The Empty Tomb: The Wrong Tomb Theory

Could the empty tomb of the Gospels be the result of an unfortunate mistake? Perhaps Jesus’s burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea was merely temporary?

To explain away the empty tomb some critics have proposed that the tomb recorded in the Gospels wasn’t the tomb Jesus had been laid in. However, only one major attempt has been made to support this theory. A bumbling trio that consisted of James Cameron, Simon Jacobovici, and Charles Pellegrino once claimed to have found the lost tomb of Jesus. It caught attention in the media’s eyes momentarily but quickly fizzled into obscurity. Today, it would be generous to call it a blip on the radar of modern scholarship, religious or not. Why? Not a single piece of historical data could support it (see link 1 below for a summary of the refutation and link 2 for a more in-depth study). It’s an important lesson in that pseudo-history, from writers who are decidedly not historians and have no credibility in the field, will never have a lasting place in the realm of scholarship and historical research.

So then what has become the leading horse of the wrong tomb theory? Critics lean on regulations of Jewish law and burial traditions to argue that Jesus’ burial in Joseph’s tomb was a temporary one and that Jesus’ body would have been moved to a different location by Saturday night. The result of this? The women who went to Joseph’s tomb on the Sunday morning would have found it empty and from that the Resurrection belief followed.

The problems with this theory are numerous. On its own, it does not have the explanatory power of the Resurrection belief. We have already seen that the first response was to assume that the body had been stolen (John 20:1-2). If that turned out to be false, wouldn’t a supposedly well-known regulation of Jewish law (according to the argument) be the next best thing to assume? If not the disciples, James or Paul would have come to this conclusion. Therein lies the major problem with this theory. Once again, we must rely on the assumption that the ancients, and the disciples, in particular, were stupid or at best, ignorant of their own law. If not, why couldn’t they assume this or ask about it? Could Joseph not tell them or the Sanhedrin that the body had been moved? And if, against all odds, the disciples did start spreading rumours that Jesus had been raised, could the Jewish religious leaders not produce the body or make its location known? At the very least, if the tomb was unnamed and its location was forgotten for whatever reason, the authorities could still say it was moved due to burial regulations. Yet, the Jewish authorities claimed that the body had been stolen, not moved. Or would critics propose that they all suffered from amnesia? We will repeat what we noted on our look at the decomposition theory:

It 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.

Aside from this, it is worth probing at the assumption that the argument makes. Would this regulation really apply to Jesus? Critics assume that it would, but we have little historical evidence to legitimize the assumption. What we do know is that, in the first century, a body buried in a rock-hewn tomb would have been expected to remain there for about a year, until the flesh decomposed and the bones could be moved to another location.

The Jewish legal text, Semahot 13:5, is one piece of data we can look to in regards to temporary burial. It warns not to move a body from a tomb unless it was known to be a temporary grave. A temporary grave for what? An earlier text from the same document (10:8) indicates that the remains of Rabbi Gamaliel were placed in a “borrowed” tomb before being relocated to Jerusalem. In this account, the remains are moved to Jerusalem to honour him, but since Jesus was already dishonourably buried in Jerusalem, this example cannot apply to Him. Furthermore, this was not a temporary burial in the same way critics envision Jesus’ was. It was a secondary burial in which the bones were gathered, and not a proper burial after a haphazard and quick burial due to time constraints.

Critics argue that the temporary burial of Jesus was the “full burial” before being moved to an unnamed tomb no one knew about. But in the time span they propose (being one or two days) this cannot be possible, as Glenn Millar notes,

…..initial burial always involved the 7-day and 30-day mourning/passivity periods. In contrast, secondary burial involved little/none of this–the REAL burial was done at the time of death…..

We don’t have ANY records of any kind of ‘staging area’ being ‘used’, or especially ANY being called a ‘temporary burial’ in the Sages. We DO have tons of primary/secondary burial patterns, using borrowed tombs for the first (full-mourning) primary burial.

