Paul says the gospel includes three elements. The death, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:4-“that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures”). For the past 25 posts or so, I have been discussing the Evangelical view of what it means that “Christ died for our sins”. Today I want to move on to the burial of Jesus which Paul says is the second component of the gospel.
Why does Paul include “the burial” of Jesus as part of the gospel? It is the only one of the three elements that he does not say is “according to the Scriptures.” Why does he mention it? I think he does so in order to emphasize the fact that Jesus really died. (Sort of a preemptive strike against the Swoon Theory, i.e., Jesus swooned on the cross and then revived in the cool tomb). Jesus death was an absolute necessity in Paul’s theology and the reference to his burial is the ultimate proof that Jesus had in fact died.
What is interesting is that Paul does not mention the “empty tomb” nor the story of the women who first came upon the tomb on Sunday morning. He does mention that Jesus was seen of Peter, the 500, James, and then all of the apostles. Why does he leave out the story of the women which all of the other gospels include? There could be three reasons: 1) The testimony of women was not highly regarded in the Ancient world and Paul did not feel the need to cite their testimony when he had an abundance of male eyewitnesses to reference; 2) Paul did not know the empty tomb story. It had not been written down yet as I Corinthians was written earlier than any of the four gospels; 3) Paul did not believe the empty tomb story. Even though the stories had not been written down, Paul no doubt had heard them. He had been in contact with all of the early followers of Christ. Why would he not believe them? I think, and this will have to be developed later, that Paul’s view of the resurrection body being a “spiritual body” does not require the tomb to be empty.
So, what happened to the body of Jesus? If the gospels are correct, Jesus died quicker than most do when being crucified. When the guard came out to break the legs of the criminals so that they would die sooner, Jesus was already dead (John 19:33). The Sabbath was approaching rapidly. It would be a disgrace for these dead, naked, bodies to be left nailed on crosses throughout the Passover celebration. Normally, the Romans would allow birds of prey to eat the carcasses of the crucified but the Jews were very sensitive to this type of thing and wanted them buried. So, it became imperative for these men to be dead and off the cross before the beginning of the Sabbath (sundown on Friday).
Here is where the gospels say that Joseph of Arimathea stepped up. Joseph was a member of the Sanhderin and, according to Matthew 27:57 and John 19:38, a secret follower of Christ. Whether the story of Joseph's claiming of the body is true or not is impossible to say. It does seem less likely that Joseph was a secret follower of Jesus as this is mentioned only in Matthew’s and John’s gospel and not in the earlier ones. One would think that this important information about Joseph would have been included in the earlier gospels. Thus, it appears that the claim of Joseph being a disciple of Jesus is probably a later embellishment to the original story.
Whether it was Joseph or some other devout Jew, the bodies were not going to be left up while the Passover was going on in Jerusalem. So, let’s say for the sake of argument that Joseph of Arimathea is a real man, who although not a follower of Jesus is a good Jew and offers up his new tomb as a “temporary” burial site for Jesus’ body. It was getting late in the day and so this offer was taken up by the Romans and the body was placed into the newly hewn family tomb of Joseph. These tombs were expensive and to think that Joseph was going to donate his family tomb permanently is stretching the man’s generosity. Christians have only assumed that Joseph’s tomb was to be the final burial site of Jesus.
The women all watched the burial and saw precisely where Jesus’ body was laid. They came back to the same tomb early on Sunday morning and it was empty. What had happened? Well, Joseph of Arimathea came back to the tomb after the sun went down on the Sabbath (Saturday night) and took the body and disposed of it in the criminal’s graveyard. This was the normal place that the executed would be buried. By the time, the women arrived at the tomb at day break on Sunday, the stone was rolled back and the tomb was empty.
The gospels now record various accounts of either one or more angels announcing to the women that Jesus was risen. In Mark’s account, the earliest, the women leave the tomb afraid and do not tell anyone about their experience. In the other three gospels they run and tell Peter.
Why the divergence in accounts? It could be that the women first coming upon the scene was not always included in the retelling of the Easter story. As time passed and an explanation was needed for why some accounts had it and others didn’t, the gospel of Mark says that although the women were the first ones present at the empty tomb,they told no one.
The question might be raised, why didn’t the women or the apostles check with Joseph of Arimathea to verify that he had not moved the bodies? That is an excellent question and perhaps the key to my view of why the tomb was empty.
Two possible explanations come to mind. 1) The disciples were afraid to approach a member of the Sanhedrin with any questions about Jesus’ body lest they be recognized as one of his followers and be imprisoned. 2) Joseph of Arimathea is a name that came to be used of the Jewish Sanhedrin member that offered up his tomb to Jesus. In other words, the original and true benefactor was not named but as the story was retold, somehow Joseph’s name came to be included. This would mean that the early disciples did not know who precisely owned the tomb and consequently did not know who to ask.
Another important question is: Why didn’t Joseph of Arimathea, or whoever the anonymous benefactor might have been, refute the disciples claim that Jesus had risen as the early Christians began to circulate Jerusalem with the good news (gospel)? The explanation is twofold: 1) The preaching of the early disciples in a large bustling city like Jerusalem really did not attract that much attention at first; 2) Once the crowds got larger after Pentecost, it was too late for anyone to produce a corpse of Jesus that could be identified as his. People were buried anonymously in the criminal graveyard. If the right grave could be located, the body would be so decomposed fifty days after his death, that it would be unrecognizable. (It is also conceivable that Jesus' body could have been thrown into Gehenna, the city landfill where dead criminals were sometimes cremated. Fires were kept burning and the valley became the garbage dump of the city. The dead bodies of criminals, and the carcasses of animals were also thrown there.).
Perhaps the Sanhedrin benefactor did let it be known that he had moved the body to the criminal graveyard but the Christians were already in full motion by then, and they were not going to believe the benefactor.
This is how I believe the empty tomb story originated. It is certainly more plausible than interjecting a divine act to explain it. Next, I will deal with the initial “Jesus sightings”.