Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Empty Tomb

In this historical study of Mark 16:1-8 , I will begin by discussing the validity of the Gospels, and in particular the chosen passage; questioning whether or not it is a trustworthy historical source. This will then lead to the question ‘was the tomb really empty?’ - and in reply show that this is a clear fact. 

‘They saw that the stone was rolled back...He has risen, He is not here.’(Mark 16:4-6) If we want a clear answer to whether or not what we read in the New Testament is true, then we should ask ourselves can the Gospels be an accurate, or at least trustworthy historical source? Carsten Peter Thiede strongly emphasizes that there is every reason to be confident that the questions we ask today can be answered by looking at the material written and published by the followers of Christ. He writes To put it bluntly, in the whole realm of classical literature, there is not a single comparable case where a complex history was reported by three authors, writing in different places and with different target groups, and yet agreeing to such a remarkable extent.’ 1Many would then ask if the Gospel was to be so trustworthy, then why do accounts of the Resurrection differ - albeit to a somewhat minimal extent? The discrepancies which appear in the various Gospel accounts of the same event should be taken as evidence of the principal truth surrounding these testimonies of witnesses. If all witnesses gave identical accounts of an event we should suspect collusion to deceive - the precise opposite of witness to truth. Peter underlines the special status of Christianity, in that it gives us holy scripture and miraculous events through history, and we have the choice to accept this truth. He tells us that the truth of Jesus is not hidden, but revealed; it is not entrusted to a select group of initiates, but to everyone who decides to trust the historical message. 

1 Carsten Peter Thiede, Jesus,Man or Myth? (Oxford:Lion Hudson, 2005) 17.

However, we cannot deny the fact that even Mark’s Gospel was officially written many years after the empty tomb was found. There is clearly the element of ‘oral tradition’ that has shaped parts of scripture. This was the most common source of information about people, their existence, words and deeds, and was regarded, and arguably still should be,  as valid. The information was carefully passed on at that time, as Jews had refined a technique, having the ability to memorize prayers, poems and speeches. 2 Mark, and each of the individual Gospel writers admittedly had different target readers and audiences, or ‘agendas’ as many scholars would put it; but so does every human being throughout history. We all appeal to our own personal feelings and interests, but at the same time we cannot ignore the main facts which all the writers share - the empty tomb and resurrection of Christ.

Ehrman and many scholars would argue that the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel was in fact edited. Ancient scribes added an ending that was more in keeping with the early Church’s beliefs, in order to link with the other Gospels. It is in fact 16:8 that was the concluding verse to the whole of Mark’s Gospel. ‘But the women flee the tomb and did not say anything to anyone, for they were afraid.’ 3 This ending does come as a surprise to many readers, who would assume that surely the women would have broadcast this great news of finding Christ’s tomb empty. However, for the historical study of the empty tomb it does not pose any difficulties. Mark clearly states in his reliable account ( not in the part that was edited by scribes ) that the stone was rolled away from the tomb; therefore Jesus had indeed risen. 
Jewish documents, such as the Qumran scrolls and Prophets, speak of the resurrection exclusively in terms of risen bodies and open tombs. For Paul, and his contemporaries, it was self-evident that the tomb was empty. 

2 Thiede, Jesus, Man or Myth?, 18-19.
3 Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament (Oxford:O.U.P, 2012) 23.

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian had written a passage in the ‘Jewish Antiquities’ where he speaks of Jesus. The text has been passed down to us in several forms , and scholars say that Christian hands have tampered with the original text. However the supposed original text states ‘those who had become his disciples preached his doctrine. They related that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Perhaps he was the Messiah in connection with whom the prophets foretold wonders.’ Flavius Josephus could easily believe that Jesus had died and had indeed risen and yet he still did not convert to Christianity. Firstly, this proves that Josephus had taken the empty tomb as being self evident and a clear fact, and secondly that he knew of, and believed in the resurrection of Christ. Despite the evidence of an empty tomb and the resurrection, there was a reluctance to convert to Christianity. There are clear reasons for this - the Jews were not expecting a messiah who would die on a cross with such humiliation and humility.4 Nevertheless, Jews were expecting a resurrection( the Sadducees remaining an exception).

 God’s capability to raise the dead is found in the last book of the Torah ( Deut. 32:39 ). The Essenes stated, in one of their writings which has survived at the caves of Qumran, that the resurrection was certainly something that was going to happen. Their passage was reconstructed and it reads ‘ For the Heavens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and all which is in them will not turn away from the commandments of the holy ones...for He shall heal the pierced, He shall revive the dead, and bring good news to the poor.’ The final part highlights the bodily resurrection: ‘And He will open the tombs.’ 5

4 Thiede, Jesus, Man or Myth?, 112.
5 Thiede, Jesus, Man or Myth?, 108-109.

In all the Gospels it is clear that it was women who found the tomb empty and realised that Jesus had trampled down upon death. This is a time where women were restricted to roles of little or no authority or significance - and were generally viewed as inferior to men. It would seem reasonable to assume that women’s statuses were being elevated - and their worth and holiness emphasized by their inclusion in the accounts. In addition, ‘If the story of the empty tomb was a late tradition, male disciples would surely have played prominent roles from the first.’ 6 This does point towards the validity and trustworthiness of Mark’s account, as well as the other Gospel writers. James D.G Dunn writes in his piece ‘Et Resurrexit’ that the absence of any tomb veneration and worship ( at the burial tomb of Jesus ) was very unusual for the time period - as honoring the dead was common practice. There are no writings from the first to third century on the matter, and there are no references to veneration of the tomb being a practice of early Christians. Helen K Bond highlights that most considerations regarding the tomb, speak in favour of it;  and  I have supported and endorsed this view throughout my essay. The historical facts certainly make sense, and as Helen Bond writes ‘the likeliest explanation to me, is that they found the grave disturbed and empty.’ 7

 ‘The body could not have been stolen ( the stone was much too large ); and Jesus was clearly raised from the dead ( the angel said so )’. It is a ‘consistent story in which the women who went to visit the grave once the Sabbath had passed were unable to find His body.’ 8

6 Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus (London:Bloomsbury, 2013) 170-171.
7 Bond, The Historical Jesus, 171.
8 Bond, The Historical Jesus, 171.


Bond, H 2013, The Historical Jesus, London : Bloomsbury.
Ehrman, B 2012, The New Testament, New York : Oxford.
Thiede, C 2005, Jesus, Man or Myth?, Oxford : Lion Hudson.