A New Natural Interpretation of the Empty Tomb

Leonard Eisenberg

The purpose of this essay is not to determine the historicity of Jesus or the validity of apologists’ historical claims. Instead, this paper accepts at face value the key evidence for the resurrection (namely, the empty tomb and appearance stories) and proposes that they are most plausibly interpreted as the result of a confluence of natural events that begins with Jesus still (barely) alive when retrieved from the cross. Evidence for this interpretation is found in details of the Gospel stories of Jesus’s crucifixion, the empty tomb, and appearances to disciples. These details are significant because they seem unlikely to have been added later to make the Gospels more inspiring or divine. Christian apologists point to these details as evidence for the overall historical accuracy of the Gospels and, thus, the truth of the resurrection. However, these Gospel details, along with evidence from Jewish historian Josephus—and reliable records of erroneous declarations of death—point to a plausible chain of natural events that may have become embellished into the supernatural story upon which Christianity rests.

Apologist Argument for the Resurrection

Among Christian apologists, William Lane Craig stands out for his philosophical knowledge, scholarly work, public debate skills, and many publications. All his work is aimed at proving the existence of a biblical god and, most importantly for Christians, the miraculous resurrection of Jesus. Craig uses four principal evidential claims to support a supernatural interpretation of events at the end of Jesus’s life. The first is the empty tomb; the second comprises reports of Jesus’s post-crucifixion appearances; the third is the disciples’ devotion; and the fourth is the short time between events at the end of Jesus’s life and their commitment to the written record. Craig also uses the central place of women in parts of the Gospels, despite their low status in that time and place, as evidence for the historical truth of the Gospels. The third point can be safely left aside. Both Muslims and Mormons, among others, relied on followers’ devotion to spread and prosper. Craig’s claim about women is equally weak. First-century women were prominent in other religions, including Judaism, and Roman and Jewish law clearly permitted their testimony. It was only unseemly for women to be in public where normally only men appeared, and in some cases they did so anyway.

The fourth point suggests that the twenty to thirty years between the death of Jesus and Paul’s reference to the resurrection and appearances (but not an empty tomb) in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 was not long enough to allow supernatural embellishment. But there is ample evidence that legends can grow within short time frames. For example, Alexander the Great was undoubtedly a person of considerable public interest, and despite voluminous contemporary recording of his life and deeds, he attracted supernatural embellishments during his own lifetime. Jesus, on the other hand, was not of significant public interest—the only record we have of his life comes late and from his disciples; there are no contemporary accounts—and so constraints on embellishment would have been far less. Therefore, an empty tomb and post-crucifixion appearances are the crux of the apologist argument.

Crucifixion and an Empty Tomb

Christians believe Jesus truly died on the cross, insisting that he could not have fainted, faked his death, or otherwise survived crucifixion. But some scholars point out that certain early religious factions believed he did survive. Clues from the New Testament also suggest that a survival story was present when the Gospels were written.

If Jesus (barely) survived the cross, the empty tomb becomes a plausible consequence. There is no direct evidence that Jesus survived his crucifixion, but Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, describes how he rescued three crucified acquaintances while he was performing military duties for Rome and that all three were alive when retrieved. Because crucifixion killed over several days by dehydration, asphyxiation, or hypovolemic shock, a critical question becomes: How long were Josephus’s survivors on the cross, and how does that compare to the time Jesus was on the cross?

The following passage is from The Life of Flavius Josephus, end of chapter 75. Elsewhere in the extensive writings of Josephus is at least one obvious later interpolation, but there is no reason to suspect that the following passage contains anything other than original text. The setting for this incident is the Jewish revolt from Rome (66–73 ce), hence the large protective escort. It may have occurred in Fall 70 ce after the Romans captured Jerusalem and before Titus went on his triumphal tour of the area. Alternatively, it may have occurred in Spring 71 ce, when Titus stopped in Jerusalem on his way back to Rome with Josephus in his entourage.

And when I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealius, and a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp, as I came back, I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.

