Refutting The No Tomb Theory


The major argument for the Resurrection as McDowell argued in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, was centered upon the notion of Guards on the tomb: how did they get the body past the guards? One of the major innovations in countering this argument has been a tendency for Skeptics to argue that most crucifixion victims were not buried in individual tombs, but were tossed aside in mass graves or left for dogs to eat. Thus, it is assumed, the narrative of the Tomb was a latter fabrication, one calculated to produce an apologetic which would set up proof of a resurrection.

This argument can be countered in several ways:

I. Some burials for Crucifixion victims did happen and were not that uncommon.

A. The Skeptical Argument that Crucified Criminals were not given burial.In Fact the Romans did leave bodies on the cross often until they diintegrated.

B. Jews were horrified by non-burial of the crucified.

1) Crucifixion comes under heading of hanging.

This point has often been made in a different way by skeptics in argument. They will say that the references to being hung on tree indicate that Jesus was actually hung and not crucified. But hanging on a tree was the euphemism for crucifixion. It came from the OT custom of handing the body of an executed criminal on a tree. When crucifixion was brought in by the Romans the euphemism was created and applied to crucifixion. (See Raymond Brown, Death of The Messiah, Vol. II p.1209)

This means that the Jews had a horror of non-burial.

Deut. 21: 22-23 "if there shall be against someone a crime judged worthy of death, and he be put to death and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree: but you shall bury him on the same day, for cursed of God is anyone hanged."(quoted Ibid.).

2) Burial of crucified mandatory.

The Conflict between Roman and Jewish practices is phrased thus by S. Liberman: "The Roman practice of depriving executed criminals of the rite of burial and exposing their corps to the cross for many days... horrified the Jews." In the first Jewish revolt the Idumeans cast out corpses without burial. Commenting with disgust on this Josephus states: "the Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even those who are crucified because they were guilty are taken down and buried before sunset." [Ibid. and Josephus in War 44.5.2 #317]

Skeptics will quote this horror as though that is the main thing that made Jews fear crucifixion, but they will go on asserting that the Roman practice dominated, whereas the Jews found it mandatory according to their religion to bury the dead, even those crucified after having been found guilty of a crime.

3) Type of burial is the issue.

Brown point out that the guilty were often denied burial among their ancestors but put into common graves. Brown quotes the Mishna, Sanhedrin 6.6 "even if the accused was the King of Kings he shall be denied burial with his fathers." This phraseology may have been intentionally aimed against Christians. Does this mean then, that Jesus' body would have been placed in a common grave such that there was no actual tomb for him rise out of and leave empty?

C. Jews would probably have allowed burial of Jesus in Joseph's Tomb.

1) They key to the issue is the charge against him.

The charge against the prisoner is what would determine where his remains came to rest. If he was a criminal found worthy of death because he committed a crime he would be buried ignominiously in a common grave. However, political desenters crucified by the Romans did not come under this stricture. The Innocent crucified unjustly by foreign powers (Romans) could be given honorable burial. (Ibid. p.1210).

2) Jesus was not exicuted on criminal charges.

Jesus was executed not for criminal charges, but for political insurrection. Thus he would not come under the strictures of the crucified guilty but could be given a decent burial in an honored tomb.

Jesus was executed by the Romans, not for blasphemy, but on the charge of being the King of the Jews. Could this have been regarded as a death not in accordance with the Jewish law and so not subjecting the crucified to dishonorable burial? [Ibid., p. 1211]

"An innocent or nobel Jew might be crucified for something that did not come under the law of God, or indeed for keeping the divine law. We find this issue raised in Talbad Sanhedirin 47a-47b when Abey complians 'would you compare those slain by a [Gentile] govenrment to those slian by the Beth Din? the former, since their death is not in accordence with Jewish law obtain forgvieness...'Such a distinction had to have been made earlier or there could have been no tradition of an honorable burial for the Macabean martyrs. Thus we cannot discount the possibility of an honorable first burial for one crucified by the Romans....Yet would the tendency be to give Jesus an honorable or dishonorable burial? According to Mark/Mat the Sanhedirin found him worthy of death on the charge of blasphemy, and Josephus would have had the blasphemer stoned or hung...on the other hand Jesus was executed by the Romans not for blasphemy but on the charge of being the King of the Jews...."[Brown 1210-1211]

The Sanhedrin believed Jesus guilty of blasphemy, that doesn't mean that he was formally executed for it. That means his he may have been entitaled to honorable burial.

