Beyond Tradition

Onward Christian Martyrs: Legend of the Empty Tomb

Part II of V (click here for Part I):

The burial legend

This actually seems to be a modification of the Jesus-myth theory, though I've also seen it proposed surprisingly by some pretty reputable names in the field. The Jesus-myth is actually a 19th century theory that has since been put to rest by reputable scholars and modern archeology, thus modifications of the theory to fit modern conclusions were necessary to make the theory more viable. So instead of the whole Christian fabric dismissed as mythology as it once was in the 19th century, the argument has shifted to a mixture of history and mythology, thus select threads of the fabric can be dismissed as myth instead of the whole fabric itself. To some, Jesus' tomb burial has remarkably become just one of those threads. The tomb legend theory is an attempt to get passed some of the problems that work against critical theories (i.e. mass hallucinations of Jesus alive) used to explain the formation of Christianity outside of the supernatural by proposing that the empty tomb itself was a legend invented by the church at least 30 years after Jesus' execution. Since the New Testament epistles (most of which were written in the 40-60s CE, supposedly preceding the gospels) oddly do not mention anything specific about an empty tomb even though the resurrection of Christ itself is exhaustively expressed in those works from a theological perspective, the critics argue that this implies Jesus' body was either discarded by the Romans themselves, or no one knew for sure where Jesus was actually buried at first or even cared at the time since most of the later literary works (the epistles) are more concerned about the theology aspect of Christ and his resurrection. Hence, the empty tomb served as a legend to fill in the historical void left out of the epistles that completed the Christian tradition at the time the gospels were conceived (i.e. 70-100 CE). To put it more simply, the tomb story was invented later because the gospel narratives, the supposed later literary works, required such a fiction to make the traditional story about Jesus and his bodily resurrection more historically authentic and complete.


Criterion of multiple attestation

Before we proceed to address just how historically viable the theory itself actually is, I should point out that the tomb burial is not only attested by all four gospels, but apocryphal works outside the canon gospels. This is quite odd in the context of the historical controversy that took place within the church, being that there were rival sects in the later stages of Christianity that rejected some of the elements of Christian orthodoxy found in the earlier gospels. Though the earlier gospels would become the dominant orthodox doctrine in the organized church centuries later, sects such as Gnosticism and Docetism rejected the claims of Jesus' physicality or his material appearance on earth, and argued he was a type of spirit form or divine illusion instead. Such ideas are very prominent in most of the later apocryphal texts of the second and later centuries.

We could easily suppose that a physical tomb burial would have been contrary to these unorthodox views, making conflicting accounts of what happened to Jesus' body a literary inevitability particularly if a tomb burial had even a hint of implausibility about it or an element of fiction surrounding it. To the contrary, the later apocryphal works either built off the tomb burial tradition, such as The Gospel of Peter, or don't mention it because their narration either excludes the Passion altogether or has little to no narration within the work, such as the Gospel of Thomas. Even the Gospel of Bartholomew, which is rife with Docetism -- claiming Jesus actually vanishes from the cross and descends into hell -- mentions Jesus' tomb burial. These works were rejected by the church, thus apocrypha as opposed to canon because they reflected elements of unorthodox views with other aspects of the Jesus-traditions. Yet strangely, none of these works conflict with a tomb burial in spite of the fact such a burial worked against their favor because this was self-evident that Jesus' corpse had a fleshly makeup that required burial after death.

The fact these legends had no conflicting accounts of a tomb burial highly suggests that the tomb burial was such an undeniable fact that even the apocryphal literature was forced to follow such a basic fact of history even though it worked against some of its unorthodox theology. To suppose a conspiracy to hide or destroy material that may have conflicted with a tomb burial is not at all plausible since the early church not only did not have the power or even means to control the flow of material at the time, but, as a result, we constantly find a variety of these early unorthodox Christian works that scholars generally date from the second century or later. We also don't find any such references by the fathers and early church historians of any opposing sects that denied his burial even though the fathers described in great detail the nuances of these sects and what they specifically believed and then present arguments why they should be shunned for such beliefs.

Under the guidelines of the criterion of multiple attestation, other than the crucifixion, the tomb burial is by far the most attested account in early Christian tradition, with no other account of the aftermath of the body of Christ that conflicts with it, in spite of the fact that it would have worked against conflicting sects that held different doctrines about Christ's body, as well as fictional works that held conflicting aspects of the orthodox Jesus-tradition.

Just one of the reasons I find the tomb legend theory argument extremely disingenuous is that most of those who endorse this argument strangely consider other accounts in the gospels as reliable that aren't as multiply attested. My question to them then is: why is the tomb burial considered unreliable if there are aspects of the traditions you accept as historical that would be considered even less reliable? This type of selective methodology is probably even less genuine than arguing the concept of Christ in its entirety was a myth because at least this is consistent. If one is allowed to selectively pick and choose what is acceptable history and what isn't, where does one draw that fine line between reliable history and unreliable tradition, particularly if attested to in all the earliest biblical sources, including external sources?

We can't have our cake and eat it too. We need a historical framework outside the gospels to use as a gauge by which to genuinely and honestly confirm historical validity. And since supposing fictional embellishment and fabrication in this case is begging the question unless it can be demonstrated, which it can't, and is an argument that takes us right back to the reliability issue I already addressed in a previous article (here: The Evangelists), I'll move on to analyze just how viable the tomb burial legend theory really is based on raw historical data.


Historical plausibility?

We probably should first present the evidence of how such a tomb burial was even historically plausible. Proponents of the tomb legend theory attempt to grab a historical framework of their own and ride on the claim that the crucified victim was typically denied a proper burial by the Romans, only to eventually be disposed by the Romans themselves, either dumped into a common grave with other malcontents, disposed of outside the city gates, into a flaming refuge pit, or simply left on the cross to decompose indefinitely until it was consumed by wild animals and natural elements. Therefore, the fact that the Romans supposedly handed Jesus' body over to Joseph of Arimathea after the crucifixion and placed in his own brand new tomb is historically inaccurate.

