A few days ago Philip Jenkins posed the question: “Why did the New Testament writers, outside of the four gospels, remain silent about the empty tomb of Jesus?” He asked the question seeking an honest answer because…
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.
As I have thought some about this question, I have come up with a few ideas as to why the silence.
- Could it be that no mention of an empty tomb was due to the early NT writers not needing it as an apologetic defense? Paul, for example, is writing to specific churches and addressing specific needs. Is it possible that objective evidence of the resurrection via the empty tomb was not a concern?
- Along the same thought as the above comment, could it be that the concerns of the early church were not of the miraculous resurrection but of the meaning of it? In other words, the issue was not the empty tomb. Everyone knew the tomb was empty. The issue was why? It might be that the issue was not defending the resurrection as much as defending it’s meaning along with the person and work of Christ.
- On the other hand, is not the empty tomb implied? If Jesus is alive and the disciples saw him, does this not indicate an empty tomb? Instead of writing the tomb is empty, they wrote, That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—(1 John 1:1-2).
- What would an empty tomb prove? It could prove that Jesus was alive, but it could also mean that someone stole the body or moved it. It appears that the proof of the resurrection for the disciples and others was not due to the empty tomb but due to seeing Christ alive. It was this personal testimony along with the early believers die-hard devotion to it, even unto death, that seemed to be the proof that was needed.
The question remains however, as to why after forty years did the gospel writers pick up the empty tomb story? I think this question is especially interesting due to my point above that an empty tomb does not necessarily prove Jesus is alive.
Is it possible therefore, that the mention of the empty tomb emerges not because of needing proof that Jesus is alive but because the empty tomb is part of the story of Jesus. When the women and disciples came to the tomb, it was empty so that’s what Matthew Mark, Luke, and John recorded (Matthew 28:1-6; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10).
The gospel writers were not seeking to invent stories to give “a material, bodily basis” for the resurrection. They were recording the life of Jesus of which the empty tomb is a vital part. They weren’t trying to prove the resurrection, but just writing that it did, in fact, occur.
So what are your thoughts? How would you answer Jenkins question?