The Empty Tomb’s Importance

One of N.T. Wright’s main arguments for the resurrection of Jesus goes as follows: In the first century, resurrection meant resurrection, as in a dead person coming back to life in an embodied state. A person dies, is buried, and gets back up alive. That’s resurrection! Resurrection in the ancient world was not the immortality of the soul–the notion that the soul escapes the body after death. If the early Christians had wanted to say that Jesus’ soul lived on, they would have said that his soul lived on, not that he rose from the dead. For N.T. Wright, their idea that Jesus rose entails that his tomb was empty, for resurrection means that Jesus came out of his grave. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire: something had to give rise to the early Christians’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, and N.T. Wright contends that it was its actual occurrence. Although N.T. Wright denies that the empty tomb is the sole piece of evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, Christian apologists place a lot of emphasis on it.

But there are many scholars who deny the empty tomb. They believe that a hallucination or a vision gave rise to the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Gerd Luedemann goes down this track. So do some of the scholars who comment on my blog. A hallucination or a vision is not evidence for Jesus’ resurrection because they have psychological explanations, plus they are highly subjective. The reason that Christian apologists lean so heavily on the empty tomb is that they consider it to be more objective, in the sense that it’s outside of the mind of the early Christians: something had to lead to that tomb being empty. Even a lot of skeptics shy away from the old explanation that Jesus went into a coma and came out of it while he was in the tomb. And Christian apologists dismiss the idea that the disciples stole Jesus’ body, for why would they die for a lie? According to apologists, the only explanation for the empty tomb was Jesus’ resurrection.

And how do we know that the tomb was empty? For one, the early Christians proclaimed their belief that Jesus rose from the dead, and something convinced them of that. A vision or a hallucination would tell them that Jesus was a ghost, but that does not constitute resurrection. An empty tomb, however, would lead them to phrase Jesus’ survival of death in that way. And, second, Christianity thrived in the first century. Would it have done so, if its enemies could’ve just pointed out Jesus’ tomb? “He’s in there!,” they could have said. “What’s all this talk about his resurrection?” But they didn’t say that. They couldn’t say that, since the tomb was empty. The Gospel of Matthew refers to one Pharisaic explanation: Jesus’ disciples stole the body while the Roman soldiers were asleep (Matthew 28:13). Even that acknowledged that the tomb was empty.

This sets the stage for a post that I will write soon. It will concern I Corinthians 15.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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30 Responses to The Empty Tomb’s Importance

  1. steph says:

    You ought to read James Crossley, “Against the Historical Plausibility of the Empty Tomb Story and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus: A Response to N. T. Wright” (JSHS 3.2 (2005) 153-168.


  2. James Pate says:

    Does he say the same sort of stuff on his blog? I’m not really in a mood to find out what that periodical is.


  3. steph says:

    No, this is a scholarly piece and you ought not to dismiss it. It is in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus – sorry I typed the wrong initials.


  4. James Pate says:

    JSHJ isn’t in my library, but I found an abstract. He thinks Paul may have assumed an empty tomb, even if there was none. So I wonder what he thinks happened to Jesus’ body.


  5. Steven Carr says:

    ‘ a dead person coming back to life in an embodied state. A person dies, is buried, and gets back up alive. That’s resurrection! Resurrection in the ancient world was not the immortality of the soul–the notion that the soul escapes the body after death.’

    Paul in Romans 7:24 ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’

    The converts in Corinth believed in a model of a resurrection that involved a dead body being restored.

    It is at that precise moment , when Paul puts forward questions that arise from that model of a resurrection, that Paul calls them ‘idiots’.

    If you believe a resurrection involves a dead body being restored, then asking how a corpse reduced to smoke and ash is restored is a sensible question, not a foolish one.

    Paul though, regards all questions about how a corpse-restoring resurrection works as foolish, and proceeds to explain to the Corinthians about the 2 bodies.


  6. steph says:

    If you are a student you can access it from your library as it is a very highly regarded journal. If in the unlikely case your university library doesn’t subscribe to it you can interloan it. Although you appear unwilling to read it, it is worthwhile reading it if you’re taking the resurrection tradition seriously. He discusses Jewish and pagan legendary traditions in some depth – an area in which he has expertise. He is currently completing a big work on Jewish Law for WJKP. Have you read any of his published work?