Logically, this is a pretty sound argument and is the theory's only real A-game, hence the reason you'll hear its proponents parrot this verbatim. After all, not only was honor a major factor in this society, but honor was especially a factor in how one died and how their body was handled after death. The purpose of a Roman crucifixion was clearly meant to be dishonorable, punishing the victim in the worst possible way imaginable and making the process from beginning to end as humiliating and obscene as possible in order to demoralize the adherents of the victim and instill fear and subordination in the rest of the community. Historically, however, this is a generalization or historical broad-brush, meaning that there may be truth in it but it fails to point out other possible or unique circumstances, and as any historian knows, history is full of exceptions and unique circumstances.

First of all, a very critical factor here is that we are interested not in how the Romans handled the bodies of their own Roman citizens, but how they allowed Jews to handle the bodies of other Jews in Judea. Jesus being a Jewish citizen living in Judea makes this an important distinction.

Secondly, in order to assume that either Roman or Jewish authority didn't allow honorable tomb burials of condemned criminals, we of course need to assume that all tomb burials were deemed honorable burials. However, the ritualism of this culture shows this not to be so, thus even though Jesus may have been condemned to a shameful death and burial, in Judean culture this didn't exclude a tomb burial, body preparations, anointing, etc (more on that in a bit).

Thirdly, Jesus' burial is documented in written material (the gospels) of the first century, therefore to dismiss this documented account as pure fiction requires far more evidence of support than to take the legitimacy of the burial account at face value; the latter of which is how we usually treat historical material about a perfectly natural account. At the very least, you either need some other early source, equally or more credible, specifically indicating that Jesus was denied a burial (which, as I pointed out, does not exist), or you need evidence to prove beyond doubt that victims were denied burials under any circumstances, and most of all, hope that there is no evidence to the contrary. Not only is this already tittering on a doubtful premise since nothing in history is this certain, but if there is in fact counter evidence for proper burials of crucified victims then there is certainly no reason not to give Jesus' tomb burial -- once again, illustrated in a perfectly natural way -- the benefit of the doubt in this case considering that it's not only attested by all sources, both canon and apocrypha, but is up against faulty premises that fail to explain other problems that occur without the explanation of a tomb burial (which I'll also discuss in a bit).

Fourthly, just as an aside, sometimes an argument from silence can be presented as a genuine argument when the facts deem it logical. It seems significant against the idea of fabrication that while some modern skeptics today question the burial, the earliest anti-Christian skeptics closest to the actual history never refuted the fact that Jesus was granted a proper burial by the Romans, or even that it was unique, something they certainly and very easily would have done had such burials of crucified victims been unusual. Even Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor, never questioned that Jesus was buried in spite of his "humiliating death."


From the historical record

There is no question that the Greco-Roman historical records are flooded with instances of non-burials of crucifixion victims. Tacitus, the second century Greek historian, did in fact state…

"Rome meanwhile being a scene of ceaseless bloodshed, Pomponius Labeo, who was, as I have related, governor of Moesia, severed his veins and let his life ebb from him. His wife, Paxaea, emulated her husband. What made such deaths eagerly sought was dread of the executioner, and the fact too that the condemned, besides forfeiture of their property, were deprived of burial, while those who decided their fate themselves, had their bodies interred, and their wills remained valid, a recompense this for their despatch."[1]

Pomponius and Paxaea chose suicide because it was more honorable than execution at the hands of the Romans who not only would have seized control of their assets, but would have denied them burials. However, typical individuals that crucifixion was used for were slaves or treasonous individuals particularly during wartime situations, not high ranking officers and aristocrats. These individuals were usually done away with by poisoning, stabbing, beheading, or banishing,
[2] which seems to suggest an unusual situation in Tacitus' account. And indeed it was, as this had to do with Emperor Tiberius moving against Sejanus and his supporters, of which Pomponius was apparently part of or at least suspected as such.[3] Thus, this was clearly a unique situation, being that Pomponius was a Roman official who was guilty of high treason against Caesar himself, thus it was treated as a personal vendetta by Caesar. 

Suetonius stated that when Augustus avenged the death of Julius Caesar, he denied Brutus' cohorts customary rites of burial and sneered at one of the victims who was begging for a burial, declaring that the carrion birds would take care of their burials; this is also echoed in Horace's epistle, where a slave is exempt from being hung on a cross and food for the crows after his cry of innocence.[4] The first century writer Petronius tells a tale about a Roman soldier who was assigned to guard some crosses "in order to prevent anyone from taking a body down for burial," yet shirks his duty for an amorous rendezvous with a widow, only to fear for his life after family members steal one of the bodies for burial.[5] Though the church father Eusebius recorded an account where the bodies of Christian martyrs were burned after their death, he states that their bodies were left exposed and were refused burial for six days prior.[6]

However, in almost every case I've examined, the situation is exceptional, personal or vengeful, where the victim was specifically targeted by Rome, executions by the Roman military for purposes of squashing military uprisings, wartime situations, or where certain kings and emperors had personal animosity towards the victims. In a few other instances the crime is specific, such as non-burial for those accused of temple robbery, of which Jesus wasn't accused of, or a specific law practiced in other provinces, such as Athens, which doesn't prove it was applied throughout the Empire in general, particularly at Jerusalem.

Moreover, the very notion that Jesus' body was not properly buried works against what its proponents are trying to achieve against the official Christian story. As we have seen, the typical pattern we find in almost all instances of Romans disallowing burial was leaving the bodies out indefinitely unburied, whether on the cross itself or wherever the body ended up in the aftermath of punishment. The proclamation that Jesus was raised on the "third day" in the very same city he was crucified was the earliest declaration from the time the Christian movement first began in the streets of Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). This would have made a burial and "three day" resurrection proclamation to the same public that had supposedly just witnessed Jesus' body decomposing for weeks, if not months, outside the walls of the city quite problematic if not downright absurd.

