Accounting for the Empty Tomb: The quest for the risen, historical Jesus

Editor’s Note: William Lane Craig is an influential Christian thinker. His claims for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus have garnered both praise and criticism. Professor Craig acknowledges that the historical sciences cannot furnish definitive proof of Jesus’ resurrection. His claim is more modest, namely, that “the hypothesis ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ furnishes the best explanation of the historical data relevant to Jesus’ final fate, which include the fact that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers on the first day of the week following his crucifixion.” Professor Craig argues that the historical evidence for the empty tomb is reliable according to the criteria of historical investigation, which include early attestation by multiple, independent sources. In the following condensed and edited excerpt from Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, Professor Craig examines the competing explanations for the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances and the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

Six lines of evidence constitute a powerful case that Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty on the first day of the week by a group of his women followers. As a historical fact, this seems to be well established. According to D. H. Van Daalen (1972), “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.” But those assumptions cannot alter the facts themselves. New Testament scholars seem to be increasingly aware of this. According to Jacob Kremer, a New Testament critic who has specialized in the study of the resurrection: “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.” In fact in a bibliographical survey of over 2,200 publications on the resurrection in English, French and German since 1975, the researcher Gary Habermas found that 75 percent of scholars accepted the historicity of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. Now if this is the case, that leads us to our second main point: explaining the empty tomb. Down through history, those who denied the resurrection of Jesus have been obligated to come up with a convincing alternative explanation. They have come up with about four.

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Conspiracy Hypothesis

According to this explanation, the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about his post-mortem appearances, thus faking the resurrection. This was, as we saw, the first counter-explanation for the empty tomb, and it was revived by the deists during the 18th century. Today, however, this explanation has been completely given up by modern scholarship. Let us see how it fares when assessed by the historian C. Behan McCullagh’s criteria for justifying historical hypotheses.

1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. Virtually any explanation offered for the resurrection will fulfill this first criterion, since such explanations are offered to account for the New Testament witness to Jesus’ resurrection and so will imply that the literary evidence contained in the New Testament will exist as a result of the events described in the proposed hypothesis. According to the conspiracy hypothesis the Gospel accounts are simply deliberate fabrications.

2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses. The conspiracy hypothesis seems to cover the full scope of the evidence, for it offers explanations of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances and the origin of the disciples’ (supposed) belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses. Here doubts begin to arise about the conspiracy hypothesis. Take the empty tomb, for example. If the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse, then it would be utterly daft to fabricate a story of the women finding the tomb to be empty. Such a story would not be the sort of tale Jewish men would invent. Moreover, the simplicity of the narrative is not well explained by the conspiracy hypothesis—where are the Scripture citations, the evidence of fulfilled prophecy? Why isn’t Jesus described as emerging from the tomb, as in later forgeries like the Gospel of Peter? Why isn’t Matthew’s guard at the tomb already there in the pre-Markan tradition? Even in Matthew’s story, the guard appears too late; the body could have been already stolen before the guard arrived on Saturday morning. For a fail-safe alibi against theft of the body, see once more the Gospel of Peter, where the guard (explicitly identified as Roman) is set immediately upon interment of the corpse.

As for the post-mortem appearance narratives, similar problems arise. A fabricator would probably describe the appearances in terms of Old Testament theophanies and descriptions of eschatological resurrection (Dn 12:2, for example). But then Jesus should appear to the disciples in dazzling glory. And why not a description of the resurrection itself? Why no appearances to Caiaphas or the villains on the Sanhedrin, as Jesus predicted? They could be then branded as the real liars for denying that Jesus did appear to them.

But the explanatory power of the conspiracy hypothesis is undoubtedly weakest when it comes to the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. For the hypothesis is really a denial of that fact; it seeks to explain the mere semblance of belief on the disciples’ part. But as critics have universally recognized, one cannot plausibly deny that the earliest disciples at least sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead, a conviction on which they staked their very lives. The transformation in the lives of the disciples is not credibly explained by the hypothesis of a conspiracy. This shortcoming alone has been enough in the minds of most scholars to sink the old conspiracy hypothesis.