If the first burial of Jesus was merely temporary storage for after the Sabbath, then the second burial would be the actual burial recorded in the Gospels and which would include washing, anointing, binding, and sealing the tomb. This would most definitely not be unnamed or unknown. If the initial burial was the full one, then the body would have remained in the tomb for longer than a day or two and not be permitted to move until the bones were collected a year later (as was required in Deuteronomy 21:22-23). This is exactly what we see with Jesus’ burial.

… can be seen that the biblical accounts portray the post-mortem experience of Jesus/Joseph/etc as a “no-rite” FULL burial. A FULL burial included washing/anointing (done with spices, oils, and water), bindings (linen strips, with spices), shroud (recorded from the Synoptics), entombment, and sealing the tomb.  [Actually, it looks more like a “some-rite” burial, because of the quantity of spices and statue of the burial party–Joseph and Nicodemus.] This indicates that Jesus was buried–whether it was an honorable burial or not, whether in shame or not–in accordance with the already-documented Jewish requirements. He was fully buried.

And Jewish law states that it was not permitted to move…

“He may not be exhumed. After the tomb has been sealed, the dead may not be stirred from his place.” [Semahot IV.7 bold mine]

“Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave.” [Semahot XIII.5]

“Neither a corpse nor the bones of a corpse may be transferred from a wretched place to an honored place, nor, needless to say, from an honored place to a wretched place; but if to the family tomb, even from an honored place to a wretched place,it is permitted, for by this he is honored.” [Semahot XIII.7]

Another minor objection offered is that Joseph of Arimathea would not have alerted the disciples to the new location of Jesus’ body because he wasn’t a disciple or follower himself. To this effect, we once again point readers to the shame of the burial:

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.

As Millar states, it was a some-rites burial and this could only be the case if Joseph was a follower.

The only real argument I could find from critics was that Joseph never publically opposed the Sanhedrin’s vote to condemn Jesus. Their support for this is that Mark states that the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence to put Him to death. The question to ask is, why would Joseph speak up? Would the Sanhedrin simply nod and accept his dissenting voice? Would he have had the chance to bury Jesus himself if he had spoken up? Perhaps Joseph feared persecution. If even Peter could deny Christ before the Resurrection, it was possible that Joseph also feared speaking up or going against the Jewish authorities. And have critics forgotten Nicodemus who was also an ally of Christ and helped with Jesus’ burial (John 3:2, 19:39)?

Critics also ignore the use of universalizing language common in ancient literature. For example, in Mark 4:34, did Jesus mean that He would teach the disciples how to bake a chocolate cake when He says He “expounded all things”? Or how about when one of the prophets of the Cretans stated, “The Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.” Does that mean there are no exceptions at all? The ancients often used universalizing language, even when there were clear exceptions, as a literary device for emphasis. In a high context culture, obvious exceptions went without being said.

But would the situation be any different if Joseph wasn’t a friend? If Joseph wasn’t a follower of Christ and remained loyal to the Jewish authorities, he would have every reason not to move the body. Jesus told the priests that for three days he would be in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:40) and that is precisely what they wanted to disprove.

Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. (Matthew 27: 62-65)

Moving the body and not alerting the disciples or the chief priests of its whereabouts would have been counterproductive to the priest’s objective.

One final note that needs explanation is the grave clothes that were left behind when the empty tomb was found.

And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. (John 20:5-7)

It’s awfully strange that Joseph would move the body and leave the linen clothes behind. Once more, we emphasize that the burial in Joseph’s tomb was a full burial, and not a temporary holding ground for a proper burial a day or two later.

In the end, there are simply far too many missing pieces for the temporary tomb theory to be a viable explanation and it relies too heavily on misconceptions.

Link 1 on the summary of the Lost Tomb theory

Link 2 on a thorough refutation of the Lost Tomb Theory

Link 3 on the shame of Jesus’ burial

For a further refutation of the temporary tomb theory, I point to Glenn Millar’s article here