Jesus was killed in Jerusalem during a time of peace and was a clear non-threat to the Roman order, nor did Pilate hold any personal animosity or vendetta against Jesus that we can see from the written accounts. Furthermore, in contrast to the accounts of Roman conduct we looked at, we do in fact find the allowance by the Roman imperial government of even proper family burials during peacetime administrations. Philo wrote…


"I have known instances before now of men who had been crucified when this festival and holiday was at hand, being taken down and given up to their relations, in order to receive the honours of sepulture, and to enjoy such observances as are due to the dead; for it used to be considered, that even the dead ought to derive some enjoyment from the natal festival of a good emperor…"[7]


Thus, we have found in the records an exception to the rule, and all we pretty much need here is but one documented exception outside the Christian records to confirm at least the historical possibility that exceptions were granted. Josephus also gives us significant information…


"Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun."[8]


Josephus was referring to an incident that occurred by the Idumeans during the war. They apparently went on such a killing spree that the aftermath even exceeded the bloody acts of crucifixion itself, where the victims, according to Josephus, were at least given burials by the Jews afterward, yet an act in this case that was disregarded by the Idumeans. Since Romans governed Samaria and Judea, it must be assumed that such crucifixions were under Roman authority. What we're obviously interested in is the fact that Josephus points out crucified victims were indeed granted burials and expressed it as a general rule.

Jewish days and celebrations always began from sundown to sundown -- "going down of the sun" -- instead of midnight to midnight. Josephus was undoubtedly referring to the the Mosaic law of burial (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) that required victims be removed by Jews the same day (sundown) they had deceased, a law that was adhered to by first century Jews, also attested to in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[9] This exactly aligns with all four gospels indicating they had removed Jesus and the other two victims at sundown, which is especially underscored in the gospel of John (19:31).

Therefore, not only were there clear exceptions prior to 70 CE, but Josephus made it a point of emphasis that not even the Romans, nor the Jews under their authority, practiced such degrading deeds as that of the Idumeans when it came to burials, even in the case of crucified victims.

Another critical argument supposes that Romans simply didn't care about allowing Jews to practice their laws and customs. However, this is yet another stark contrast to what we find in the historical records. Craig Evans points out a Roman law in the Digesta that was enforced by Augustus and a protocol followed by the Romans centuries after, which stated...

"The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial."[10]

Evans argues that the Romans did in fact acquiesce to Jewish customs during peacetime periods, if for nothing else, to deter any unnecessary civic disturbances or revolts. Philo not only confirms that Tiberius Caesar, ruling during the time of Jesus, allowed Jews the liberty to adhere to their customs, but records an incident where Tiberius went so far as to angrily castigate Pilate in a written letter for vexing the Jews in regards to their religious laws during an incident that occurred prior to the crucifixion of Jesus.[11] Evans also points out instances where government authorities went out of their way to accommodate Jewish customs in order to keep the peace. A Jewish victim crucified during peacetime just outside the walls of Jerusalem, he states, "would have been expected, even demanded."[12]

Yes, we do have documented records stating there were numerous non-burial situations, but we also have firm documented material insisting that burials of crucifixion criminals were actually a common practice among the Jews that would have obviously required burial exceptions granted by the Romans who ruled over them. We know that when non-burials occurred from those documents, it was the typical mode of practice to leave the victims out indefinitely, which would have made a "three day" resurrection proclamation, which was the earliest traditional proclamation made about Jesus, difficult if not absurd to declare among the same populace even many years later, let alone months later. We also know from those documents that crucifixion was specifically applied to those during wartime situations, who had become of ill repute or a direct threat to the Roman order which doesn't at all apply to Jesus' situation if we compare it to gospel accounts of the incident.


From archeology

There has even been archaeological finds that enhance all this with additional physical evidence. Apparently in Israel, in 1968, the skeletal remains of a crucified young man named Yehohanan was accidentally discovered in a ossuary located in a family tomb at Giv'at ha-Mivtar. Yehohanan still had a nail driven through his skeletal foot with olive wood residue on the nail. Moreover, since the nail was a fluke due to the end being hooked (hitting a knot in the wood) which made it difficult to remove, this indicates that the executioners typically removed the nails from the victims, hence making the odds of this discovery incredible and thus an explanation why such discoveries are rare. However, remarkably, there have been three other such findings.[13]

Scholars estimate a date from 7-70 CE in the case of Yehohanan. Evans proposes a date during the late 20 CE,[14] which would have been under the administration of Pilate. Since Yehohanan's legs were also broken, this appears to substantiate the gospel of John's unique account of the Romans breaking the victims legs to hasten death (John 19:31-32).

The gospels are written ancient works about the death and burial of a first century Jew. Again, it's important to keep in mind that we're not concerned about how Greco-Roman citizens were typically punished by other Greco-Roman citizens, but specifically how burials of Jewish citizens were handled by other Jews in Judea during this time, and whether Greco-Roman authorities allowed this sort of liberty.

Thus, what we can easily conclude from the cumulative historical data is that if burials of crucified Jews by other Jews were not in fact the general rule, which appears likely in light of this data, and indeed Craig agrees, there were, at the very least, numerous exceptions of proper burials allowed for Jewish crucified victims in the era Jesus was crucified, therefore no reason not to give written ancient documents illustrating such a burial the benefit of the doubt. 

The external problems

Though we've established that such burials are historically plausible, skeptics seem to raise the historical bar well above how we typically treat other accounts recorded in ancient literature, especially accounts that are perfectly natural such as a burial. The primary external factor against a tomb legend theory is that it runs directly contrary to what actual extrabiblical textual and physical facts in regards to ancient Jewish burial tell us. The very idea of a Judean tomb burial alone is historical. To argue that the tomb burial was a legend not only presents problems with the foundation of the Christian movement and why and how it began, but the theory is actually less factually viable weighed against what we know of this era. Death and ritual was a very powerful and integral part of first century Judaism. Burial ritualism was much a part of Second Temple Judean culture as cemetery burials have become a part of western culture, yet more so in the case of the former based on entrenched socioreligious beliefs. Archeological excavations confirm that there was no other common form of burial during the Hellenistic periods of the first century. Collective burial in this way was based on rather rigid customs influenced by religious beliefs of uncleanliness, strong Hellenistic ideologies, influences of individualism and individual identity, and even Jewish theology about resurrection. Rachel Hachlili states...


