The Empty Tomb: Buried In Disgrace

Is the empty tomb a believable piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is there any reason to believe that the empty tomb is historical?

What is the difference between the empty tomb and the four minimal facts we have examined? Why is the empty tomb so contested amongst scholars and critical thinkers while the conversion of Paul, James, Christ’s death by crucifixion, and the post-mortem claims of the disciples are almost unanimously accepted as historical? Unlike the four minimal facts surrounding the resurrection, arguments against the empty tomb are rooted in historical practice. For the most part, the arguments do not rely on speculation or manipulation of the data. They’re believable and, in some cases, true. However, the historicity of the empty tomb is still accepted by a large swath of scholars and historians despite the arguments against it put forth by popular critics. The death and burial of Jesus is a curious case and its uniqueness should not be underestimated or made light of.

The most forceful argument put forward against the empty tomb is that it is unlikely that Jesus would have been taken down from the cross at all, let alone buried honourably in a tomb. In most cases, this would well be true, however, there is a key misconception in this case that critics have.

This argument rings true because victims of Roman crucifixion were commonly left on the cross. It was a harrowing sign of power and dominance. It declared loud and clear, “Do not defy Rome!” This much is true, but critics take it a step too far when they suggest that this is always true. Some Christian apologists address this by noting that, in some circumstances, victims were permitted to be taken down from the cross and even buried. In a summary of Roman law known as the Digesta, we read the following,

The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason. Even the bodies of those who have been sentenced to be burned can be claimed, in order that their bones and ashes, after having been collected, may be buried. (48.24.1)

The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial. (48.24.3)

Roman law states that, in some instances, bodies were allowed to be taken down and handed over to the family, even going as far to say “they should be given to whoever requests (emphasis mine).” This takes us halfway, however, we still do not have a reason to suggest that this is what would have happened to Jesus. This is where we turn to the real nature of the tomb and the point critics have completely failed to address. The burial of Jesus was utterly and unapologetically shameful.

More than ten years ago, professor Byron R. McCane wrote an article titled Where No One Had Yet Been Laid: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial (see the link below), where he constructed a thesis based on ancient cultural and burial traditions that concluded that Jesus’ burial was dishonourable rather than honourable and dignified. The shame of the crucifixion did not stop at the cross, it carried over to the tomb. McCane notes that the process of burial and mourning was to honour the dead. A denial of these traditions was a further disgrace on top of the crucifixion itself. McCane writes,

Ordinarily, death is an event which disrupts the functioning social order, for the death of any particular individual tears away a member of a social member of a social network and forces the network to reconstitute itself. Death rituals–i.e., burial customs and rites of mourning–are social processes which heal the wounds which death inflicts on the social group. [4] By burying the dead and mourning their absence, members of a society affirm that someone significant has been lost. When the Romans did not permit the burial of crucifixion victims, then, they were doing more than merely showing off the power of Rome: they were also declaring that the deaths of these victims were not a loss to Roman society. Far from it, the deaths of condemned criminals actually served to strengthen and preserve Rome, protecting and defending the social order of the Empire.

By denying burial customs and rites of mourning, it showed everyone that the victim deserved to be ostracized from family and the collective society of which they once belonged. In other words, they were to be shunned and disgraced even in death.

I must stress once again that the burial of Jesus was a unique case. In Judea, at the time of Jesus, the social climate was different to the climate critics paint. McCane notes,

Throughout most of the first century, by contrast, and especially at the time of Jesus’ death, Judea was not in open revolt against Rome and was not under control of Roman generals commanding legions of soldiers. [5] It was instead administered by a prefect who had only a small contingent of troops at his disposal. Certainly the prefect could mobilize those forces to suppress potential rebellion, as Theudas and “The Egyptian” discovered (J. W. 2.13.4-5 258-263; Ant. 20.5.1 97-99; 20.8.6 167-172; Acts 5:36), but such events were brief, intermittent, and did not involve mass crucifixions. Most of the time, in other words, the city walls of Jerusalem were not ringed by hundreds of crosses. At the time of Jesus, in fact, the situation was peaceful enough that events in and around Jerusalem were not always under the direct control of the Roman prefect.

