Opinion

An empty tomb & the origin of Christianity

An empty tomb & the origin of Christianity

Body Missing – Reports of Resurrection!

So might a popular Jerusalem tabloid for 17 Nisan 3793 (CE 33) have described the disappearance of Jesus. It might have continued:

Jesus bar Joseph, leader of the Nazarenes, was arrested early on Friday morning in the Garden of Gethsemane by a squad of Temple police accompanied by Roman troops from the Antonia garrison. He was interrogated by the High Priests and later tried by the Governor on a charge of sedition (claiming to be The Blessed).

Unaccountably he condemned himself by admitting the charge and was sentenced to death by crucifixion, the penalty being enacted the same day. Because of the Passover, he and others had to be despatched quickly, but it was found that he had died already! He was buried by Councillors Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and put, temporarily in Joseph’s own tomb, which was sealed on the eve of Sabbath.

However, early yesterday it was found that the tomb was open and empty, and there are unconfirmed reports that he has been seen alive! He had prophesied that he would rise again from the dead.

So Christianity began, but, as the Bishop of Durham has pointed out, to the acute embarrassment of the Church of England, an empty tomb is not proof of resurrection, although, perversely, he still believes that Jesus was resurrected.

Since the Gospels are propaganda, they cannot be relied upon to tell us what happened, but it is likely that they contain historical fragments. The problem is to distinguish between propaganda and truth. Occam’s razor was devised to deal with such problems: it tells us to prefer the simplest hypothesis unless the data force a more complicated one.

There are those who believe that the story of the empty tomb is an invention devised to explain later reports of Jesus’ appearance in Galilee. However, this does not seem to be the simplest hypothesis; there are too many indications in the Gospels that Jesus planned to be arrested, that he expected to suffer crucifixion, and that he expected to rise again.

Essential to such a programme was preservation of his body in a secure tomb. As Hugh Schonfield long ago pointed out, there are signs of a plot to enable Jesus to survive crucifixion. That there was a tomb and that it was found to be empty is consistent with other internal evidence which makes no sense if there was no tomb. In this case the simplest explanation must be that the body was removed by “person or persons unknown”; after all, the door of the tomb was left open.

So who took the body? It must have been natural for the priests to blame the disciples and the record to this effect is surely historical. Yet how were the priests to spread this account if the theft had not been reported by the night watch at the Damascus Gate? Only by bribing the watch to give such an account. But then it would be asked why the watch took no action to prevent the theft; consequently it had to be “admitted” that the guards were asleep at the time (probably a common occurrence).

However, the guards needed to be assured that their jobs were still safe. It is a naive account, devised for dullards; if the guards were asleep they cannot have seen those responsible for the theft.

The priests’ accusation cannot have been correct. If the disciples as a group were responsible they could never have preached Jesus’ resurrection; if one or two of them were responsible, the others must have learned of it and lost respect for their master.

No, the simplest explanation is that they body, dead or alive, was removed by those who put it there – described in the Gospels as Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, and Nicodemus. Why did the priests, who must have seen Joseph ask for the body and place it in his own tomb, not ask him what he had done with Jesus? Perhaps they could not find him; Pharisees were not on good terms with the Sadducean priests and he could hardly have wanted his actions made public.

But why was the body removed in secret? Moreover, why was Jesus removed before the expiry of the period (three days and three nights) which he forecast he had to endure “in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40)?

If it was believed that he would be resurrected on the Monday morning, why was the tomb not left sealed until then?

Again we must apply the simplest hypothesis, which is that something had gone wrong. Now what could possibly go wrong with a resurrection? The only reason for someone to remove Jesus from the tomb prematurely is the knowledge that resurrection was not possible. Yet how could they know that? Clearly they did not expect a supernatural revival; they were expecting Jesus to make an entirely natural recovery. But this would mean that he was not dead or that he was not supposed to be dead.

Here we are forced to complicate the hypothesis by supposing that Jesus took a drug (probably opium) which caused the appearance of death; this would account for his early collapse on the Cross. If Jesus knew that he had the means to survive crucifixion and believed that it was necessary for him to go through the ordeal, then we can see why he admitted guilt to Pilate. Now there is a motive to go with the evidence that he planned his own arrest and trial.

"Christus before Pilate," by Hans Multscher, artistically interprets the biblical scene.  Multscher created this oak-panel work in 1437.  It is currently owned by the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, Germany.

“Christus before Pilate” by Hans Multscher, who created this oak-panel work in 1437. It is currently owned by the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, Germany.

But why did he have to do all this? Again we must complicate the hypothesis by accepting that Jesus saw himself as fulfilling the historic role of two Messiahs: the first, “The Suffering Servant”, whose sacrificial death expiates the sins of his people, and the second, “The Son of Man”, who would rule the Kingdom of Heaven. Apparently Jesus planned to “die” as the first Messiah and “rise” as the second.

But something went wrong during the Crucifixion. Either, he was actually killed or he was mortally wounded by the execution squad, perhaps by the spear thrust John records. Either way, those who buried him in haste before the Sabbath knew that he could never walk out of the tomb as the King of Israel. To spare embarrassment they had to remove Jesus in secret.

If Jesus lived a few more days, that could explain his appearance to the disciples in the Upper Room, where he assured them that he was no spirit.* It seems unlikely that the disciples would have gone preaching in his name if they had not seen him at least once after the Crucifixion and unless they had been instructed to do so. Jesus can have commissioned them only after his revival, because it was that revival that they were to preach.

* This was invented to counter Docetism, the belief that Jesus was just a sprit who seemed human. See my later article ‘How Christianity Began – By Mistake!’, FT May 2014.

• This article was originally published in The Freethinker in May 1985.

2 responses to “An empty tomb & the origin of Christianity”

  1. gedediah says:

    What is the point of all this speculation? Surely the simplest explanation is that the whole thing was made up decades after Jesus’ supposed death and resurrection. There’s no evidence other than uncorroberated stories that he even existed.

  2. John says:

    I’m inclined to agree. It seems most probable that some older religions were cobbled together with judaism to form a new religion and then that religion diversified, creating the multiple gospels which were recombined by Constantine into a single religion.