  7. Kyle says:

    This is a totally personal question, and you don’t have to answer it, but do you work for James or study under him?

    I just have noticed that you often refer to his work on various sites…you almost seem to love his work as much as Chris Tilling loves Bishop Wright 🙂


  8. Kyle says:

    And James,
    You really should look up Crossley’s critique. And then after you’re done you can read Wright’s response to the critique. It was also published in the same journal, but has also been made available online:


  9. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your comments, folks!

    Who said I’m unwilling to read it, Steph? I’ve been more than willing on this blog to look at other perspectives.

    I don’t exactly have access to a university library right now, so I prefer to read things online. No, I’m not going to purchase a subscription to the JSHJ just to read Crossley’s article, but it would be nice if I could read his arguments somewhere online–like on his blog.

    Also, to be perfectly honest, it would be nice if people told me what they want me to get out of an article rather than just giving me a citation. I hear “read this, read that” all of the time, but why can’t I read just a short synopsis of the person’s argument?

    Thanks for your comments, Steven. I’ll be interacting more with them later on today.

    Thanks for the reference, Kyle. Maybe I can get Crossley’s arguments through Wright’s response (somewhat).


  10. Steven Carr says:

    ‘In the first century, resurrection meant resurrection, as in a dead person coming back to life in an embodied state.’

    SO Wright is claiming that Christians made a radical departure from accepted Jewish thinking on the idea of a Messiah rising from the dead.

    And Wright is also claiming that Christians would have thought of resurrection as a corpse being made alive and leaving the tomb, because anything else would have made a radical departure from accepted Jewish thinking.


  11. steph says:

    No I don’t “work for James or study under him” and I don’t “love his work” – I respect his work as many do.


  12. steph says:

    James, I can access Nottingham library on the other side of the world and read journals on line. And you don’t understand an author’s argument by reading someone else’s interpretation of it.


  13. Kyle says:

    Please don’t think I meant any offense by my previous comment. I was simply making a joke at the end in reference to Tilling’s love of the right reverend Wright.

    Although I ultimately side with Wright, but I also highly respect Dr. Crossley’s work and response.


  14. steph says:


    my doktorvater is Maurice Casey. My work interacts alot with both of theirs.


  15. steph says:

    …or more specifically, I am working on a related project.


  16. James Pate says:

    That’s why I had the disclaimer “(somewhat),” Steph.

    But can you get those journals for free on Nottingham library? That would help me (and others) immensely if such is the case.


  17. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    You’re saying N.T. Wright is inconsistent on the originality argument. As I said before on here, I’m not overly convinced by his originality argument myself. But if we’re going to define resurrection, shouldn’t we consider what it meant within the ancient world? If Paul didn’t have at least something like that in his mind, how could he communicate with his audience?

    I know some of how you’ll respond to that: I Corinthians 15 is correcting their misconception of resurrection, and that’s why he calls them fools. I’ll address that in a post, either today or tomorrow. Stay tuned!


  18. Steven Carr says:

    ‘In the first century, resurrection meant resurrection, as in a dead person coming back to life in an embodied state. A person dies, is buried, and gets back up alive. That’s resurrection!’

    Wright denies that that is resurrection. Wright calls it resuscitation.

    However, we have Pharisee like Jospehus writing in Wars of the Jews Book 2 about Pharisees

    ‘They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies…’

    This is basically what Paul believed except that he never names what is naked after the destruction of the present body and is then clothed in a spiritual body.

    Jose[hus writes how men ‘cross over’ (metahainein) into a different body (eis heteron soma)

    Wright’s response is to claim that Josephus didn’t believe what he was writing and was lying about what Pharisees believed.

    Certainly I doubt that all Pharisees believed that people crossed over into different bodies.

    But there is no reason at all to dismiss Paul on the grounds that nobody would ever have thought of a person moving to a new body upon death (like people thought Jesus was John returned from the dead??)


  19. James Pate says:

    My understanding of Wright’s distinction between resuscitation and resurrection is as follows: resuscitation is a dead person getting up alive. Resurrection is a dead person getting up alive with a new, transformed body. So I probably should have added those words to be more accurate. But Wright does believe that the dead person getting up part is important, since he says that the use of the word “resurrection” in I Corinthians 15 implies an empty tomb.