4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses. The real Achilles’ heel of the conspiracy hypothesis is, however, its implausibility. One might mention here the usual objections to the unbelievable complexity of such a conspiracy or the supposed psychological state of the disciples; but the overriding problem is the anachronism of first-century Jews intending to hoax Jesus’ resurrection. The conspiracy hypothesis views the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of Christian history rather than through the eyes of a first-century Jew. There was no expectation of a Messiah who, instead of establishing David’s throne and subduing Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by the Gentiles as a criminal. Moreover, the idea of eschatological resurrection was unconnected with the idea of Messiah and even incompatible with it. As N. T. Wright nicely puts it, if your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you either went home or else you got yourself a new Messiah. But the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God had raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of the disciples.

5) The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses. Like all conspiracy theories of history, the conspiracy hypothesis is ad hoc in postulating that what all the evidence seems to point to is, in fact, mere appearance only, to be explained away by hypotheses for which there is no evidence. Specifically, it postulates motives and ideas in the thinking of the earliest disciples and actions on their part for which there is not a shred of evidence. It can become even more ad hoc, as hypotheses must be multiplied to deal with objections to the theory, for example, how to account for the appearance to the 500 brethren or the women’s role in the empty tomb and appearance stories.

6) The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses. The conspiracy hypothesis tends to be disconfirmed by our general knowledge of conspiracies, their instability and tendency to unravel. Moreover, it is disconfirmed by accepted beliefs such as the sincerity of the disciples, the nature of first-century Jewish messianic expectations and so on.

7) The hypothesis must significantly exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions two through six. This condition is obviously not met, since there are better hypotheses, such as the Hallucination Hypothesis, which do not dismiss the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection as fraudulent.

No scholar would defend the conspiracy hypothesis today. The only place you read about such things is in the popular, sensationalist press or in former propaganda from behind the Iron Curtain.

Apparent Death Hypothesis

A second theory was the apparent death explanation. Critics around the beginning of the 19th century, like Heinrich Paulus and Friedrich Schleiermacher, defended the view that Jesus was not completely dead when he was taken down from the cross. He revived in the tomb and escaped to convince his disciples he had risen from the dead. Today this hypothesis has also been almost completely given up. Once again, let us apply McCullagh’s criteria for the best explanation:

1) The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. Again this condition is easily met.

2) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses. The apparent death hypothesis also provides explanations for the empty tomb, post-mortem ap-pearances and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

3) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses. Here the theory begins to founder. Some versions of the apparent death hypothesis are really variations on the conspiracy hypothesis, merely substituting the disciples’ hoaxing Jesus’ death for their theft of Jesus’ body. In such cases, the theory shares all the weaknesses of the conspiracy hypothesis. A non-conspiratorial version of the theory is also saddled with insuperable difficulties: how to explain the empty tomb, given Jesus’ merely apparent death, since a man sealed inside a tomb could not move the stone so as to escape; how to explain the post-mortem appearances, since the appearance of a half-dead man desperately in need of medical attention would hardly have elicited in the disciples the conclusion that he was the risen Lord and conqueror of death; and how to explain the anachronism of the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since seeing him again would lead them to conclude that he had not died, not that he was, contrary to Jewish thought (as well as their own eyes), gloriously risen from the dead.

4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses. Here again the theory fails miserably. Roman executioners could be relied upon to ensure that their victims were dead. Since the exact moment of death by crucifixion was uncertain, executioners could ensure death by a spear thrust into the victim’s side, such as was dealt to Jesus. Moreover, what the theory suggests is virtually physically impossible. The extent of Jesus’ tortures was such that he could never have survived the crucifixion and entombment. The suggestion that a man so critically wounded then went on to appear to the disciples on various occasions in Jerusalem and Galilee is pure fantasy.

