He visited the alleged site of Jesus birth and his baptism. However, he never once mentions visiting an Empty Tomb or a location where an Empty Tomb once was situated.

        In fact, there is no record of any Christian venerating a Empty Tomb until Emperor Constantine announces in the fourth century that he plans to build great churches at the important sites of Christianity. Then, out of nowhere, the bishop of Jerusalem announces that he knows the location of the Empty Tomb of Christ: it lies underneath a pagan temple built by Hadrian in the early second century. Eusebius, the Bishop of Palestine, whose “office” is headquartered in Caesarea, is dubious. If he is dubious, has he ever even heard of this “Empty Tomb” tradition”??? Only after the pagan temple has been unearthed and a tomb (along with multiple other tombs) have been uncovered, and the mother of the Emperor has arrived for the celebration of “the Lord’s Tomb”, does Eusebius finally decide, for reasons we will never know, that THIS is the Empty Tomb.


    4. Author of the article: “I myself find no significance to the lack of tomb veneration, since I happen to think Jesus’ burial was, despite best efforts by Joseph and others, shameful.

      A final appeal is made to Raymond Brown’s comment that, “A particular reason for remembering the tomb of Jesus would lie in the Christian faith that the tomb had been evacuated by his resurrection from the dead.” I believe that Brown here may likewise submit to what I would call the “Disneyland Palestine” fallacy; but at the same time, one must draw a distinction between remembering where the tomb was and conducting venerations at it. We would expect Christians to recall the location whether the tomb was empty or not; but we would not expect veneration unless something were there to venerate — and in that regard, a tomb is not a thing to be venerated.”

      Gary: This author of this article is most probably an evangelical or Reformed Christian with a disdain for anything that smells even remotely “catholic”, such as venerating a holy site. Let’s accept his world view that the early Christians were not holy-site/holy-relic-venerating catholics, but cut and dry, very rational, Calvinists. I would still bet that even Calvinists would want to visit the site where the greatest event to ever occur in the history of mankind on planet Earth had occurred. It may have been a shameful site for Jews and Romans, but it was a BEAUTIFUL site for Christians. The author’s claim that the earliest Christians would not want to go and visit the Empty Tomb site is contradicted by the Gospels themselves!! What was the first thing that the followers of Jesus did when they heard about the Resurrection?

      Did they have a prayer service?
      Did they take up a collection for foreign missions?



    5. “We agree, of course, that it may have been too obvious to require mentioning that a resurrected body means an empty tomb – just as simply saying, “A zombie rose from the dead!” would today imply an empty grave left behind. On the other hand, Paul does show implicit awareness of the empty tomb elsewhere – for example, where he compares the resurrection to baptism (Rom. 6:4, 8:29; Col. 2:12).

      Body in, body out – whether water, or earth, the comparison makes the implication of an empty tomb (along with the Jewish concept of bodily resurrection that MUST be applied here…) inescapable; and the other type of “resurrection” becomes, as Price admits, rather far-fetched. Finally, we may add that Paul’s formula is an accounting of things DONE or experienced by Jesus: died, buried, rose, appeared. A citation of the empty tomb would not fit very well within the rhythm and structure of the formula.”

      Most skeptics do not doubt that Paul believed that Jesus had been buried and that since he was resurrected his grave was empty. The question is, did Paul believe that Jesus had been buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock tomb and that it was this tomb that was found empty by female followers of Jesus three days after his death.


    6. “In the meantime he [Kirby] says that he considers Paul’s silence “by no means a conclusive consideration, but it should certainly not be thrown out of consideration simply because it is inconclusive.”

      Once again I simply disagree, because “high context” changes the rules, from our world to theirs, in terms of what is necessary to be mentioned.

      The quote from Uta Ranke-Heinemann (herself from a low-context, Western society) only magnifies this point. In addition, she wrongly believes, and Kirby follows her into saying, that the purpose of the 1 Cor. 15 creed was to cite evidence for Jesus’ resurrection; but a creedal statement, by its nature, cannot be pressed into being a full-scale apologetic, any more than Phil. 2:6-11 or Col. 1:15-18 make for an apologetic for the deity of Christ. It is a statement of summary for those who already believe, a recognition and not a defense — and it is also used, for Paul’s purposes, as part of an apologetic for the nature of the resurrection body versus Corinthian errors on the subject. (However, Kirby does say that he “would not go so far as Ranke-Heinemann in declaring this one consideration to settle the matter decisively,” only as raising a “probability that Paul didn’t know of an empty tomb story.”)”

