Jesus’ Followers Discovered an Empty Tomb
Saints and Sceptics
Josephus tells us that the Romans did not expect their subjects to violate their national laws (Against Apion 2.73) ; furthermore, he is explicit that the Romans did not expect the Jewish people to leave a corpse unburied (Against Apion 2.211).Under Jewish custom, the Sanhedrin would have been obligated to bury Jesus before sundown (Deuteronomy 21v22-23; m.Sanh 6 5-6; Semahot 13.7;11QTemple 64.7-13a=4Q524 frag.14 lines 2-4) They had sought Jesus execution; to have left his body on a tree would have “polluted” the very land they were trying to save. So the burial of Jesus by a member of the Sanhedrin is very plausible (See: Craig Evans (2012), Jesus and His World, p.136-40).
Jesus’ followers would have had to have taken note of his burial place so that they could mourn him properly. Furthermore, according to Jewish custom, they would have had to return to the primary burial site one year later to collect their masters bones for an honorable burial. There would have been little mystery about Jesus burial place. Unless it was known that there was an empty tomb where Jesus’ dead body was meant to lie, it is very unlikely that the claims of the first disciples would have cut much ice in Jerusalem. If the first Christians believed that Jesus had been resurrected, there would have been some curiosity about the place where he had been buried. And if the Jerusalem authorities were prepared to endorse Paul’s zealous persecution of the Church, it is likely that they were prepared to check on Joseph’s tomb to see if it was occupied!
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We have to ask why the earliest churches would invent a story in which women discover the empty tomb, while the honourable male leaders of the church hid in doubt and fear. Granted, women were important to the first churches. If the Gospel writers were trying to elevate the status of women in the church they would not have made the women seem so confused, incompetent and unheroic. However we look at Mark 16, these women do not emerge as ideal eyewitnesses! Furthermore, a woman’s testimony would not be taken seriously by outsiders; it had no value in court. It would have been tremendously embarrassing to admit that the first witnesses to the events of Easter were women!
If this story is an invention of an early apologist we have to ask why he was so extraordinarily incompetent. A child could have created a story that would have been easier to sell to the wider culture. Why not invent a story in which a male follower visited Jesus’ burial place, to be told by an angel not to mention this empty tomb to anyone? After all, the angel could argue that there was a danger of the Church worshipping at the tomb; because Jesus was no longer there such worship would have been inappropriate. We also have to ask why the Church would create a story in which Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. This man was a member of the Sanhedrin; the very group that had conspired to execute Jesus. It is difficult to believe that the Church would give credit to such a man unless he actually deserved it…
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