5) The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses. The apparent death hypothesis, especially in its conspiratorial instantiations, can become enormously ad hoc. We are invited to imagine secret societies, stealthily administered potions, conspiratorial alliances between Jesus’ disciples and members of the Sanhedrin and so forth, all with nary a scrap of evidence in support.

6) The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses. The apparent death hypothesis is thoroughly disconfirmed by medical facts concerning what would happen to a person who has been scourged and crucified. It is also disconfirmed by the unanimous evidence that Jesus did not continue among his disciples after his death.

7) The hypothesis must significantly exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions two through six. This theory also is hardly a standout. For that reason it has virtually no defenders among New Testament historians today.

Wrong Tomb Hypothesis

First proposed by Kirsopp Lake in 1907, another theory holds that the belief in Jesus’ empty tomb was based on a simple mistake. According to Lake, the women lost their way that Sunday morning and happened upon a caretaker at an unoccupied tomb in the garden. He said something like, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here.” The women, however, were so unnerved that they fled. After the disciples had experienced visions of Jesus alive, the women’s story developed into the account of their discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. Unlike the previous two theories considered, Lake’s hypothesis generated virtually no following but was dead almost upon arrival.

1) The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. This condition is easily met.

2) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses. Lake’s theory does not really explain the resurrection appearances. Some additional hypothesis will have to be conjoined to the wrong tomb hypothesis in order to explain Jesus’ appearances. In that sense the theory fails to have sufficiently wide explanatory scope.

3) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses. Because the wrong tomb hypothesis says nothing to explain the post-mortem appearances, it has no explanatory power in that respect. It also is anachronistic in its explanation of the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Merely going to the wrong tomb and seeing a man there telling them that Jesus is not there would hardly lead a first-century Jew to conclude that Jesus was risen from the dead—especially if this were reported by women and could not be verified. In fact, the question of verification reveals that Lake’s hypothesis has weak explanatory power even with respect to the empty tomb. For any later check of the tomb would have revealed the women’s error. After their initial fright, would not the women have attempted to retrace their steps by the light of day? Certainly the disciples themselves would have wanted to verify the empty tomb. The state of the actual tomb could not have remained a matter of complete indifference to a movement in the same locale based on belief in the resurrection of the dead man interred there. And in any case, since the burial site was known to Jew and Christian alike, the Jewish opponents of the Christians would have been only too happy to point out the women’s error.

4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses. The wrong tomb hypothesis is also implausible in light of the evidence we do have, for example, that the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Jew and Christian alike in Jerusalem, that the empty tomb story is extremely early and shows no signs of theological development and reflection and so on. Insofar as the hallucination hypothesis proves to be implausible, Lake’s theory will share that, too.

5) The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses. Lake’s theory is ad hoc in that it treats the evidence selectively and arbitrarily. For example, Lake regards the women’s visit to the tomb with the intention of anointing the body as historical but must discount their noting, precisely because of that intention, where the body was laid (Mk 15:47; 16:1). But why accept the one but not the other? Or again, Lake regards the angel’s words ascribed to the caretaker, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here,” as authentic but passes over the words, “He is risen!” But all of the angel’s message is the language of Christian proclamation if any of it is. Similarly, there are no grounds for taking Mark’s “young man” to be a human rather than angelic figure, the Greek word used here being often used of angels and the man’s white robe being typical for the Jewish portrait of angels. Moreover, the women’s fear and astonishment is a characteristic Markan motif that presupposes the angelic confrontation, so that one cannot regard the women’s reaction as traditional and historical while historically excising the angel as a legendary accretion.

6) The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses. The wrong tomb hypothesis will be disconfirmed by the generally accepted beliefs that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus and thus could point to his burial location, that the empty tomb tradition belongs to very early rather than late tradition and so on.

7) The hypothesis must significantly exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions two through six. Obviously, nobody thinks that this is the case.