      Gary: What fundamentalist arrogance! This author believes that Paul’s silence on the Empty Tomb CANNOT be used, even as a possibility, to suggest that Paul knew nothing about Joseph of Arimathea’s Rock Tomb. This is outrageous fundamentalist nonsense and is typical of the black and white beliefsystem of the obnoxious know-it-all authors of Tektoniks website, with whom I have sparred numerous times.


    7. “Kirby’s aim here is to show that Matthew, Luke and John are dependent on Mark, and so do not constitute an independent witness to the empty tomb. His reasoning is (online version quoted):

      ‘We have seen that there is no mention of the empty tomb story in early Christian writings outside of the four gospels. This situation is made worse if the evangelists do not demonstrate any independence in reporting this story. This would be somewhat strange because, were the story historical, it would be reasonable to expect that the author of Matthew, for example, could supplement his story with independent traditions instead of depending solely on Mark.’

      Kirby has, however, not considered two critical aspects of ancient reportage that come into play here. The first is that the similarities between accounts are just as likely to be attributed — if not more likely, in a world where 95% of people were illiterate — to oral tradition carried alike by independent witnesses. The second is that in ancient literary tradition, imitation was a value and thus to report an event much like another did — albeit with minor, creative variations — was considered a worthy practice.”

      Thus I do not find this a “reasonable” expectation at all. I would also add, in this light, that literary dependence does not in any sense equate with proof of knowledge dependence. Merely because Luke used Mark’s or Matthew’s literary form does not mean that he arrived at the scene with no knowledge of his own, and derived the whole of what knowledge he had from his sources. Indeed, that Luke provides many new and different accounts would clearly suggest otherwise.

      Gary: So what the author of the Tektonics article is saying is that if one author in Antiquity copied word for word another author’s work in Antiquity we cannot assume that the author had no independent knowledge of the events described. I agree. However, the opposite is also true. We cannot assume that the second author who copied word for word the first author DID have independent knowledge of the events described. Therefore, for all we know, the authors of Matthew, and Luke, and John simply borrowed Mark’s Empty Tomb story and added their own details to the rest of the Resurrection story.


    8. “In all of this it is well to remember that Mark was written not as an apologetic to non-believers, but as a laudatory biography for the edification of those already believers. Kirby’s point that it is inconceivable that Mark would end on this note (assuming that it did end there, again), because he had so much more he could have offered as proof, fails if the audience was composed of persons to whom proof had already been provided. In this respect it would be like saying that Mel Gibson does not believe in the resurrection appearances because The Passion ended with a mere cameo in the tomb of Jesus getting up.”

      Gary: I am curious as to how our Tektonics author knows the intent of the author of the Gospel of Mark in writing his Gospel. Does the author make this statement anywhere in his Gospel? If we are to believe one of the other Gospel writers, the purpose of HIS Gospel is that his readers might believe that “Jesus is the Christ”. Sounds to me more like a tool for the evangelization of non-believers than something used in Catechism classes for believers.


    9. “I see no more irregularity in the idea of coming to “anoint” an already-prepared corpse than in the idea of placing flowers on the headstone of an already-buried person today. Given what McCane shows to be a “shameful” burial of Jesus, further anointing of the body with spices and oils, which would mask the odor of decay, would provide an easy and accessible way, in the eyes of the women, to negate (even if in a very small way) the shame attached to Jesus’ death and burial. It would perhaps not be “customary” but then again, the death of Jesus and his burial were hardly “customary” either.”

      Gary: The author is discussing Kirby’s claim of an anachronism in the story of the women coming to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus on Sunday morning when Arimathea had already anointed the body on Friday. Kirby points out that there is no evidence that there was a custom of a “second anointing of the body” in first century Judaism. The Tektonics author waves this away and invents a (modern) excuse for it. But if a skeptic suggests that someone moved the body of Jesus Saturday evening after the end of the Sabbath, conservative Christians will howl that this would not have been a typical Jewish practice. But you see, inventing new Jewish practices is only allowed when it helps to harmonize the Christian supernatural (tall) tale, you silly skeptics!