"Burial in a family tomb as well as the importance of individual burial is evident in Jewish burial practices of the late Second Temple period. This is represented in the plan of the loculi tomb, which provides for individual burial of coffins, or ossuaries in loculi, and at the same time allows family members to be buried in the same tomb… The perception of individual burial for the entire population and not just for the upper classes, as in the Israelite period, is probably related to the increasing importance placed on the individual in contemporary Hellenistic society as the whole (Kurtz and Boardman 1971: 273) and to the Jewish belief in the individual resurrection of the body."[15]


In short, burial ritualism was ingrained in first century Jewish culture. Such burials weren't just luxuries of single individuals, but burial grounds discovered of whole families, extended families and even communities. Moreover, tombs were vital to the standard practice of first and second burial procedures. They served as vaults to hold the corpse until after it atrophied; the bones then gathered about a year later and reburied (a practice known as ossilegium) in family ossuaries that were typically grouped together in local niches or loculus (burial plots) either within a separate section of the tomb itself or other local burial places. Dina Teitelbaum states...


"It has been demonstrated by archeological discoveries, backed by rabbinical texts, that the practice of ossilegium in its different forms was the main burial practice during the Second Temple period."[16]


James Charlesworth argues that, since these two burial rituals -- burial of the body and later burial of the bones -- was apparently of such importance, the Jewish court would have been required to provide such burial amenities even to condemned criminals as stated in the Mishnah...


"Bearing in mind the extreme importance that Second Temple era Jews attached to burials, one might ask: how did the Jewish legal code treat felons who were sentenced to death by a Jewish court? Would these felons lose their burial and spiritual rights? The m. Sanh. 6:5-6 is very clear: 'and they did not bury him in his ancestors' tombs but two grave yards were installed for the court; one for those who were executed by sword or strangulation and one for those who were executed by stoning and burning. And after the flesh was completely decayed they collected the bones and buried them in their proper places.'"[17]


He goes on to make a strong case to support his argument that the Jewish courts would have had an obligation to publicly provide such a service.

The body of this particular first century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, had to be placed somewhere, thus dismissing the gospel accounts of Jesus' tomb burial as a legend within this historical context becomes about as far-reaching as dismissing a casket burial found in the obituaries as a fabricated legend in the 21st century culture. It would not only make it a more improbable approach to hold suspicion of a casket burial since this is the typical burial norm of the 21st century western world, but it would become even less reasonable to outrightly dismiss the written report describing it on top of that, especially in face of lesser evidence supporting any other option used to discard the body, how the body was finally disposed or how it should have been disposed.

Gospel story aside, even if all we had was Paul's letter stating that Jesus had been buried and nothing more (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), or even no statement of burial at all, the protocol of burial in and around Judea of the first century leads to the only reasonable conclusion within the context of archeological and extrabiblical written evidence that Jesus' body, as a Jewish citizen of Judea killed in Jerusalem, was most likely stored in preparation of the second burial even without the gospel story illustrating it.

Therefore, in light of the historical externals, to dismiss direct illustrations written from this era that accurately portray this type of burial as pure fiction is far more vacuous than to just accept the burial from the written material prima facie. In other words, the illustration in the gospels of Jesus' burial is a perfectly natural account, thus should be taken at face value even before we compare it to other sources, which is typically how historians treat such accounts. And since it perfectly aligns with first century Jewish history in regards to burial, it becomes far more unreasonable and even unhistorical at this point and perhaps a direct exemplification of skeptical bias to disregard the burial description as a fabrication.

The internal problems

In light of textual criticism, since two of the oldest copied manuscripts we have of the gospel of Mark, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus that date around the fourth century, don't include anything after chapter 16:8, it is believed by scholars that the original gospel of Mark actually ended there, and all other subsequent verses (16:9-20) were added sometime likely in the second century by an interpolator, thus spurious. This is important to note since tomb legend theorists are all basically presupposed to Markan priority, or that Mark was written first in the four gospel order. Robert Stein brought up some pretty interesting points about the validity of the tomb story,[18] that the story is not only enshrouded with primitive and Judaic elements that suggest a pre-70 tradition, but elements that would have put the tradition at a disadvantage in face of early evangelism and theology as a fabricated story:


  1. In an ancient Near East culture that deemed women unreliable witnesses and second class citizens, particularly on issues of religion (much like the Near East Islamic environments of today; discussed here: The Evangelists, The Judaic embarrassment), fabricating women discovering the empty tomb while the early pillars of the church were cowering in fear is highly unlikely since it was a negative factor to evangelism in this culture (which is especially problematic for those who assume Mark was written first, since his gospel ends with no resurrection appearances, thus no real vindication or resolution to this problem).
  2. Joseph of Arimathea is improbable as a fictional character and as the last witness and handler of Jesus' corpse since he is one of the least iconic early Christian figures (he's not mentioned anywhere else before or after in any first century canon work). He is an ambiguous figure in the earliest Christian tradition, thus a person not readily familiar or one we could trust. As a fabricated legend, particularly an evolving one, we would expect someone else who was known and trusted to validate the legitimacy of the burial, particularly within a culture where eyewitness accounts gave exceptional legitimacy to such events.
  3. The indication that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) or at least a Jew of official capacity who had access to Pilate suggests a legitimate account since this is historically accurate of Judean burial protocol, including Jews convicted of a crime.[19] According to first century Jewish burial custom, Jesus would have either been buried by family members -- an honorable attribution to him -- or it would have been the task of the Sanhedrin -- a dishonorable attribution to him as a criminal. Not only is it less likely that this accuracy was a dumb accident or a result of crafty calculation, but it's even less probable that these stories would have been silent about the role of his family in the burial if it were fabricated, since this was an extremely important social and cultural factor of burial (more detail about the shame aspect in a bit). 
  4. The overall accuracy of Jewish ritualism described of the burial and anointing of the corpse,[20] as well as the rush of removal and burial described in the gospels all coincide with rabbinic writings that advocated such prompt burial procedures.[21]
  5. All four gospels use the phrase "the first day of the week" -- the day the tomb was discovered empty after the weekly Sabbath at sundown Saturday (see Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). This is in contrast with "on the third day" that became the standard Christian motif grafted into the resurrection creed later. "The first day of the week" apparently even postdates Paul's letter to the Corinthians (15:4) and his use of the later "on the third day" declaration. This highly suggests a tradition that is not just Semitic in nature but primitive, as opposed to a later invention post-70 or around that period. 
  6. The empty tomb was not the key factor in the narratives itself that convinced his followers he had risen, something we would expect to have been a polemic force behind their faith and conviction if it was invented for that reason, which actually causes potential difficulties as a result of their doubt. It would have opened the door to natural explanations of grave theft or secret removal, and once again, is especially damning to those who hold the view that Mark was the earliest gospel since there were no resurrection appearances in his gospel to solve this problem or add visual impact to drive the fact that the empty tomb was indeed a miracle. In other words, even if Mark was written first, this problem of an irreconcilable body disappearance suggests that Mark was taking an earlier resurrection tradition that included a tomb burial for granted instead of creating this as an invention from scratch or even embellishing it to suit his purpose.   


