jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/emptytomb.jpegThe four Gospels all mention the empty tomb of Christ, which has become a mainstay of modern apologetics.
But some argue that the idea of the empty tomb was a late development in early Christianity—that it only arose decades after the Crucifixion, and that early Christians thought Jesus had been “spiritually” raised from the dead, not literally.
It was only with the passage of time that this spiritual resurrection was interpreted as a literal one, leading to the idea of the empty tomb.
In arguing for this view, advocates of this view might ask why earlier documents of the New Testament don’t mention the empty tomb.
This is, in fact, something that Philip Jenkins is wondering about . . .
Jenkins on the Empty Tomb
Over at his blog, Dr. Jenkins writes:
Let me pose the problem. From the time of Mark’s gospel, around 70, the empty tomb became central to the Resurrection narrative, so central in fact that Jews evolve rival stories to account for the absence of Jesus’s body (Matt. 28. 11-15). The story evidently mattered in religious polemic. Over the next thirty years or so, the story is repeated in various forms in three other gospels. Yet even Luke, who knows the story, makes no use of it in Acts. Before the 90s, moreover, (the time of Matthew and Luke), the one account that we do have of the empty tomb does not refer to visions of a bodily risen Jesus at or near the site.
Where is the empty tomb story before 70?
Suppose I face*an atheist critic, who makes the following argument. Yes, he says, early Christians believed that they encountered the risen Jesus, that they had visions, but these visions had no objective reality. They just arose from the hopes and expectations of superstitious disciples. Even then, Christians saw that Resurrection in spiritual, pneumatic, terms. Only after a lengthy period, some forty years in fact, did the church invent stories to give a material, bodily basis to that phenomenon, and the empty tomb was the best known example.
How can I respond? Help me.
Some have already responded in his combox, but I’d like to provide a fuller response, so let’s go.
Challenging a Premise
My first response to an atheist critic would be that I don’t accept one of the premises—that the Gospels were written at such late dates.
The book of Acts suddenly stops, without resolving the story of Paul’s trial and imprisonment, in A.D. 60. Whether Paul was exonerated or executed, either would have been a fitting ending to Acts, and the best explanation for why Luke stopped writing without finishing the story is that those events simply had not happened yet. In other words, Acts was written in A.D. 60.
Since Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, that means Luke was written no later than A.D. 60 and possibly quite a bit earlier.
Depending on your theory of the order in which the Gospels were composed, either Matthew or Mark (or both) were written before Luke, and that would push them into at least the A.D. 50s, which is the same period that most of Paul’s epistles were being written.
Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 8:18, written in the mid A.D. 50s, Paul tells the readers that he is sending them “the brother whose praise is in the Gospel.” This may be a reference to either Mark or Luke, both sometime travelling companions of Paul and both authors of Gospels.
Even John shows signs of being written in the A.D. 60s. He refers to things in Jerusalem as still standing that would have been devastated in A.D. 70 (cf. John 5:2), and in the literal Greek of John 21:19 he speaks of Peter’s death—which took place in A.D. 67—as still in the future (“This he said to show by what death he [Peter] will glorify God”—future tense in the Greek). (There’s also the fact that John expressly claims to be written by an eyewitness of the empty tomb itself.)
So, despite the dates you commonly hear assigned to the Gospels, the evidence is that they were actually written quite a bit earlier, and their composition overlapped the period in which the epistles were written (see John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament for more).
Challenging a Second Premise