    I checked out Wright’s discussion of Jewish Wars 2.163. I wasn’t totally clear if he was reading it as you are. I mean, Jewish Wars 3:374 talks about the souls being sent again (palin) into pure bodies, and I wonder if that means they’re sent back to earth into transformed bodies (otherwise why have “again,” unless it just means they were transferred again?). But Wright does say that Josephus is trying to downplay resurrection for his Roman audience, which considered it unsophisticated. And I don’t see the terms for resurrection used.


  20. steph says:

    what disclaimer, where, James. I don’t understand you.


  21. steph says:

    As a student I have access to my university library on line. I can interloan, order and renew books and read articles on line. You will have access to yours and be able to do the same. I still don’t know what you mean by your ‘disclaimer’.


  22. James Pate says:

    Just the disclaimer where I said reading N.T. Wright can give me access to Crossley’s argument (somewhat). I know it won’t do so perfectly, but it will somewhat.


  23. Steven Carr says:

    Wright is using the no True Scotsman technique here.

    Early Christians had no concept of a distinction between resurrection and resuscitation.

    Tertullian said Lazarus was resuscitated.

    Wright can impose his own definition of resurrection on the world and claim anybody teaching a different afterlife is not teachinga resurrection.

    But Josephus claimed some Pharisees believed people left one body and moved into a different body.

    Later, Jospehus wrote about how the new body that people are sent into would be unpolluted, undefiled.

    I guess he meant it would still have the wounds that killed it – like Jesus had.

    I guess so.


  24. Steven Carr says:

    In chapter 1 of Resurrection of the Son of God NT Wright writes ‘Some within the Lubavitcher messianic movement have apparently used ‘resurrection’ language in relation to their Rebbe (who died in 1994) as a way (Marcus suggests, following Dale Allison) of ‘speaking of a dead person being alive’. What seems to be happening, rather, is that some have picked up a misunderstood Christian term and used it in a sense that goes against their own ancient literature.’

    Gosh, Jews changing the meaning of the word resurrection.

    Ancient Jews would rather be killed than abandon circumcision and kosher food, yet Paul did both.

    But Paul would never have had the flexible mind of modern Jews who , laments Wright, are changing the meaning of the word ‘resurrection’.

    Paul capable of new thoughts? Give us a break! What sort of guy do you think he was?

    Ancient Jews just did not have the flexibility of thought of modern Orthodox Jews who redefined the term ‘resurrection’, (much to Wright’s disgust)


  25. steph says:

    Why on earth read Wright’s response to see what Crossley said if Crossley’s article is in the same journal?


  26. steph says:

    and you won’t understand his article from any “short synopsis” or description of his “argument” from anything I say. It wouldn’t do it justice. You said you read his extract. That should enable you to know what it is about. And I did mention something along the same lines of the extract.


  27. James Pate says:

    I’m reading Wright’s section on I Corinthians 15:35ff. as I prepare my next post. I found something on p. 342 interesting:

    “But Paul is also arguing for a bodily resurrection very different from a mere resuscitation. A seed does not come to life by being dug up, brushed down and restored to its pristine seediness. Having created hermeneutical space to talk about different kinds of bodies, by listing the many different types in the original creation, Paul exploits this to differentiate in several respects between the present body and the future one. This is a striking innovation within the Jewish tradition of resurrection discussions, though it obviously remains within the Jewish world of thought…”

    Wright says that Paul’s conception of the resurrection is innovative. But he still thinks that a phenomena should fulfill certain criteria to qualify as such. And that makes sense, since resurrection has to be at least somewhat continuous with how most people define the term. How about “rising” being one of the criteria?


  28. James Pate says:

    Steph, I’ll read Wright because it’s online. But maybe I still have JSTOR and can dig up the Crossley article that way.


  29. Kyle says:

    You might be able to get the article by simply e-mailing Crossley as well.


  30. James Pate says:

    I may do that Kyle. That went through my mind. He teaches at Sheffield, right? Today, I read most of Crossley’s response to Wright’s response, on his blog.


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