I added some of my own internal elements to Stein's list. Not only do the externals counter the tomb legend theory, but the internals additionally make it even less probable as an embellishment, much less a tomb burial fabrication from pure scratch

The Pauline resurrection Creed

Some critics have even argued that Paul uses a different word for Jesus' burial. Though Paul does not specifically mention a tomb, he recognized that Jesus had been buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)


"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also...."


Why didn't Paul specifically mention an actual tomb burial? I'll cover that in a bit. However, even though we've confirmed that a tomb burial is historical, the problem these critics raise is how certain we can be that the word "burial" Paul used also meant being buried in a tomb and not some separate word used for a different burial? The Greek word for "burial" used by Paul is thapto and is not used at all by the gospel writers to describe what happened to Jesus, which isn't surprising since the word "burial" itself is not a common word used in the New Testament. But of the eleven times it is used in scripture, there are a few interesting instances that stand out...


Luke 16:22 "Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried (thapto)."

Acts 2:29 "Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried (thapto), and his tomb is with us to this day."


Matthew 23:27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs (taphos) which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."


In the first instance, the rich man was undoubtedly placed in a tomb or sepulcher because he would have typically owned one. Nonetheless, since the parable neither mentions a tomb or a grave, the word was obviously used in a general burial sense that we can presume referred to a tomb burial. We can clearly see in the second instance that it was used to describe a tomb burial, so the word thapto that Paul used was clearly a general burial term that could have included a tomb burial (I'll discuss Paul's tomb silence in a bit). However, in the latter passage found in the gospel of Matthew, the Greek word "tombs" or "sepulchre" is taphos, which is directly derived from the word thapto.[22]  

The silent tomb

Now that I've thoroughly addressed the historical factors, both internal and external, and why there is good factual evidence for the tomb burial of Jesus, I'll focus on an argument that tomb legend theorists use to prop up this theory. It's an argument from silence and a seriously flawed one that actually backfires in favor of a tomb burial, especially now that we understand the historical intricacies. As I previously pointed out, Paul does not mention a tomb anywhere in his works. Though he did indeed mention that Jesus was "buried," he did not specifically mention a tomb…

1 Corinthians 15:3-4 "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."


There is no denying the fact that not one canon epistle writer, Paul, Peter, John, James, or Jude ever specifically mention a tomb burial anywhere in their letters (ironically, the latter four epistles are debated by some as being pseudonyms written much later, so the critic who sponsors this belief is actually bound by their own argument to just one epistle writer in this case -- Paul!). And this is the argument that convinces me tomb legend theorists are merely grasping at straws for the sole sake of an opposing argument, because this presumed silence is where the theory becomes rather absurd.

They argue that if the tomb had been a known fact from the beginning, it would have at least been mentioned somewhere in the epistles, especially in Paul's Corinthian creed that predates even Paul's letter. Therefore, they argue, since it was not mentioned by the earlier sources, we can conclude that the tomb was a gospel invention subsequent to these sources.

Before anything else, I should point out that, though the apostle Peter confirmed Jesus was killed and bodily raised when he preached on the day of Pentecost in Acts, and even subtlety hinted at an empty tomb by comparing Jesus' death and resurrection to David's "still occupied" tomb, Peter also did not directly point out Jesus' empty tomb (see Acts 2:22-32). It is not necessary to suppose this scene was an invention on Luke's part, the writer of Acts, because this was the same writer who explicitly illustrated the empty tomb in his previous work, the gospel of Luke, which would have made this somewhat uncharacteristic of the previous work as a fiction.

If we suppose Peter's speech was just fiction, then we could suppose the fiction artist (Luke) would have followed a logical pattern that he doesn't follow. Even if Luke/Acts was written as a single unit, which is speculative, the inventor might still have been naturally inclined to follow the trend of his previous work (gospel of Luke) and incorporate such details into his following work (Acts) for emphasis and consistency. In other words, had Luke invented Peter's speech, he would have likely recapped some of the essentials he had described in his previous work to add impact to a speech that was such a pivotal part of Acts. Example...


Acts 2:22-24: "Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But [his tomb was found empty after] God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death [and/or the tomb] to keep its hold on him".


The information in bold brackets is what I added as an example of information we might expect to have been included had this speech by Peter in Acts been invented by Luke. Luke did in fact have a habit of recalling information in his second work from his first. Examples of this is how he recapped things in his subsequent work like the ascension (Acts 1:9-12, 2:34), recorded in his gospel (Luke 24:50-51); the involvement of the women (Acts 1:14), recorded in his gospel (Luke 24:9-10); Herod's and Pilate's involvement with Jesus' trial (Acts 4:27), also recorded in his previous work (Luke 23:7-12); the fact Jesus actually ate meals with them post-resurrection (Luke 24:41-43), also recalled in his second work (Acts 10:41). What's even starker is the fact Luke does recall the tomb later in his second work within a speech made by Paul, in fact, pretty much rehashes the complete resurrection scenario from his first gospel work...