Displaced Body Hypothesis

In one of the few Jewish attempts to deal with the facts concerning Jesus’ resurrection, Joseph Klausner in 1922 proposed that Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in his tomb temporarily, due to the lateness of the hour and the proximity of his own family tomb. But then he moved the corpse later to the criminals’ graveyard. Unaware of the displacement of the body, the disciples erroneously inferred Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Although no scholars defend Klausner’s hypothesis today, I have seen attempts by popular authors to revive it. In light of what has already been said of other theories, its shortcomings are evident:

1) The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. No problem here.

2) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses. The displaced body hypothesis has narrow explanatory scope. It tries to explain the empty tomb but says nothing about the post-mortem appearances and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

3) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses. Klausner’s hypothesis has no explanatory power vis-à-vis the appearances and the origin of the Christian faith. As for the empty tomb, it faces the same obstacle as the wrong tomb hypothesis: since Joseph and any servants with him knew what they had done with the corpse, the theory is at a loss to explain why the disciples’ error was not corrected—unless, that is, one resorts to ad hoc conjectures, like the sudden deaths of Joseph and his servants. It might be said that Jesus’ corpse would have no longer been identifiable; but that is to miss the point. The point is that the earliest Jewish/Christian disputes about the resurrection were not over the location of Jesus’ grave or the identity of the corpse but over why the tomb was empty. Had Joseph displaced the body, the Jewish/Christian polemic would have taken a quite different course.

4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses. The hypothesis is implausible for a number of reasons. So far as we can rely on Jewish sources, the criminals’ graveyard was only 50 to 600 yards from the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jewish practice, furthermore, was to bury executed criminals on the day of their execution, so that is what Joseph would have wanted to accomplish. Therefore, Joseph could and would have placed the body directly in the criminals’ graveyard, thereby obviating any need to move it later or defile his own family tomb. Indeed, Jewish law did not even permit the body to be moved later, except to the family tomb. Joseph had adequate time for a simple burial, which probably included washing the corpse and wrapping it up in a sheet with dry spices.

5) The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses. The theory is somewhat ad hoc in ascribing to Joseph motives and activities for which we have no evidence at all.

6) The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses. The theory suffers disconfirmation from what we know about Jewish burial procedures for criminals mentioned above.

7) The hypothesis must significantly exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions two through six. Again, no historian seems to share this estimation.

. . .

As we look at these hypotheses proffered to explain the fact of the empty tomb, it is striking that scarcely any modern historian or biblical critic would hold to these theories. They are almost completely passé. You may say to yourselves at this point, “Well, then, what explanation of the empty tomb do modern critics offer who deny the resurrection?” The fact is that they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There simply is no plausible natural explanation available today to account for how Jesus’ tomb became empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
STEVE KILLIAN
4 years 7 months ago
Why does the author say that the Gospel of Peter is a forgery? I understand it may be pseudepigraphical, but that does not make it a forgery. Is it not considered the source of the passion narratives in the canonical gospels?
Bill Mazzella
4 years 7 months ago
What professor Craig does not account for is the style of writing of the four evangelists and of those times. The evangelists were not historians. They were theologians and believers. He does make sense when he states that the disciples would hardly make up a story about a failed Messiah. But makes no allowances for form literature and midrash. There is also the fact that the disciples strongly believed that Jesus rose from the dead. That had nothing to do with an empty tomb though the symbolism is great. The fact that Jesus sent so powerful a spirit which galvanized the disciples is the source of the belief in the resurrection and how that faith in the reality that Christ is risen still permeates Christians to this day.
Thanh Ben Mansour
4 years 7 months ago
The Apostles were not trying to write "literature" either. They were merely recording what they knew of Jesus. The evangelists did not have to be "historians." Writing that comes from mere mortals makes up a great deal of what we know of the world today. In the end, the truth is the Apostles were eye witnesses to Jesus' life. That is better than being a historian who knows no first-person experience of the events.

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