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The challenge of the empty tomb

POSTED: April 3, 2018 9:49 a.m.
Deseret Connect/

The exterior of the Garden Tomb.

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Written most likely A.D. mid-50s — that is, about two decades after the death of Jesus — Paul’s first letter to the saints in Corinth contains a stirring testimony of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-11), including the implicit claim that the tomb in which Jesus’ body was placed was soon found to be empty: Specifically, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 explicitly says that Jesus died and was buried, but that, on the third day, “he rose again.”

Many modern scholars believe that Paul is citing a very early Christian creed, a text that may have been familiar to his audience and that in any case, if they are correct, is necessarily older than the epistle that quotes it. Moreover, Paul expressly says that he’s reiterating to the Corinthians what he had taught them several years before, when he was personally teaching in Corinth among them. Thus, it seems difficult to deny that the idea arose very early that the tomb of Jesus was unoccupied three days after his burial. Furthermore, this idea had spread far beyond Palestine within just a few years of the claimed event.

Written somewhat later than Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, all four New Testament Gospels agree in relating that, on the Sunday morning following Christ’s crucifixion, the tomb in which the dead body of Jesus had been placed on Friday was empty. (See Matthew 28:1-8, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-6, John 20:1-10.)

Uniquely among the four gospels, Matthew 27:62-66 tells of guards being placed at the tomb. According to Matthew, this was done at the initiative of “the chief priests and Pharisees” and with the approval of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. “Sir,” Matthew 27:63-64 quotes them as saying to Pilate, “we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore, order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.”

Matthew continues with his account of the guards during the event of the resurrection, which, he says, paralyzed them with fear and left them temporarily “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4).

When they had recovered their wits, though, “some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, 'Tell people, "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep." And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Matthew 28:11-15).

Thus, according to the gospel of Matthew, both believers and unbelievers agreed that Jesus’ body was absent from the tomb, however differently they might explain that fact.

St. Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165), a pagan philosopher who was born in Palestine and converted to Christianity as an adult, was familiar with a Jewish accusation that the disciples had stolen Christ’s body from the tomb. He mentions it in his “Dialogue with Trypho,” 108. Likewise, Tertullian, writing around A.D. 200 in what is today Tunisia, on the northern coast of Africa, knows of the Jewish claim. “This is he,” Tertullian’s “De spectaculis” (“On the Games”) quotes Jewish skeptics as saying about Jesus, “whom his disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said he had risen again.”

The medieval Jewish anti-Christian work known as the “Sefer Toledot Yeshu” (“The Book of the Generations of Jesus”) offers a variant of the accusation, suggesting that it was a gardener (compare John 20:15) who originally stole the body of Jesus and then later sold it to the Jewish leadership. This story makes little sense, of course, because the most decisive rebuttal that the ancient Jewish leadership could have made to claims of Christ’s resurrection would, obviously, have been to have publicly produced and displayed his still-dead body. If they had had it in their possession, they would have triumphantly done so — and Christianity would have died in its cradle.

But that, plainly, was something that they could not do. Which is among the reasons why, still today, believing Christians joyously proclaim that Christ is risen.
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