3) Clues in Mark and in Gospel of Peter (GPet).

a) Time indications.

Mark is probably the basis for Synoptic understanding of the events and John may have an account independent from that of Mark. There is a time requirement implicit in the request to get the body buried since the death occurred about 3pm and some time between this time and sunset the body had to be placed in the ground to prevent profanation of the Holy day (Passover). Thus there was a race against time and it was expedient to to follow through with events as quickly as possible.

b) Jospeh of Aramethia.

Brown points out that since the first mention of Jospeh in all the Gospels is at this juncture, his Role in burying Jesus, he was not thought of as a follower or as a supporter, but merely one who wanted to prevent profanation of the Holy Day. He was a distinguished member of the Sanhedrin and would have had a certain degree of political influence. If he was merely concerned with doing his duty he might be willing to offer his own tomb for the sake of expediency. This makes sense of what seems to be a lack of cooperation between two parties, the women and Jospeh. Had both groups been followers it makes no sense why Joseph would not have been there to roll away the stone for the women, or why the women would not have stayed to anoint the body. This also makes sense of the tendency of John and GPet to speak of the Jews burying Jesus, "they drew out the nails, " and so forth. (John 19:38, GPet 6:21).

4) Roman Respect for Jewish Customs.

"During the Roman period decrees were promulgated which prohibited the removal of the stone coverings of tombs and the mutilation of their contents." [R.K. Harrison Archaeology of The New Testament, New York: Association Press 1964, p. 31]

There is an inscription of such a law, called "The Nazareth law" found on the stone covering the entrance to a tomb, which dates to Claudias' time (about AD 41). This may have been in response to the claims of Jesus' resurrection. Brown does not regard that as a serious argument, however, although it does show that the Roman's were willing to respect the Religious practices of the Jews. We do know this from other instances in fact, that exceptions were made to honor the specific religious requirements of the Jews whenever possible. Thus there would probably have been no insistence that Roman custom be followed with regard to the bodies on crosses. IN fact Browns gives an example of three friends of Josephaus' who were crucified and Josephus was able to have them taken down on the insistence that leaving them up violated their religious customs.

While it is true that in some cases the Romans did leave the bodies of crucified victims on crosses for extended periods of time (typically to horrify rebellious locals), the basic rules for how to treat the crucified was laid out in "The Digest of Justinian" 48:24 in which Ulipian tells us that the bodies of those who suffer capital punishment are not to be denied to their relatives, and this is extended by Julius Paulus to include any who seek them for burial (see R.E. Brown, "Death of the Messiah, Vol. 2, pg. 1207).

Basically, the Romans successfully held their empire together in no small part by remaining sensative to local sensibilities, especially in times of general peace and tranquility as we find in Palestine in the first half of the First Century. Adding credence to the historicity of the burial tradition offered in the Gospels is the nature of Jewish Law on the matter, the probable historicity of Joseph of Arimathea himself, and the general lack of legendary development in the account by the Gospel authors themselves. Quoting from The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 2 (Doubleday, 1994):>

"...I suggested that "a respected council member who was also himself awaiting the kingdom of God" meant that Joseph was a religiously pious Sanhedrist who, despite the condemnation of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, felt an obligation under the Law to bury this crucified criminal before sunset. That Mark created such an identification is most unlikely since it runs counter to his hostile generalizations casting blame on all the members of the Sanhedrin for the injustice of sentencing Jesus to death" (Mark 14:55,64; 15:1).... Raymond Brown, DMV2, pg. 1239

The "laws" that Brown refers to include (Joshua 8:29, 10:27, II Samuel 2:12-14; Tobit 1:17-19; 2:3-7; 12:12-13; Sirach 7:33; 38:16) as mentioned by Josephus in Jewish War 4.5.2; #317 "The Jews were so careful about funeral rites that even those who are crucified because they were found guilty are taken down and buried before sunset." These practices arise especially Mosaic Law.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 "If there shalle be against someone a crime judged worthy of death, and he be put to death and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree; but you shall bury him the same day, for cursed of God is the one hanged."

