Sunday, April 03, 2005

Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? – The Empty Tomb – Part 1

The first aspect of the resurrection I’d like to look at is that of the empty tomb. I think the empty tomb is a very powerful argument for the resurrection of Christ. However before we can look at the empty tomb we need to start with the burial account. Looking at the burial account is important for two reasons: First, before we can accept a tomb as being empty we need to know for sure the body was there in the first place and second because if the burial story is fundamentally correct, than the site of Jesus’ grave in Jerusalem was known to both Jew and Christians alike and that has radical implications.

As far as my research shows, the burial account is almost universally accepted by Scholars as being factual. Now this has important implications because you can’t deny the historicity of the empty tomb without denying the historicity of the burial story. The burial account is also part of Mark’s gospel (Mark 15:42-47) and most Scholars agree that Mark’s gospel is the oldest. (Scholar Rudolph Pesch argues that Mark was written within 7 years of Jesus' execution). This is important not only because the older something is the less likely it could have been started by legend but because it allows for the eyewitnesses to still be interviewed.

So how do we know Jesus' body actually made it into the tomb? The Bible states that Joseph of Arimathea is the man responsible for burying Jesus but it doesn’t stop there. It goes on to include incidental details like “he was a rich man.” This is important because we know Jesus was buried in a bench tomb and bench tombs belonged only to the wealthy. We also know that the body had to be in the tomb before the first evening star, otherwise it would defile the entire land. The burial also had to be completed quickly as the Sabbath was coming and no work could be done on the Sabbath. Therefore the burial had to take place late on the day of his crucifixion. Now we know that Jesus died at about 3pm and the Sabbath started around 6pm. Therefore, Joseph of Arimathea probably had servants to assist him in the burial as touching the body would have defiled him for the coming Passover meal. Now let’s think about it, if Joseph had helpers, than more than one person not only knew for 100% where the tomb was, but they also knew for a fact that the body had been put in the tomb. Remember, these men were associated with the Sanhedrin and NOT Jesus’ followers. This leads me to my next point; it is highly unlikely that early Christians would have invented a story involving a practicing member of the Sanhedrin. There was a tremendous hostility towards the Sanhedrin by the early Christians and therefore no reason to attribute the account as such unless it actually happened that way.

Some diehards may still refuse to believe the burial account, but this leads to a major problem; no other burial tradition exists. If Jesus wasn’t buried by Joseph of Arimathea we have no other burial story to go on. Nothing is offered by the Jews, nothing at all. This is hard to explain unless the gospel account is the true account.

So looking back at the details regarding Joseph and his servants, I think it is safe to say we know the body was in the tomb. But I think there is another powerful evidence regarding the empty tomb that we tend to overlook, that is, the geographical origins of the resurrection. Now let’s think about it, it would have been impossible for Christianity to start in a city where Jesus’ body lie. To prove that Christianity was false, all the Jewish leaders had to do was exhume the body for all to see. They wouldn’t have needed to prove the corpse belonged to Jesus as the burden of proof would have then shifted to the disciples. I can’t overstate enough the importance of the location of the origin of the empty tomb narrative. It didn’t begin in some far off land like Rome, or Greece, but it began in the very city the execution and burial took place. The very place where the most independent eyewitnesses could be interviewed. This presents a powerful argument for the historicity of the burial account and the empty tomb.

I think Wilbur Smith said it best when he said “Let it simply be said that we know more about the details of the hours immediately before and the actual death of Jesus, in and near Jerusalem, than we know about the death of any other one man in all the ancient world.”

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