The “minimal facts” of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ are there to be investigated. In the first part of this series we looked at Fact 1: Jesus Died, and asked whether the ‘swoon theory’ held any weight. Today we move on to the second fact. (Skip ahead to Fact 3: The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and Fact 4: The transformation of the disciples)
Fact 2: The Tomb Was Empty
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”” (John 20:1–2, ESV)
Jesus was crucified on a Friday and laid in a known tomb nearby (John 19:38-41). The next day was the Sabbath (Saturday) and the “first day of the week” was the Sunday. It was on the Sunday that Mary Magdalene found the empty tomb and informed the disciples.
There are a few alternative theories about what might have occurred over those couple of days. The point is made that the absence of a body does not lead one to immediately conclude ‘supernatural resurrection’. Indeed. So, the question is, ‘What are the competing naturalistic explanations?
Well, firstly, someone could have come and removed the dead body from the tomb (which is what Mary seems to think happened at first). But who would have done that?
Both the Romans and the Jews had much to gain from Jesus remaining dead. The Romans crucified him at the request of the Jews who two days prior were screaming bloody murder.
Later on, when the Resurrection story began to gain traction, whatever reason the Jews or the Romans had for removing the body would have paled in comparison to the need to check the growing ‘heresy’ that was threatening unrest. The body could have been presented at this time and tChristianity stopped in its tracks.
Secondly, we could suggest that the disciples stole the body and then made up the story about the Resurrection. But some problems emerge with this theory too.
To start with, the disciples would have had to regroup from the shock of seeing Jesus crucified and come up with a plan to steal the body in just a day or so. Then they would have had to overcome the Roman guard, which was stationed by the tomb for the very reason of preventing the disciples doing just this (Matthew 27:62-66). After all of this, the disciples – knowing that they have faked the story – would have had to lie consistently, in fact, lie all the way to their death for what they proclaimed. The point was made in Part I, ‘why would they die for something they did not believe happened?’
A third theory is that the church made up this story later on when it was more powerful. We’ve looked elsewhere at the reliability of the eye-witness testimony of the Bible, but in addition there are a couple of other points to made about this.
Firstly, the Bible records that it was women that found the tomb of Jesus. Times have changed and perhaps what is not immediately apparent is that this fact significantly weakens the credibility of the story. A women’s testimony was inadmissible in court – equivalent to a drunken man’s testimony – and so to hang the story on women, as all Gospel’s do, would not make sense if the goal of the writers were to create a strong story.
The next thing to consider is to ask how long it was before the church invented this story. 100 years? 500? This idea, ‘legendary development’, suggests that the church over time came up with the idea of physical resurrection. The problem for this angle is that believers were proclaiming the resurrection very early on.
A portion of a letter Paul writes to Christians in Corinth contains what many scholars believed to be an early creed. This would have been a statement of faith that Christians would affirm.
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–6, ESV)
Scholars date this creed to within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death. That is, the very first Christians believed and stated their belief in the Resurrection.
The tomb was found on the Sunday to be empty and neither the historical record nor competing theories for the absence of the body lead us to think that anything else actually happened than what the gospels claim.
Of course, the account gets stronger when we include the stories of the many people who claim to have seen the resurrected Jesus. This is what we will look at next.