Thecoa was about six miles south of Bethlehem, which in turn was about six miles south of Jerusalem. We can reasonably assume that Josephus departed, and gathered a large escort from, the neighborhood of Jerusalem. So figure about twelve miles for Josephus to travel one way to visit the village, examine its utility as a site for a military camp, then return twelve miles to Jerusalem. This expedition would likely have occupied a full day. They probably left soon after daybreak, to be able to reconnoiter and get back before dark, using the same road to leave and return to Jerusalem. Josephus sees the men crucified on the way back, so they must have been crucified sometime after Josephus left Jerusalem. Josephus probably returned to Jerusalem in the late afternoon. More time is taken as Josephus must find Titus and beg for the men’s lives and for his order to spare them carried out. All this suggests that the three men endured crucifixion perhaps two to three hours, at most six to eight hours. Despite this, all three were alive, albeit barely, when retrieved from their crosses.

Jesus’s crucifixion is reported to have started either at the third hour (Mark 15:25) or around the sixth hour, which would have been about noon (John 19:14–16; Matthew 27:45). At the ninth hour, or about 3:00 p.m., Jesus appears to die (Matthew 27:50). He seems to have stayed on the cross another hour or two. “When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’s disciple: He went to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus” (Matthew 27:57–58). All this suggests that Jesus endured crucifixion between four and eight hours. The style of crucifixion is suggested by the minimum time of Jesus’s reported survival. Experiments on students and evidence from Nazi death camps show that if a victim is affixed to a cross with arms stretched out to the side and the lower body supported somehow—either by nailing the feet or providing a small seat—up to a few days of survival is possible. If the body is unsupported and hanging from arms extended over the head, the victim dies within an hour.

When Joseph of Arimathea (probably an embellished figure) begs Pilate for Jesus’s body, Pilate is surprised that Jesus is already dead and asks a centurion to confirm the death (Mark 15:43–45). This small detail is significant in that it would not likely have been a later insertion, because it would cast some doubt on the claim that Jesus died on the cross. It also is significant that it only appears in Mark, the first Gospel to be written. The other synoptic Gospels, Mathew and Luke, do not include it. Perhaps this detail was omitted because it did cast some doubt.

Another pertinent reference from Josephus’s The Jewish War describes how “… the Jews pay so much regard to obsequies that even those found guilty and crucified are taken down and buried before sunset.” This reasonably explains why disciples wished to retrieve Jesus soon after his apparent death and why Pilate allowed Jesus to be removed from the cross despite his suspicions. Crucifixion was a punishment used on peasants, slaves, and rebels, rarely on higher classes. Pilate may not have paid much attention to the case of a low-class messianic nuisance once he had been assured the man was dead.

It was unusual for a body to be removed from the cross immediately after death. The typical Roman procedure was to let the corpse rot and be torn by animals. But this Gospel story is not without independent support. In 1968, the remains of a crucified man from the first century were found in a cave northeast of Jerusalem, with a nail still embedded in the heel. The circumstances of this find suggest that the man’s body was taken down soon after death because of the wealth and influence of his family. The discovery of this man’s remains, and the reported timing of Jesus’s crucifixion and involvement of the high-status Joseph figure, make the story of Pilate’s releasing the body early more plausible.

Apologists reply to the Markan passage about Jesus’s short time on the cross by pointing to the scourging of Jesus prior to his crucifixion (Mark 15:15; Mathew 27:26; John 19:1–3) as a reason for his quick death. However, if Jesus were scourged, it was because scourging of persons to be crucified by Romans was common practice. It is likely that Jesus was treated no differently than other troublemakers the Romans crucified. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume the three acquaintances Josephus describes in his account had also been scourged prior to crucifixion—yet they were alive when taken down.

Pilate made his decision to release Jesus after trusting the centurion’s confirmation. There is no evidence to suggest that the centurion was lying or that he had been bribed. The simplest explanation is that the centurion (or the soldier whom the centurion may have sent to check for him) thought Jesus was dead. Apologists claim Roman soldiers could not have made a mistaken determination of death. But there are numerous well-documented declarations of death, even by medical professionals, that turned out to be wrong.

History abounds with false pronouncements of death. From the 1600s to the present day, records describe cases that involve drowning, hanging, disease, sudden collapse, and many other circumstances. In May 2004, an Idaho boy was declared dead by emergency personnel after thirty minutes of submersion but was found to be alive at the funeral home. In March 1988, a man collapsed at home and was pronounced dead by not one but two doctors. Fortunately, the undertaker wasn’t convinced, and the man recovered in the hospital.

