Early, independent sources for the empty tomb

Bill Craig’s “Question of the Week” feature at Reasonable Faith recently addressed the problem of the number and dating of the earliest independent sources for the burial and empty tomb stories. I found that my own views were somewhat mistaken, so I thought we would all benefit from a closer look.

Let’s take a look at the independent sources for the empty tomb story.

1) The portion of Mark that recounts the burial is an early source

Mark is the earliest gospel, but even he relies on an earlier source for a portion of his gospel.

The burial account is part of Mark’s source material for the story of Jesus’ Passion. This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion.

…The empty tomb story is syntactically tied to the burial story; indeed, they are just one story. 

Bill talks about the dating and significance of this early source:

…Whereas most of Mark’s Gospel consists of short anecdotal stories strung like pearls on a string, when we get to the final week of Jesus’ life we encounter a continuous narrative of events from the Jewish plot during the Feast of Unleavened Bread through Jesus’ burial and empty tomb.

…According to James D. G. Dunn, “The most obvious explanation of this feature is that the framework was early on fixed within the tradition process and remained so throughout the transition to written Gospels. This suggests in turn a tradition rooted in the memory of the participants and put into that framework by them” (J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 2003, pp. 765-6.)

The dominant view among NT scholars is therefore that the Passion narratives are early and based on eyewitness testimony (Mark Allen Powell, JAAR 68 [2000]: 171). Indeed, according to Richard Bauckham, many scholars date Mark’s Passion narrative no later than the 40s (recall that Jesus died in A.D. 30) (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 2006, p. 243)….

Wow, this independent source is almost as good as 1 Corinthians 15:3-7! What else is a good source?

2) Matthew has an independent source for the empty tomb story

Craig writes:

As for the other Gospels, that Matthew has an independent tradition of the empty tomb is evident not only from the non-Matthean vocabulary (e.g., the words translated “on the next day,” “the preparation day,” “deceiver,” “guard [of soldiers],” “to make secure,” “to seal”; the expression “on the third day” is also non-Matthean, for he everywhere else uses “after three days;” the expression “chief priests and Pharisees” never appears in Mark or Luke and is also unusual for Matthew), but also from Matt. 28.15: “this story has been spread among Jews till this day,” indicative of a tradition history of disputes with Jewish non-Christians.

This one was new to me.

3) A source used by Luke and John for the empty tomb story

The inspection of the empty tomb by Peter implies the empty tomb. Craig writes:

Luke and John have the non-Markan story of Peter and another disciple inspecting the tomb, which, given John’s independence of Luke, indicates a separate tradition behind the story. Moreover, we have already seen that John’s independence of Mark shows that he has a separate source for the empty tomb.

This one was also new to me.

4) The early sermons in Acts support the empty tomb

Acts was written by Luke. Craig writes:

The early sermons in Acts are likely not created by Luke out of whole cloth but represent early apostolic preaching. We find the empty tomb implied in the contrast between David’s tomb and Jesus’: “David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day.” But “this Jesus God has raised up” (2:29-32; cf. 13.36-7).

This one I had heard about before, from Gary Habermas.

5) The creed recited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is an early source

This passage does not explicitly mention the empty tomb, but it does imply the empty tomb. We moderns are not free to re-invent the meaning of the word resurrection. Ancient Jewish theologians who believed in the resurrection had a definite definition of the word: the word means that the body is gone from the tomb.

Craig writes:

…the old tradition handed on by Paul to the Corinthian church, which is among the earliest traditions identifiable in the NT, refers to Jesus’ burial in the second line of the tradition. That this is the same event as the burial described in the Gospels becomes evident by comparing Paul’s tradition with the Passion narratives on the one hand and the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles on the other. The four-line tradition handed on by Paul is a summary of the central events of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, and his appearances to the disciples.

This creed has been dated to within 5 years of the crucifixion, as I mentioned before.

Further study

A scholarly-level article where Craig makes the case for the empty tomb is found here. Atheist commenters: be sure and read this article before commenting.

I’ll be posting a follow-up later this week on the empty tomb, but I wanted to write about the sources separately.

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