What Friends’ Phoebe Can Teach Us About the Empty Tomb
by Lenny Esposito
The linchpin of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus. Simply put, the entire belief system hangs on this fact of history; destroy the resurrection and you’ve destroyed Christianity as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17.
However, there is really good evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. As William Lane Craig has noted for years, New Testament scholars across the spectrum agree that Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion, was buried in a tomb and that tomb was later found empty. That means New Testament scholars who are liberal and even those do not themselves identify as Christian themselves will agree that these points are valid history.
Of course the percentage of scholars accepting of each of these points differs a bit. While Jesus’s death by crucifixion is nearly unanimous, the number holding to the empty tomb are about 75%.1 This is partially because a reference to the empty tomb doesn’t appear in the creedal tradition of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. 1 Corinthians is the earliest of the New Testament books, being written sometime around spring of AD 54.2 But in the 1 Corinthians 15 passage, Paul uses language that denotes it is a creed, saying “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…” As Paul was converted sometime between 1-5 years after Jesus’s crucifixion, and he received this creed early in his instruction, we can know the creed had been in use within a few years after Jesus’s death.3
Given all this, scholars place great weight on the creedal passage as being very early and yet the creedal passage doesn’t talk about the empty tomb. It mentions the burial of Jesus but not the women finding the tomb empty on Sunday morning. That has led to some skeptics to doubt the empty tomb story entirely. Here’s the thing, though. The story of Jesus’s death, burial in a tomb and the later discovery of that tomb being empty is a single narrative. It is one story where the goal of telling about Jesus’s death is to establish his resurrection…
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