Death by hanging would seem closest to that by crucifixion because if the neck doesn’t snap in the fall, a circumstance common in older executions, death occurs by asphyxiation. There are many reports of false declarations of death by hanging. A well-documented case concerns a woman who hanged herself and appeared dead to the doctor who examined her: “She was pulseless at the wrist and temples. There was no beat of the heart recognizable by stethoscope. There was absolute cessation of all natural respiratory efforts, complete unconsciousness, total abolition of reflex action and motion, …. The urine and feces had been passed involuntarily … .” The lack of reflexes extended to no reaction of the pupils to light exposure and no reaction of the eyelids when the eyeball was touched. But the woman was not dead, and later efforts to revive her were successful. In October 2013, a man hanged in Iran and declared dead by a doctor was found later in the morgue to be alive. In February 2014, a hospice nurse and a county coroner declared Walter Williams dead, but while being prepared for embalming, he was found by mortuary staff to be alive.

These are but a few of many well-documented examples of mistaken declarations of death. Given the frequency of death erroneously declared by medical professionals, one can reasonably propose that a first-century Roman soldier—to say nothing of Jesus’s disciples—could have mistakenly assumed that Jesus was dead on the cross.

Joseph of Arimathea must have thought Jesus was dead because he would not have dared ask for the body otherwise. If indeed Jesus was not dead, Joseph would have realized this as they took him down or as they were preparing him for burial. Joseph instantly would have been seized by a great fear and a great hope—hope that this charismatic man would survive and fear that the Romans would discover he had rescued a condemned man. Joseph would have recognized he had only one chance to preserve his own life and that of Jesus. Joseph would have made outward preparations for a burial, even as he would have been trying to revive Jesus. Joseph would have continued the ruse by having his slaves go to an available tomb, carrying a corpse-shaped bundle of burial cloth, place it inside, and then seal the tomb. The time pressure imposed by Jewish law to bury a condemned man before sundown makes the reported use of a tomb plausible. Rock-hewn tombs were expensive, and although not the usual practice for the condemned, there is evidence that dishonorable burial included tomb burial in first-century Palestine. If a few of Jesus’s followers were around to witness the decoy burial (Mark 15:47; Matthew 27:61; Luke 23:55), the possible presence of Roman soldiers, and perhaps some pagans representing the interest of the Jewish hierarchy, would have kept them at a distance. Few others were likely to be present. Most of the Jewish population would have been home preparing for the Sabbath.

Another small detail in the Gospels can be seen to support this scenario. Luke 24:12 and John 20:5–8 speak of disciples seeing burial linens in the opened tomb. Because this story does not appear in Mark or Matthew, it could well be just an embellishment to the empty tomb story. Apologists use the reports of burial linens as evidence for the resurrection, claiming that no other explanation but the supernatural is possible. Far from it! If burial linens were found in an empty tomb, they were likely placed there during a decoy burial.

Jesus may have survived for a short time after his crucifixion but probably didn’t last long. Joseph of Arimathea would then have had only one choice: to bury Jesus quickly—not in a tomb but somewhere quiet and inconspicuous. If the Romans discovered that Joseph had retrieved Jesus before he was dead and had conducted a decoy burial, Joseph would pay with his life. He would have had every reason to make it look to the Romans and Jewish hierarchy as if Jesus really had died on the cross and been buried in the tomb. The poor in first-century Palestine were buried in simple shallow graves or shafts without inscriptions or valuables. If such an anonymous grave became the final resting place of Jesus, it may have been uncovered in subsequent years, but bearing no inscription, no one would know whose grave it was.

Jesus’s brief survival would not easily have been kept secret from the disciples or the Roman authorities. The natural reaction to such a rumor would have been for the Romans to unseal the tomb (perhaps three days after the crucifixion?), and of course they would have found it empty except for a bundle of burial linen. They would immediately have gone looking for Joseph. The followers of Jesus would have heard the report of the empty tomb and—perhaps in some way involving women, as per the Gospels—they confirmed it for themselves. The Jewish hierarchy also must have heard about the empty tomb, and they are reported to have accused Jesus’s followers of stealing the body (Matthew 28:11–15). Joseph of Arimathea also would have heard the news—and that the Romans were coming for him. He would have had every incentive to leave town in a hurry and disappear, perhaps aided by some bribes. Perhaps Joseph was captured and quietly killed by the Romans to avoid embarrassment and the attention of higher authorities. (Joseph of Arimathea appears only in the Gospels and is not mentioned in any other New Testament writing.) Pilate may have had the tomb cleaned and promptly re-used, or defiled it, or even destroyed it to forestall any veneration of the site.

