Did the First Christians Believe in the Empty Tomb or Not? [Akin]

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




Prior to the earliest of Christian writings, lets say 30 years after the time of jesus. We have no idea what Christian beleived. We can only take the writings, at face value.

Catholic Opinion said : "The 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."

Are you saying that the Bible didn’t say clearly-Enough whether Jesus rose Bodily?

Or, are you saying that 30-years hence, some Bozo “added” text that Jesus rose Bodily.

He is saying that there was no text until at least 30 years later.

I have been dealing with atheist skeptics on another forum. I know the thinking well.

Michael Mayo said : "He is saying that there was no text until at least 30 years later."

So, would the Atheists be HAPPY if the Gospels were written 5 years later, instead of 30?
Or, what about 10 years later?
Or, what if they were written down 6 months later?
Or, if they were written down 6 DAYS later?

And then again, if the Gospels had been written 60 years later, would that Fact make the Gospels even LESS reliable?

I think that if I had a Film that showed Matthew writing the First Chapter of his Gospel, that the Opposition would STILL find a Reason to Doubt … and Deny.
After all, the Empty Tomb, itself, violates their Religion … that there is NO God.
And, the Bible is chuck-full of “Heresy” to the Atheist Religion.

Well, whatever you do, don’t mention that the Old Testament was NOT written down until about 1000 BC**!**
That will give them a REAL delay to claim as the Reason it ain’t True.

It wouldn’t make an Atheist “happy”…but it would add more credibility to the events.

If the gospel accounts were written starting with the Mark one at 30-40 years after the fact–the other three spanned two more decades later, I think–there is a much bigger/likelier chance that the stories could have been tampered with, elaborated on, passed along inaccurately by impassioned, fallible storytellers injecting details and drama along the way.
That’s a lot of broken telephone.

The other issue with the Mark gospel is that, as you know, the oldest manuscripts we have show the story ending with the women at the tomb, but don’t mention his body is missing…and the women say nothing to no one.
Not for another hundred years or so, I think it is, did the Mark gospel suddenly start to include the last 11 verses. Most bibles notes this in footnotes.
So just those few details, among others, makes it problematic when trying to figure out exactly what happened.

Some of Paul’s letters were a bit earlier than the Mark gospel, but they don’t mention the empty tomb either.

As per what another poster said above… we can’t really know what people were believing and saying those first thirty or more years after he died.


Yes, atheists approach it all looking for reasons not to believe. I feel sorry for them.

  My great problem with atheists in the 21st century remains what it was when I was in high school: there's a certain absence of imagination when it comes to realizing how people form their ideas, how motivations spring from beliefs, so they assume that somehow some sort of belief in a spiritual resurrection would be translated by later stories into a physical one.

The problem is that if one believes the soul is immortal, then there is no point in believing in a resurrection of someone’s spirit; the spirit wouldn’t have died and risen; they would’ve said “Jesus body died, but he’s alive in spirit!” If they had believed that Jesus was spiritually alive in eternity in spite of being dead, they would never have invented any stories that showed him risen after having perished. The conditions of the purported "original’ belief make any further elaborations of symbols unnecessary; and they would never have chosen narratives that very explicitly show a physical risen person to express a spiritual ascent.

A question we may need to deal with is, “What becomes of our faith post historical-critical method?”

You seem fixated on the written word. This is a very recent protestant approach.( We saw it in the newspaper; ergo it must be true!!!) Until C16th the Word of God was spread by the spoken ‘word’ …not the Book. Do you think evangelists gave ‘books’ to illiterate Europeans, Incas, Eskimos, Indians and Africans? This is a modern-day nonsense approach. Probably none/few early Christians could read or write. (Some Greeks perhaps).The apostles & disciples ‘preached’ the Word, They didn’t write it. The gospels are only a sketchy outline of Jesus’ life, miracles and resurrection.
This is why RCs accept ‘Tradition’ as a better source of the life & death of Jesus. Without the Resurrection there would be no followers of Christ - this strange cult would have fizzled out like Mithras & so many bizarre Eastern gurus. What makes Jesus different is the Resurrection…no one else has managed it.

What is in the RC’s tradition regarding the life and death of Jesus that is not found in scripture?

All that I can think of off hand is Joachim & Ann as the parents of Mary and Veronica wiping Jesus’ face.

You seem to have forgotten the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception just to name two. The Trinity is also a strong contender. Everything is not found in the Gospels.

The resurrection of Jesus and the emtpy tomb was first transmitted by word of mouth from the apostles to the first christians for the apostles and other followers of Jesus were eye witnesses to his resurrection and everything else he did. Only later was it recorded in the written word by the gospel writers. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out.

Not quite right, the Apostel Paul wrote about the resurrection before the gospel writers, and even he got it from someone else, in form of a (written ?) creed.

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