Further, we have from Josephus again mentioning of the command to bury on the same day one who has been hung on a tree after being stoned to death, in a first-century context Antiquities 4. 202 and Jewish War 4. 317.Brown documents the story of Josephus, who saw three of his freinds hanging on corsses, and was able to have them taken down because it was almost sunset. Two of the three survived, but the one who died was burried honorably.

In his concluding remarks on the burial of Jesus, Raymond Brown had this to say:

"That Jesus was buried is historically certain. That Jewish sensitivity would have wanted this done before the oncoming Sabbath (which may also have been a feast day) is also certain, and our records give us no reason to think that this sensitivity was not honored. That this burial was done by Joseph of Arimathea is very probable, since a Christian fictional creation of a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right is almost inexplicable, granted the hostility in early Christian writings toward the Jewish authorities responsible for the death of Jesus. Moreover, the fixed designation of such a character as "From Arimathea," a town very difficult to identify and reminiscent of no scriptural symbolism, makes a thesis of invention even more implausible� While probability is not certitude, there is nothing in the basic preGospel account of Jesus' burial by Joseph that could not plausibly be deemed historical." (R.E. Brown, DMV2, pg. 1240-41)

One of history's most liberal theologians concurs. Commenting specifically on Mark 15:42-47:

"This is an historical account which creates no impression of being a legend apart from the women who appear again as witnesses in v. 47, and vs. 44-45 which Matthew and Luke in all probability did not have in their Mark." R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), pg. 274.

"A straightforward reading of the Gospels' portrait of the burial has been challenged by revisionist scholars, who theorize that Jesus died in a mass crucifixion: the body was thrown into a common, shallow trench, to become carrion for vultures and scavenging dogs. This makes for vivid drama but implausible history. Pilate, after all, had been forced in the face of Jewish opposition to withdraw his military shields from public view in the city when he first acceded to power. What likelihood was there, especially after Sejanus' death, that he would get away with flagrantly exposing the corpse of an executed Jew beyond the interval permitted by the Torah, and encouraging its mutilation by scavengers outside Jerusalem?"Revisionism can be productive. But it can also become more intent on explaining away traditional beliefs than on coming to grips with the evidence at hand, and I think this is a case in point. It is worth explaining why I go along with much of the Gospel's account of Jesus' burial, because doing so will help us grapple with the vexed question of what happened three days after his crucifixion."Time and again, the Gospels reveal the tendancy of the first Christians to shift the blame for Jesus' death away from Pilate and onto the Sanhedrin. Yet when it comes to taking on the weighty responsibility of burying Jesus, we find members of that same council taking the lead, while most of Jesus' disciples had beaten a hasty and ignominious retreat. Joseph's and Nicodemus' public act cost them: they donated mortuary dressing and ointment as well as use of the cave. They also contracted uncleanness for seven days after the burial. On each of those seven days they would have had to explain to curious colleagues where and why they had come into contact with a corpse, a powerful source of impurity."Joseph's act went beyond mere display of ordinary decency. He ensured that Jesus was interred in one of the caves he had recently dug for himself and his family. The significance of this gesture is plain: there were those wihtin the council who had not agreed with Caiphas' condemnation of Jesus to Pilate."[Chilton, Bruce. "Rabbi Jesus: The Jewish Life and Teaching that Inspired Christianity", (New York: Doubleday, 2000) p. 270-272.]

II. The "No Tomb" Theory doesn't account for or explain the early faith in the resurrection.

Had it been common custom for crucifixion victims to always have been left on the cross for several days and finally to be thrown to dogs, one can scarily see how anyone would not know this. Knowing the fate of crucifixion victims to always been lack of any real burial, who in Jerusalem would be convinced by the stories of Jesus and the empty tomb? The very fact of the contradictory nature of the story would turn off any interest in the group from the beginning. It would have been known to most people that crucified and empty tomb just don't' go together, so who would have believed the story? Than to think that they waited 50 years until Mark wrote his Gospel to try and add apologetics touches such as Jospeh of Aramethia volunteering his tomb, is absurd. Clearly the story had to emerge at a very early period, yet if it emerged very early it would have been know to be a lie. No one would believe something that so violated common knowledge and of which they had never heard a word and knew no one else who ever heard of such events. The notion that these aspects of the Jesus story do not have a basis in historical fact just does not hold water.

Of course some sketpics argue that the belief itself was in a non-boily resurrection, in which case the tomb would be irrelivant. That is answered on the next page, Resurrection III:The No Body theory.