Could the followers of Jesus eventually have learned of his true resting place? Joseph of Arimathea would have had no incentive to mark the true grave of Jesus or identify the body in any way. If Joseph were killed by the Romans, the secret died with him. The handful of slaves who participated in the burial would have had every reason to keep quiet, or perhaps they were killed with him. If Joseph were able to flee, he very reasonably would have decided to avoid any contact with the disciples. Survival would be more assured if Joseph and his slaves kept quiet and hidden.

Appearances

The second key evidential claim is the reported appearances of Jesus to his followers after his crucifixion and death. Apologists admit that these vary in number and detail but liken this to the phenomenon of witnesses’ varying accounts of a confirmed natural event. However, extending this to a confirmation of a man (the son of God, no less) rising from the dead is not supportable on the available evidence. There is no contemporary account of Jesus, much less his appearance after death, from Roman, Jewish, or other historians. Even though the reported appearances are not consistent between Gospels (and absent from the original version of Mark), a belief in Jesus’s resurrection was held by disciples from the earliest days. It is reasonable to conclude that the appearance reports describe followers’ memories of visions of a post-crucifixion Jesus.

The key detail in Gospel reports of a risen Jesus is that many include initial misidentifications. This is odd on the face of it. Jesus’s devoted followers not recognizing their lord and master? But it makes perfect sense if the disciples reported visions or impressions of the voice and likeness of Jesus in others, which later became interpreted as a physical resurrection. People of the first century commonly believed in possession by demons or spirits, visitations by gods, and the transmigration of souls; the Old and New Testaments alike are full of such things. Jesus predicted his own resurrection on eleven different occasions. It would not be surprising if reports of having felt the presence of a post-crucifixion Jesus in another person were readily accepted by disciples.

In Luke 24:15–32, a resurrected Jesus walks, talks, and eats with disciples, but they don’t recognize him. “But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.” One of their number speaks to the unrecognized Jesus as a stranger: “… Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem … ?” (Luke 24:18). The disciples walk with an unrecognized Jesus and prevail upon him to eat and spend the evening with them, all the while being harangued by Jesus for not believing (Luke 24:25–30)! In Luke 24:31, they recognize the stranger as Jesus, even as he vanishes from their sight. Finally, Luke 24:32 describes the apostles reminding themselves of how their hearts burned while the stranger talked to them. This episode in Luke is plausibly explained as a memory of seeing and feeling the presence of Jesus in others soon after the crucifixion. Modern studies clearly document how intense grief can result in hallucinations of a loved one; mass hallucinations are a well-documented phenomenon.

There are other examples. John 20:14–16: “And when she [Mary Magdalene] had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.” It is hard to imagine such a close follower of Jesus as Mary Magdalene not recognizing him, much less thinking him the gardener. No suggestion is made that Jesus was in disguise. Mary Magdalene thought it was the gardener because, probably, it was the gardener, and she came to feel, in her distressed state, that there was something of her master in the person before her. John 21:4: “But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.” Mark 16:9–12 (although perhaps a later addition): “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept. And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not. After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked into the country.”

The Gospels depict Jesus as resurrected in the body that was buried, but Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:44–54 implies that the risen Jesus left his old body behind and appeared in a glorious new body. This contradiction can be reconciled by concluding that the first Christians, including Paul, thought Jesus was resurrected in a new body and that the appearances were visions and dreams. The Gospel belief in a physical resurrection of the body that was buried—followed by appearances in the flesh—evolved later. If modern believers can see an image of Jesus in a piece of toast, it isn’t hard to imagine that the first disciples believed they felt the person of their master in other people. Paul says little about the crucifixion of Jesus, perhaps because the Roman world thought it abominable to worship a crucified god, and this was a major impediment to proselytization among non-Jews. Some Bible scholars use the different versions of the nature of a risen Jesus to support the view that Jesus was just a composite of mythical figures, not a real person. But it is also plausible that the earliest church writings reflect a more accurate account of the disciples’ first memories and that crucifixion details were downplayed in early accounts to make the new religion more attractive to gentiles.

