The Empty Tomb: The Decomposition Theory

With the historicity of the empty tomb established, what are the arguments against its significance in the Resurrection narrative? Would the decomposition of the corpse make the Resurrection claims inevitable?

The New Atheist movement is a movement rooted in logic and reason, at least, that is what we’re told. However, I’ve been continually surprised by the opposing viewpoints these writers exhibit. On one hand, writers argue that the empty tomb is a fabrication, a myth invented at a later date. On the other, there are writers who formulate arguments as if its historicity was already a given. I’m left wondering if critics really have an understanding of the material they’re using. The Decomposition Theory is one argument formulated by a few critics that leads me to wonder just that.

What is The Decomposition Theory? It is an argument that attempts to remove the significance of the empty tomb. It claims that even if a body was found, it would be so decayed as to be unrecognizable; if the body couldn’t be identified as Christ’s then producing a body would mean nothing. “How do we know that is Jesus?” the disciples would ask. “You could be lying to us!” Therefore, the Resurrection belief could freely spread and no one would be able to argue otherwise.

Would this really happen? With a quick glance at the historical data, the answer becomes a resounding no. Initially, critics would need to propose an entirely separate argument as to the origins of the disciple’s post-mortem claims. An empty tomb would not be enough to jump-start the Christian movement. They would have more likely believed that the body had been stolen before they ever made the claim that He had risen from the dead.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-2 NIV bold mine)

Critics need to stretch their argument even further if the tomb had never been empty in the first place. Who would tell the disciples that He was gone? We would need two arguments instead of one: The Decomposition Theory to block any means of refutation and The Wrong Tomb Theory, in order for there to still be an empty tomb to cause the women to bolt to the disciples in fear and bewilderment. It’s already starting to sound rather convoluted and that’s before we’ve addressed the problems with the theories themselves.

For it to work The Decomposition Theory must assume that the body would be unrecognizable and that there would be no way of identifying it. Considering the dry climate of Palestine the decomposition process would be slower than in other places. Even so, with enough time, it would still be difficult to identify the body based on appearance alone, which is the other assumption the theory needs to make in order to work: it needs time (this directly contradicts the temporary tomb thesis).

The theory also needs to address the alarming lack of response in history to a body remaining in the tomb. Are we to believe that Joseph, the Romans, and the Jewish authorities forgot where Jesus had been buried, even though they were the ones who ordered it to cohere with Jewish law? That stretches credibility. What about a Christian response? If a body was produced would we not expect a Christian response along the lines of “Yes, that is a body, but that is not the body of our Lord and Savior!” followed by accusations of deception? Such a response is found nowhere in historical writings of the time and what should have been a significant conflict is nowhere to be seen.

Christian and Jewish polemic assumed that the tomb was empty. The Jews only ever made the claim that the body had been stolen, thus prompting Matthew to mention the guards at the tomb. None of the evidence we have agrees with the theory. Regardless of whether or not the Christians believed it, the body, or even some body, could have been produced and presented as a possible refutation of the Christian movement. We don’t need Christians to believe it, we just need some evidence that it ever happened. All we need is an account of someone saying “Here it is, the body is here!” This is a piece of history that has never been found. And if it ever did happen, we can be certain, based on the cultural response towards the Christian movement, that this alone would have been enough to inspire doubt in the movement and eventually crush it entirely.

What about the identification of the body? The theory assumes that there would have been no way to identify the body, but considering the practices of Jewish burial traditions, this is highly unlikely. There would have been some way to identify the corpse, whether it be distinctive burial clothes, a tag attached to the corpse, or a record of the location of the corpse. Physical appearance would not have been the only way to identify a corpse and in the case of Jesus, this becomes even more certain. Let us recall the way Joseph of Arimathea attempted to honour the disgraced body of Jesus (see the link below). Would this not include a way to identify Him? Decomposition would have been no barrier in identifying a corpse, especially that of a person like Jesus. The only argument critics have here is a resort to a kindergarten level of name-calling because when it’s convenient for them, the ancients become foolish.

The Decomposition Theory lacks any kind of evidential support. In the end, it amounts to nothing more than an elaborate insult.

Link to the shame of the burial of Jesus.