The Resurrection: Is the Fact that Women Found Jesus' Tomb Empty Important?

With Easter coming this weekend, I thought it would be a good idea to explore the resurrection of Jesus from an apologetic perspective and try to answer the question, "Can we, as Christians, have good reasons to believe that the tomb where Jesus' dead body lay was empty on Easter?"

I think we can answer the question in the affirmative, so, this week, you'll receive a new post to your inbox each morning with a study on the resurrection. These have been adapted from a paper I wrote a few years ago.

Today's study discusses the role of the women at the tomb. Enjoy! 

Is the Fact that Women Found Jesus' Tomb Empty Important?

A claim that all of the canonical gospel writers make is that women, Mary Magdalene in particular, found the tomb that Jesus was buried in empty (Mk 16:1-8, Mt 28:5-6, Lk 24:1-7, Jn 20:1-2). This discovery by women and subsequent report to the disciples might seem insignificant, however, the fact that the gospel writers recorded this supports the historicity of the claim. As Philosopher and Theologian William Lane Craig writes, “Probably no other factor has proved so persuasive to scholars of the empty tomb's historicity as the role of the female witnesses.”(1)  Simply put, the women finding the empty tomb is a vital piece of the narrative, especially for modern scholarship.

When a historian attempts to validate the historicity of a particular event, he uses a set of criteria. One of these criteria is the criterion of embarrassment, and it is especially relevant to this topic. The criterion of embarrassment states that if the writer of a particular document includes details that may have been embarrassing to his story (or himself), it is probably truthful.(2) 

The gospel writers’ report that the women found the empty tomb fulfills this criterion because, in the first century, men viewed women as unintelligent and untrustworthy, so much so that they were typically not even permitted to testify in a trial.(3) So, it follows that the reason why the four gospel writers report women finding the empty tomb is that it was probably the truth because it did not help to advance their story and may have been detrimental to it. New Testament scholar Michael Licona writes, “Why fabricate a report of Jesus' resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe, and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses?”(4)  If they were making up the story about the empty tomb, then men finding it would have been an easier, wiser, and more believable choice; especially because of the culture in which the narrative took place.   

Some skeptics, however, do not find this convincing. Research Professor of Theology and Religion Dr. Deane Galbraith explains that women finding the tomb would not be evidence of historicity because women were not viewed the way Christian apologists might lead one to believe. He writes, “The role of women in the post-resurrection narrative is not surprising, but to be expected.”(5) Then, he points to the biblical stories in which women were the heroes, like Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Jael, and Judith. Citing Maurice Casey’s argumentation in his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” Galbraith continues in his critique by pointing out that a woman’s status in a trial was irrelevant to the empty tomb narrative because their report was to other Christians and not to a dissenting party.(6) Galbraith’s objection to the women finding the empty tomb is that it would not be embarrassing because women were not devalued as much as some would believe. He also maintains that even if their testimony were to be rejected in a courtroom, it is irrelevant because their message was not in a courtroom, but instead amongst their Christian peers.
In response to the first objection, while it's true that many stories in the Bible featured heroic women (like those mentioned above), that does not negate the fact that a woman’s testimony was not seen as generally reliable. This might show that God, who inspired the Bible (according to orthodox Christian beliefs), and some of the Biblical writers, believed that women could be heroic and trustworthy, but it does not show that Jewish men placed a high value on the testimony of women. Instead, given some of the writings in the Talmud (a collection of Jewish writings expanding on the law) and other ancient Jewish texts,(7) the contrary is more likely to be true. 

Some might add to Galbraith’s objection that it would have made the most sense to have women finding the tomb empty since they were the ones responsible for anointing the body. This is also why Galbraith writes that the women’s presence at the tomb would have been “expected.”(8)  Licona dismisses this argument, “This does not square with the Gospels’ testimony that Joseph of Arimathea and/or Nicodemus prepared the body for burial with a substantial amount of spices before the women's visit.”(9)  

Galbraith and other skeptics also miss the crucial detail that the early Christians were evangelistic; they were sharing their faith with everyone. Jesus’ command to take his message to all peoples in Matthew 28:19-20 was taken seriously by the early Christians, and thus every detail of their story was important. Knowing that they were evangelistic tells us that if they were crafting up a story about how the tomb was empty, men finding the empty tomb would be much more acceptable to non-believers (since men were viewed as more trustworthy) than women. 
One should also consider how the other New Testament texts treat the story of the women finding the empty tomb. Licona writes, “The women witnesses, including Mary Magdalene, are omitted from the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7…and from the kerygmatic summaries in Acts.”(10) If it were something that the early church leaders made up, and it was not embarrassing, then why wouldn’t it be included in the early creeds and the kerygmas? This does not fit with the objectors claim that women were held in high esteem due to the woman heroes in the biblical stories. 

Furthermore, the Disciples themselves did not initially believe the women’s testimony. Licona writes, "And even after Jesus' resurrection is reported to them, they are incredulous (Lk 24:11). Thus there is a double-embarrassment factor present, since the women serve as both witnesses and as the recipients of divine revelation while the men are presented as thickheaded. These are not the kind of reports one invents in order to boost confidence in church leadership."(11)

So, the women finding the empty tomb is a uniquely significant event in the gospel narratives, and help to build the case for the reliability of the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. 

On its own, however, the fact that the women found the empty tomb isn't quite enough to build a convincing case for the resurrection. 

Tomorrow, we'll be talking about the early Christians' belief in the empty tomb. First, however, take some time to read our selected passage and reflect on the question.

Matthew 28:1-8, ESV.

1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

God uses unlikely candidates to accomplish his purposes. In the first century middle east, the most unlikely witnesses for arguably the most significant event in human history were women. God used them and now their story helps to build a convincing case for the resurrection of Jesus. What about the above verses stands out to you today? What is God calling you to do with his message? 

Today, take some time to thank God for the Christians who recorded his word and for the women who told the other disciples about the empty tomb. 


(1) “Dale Allison On Jesus’ Empty Tomb, His Post-Mortem Appearances, and the Origin of the Disciples | Reasonable Faith.” Accessed May 05, 2015.

(2) William Lane Craig. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. (Colorado Springs: Cook, 2010), 194-195.

(3) See M Rosh Ha-Shanah 1.8

(4) Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010, Kindle Locations 3526-3527.

(5)(6)(8) Galbraith, Deane. “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? Casey on Jesus (6) - Women Witnesses to the Empty Tomb and Their Significance.” Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Accessed May 13, 2015.

(7) Joseph Flavius Josephus. “Antiquities of the Jews.” In IV 8.15.

(9); (10); (11) Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010, Kindle Locations 3567-3568; 3533-3535; 3559-3561