    10. “Furthermore, it must be emphasized again that the Gospels are biographical, not kerygmatic [preaching] , documents. To wonder why Mark (perhaps) or Matthew did not mention, as Luke does, that male disciples confirmed the empty tomb, is to ascribe to Mark and Matthew a purpose that they did not have.”

      Gary: Oh, I LOVE that one. The Gospel authors were not writing works of evangelization they were writing biographies about Jesus. Mark and Matthew left out the detail about the male disciples visiting the Empty Tomb because this did not fit with the purpose/theme of their…biographies of Jesus.

      Good grief.

      Let’s see what the author of the Gospel of John believed the purpose of his Gospel to be:

      “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” –Gospel of John 20:30-31

      “So that you MAY COME TO BELIEVE…”

      That sound like an altar call to me, folks.


    11. The Tektonics article ends thus:

      Assessment of the Evidence

      In conclusion, Kirby “scores” arguments for and against the empty tomb (online version). Based on our understanding, here is how we would redo the scores (0 is lowest value, 3 the highest):

      Arguments Against the Empty Tomb

      •0 The Silence of Early Christians
      •0 No Early, Known Interest in the Tomb
      •0 Testimony of Paul
      •0 Dependence/Expansion on Mark
      •0 Parallels to Lion’s Den
      •0 Pre-Christian Empty Tomb Stories
      •0 Theme of Discipleship
      •0 The Ending of Mark in 16:8
      •0 Anointing Possible on Sabbath
      •0 Decomposition in Eastern Climate
      •0 Only Men Prepare Bodies of Men
      •0 Can’t Buy Cloth on a Holiday
      •0 Not Enough Time for Burial
      •0 The Women and the Stone
      •0 Anachronism of the Round Stone
      •1 No Second/Late Anointings
      •0 Crucifiers Wouldn’t Allow Honorable Burial
      1 The Enigma of the Pious Jew/Secret Admirer

      •0 Alternative Burial Traditions
      •0 Primacy of Galilean Appearances
      •0 Arimathea = Best Disciple Town
      Arguments For the Empty Tomb

      •2 Paul’s Testimony
      •0 Part of Pre-Markan Passion Story
      •2 Relatively Theologically Unadorned Story
      •2 Story Relatively Nonapologetic
      •3 Unlikely to Pin False Story on Famous Sanhedrenist
      •1 Unlikely to Pin Nice Story on Despised Sanhedrenist
      •2 Details About Tomb Confirmed Archaeologically
      •1 Incidental Details Dovetail One Another
      •0 Burial Had to Happen before Sundown
      •3 Only Women Named As Witnesses in Mark
      •0 Almost Contradictory Intention of Anointing
      •0 Present at Crucifixion, Present at Burial
      •0 Unlikely to Pin False Story on Well-known Women
      •1 No Traces of Conflicting Burial Traditions
      •2 Graves of Holy Men Preserved
      •2 Primitiveness of “The First Day of the Week”
      •0 The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple
      •1 Men Would Check Out the Empty Tomb Too
      •3 Body Would Be Known/Produced by Authorities
      •3 The Jewish Polemic Presupposes the Empty Tomb

      Sum of Points Against the Empty Tomb: 2 Points

      Sum of Points For the Empty Tomb: 28 Points

      Kirby himself concludes on the equivocal side: “There is no conclusive historical argument that will prove or disprove the historicity of the empty tomb of Jesus.” We dispute this conclusion, and believe that the balance of the evidence is indeed “overwhelming” in favor.


      Gary: Anyone see a bias? I see a lot of biases! I suggest that readers compare the evidence for the Empty Tomb of Jesus with the evidence for any other alleged historical site in Antiquity. If the evidence is comparable, believe it. If it requires a lot of conjecture and “faith” to believe it, I suggest it is probably a tall tale.


    12. And finally, who is the author of this Tektonics article? Is he a renowned NT scholar? No. What are his credentials? Answer: a Masters in Library Sciences. He is the infamous, JP Holding.

      Here is what Mr. Holding says about himself:

      And what do others say about Mr. Holding:






      1. So does this mean that everything that Mr. Holding says is worthless? No. But Mr. Holding’s opinions are just as “scholarly” as my opinions. He is not a scholar. He is a layperson. A very well-read layperson, but still, a layperson.


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