Acts 13:28-31 "And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed. When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. But God raised Him from the dead; and for many days He appeared to those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now His witnesses to the people."


Compare this later speech that was made by Paul to the earlier one made by Peter. If Luke was willing to go into detail in the latter speech by Paul, it seems highly unlikely he would have skipped mentioning the tomb burial in the earlier speech by Peter Luke supposedly made up. Peter's speech in Luke's narrative is the most pivotal event of the Christian faith, essentially the birth of Christian evangelism. It doesn't make much sense that Luke failed to mention the empty tomb in the speech made by Peter, which was the very spark of the movement at Jerusalem, yet mention it later in a speech made by Paul unless Luke was not inventing these speeches but actually keeping the speeches as accurately as possible (either during the time they were made or from memory). In light of the firm probability that Peter's speech is genuine, this suggests a couple of other things:


  1. Peter himself took for granted that the empty tomb was already known to the crowds he directed this speech to at the time of Pentecost (about a month later; in contrast to Paul's speech that would have occurred many years after the proclaimed resurrection and wasn't as well known during that time Paul gave the speech).
  2. In those days, when a particular death was a topic of discussion in Judea, a tomb burial was taken for granted, as there was no other type of burial Judean citizens would have assumed of the body of a Jew (which is supported by the external facts I discussed earlier).


Though A is speculative, B indeed reflects the situation with Paul and why he excluded mention of a tomb in his Corinthian letter. Like Peter, there was nothing extraordinarily unusual about Paul not detailing the empty tomb to this culture anymore than if we were to mention to someone that we just buried a loved one, yet left out details about what the casket looked like, that they were even buried in a casket and that it was buried in a cemetery. These elements are naturally assumed in the "burial" equation in our culture, just as a tomb burial of a first century Jew in Judea would have been assumed by the Corinthians.

But the most important aspect to consider here is that the Corinthian church wasn't a crowd of unbelievers that never heard or accepted the gospel story. The Corinthian church was already an established church Paul had founded before he wrote the letter, which is what actually makes the argument from silence in this case, and those who would think to use it as a case to support a tomb legend theory beyond absurd.

The tomb of shame

Since we know Pilate had no animosity towards Jesus, nor was Jesus personally indicted for any personal or grave offense against the Roman order such as an open rebellion that resulted in casualties, we showed earlier that there is good evidence to confirm the authenticity of Pilate handing over the body to Joseph of Arimathea. Pilate may not have cared whether Jesus was properly buried as a Jew or not but the Jews certainly did, and Pilate would have cared about appeasing Tiberius who permitted the Jews to freely practice their customs. What gives the story even more historical legitimacy is the fact that Joseph was likely a Jewish authority who was assigned to the task of burying the victim.

Even though we now know that Jesus was not denied a proper burial by Roman authority, this still doesn't mean that a shameful burial would not have been enforced by the Jewish authorities, in fact, ancient rabbinic records firmly support the fact that this was indeed mandatory. A criminal convicted by the Sanhedrin would have been buried in a shameful way, but this did not exclude burial (this was something they obviously could not avoid as per their own law: Deuteronomy 21:22-23) in addition to the purification customs of burial, such as anointing the body. A shameful burial wasn't denying a tomb burial of the body but was reflected in the ritualistic and symbolic events surrounding the burial. We get clear glimpses of this from ancient rabbinic writings...


"The one executed was not buried in the cemetery of his parents, but two cemeteries were prepared by the court, one for those who were slain with a sword and choked, and one for those who were stoned and burned. After the flesh of the corpse was consumed, the relatives gathered the bones and buried them in their right place. And the relatives came, and greeted in peace the judges, as well as the witnesses, to show they had nothing in their heart against them, as the judgment was just. The relatives also did not lament for him loudly, but mourned in their heart."[23] 


Again, corpses were stored in tombs or holding vaults where the body atrophied, the bones then collected later and placed in ossuaries and this was apparently allowed even for those condemned crucified criminals, evident by the discovery of the remains of Yehohanan (discussed earlier). What could have been shameful about such a burial if it was in a tomb and proper anointing customs of the body were carried out? According to the above quote, the hint of ritual dishonor was disallowing those to mourn for the victim and disallowing the victim to be buried with and by his kin. Hachlili points out the importance of the family unit in first century society and that being buried by and with one's family was tantamount to a family's standing within the community...


"The importance of the family, combined with that of the individual in his family and society, is evident in the Jewish funerary practices of the period."[24]


Craig Evans points out that the only honorable burial consisted of these two very critical elements, and that this custom is evident from ancient Jewish sources...


"From the Hebrew bible through rabbinic literature, dishonorable Jewish burial meant two things: burial away from the family tomb, and burial rites without rites of mourning… When tended to their dead in this way, Jews were doing more than simply disposing of a body and dealing with their grief; they were also making a symbolic statement about their most basic cultural norms and values."[25]


As I mentioned earlier, and though we do hold some semblance of honor towards burial of our dead even today, the ritual of mourning and burial with one's ancestry isn't anywhere near as customarily significant as it was to the ancients, particularly to an ancient Jew. Thousands of archeological excavations of family loculus tombs throughout Israel consisting of many relatives buried together affirms how prevalent and important it was to this culture.[26] In the Old Testament we see burials and mourning as ways of expressing honor quite starkly (examples: Genesis 25:8-10; Numbers 20:29; 1 Samuel 25:1; 1 Kings 2:10; 1 Chronicles 10:12), in contrast to burials that were expressed as dishonorable (examples: Job 27:13-15; Ezekiel 24:16-23; Isaiah 14:18-20).

Joseph of Arimathea was not a family member even though some have proposed a theory that he was Jesus' uncle, and even though it adds the burden of extensive information here, I should probably take some time to examine this fallacious tradition closely and where it exactly started.

Was Joseph of Arimathea Jesus' uncle?