On mass crucifixions, McCane also writes,

These actions, however, are certainly not typical of the way Romans usually behaved in Judea. These mass crucifixions, it turns out, all come from times of acute crisis, when Roman military officers were being called in to stabilize situations which had gotten out of control.

This, in no way, applies to the crucifixion of Jesus which, as we saw, was during a time of greater peace, so it is not unlikely that, at request, a crucifixion victim could be taken down from the cross. Furthermore, Jesus wasn’t an enemy of Rome. Pilate did not see in Jesus what the Jews saw, but he gave him over to avoid the consequence of a public revolt (Matt. 27:24) and to maintain public order, so there also would have been no reason for Pilate to refuse a burial.

Once again, Jesus’ case is highly unique. Typically, it is the family who would request the burial. If the burial was a fabricated legend this is what we would expect, yet, in this case, it is a member of the Jewish leadership (the Sanhedrin) who made the request.

Mark 15:43 says that Joseph of Arimathea “dared”…to approach Pilate and request the body of Jesus. Why “dared?” Because such a request would indeed have been daring in light of the fact that victims often remained hanging on crosses as symbols of Roman will. [7] On the other hand, a request by a Jewish leader for the body of Jesus would not have been out of place, either, since Roman prefects–including at least one that we know if in first-century Jerusalem–did allow the burial of crucifixion victims. In the case of Jesus, such an allowance was likely, since Jesus was not caught up in a mass crucifixion, and his death did not come at a time of revolt against Rome. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day generally cooperated with Pilate in preserving public order in Jerusalem, and the occasion of Jesus’ death was a Jewish religious holiday. It may have taken a little nerve, then, but someone like Joseph of Arimathea could have reasonably expected that Pilate would grant his request for the body of Jesus.

The reason for the request is simple. It was the time of Passover and, in spite of their hatred for Jesus, they would have had to follow the law laid out in Deuteronomy 21, which states,

His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. (Deut. 21:24).

Even so, they would still want to indicate that Jesus did not belong to their class. He deserved to be shamed even in death. Therefore two dishonourable aspects of Jesus’ burial were

  1. He was buried in a tomb that did not belong to his family.
  2. Public rites of mourning were not to be observed.

By requesting that he bury Jesus and perform the burial rites-the eyes of the deceased were closed, the corpse was washed with perfumes and ointments, its bodily orifices were stopped, and strips of cloth were wrapped tightly around the body-Joseph was merely trying to make the best of a bad situation, so to speak. To give Him some honour in this shameful state.

To be buried away from the family tomb–by design, not by fate–was to be…. dislodged from a place in the family. To be unmourned by one’s nearest relatives was to be effaced from the cultural landscape. It was worse than unfortunate; it was a shame.

The critic’s argument against the empty tomb can only stand if the account were to be so vague and general that such speculation could not possibly be tested. However, we have more information surrounding the death and burial of Jesus than any crucifixion victim in history and what we have simply does not support the critic’s case.

The specific traits of Jesus’ burial (not an enemy of Rome, publically endorsed paying Roman taxes and submitting to authority, etc., in a time of peace, during the Passover, not part of a mass execution, plausible that he would have at least a one or two allies among a generally opposed religious authority group, plausible that Pilate would grant the request of one of these allies, etc.) make the conclusion that the body would be taken down not only possible but expected. If we include the disgrace and shame of the burial itself and the complete lack of any objection in history to Jesus having been taken down from the cross (the main argument from enemies of the Christian movement was that the disciples stole the body (Matt. 28:12-13)). We have every reason to trust the account of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ. A fabricated legend at a later date would not include this abhorrent detail. It would do nothing but turn away potential converts unless, of course, it really happened and it was followed by something that vindicated Jesus and established, once and for all, that Jesus Christ was the messiah the world had been waiting for.

Link to McCane’s article.