Did the Early Christians Even Believe the Tomb Was Empty?

Yesterday, we discussed the significance of the women finding the empty tomb, today, we're going to look at whether or not the early church actually believed in the empty tomb.

Just the women finding the empty tomb may not be convincing enough for some, so more evidence should be discussed. The early date at which the tomb was reported as empty is another great piece of evidence. It is apparent that the belief in a bodily resurrection, and thus an empty tomb, actually predates the written gospel accounts. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 the Apostle Paul writes,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (ESV).

Here we see a creed of the early Christian church, mainly that Jesus died, he was buried, he was resurrected, and then he appeared to many people. 1 Corinthians is dated at around A.D. 55,[1] making it earlier than the gospel accounts, and thus the creed which Paul references can be dated even earlier than A.D. 55. Most scholars, including skeptical ones, agree that this creed has a very early date of origin. Atheist New Testament Scholar Gerd Lüdemann writes, “[T]he elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus . . . not later than three years . . . the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 CE.”[2] This is an extremely early account supporting the empty tomb hypothesis. Skeptics might point out that the creed does not actually mention the empty tomb and is therefore inadmissible in this particular discussion, however, that would be a rash and improper decision. As N.T. Wright points out, “The fact that the empty tomb itself, so prominent in the gospel accounts, does not appear to be specifically mentioned in this passage, is not significant; the mention here of ‘buried then raised’ no more needs to be amplified in that way than one would need to amplify the statement ‘I walked down the street’ with the qualification ‘on my feet.’”[3] Essentially, mentioning the empty tomb in that line of events would have been redundant.

Some might claim, however, that the word resurrection might not have implied a bodily resurrection and therefore would not have implied an empty tomb. In response, Dr. Michael Licona writes, “However, we may ask, why even mention Jesus' burial if his resurrection was not bodily?[4] The mention of his burial implies that the resurrection was a bodily resurrection, which suggests an empty tomb. Licona continues, “Those who posit that the earliest Christians had a different understanding of resurrection bear the burden of proof.[5] Nothing in the biblical texts suggests that the early Christians believed in some spiritual or ethereal resurrection. In fact, the gospel writers report that post-resurrection, Jesus showed his Disciples his physical wounds (Jn 20:20, Lk 24:39), allowed Thomas to touch his physical wounds (Jn 20:27-28), and ate fish with his Disciples (Lk 24:41-43).  Again, if one wanted to claim that the early Christians did not believe in a bodily resurrection, he would bear a large burden of proof.

In conclusion, Paul cites an early Christian creed, even earlier than the written gospels, which mentions a physical burial and resurrection, which implies an empty tomb. This shows that the early Christians believed in an empty tomb, which, coupled with the women witnesses, provides good evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.  

 

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"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7, ESV).


What important elements are included in this early creed?

What important is missing [hint: think about yesterday's post]. Why do you think it was left out?

How does the early Christians' belief in the empty tomb affect your faith today?


[1] D.A. Carson, and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005, 448.

[2] Quoted in Paul Rezkalla. “4 Reasons to Believe in the Empty Tomb.” Accessed May 15, 2015. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-reasons-to-believe-in-the-empty-tomb.

[3] N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Vol. 3. Fortress Press, 2003, 321. 

[4] Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010, Kindle Locations 3376. 

[5] Ibid., Kindle Locations 3381-3382.