The defining factor against the theory of the Joseph of Arimathea/Jesus relation is that there is no early source that acknowledges this tradition. The canon gospels don't so much as even imply any relation of Joseph of Arimathea to Jesus. None of the church fathers -- Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement II, Jerome, Tertullian, Eusebius, Origen, Augustine, John Chrysostom -- from the second to the fourth century acknowledge any such tradition, even though most of them mention Joseph of Arimathea quite extensively in their writings.

Papias, the earliest source, actually gives a brief ancestry of Mary and does in fact point out that Mary had a sister, yet does not acknowledge Joseph as a relative. Indeed, one could make the argument from silence accusation in his case since we don't actually have Papias' full work, just fragmented quotes.[27]

However, John Chrysostom, as late as the 4th century gives a rather lengthy commentary on Joseph of Arimathea with no acknowledgment of any such tradition even in his era.[28] Most notable is the fact that none of the apocryphal gospels, dating to the second century or later, acknowledge any such tradition, and yet these works are some of the most relevant sources when it comes to progressive legendary Christian tradition and fiction.

The Protevangelium of James goes into great detail about young Mary and Joseph (Jesus' father) before the birth of Jesus (which seems to be a legend inspired by Luke's illustration of Zacharias and Elizabeth -- 1:5-25), yet does not acknowledge this tradition.[29]

The Gospel of Peter, which gives more attention to the burial than even the canon gospels, does not mention this tradition.[30]

The Gospel of Nicodemus, which probably gives the most attention to Joseph of Arimathea, does not acknowledge this tradition. This is also despite the fact it illustrates a feud Joseph has with the religious authorities for placing the body of Jesus in a new tomb. This disobedience was Joseph's way of castigating them for crucifying Jesus in the first place. The work even includes a resurrection appearance of Jesus to Joseph afterward.[31]

Even though we find no early support for this tradition, there have been no shortage of books from the 20th century to today that use this as a premise to spin a variety of theories from royal bloodlines, secret societies, marriage cover-ups, hidden religious relics and church conspiracies about Jesus and his supposed relatives, as well as their ties to British royalty, including a very prominent tradition about Joseph traveling to Britain after the resurrection where he builds a church and evangelizes throughout the countryside. Though most of these claims have received quite a bit of scorn from the scholarly world, I won't go into much detail about the veracity of the latter claim, mainly because even Laurence Gardner, a rather staunch proponent of these theories, admits that they're all based on Byzantine traditions and legends no earlier than the 9th century.[32] Needless to say, such late tradition from the 9th century is obviously irrelevant to Judeo-Christianity of the first century, particularly when there is no support of any relation of Joseph to Jesus up to that century.

Thus, not only is the tradition not found in the canon New Testament, not acknowledged by any of the early church fathers, but is not found reflected in any of the early apocryphal legendary works, including works that exclusively focused on Joseph.

The proponents of the theory also claim they find support from the Talmud where it supposedly states that Joseph of Arimathea was the brother of Mary's father, making him Mary's uncle and Jesus' great uncle. The Talmud would be a source that interests me if I could substantiate it, however, though there are many Internet sites claiming the Talmud states this, none of them give any specific citations, thus I have not found any reference from the Talmud myself that verifies this to be true (in fact, I'm close to doubting any such citation even exists!). But even assuming it does exist, not only is the Talmud a rather shaky source in and of itself when it comes to any references to Jesus ("Yeshu") because of its vagueness, at times incoherent and inaccurate descriptions of Yeshu, in addition to its anti-Christian rhetoric and animosity towards him, but when such a claim is coupled with the 9th century traditions of Joseph of Arimathea's travels to the west, it falls completely apart just based on logic itself.

For example, if we assume Mary was between 13-18 years of age when she became impregnated with Jesus, at the time of the crucifixion she would have been somewhere between 43-54, assuming Jesus was about 30-36. If Joseph was Mary's brother, we could assume he was about her age, bare minimum, probably much more so if he was Joseph's brother. The problem here is that the more than 700 year old tradition that touts this relation between Joseph and Jesus also states Joseph left Jerusalem for Europe some 30 years later after the 70 CE war.[33] So, are we to suppose that Joseph was around 73-87 when he made his journey to the west to build a church and evangelize? These numbers would be off the chart assuming Joseph was Jesus' great uncle. It's not even logically feasible.

Another interesting thing to note is that in the gospel of John, Jesus leaves custody of his mother into the hands of "the disciple" standing with her at the crucifixion site (John 19:26-27). Tradition holds that this was John the disciple himself, though nothing really to substantiate this other than circumstantial evidence. However, this was unlikely Joseph of Arimathea because John goes on to formally introduce Joseph seemingly for the first time after this event (John 19:38). If we assume Joseph was the uncle who reared Jesus as the legend claims, in addition to being a man of wealth as the canon scriptures claim, why wouldn't he have been the likely choice of Jesus to care for his mother, and why wasn't Joseph mentioned anywhere else in the gospel stories prior?

It's safe to conclude that we can pretty much dismiss the Joseph of Arimathea/Jesus relation tradition outrightly, not only based on logic and probability that work against it, but lack of any early source references supporting it.

Criminally buried

This then takes us back to the issue of a shameful burial. Three of the canon gospels (see Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-51; John 19:38) point out that Joseph of Arimathea was either a member of the Sanhedrin and/or a Jewish official of some capacity. This is historically accurate of a dishonorable burial we would expect, as was pointed out earlier, and likely why such a mysterious stranger, whom we know nothing about prior nor is part of the story anywhere else, would have been delegated to this duty. Since we know the court disallowed family members to bury the corpse, it stands to reason the court had members assigned to that duty. As was also previously discussed, not only had rigid burial ritualism become an integral part of first century Jewish culture but great precedence was placed on the rite of mourning, which lasted for many days, sometimes weeks.[34] Honoring the dead through visible mourning was sometimes more important than honoring the living. Josephus indicates strangers who happened to come even in the vicinity of a funeral procession were obligated to take part in the activity.[35]

Clearly the canon gospel authors weren't ignorant of this type of funerary ritual and knew how to clearly illustrate this during other burial accounts (see Mark 5:35-38; John 11:14-36: Acts 8:2). None of the canon gospels describe any form of mourning or funerary ritual attributed to the burial of Jesus nor give any hints that it was handled by relatives, as I pointed out earlier, and we could assume that had any of this activity taken place, the authors would have gladly recorded this information since it was such a cultural importance to do so. In light of this, it's certainly no accident that none of the gospel authors record Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the burial site with the other women that were recorded.

