This is the second in a series of Apologetic Minutes on the resurrection. In the first article, we listed the New Testament passages describing the resurrection and examined the documentary evidence that confirmed that Jesus was physically dead before His body was removed from the cross. In this article we will examine evidence concerning where and how His body was buried, and for the discovery of the empty tomb two days later.
THE BURIAL OF JESUS
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who did not agree with their decision to have Jesus executed, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body so as to give it an honorable burial. It is most unlikely that Jesus’ followers would have invented a story that a member of the Sanhedrin was willing to stand with Jesus while many of His disciples had run off in fear. If the story had been false, it would have been easy for opponents to check with Joseph to prove the story untrue.
Joseph buried Jesus in his own private tomb, which had never been used before. Several women-followers of Christ witnessed the burial. The tomb was cut out of rock and secured with a large stone. The tomb was sealed the next day under the orders of Pilate, who provided a guard to prevent theft of the body.
Important implications of these facts include:
(1) The location of the buried body was well established: in the private garden tomb of a prominent religious leader. This would not have been the case had Jesus been buried in a common grave.
(2) The tomb was cut out of rock, facilitating its sealing and guarding.
(3) Since the tomb had not been used before, there was no question of his body being confused with that of someone else.
THE EMPTY TOMB
On the first day of the following week, the tomb was found to be empty by Christian women who went to it intending to complete the embalming process. As noted above, they had witnessed the burial, so it is most unlikely that they went to the wrong tomb. When the disciples Peter and John went to investigate their report, they too found the tomb empty, although they did find the grave-cloths. While one of the women thought the body had been stolen, this is not consistent with the fact that the body was gone but the grave-cloths left. Also, the presence of guards would have prevented the tomb from being robbed.
When the guards reported to the Jewish religious leaders what had happened (a violent earthquake and an angel rolling back the stone), they were bribed to say that while they were asleep the disciples had stolen the body. This report was of course not credible: how could they have known what happened while they were asleep? Interestingly, a marble tablet found in Nazareth in the 19th century, dating to around A.D. 40, contains a warning from an unnamed Caesar that desecration or robbery of tombs carried the death penalty. Historians think that something very unusual had to have happened to cause such an edict!
In the next Apologetic Minute we will discuss Jesus’ resurrection appearances. As a result of these appearances the disciples were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead and at Pentecost they began to testify publically to this miracle. If the tomb had in fact not been empty, the Jewish authorities could easily have produced the body and discredited reports of the resurrection. As it was, they were unable to silence the early church. This is a strong testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.
Note: This article is based on material in John Lennox’s Gunning for God (see recommended resources below).
(1) Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004).
NOTE: This book can be found in our Lending Library…it is excellent!!!
(2) John C. Lennox, Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), Chapter 8