Christianity rises or falls by whether Jesus rose from the dead. To the Christian, salvation is dependent upon one believing and confessing Jesus’s resurrection. The apostle Paul declared, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). For this, Christians hope in the final resurrection of all saints. Jesus is the first-fruits of the coming resurrection (1 Cor 15:20–28).
By Jesus’s resurrection, Christians rise and are born again to the newness of life from baptism (Rom 6:3–6; 1 Pet 1:3; 3:21). Belief in Jesus’s resurrection and personal regeneration are essential for salvation to Christians. The rejection of Jesus’s resurrection is an opposition to the very core of the Christian faith. In 1 Corinthians 15:14–15, the apostle Paul declared, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. And we are also found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified of God that He raised Christ.”
The Christian faith is nothing but meaningless if Jesus was buried and not raised. The apostolic Scriptures simply define the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus as the Gospel of Christ. The believer’s personal regeneration imitates Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. Believers must die with Christ to sin, bury the old self, and God will raise them to new life and forgiveness of all sins (Rom 6:1–7; Col 2:12–13).
Historical Sources for Jesus’s Burial
The earliest preaching after Jesus’s death for faith in Jesus Christ observed the empty tomb, witnesses experienced appearances of Jesus risen from the dead, and ancient prophecies predicted that the Christ would rise from the dead (Psa 16:10; Isa 53:10; Hos 6:2). The apostle Paul received such revelation from his experience of Jesus’s resurrection and also confirmed that his original faith with Jesus’s apostles fourteen years after his conversion (1 Cor 15:1–5; cf Rom 6:3–8). That early Gospel includes that Jesus was buried.
Critical scholars accept Paul’s account that Paul received the same Gospel of the death, burial, and resurrection as the early church, and Paul received this proclamation within five years of Jesus’s crucifixion (1 Cor 15:1–11; Gal 1:18–2:2). Peter and the other apostles confirmed the Gospel that Jesus was buried as Paul received and delivered to other Christians.
The first Christians immediately referenced predictions of the Messiah in the Jewish Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3–4; cf. Psa 16:10; Isa 53). Isaiah 53:9a records, “And they made His grave with the wicked— But with the rich at His death.”
Acts records that Peter first proclaimed the Gospel by referring to Jesus’s empty tomb (Acts 2:29-31; cf. 13:29–32). One of the earliest accounts of Jesus’s burial was that reputable man of the Jewish court named Joseph of Armimathea took Jesus’s body down from the cross and placed it in his own tomb (Mark 15:42–47). Furthermore, women saw Jesus buried and also found the tomb empty (Mark 16:1–8). Even for critical historians, these events are most probably true.
Hostile Sources for the Empty Tomb
Critical historians recognize the persecutor who became a convert — Paul. The apostle Paul himself was a hostile convert who confirms that the earliest Gospel includes Jesus’s burial (1 Cor 15:3–4). Paul confirmed the conversion of James and Jesus’s brothers who converted and thereby confirm an empty tomb in Jerusalem (Mark 3:21, 31; 6:3–4; 1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19). Paul noted the earliest Gospel message (1 Cor 15:3–5). He also recognized hundreds who simultaneously experienced appearances of Jesus risen from the dead (1 Cor 15:5–11).
The hostile sources accuse Jesus’s disciples of taking his body, and yet their argument also affirms that survivors buried Jesus’s body in a tomb, soldiers guarded the tomb, and the tomb was found empty. Matthew 28:11–15 records a hostile Jewish explanation of the empty tomb. The date for the Gospel of Matthew makes little difference in this discussion whether the evangelist wrote in AD 35–65 or within AD 75–100. The early church accepted the Gospel known as Matthew. The writer of this Gospel defended the disciples and proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection. Matthew addressed the opponents’ accusation while demonstrating that the leaders in Jerusalem were immediately aware that Jesus’s tomb was empty.
Matthew 28:15 refers to a saying that was “commonly reported among the Jews until this day.” According to verse 13, this saying presented the report of guards of the temple who reported that “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.” The writer of Matthew’s Gospel did not invent this saying since he expected readers to know or discover that this saying was spread widely among the Jews until that day. In verse 13, the saying is, “His disciples came by night, and stole Him (Jesus’s body) away while we (the soldiers guarding) slept.”
Matthew wrote in defense of Jesus’s resurrection against opponents. This would be a huge mistake for the writer of Matthew to spread an argument against Jesus’s resurrection by inventing an argument against Jesus’s resurrection. Matthew records that this saying was widely spread to explain its origin and the innocence of Jesus’s apostles (28:11–15). This argument against Jesus’s resurrection confirms that Jesus’s tomb was found empty. The Gospel of Matthew’s record affirms that Jesus died, Jesus predicted His resurrection in three days, His body was placed in a known tomb, soldiers guarded the body, accusations against the apostles came soon after the event, and that these enemies did not know the place of Jesus’s body after three days in the tomb.
Does the empty tomb require that Jesus must have risen from the dead? Is there another more plausible explanation?
Explanations for the Empty Tomb
There are three explanations for Jesus’s empty tomb besides Jesus rising from the dead. Either opponents, some attendant, or Jesus’s disciples moved Jesus’s body. However, opponents of Jesus did not take Jesus’s body, because they did not produce the body when the disciples claimed that Jesus rose. The opponents could have crushed and devastated Jesus’s movement if they did this. Neither an attendant nor anyone else other than the authorities of the Jews or the Romans could likely have taken the body since soldiers guarded the place of Jesus’s burial whose lives were on the line (cf. Acts 12:19; 16:27).
The disciples did not take Jesus’s body, because they would have had to get past a guard who would later testify in court that they took Jesus’s body and they would have convict those disciples of fraud. Traditional history also records that the Apostles and early Christians endured great suffering and death for what they sincerely experienced and believed. If they stole the body, they still could not have been able to allude discovery by questioning and examination of their accounts. Furthermore, they could not likely elude their moral faults before all people. Their written accounts could not escaped critical examination.
Therefore, the moving of Jesus’s body is the least probable and lacks plausibility. However, Jesus’s moral living and teaching followed Messianic prophecies of the Christ who would die, be buried, and God would prolong His days (Isa 53:8–10). The best rational explanation of the empty tomb is that Jesus rose from the dead.
The historicity of Jesus’s tomb is most probable according the source traditions and material. If God exists, then He can raise people from the dead. If Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God, then God would have raised Him and He is God. The existence of the church demonstrates that the church began because numerous early Christians knew of Jesus’s empty tomb and experienced appearances of Jesus resurrected. The earliest faith that proceeded Jesus’s death was that Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the dead (1 Cor 15:1–5). The church began because doubtful disciples and bias opponents converted knowing of Jesus’s burial and having experienced appearances of Jesus risen from the dead. The origin and existence of the church is a witness that Jesus died, was buried, and rose.
As the apostle Peter rightly pointed out, David could not have been talking about himself when he wrote,
I have set God always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; My flesh also shall dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither will you suffer thy holy one to see corruption. (Psalm 16:8–10)
Then, Isaiah’s prediction was also right,
Yet it pleased Jehovah to crush Him; to grieve Him; that He should put forth His soul as a guilt-offering. He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the will of Jehovah shall prosper in His hand. (Isaiah 53:10)
- Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, (New York: HarperOne, 2012) 172, Kindle edition, ch. 4–5, “Evidence for Jesus Outside the Gospels” and “Two Key Data for the Historicity of Jesus.”