Interestingly, Evans also points out that the second century apocryphal Gospel of Peter underscores this by embellishments with the intent to lesson the dishonor; such as the women, after being prevented the customary rites of mourning by the Jews, vow in defiance to perform such rites after the Sabbath.[36] Other scholars point out quite a few hints and clues of Jesus' burial throughout the gospels that imply a dishonorable burial, all of which are perfectly aligned with this ancient custom.[37]

Some scholars also propose that three of the gospels may have even tried to disguise this by having him placed in a "new tomb" (see Matthew 27:59-60; Luke 23:53; John 19:41). Personally, I don't think a "new tomb" needs to be supposed as an embellishment here. Mark does not mention a new tomb at all, thus the "new tomb" account comes from three relatively independent sources, suggesting a firm position of legitimacy, particularly between Matthew and Luke.

Matthew states that it was Joseph's own tomb, but of course he does not indicate any relation to Jesus. Though this may have been Matthew's only way to alleviate the problem without crossing the acceptable boundaries of distorting the facts, it's more likely he was emphasizing Jesus as the servant prophesied in Isaiah 53:9. In any event, according to David Daube and Josef Blinzler, assuming it was an attempted embellishment still would do nothing to downplay the cultural significance of the embarrassment of the burial circumstances whether it was Joseph's own tomb or just a new tomb.[38]

One thing is clear, if we suppose the authors were willing to embellish a fact of Jesus' history so as to eliminate the shame, then a family burial and mourning would have been just as easily embellished. If this was an invented legend from scratch, as the tomb legend theory supposes, a burial with his kin and mourning would have been a natural inevitability. It's much easier to suppose they recorded a historical event that reflected both negatively on Jesus' burial yet recorded it without attempting to significantly alter the negative elements for more favorable ones because it was true, than to assume it was invented or embellished that way.

Now, perhaps it's no wonder the tomb burial was kept silent among early Christians. Being executed in one of the most repugnant ways possible was bad enough, but having to deal with a shameful burial that segregated him from his kin on top of that would have been a detail better left forgotten in this culture and something hardly worth aggrandizing or given any special attention.



What we've established about Jesus' tomb burial is as follows:


  • It meets the criterion of multiple attestation in both canon and apocrypha works, and is the most attested account in early Christian tradition, probably second only to the crucifixion.
  • The tomb burial corroborates with extrabiblical historical documentation and archeology in regards to first century Jewish burial protocol; it is far more historically improbable within this context a proper Jewish burial didn't occur.
  • Internal clues and subtle hints surrounding the recorded event make it extremely improbable it was invented from whole cloth, or that it was even embellished later.
  • One of the primary arguments used by the proponents to support the legend theory -- i.e. silence of a tomb burial in the epistle writers -- is an extremely weak argument from silence that disregards logical explanations for the silence.
  • The details of Jesus' burial accurately portray a shameful burial of a condemned criminal, thus highly improbable it was fabricated that way or even embellished later.


So, now that we've established that the tomb burial account of Jesus is legitimate, we can move on to other factors surrounding the resurrection account itself.


Click here for Part III, or here to go home


Source References

1. Tacitus, The Annals, book 6, section 6.29 (

2. Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith, p.18; 1995.

3. Catharine Edwards, Death in Ancient Rome, pp.120-121; 2007. 

4. Suetonius, The Life of Augustus, section 13:1-2 (

    Horace, The Meaning of Goodness, book 1, Epistle XVI, section 46-79 (

5. Petronius, Satyricon, section 111 (

6. Eusebius, Church History, book 5, chap. 1:61-63 ( 

7. Philo, Against Flaccus, X. 83 (

8. Josephus, War of the Jews, book 4, chap. 5:2 (

9. Craig A. Evans, Josephus on Crucifixion and Burial (

10. Evans, Roman Law According to the Digesta.

11. Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.299 (

12. Evans, Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus (pdf), p.7; 2005.

13. Times, A Death in Jerusalem, 1/18/71 (

      Jodi Magness, What Did Jesus’ Tomb Look Like? (pdf), p.12; 2007.

      In regards to three other skeletal remains found see: Evans, Josephus on Crucifixion and Burial.

14. Evans, Jewish, p.8-9.

15. Rachel Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, p.301-302; 2005.

      Byron R. McCane, Roll Back the Stone, p.29-40; 2003.

      Bruce Chilton, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, p. 442-444; 2002.

      Also see: Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (Jewish Publication Society); 2002 (

16. Dina Teitelbaum, The Relationship between Ossuan, Burial and the Belief in Resurrection, (pdf) p.69; 1997. 

17. James H. Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family?, pp.416-417; 2013.

18. Robert H Stein, Was the Tomb Really Empty? (html) (

19. Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: the earliest Christian tradition and its interpreters, p.357-363; 2005.

20. Judah D. Eisenstein, Object of Washing (

21. McCane, Roll, p.31.

22. NAS Exhaustive Concordance (

23. Tractate Sanhedrin, chap. VI (

24. Hachlili, Funerary, p.302.

25. Evans,  The Historical Jesus: Jesus' mission, death, and Resurrection, p.259-261; 2004.

26. Chilton, Authenticating, p. 443-444.

27. Papias, Fragments X (

28. John Chrysostom, Homily on the Gospel of John, Homily 85: John 19:38 (

29. The Protevangelium of James (

30. The Gospel of Peter (

31. The Gospel of Nicodemus (

32. Laurence Gardner, Bloodline of the Holy Grail, p.119; 2004.

33. Gardner, ibid., p.118.

34. McCane, Roll, pp.37-38.

35. Josephus, Against Apion, book 2:27 (

36. Evans, Historical, p.265.

37. Chilton, Authenticating, p. 448-449.

38. Chilton, ibid., p.448.