Conclusion

Clues in the Gospels, evidence from the Jewish historian Josephus, belief in the transmigration of souls, and well-documented examples of erroneous declarations of death combine to support a natural explanation for the resurrection and appearance stories on which Christian faith rests: 1) Jesus survives his short stay on the cross and 2) is discovered to be barely alive by the few followers who retrieve him. 3) Fearful because they have retrieved a condemned man, they carry out a decoy burial in a tomb. 4) Jesus expires soon after and is buried quietly in an anonymous grave, but 5) rumor of his survival reaches his followers, as well as the Romans, who 6) open the tomb and find it empty, except for burial linen used in the decoy operation. 7) The high-status Jew who recovered the (barely alive) Jesus from the cross leaves town in a hurry when the Romans come looking for him. 8) To soothe their grief, the disciples seize on the rumor of Jesus’s survival and encourage each other to hear the voice and see the image of their master in others. 9) Inspired by what they believe is a miraculous resurrection, the disciples slowly build a following.

Christianity accepts a supernatural interpretation of the empty tomb and appearance stories, but, compared to other historical claims of the supernatural, the evidence is extremely thin. A voluminous record of the 1692 Salem witch trials is preserved in court records, depositions, diaries, and letters, yet few modern people think there was an epidemic of witchcraft. Instead it only required a confluence of natural events and superstition to bring about the execution of twenty people and two dogs. Further, if one believes witchcraft were afoot in Salem, then one also should accept that Joseph Smith really recovered divine golden plates, because Mormons have statements from eleven contemporaries testifying to their existence. In these and many more cases, a natural explanation plausibly explains claimed supernatural events. The resurrection and appearance stories about Jesus should be seen the same way.

Although the probability of the chain of events proposed herein is low, it is surely far larger than the supernatural model. It also is arguably more likely than other non-supernatural hypotheses. It does not require Jesus to survive his crucifixion and meet his followers, to have his body stolen, or be removed from the tomb after the Sabbath and reburied in a pauper or criminal graveyard. One only need propose that Jesus was still alive (barely) when recovered and envision how events most likely would have unfolded from there.

 


Further Reading

  • Aslan, Reza. Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2013.
  • Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Carrier, Richard C. “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb.” In The Empty Tomb. Edited by R. M. Price and J. J. Lowder. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005: 105–231.
  • Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, Publisher, 2010.
  • Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan, L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts—The Key Discoveries for Understanding Jesus in His World. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
  • Komarnitsky, Kris. “Myth Growth Rates, A Close look at the Linchpin of Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ.” Free Inquiry (February/March 2013): 37–41.
  • Lowder, Jeffery J. “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig.” In The Empty Tomb. Edited by R. M. Price and J. J. Lowder. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005: 261–306.
  • Price, Robert M. “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle.” In The Empty Tomb. Edited by R. M. Price and J. J. Lowder. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005: 219–232.
  • Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ—A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.
  • Zugibe, F. T. “Death by Crucifixion,” Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal 17 (1984): 1–13.

 


A version of this article was published online in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion on January 19, 2016, and in the print journal version of International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (October 2016) 80:133–143.

Leonard Eisenberg

Leonard Eisenberg is a geologist in Ashland, Oregon, where he lives with his family. After acquiring BS and MS degrees from San Diego State University, he worked for Chevron Overseas on exploration projects in Africa, the former Yugoslavia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. He now volunteer teaches and runs Evogeneao.com, which promotes a family approach to teaching evolution. Eisenberg presents school and community programs about evolution, earth history, the petroleum industry, and other subjects and helped design and build Briscoe Geology Park, where he presents the earth history educational program. He also helped design and build a similar Earth History Walk at Oregon Hills Park in Medford, Oregon. Eisenberg also designed and built the “Climb through Time” earth history climbing wall at ScienceWorks Museum in Ashland, Oregon, and was a principal in the 2018 Pterosaurs: Ancient Rulers of the Sky exhibit, also at ScienceWorks Musuem in Ashland, Oregon. Eisenberg’s current geologic research focuses on giant floods and long-lived lakes in the 200-million year-old Navajo Sandstone in Utah. He is past president of The Jefferson Center, an educational group in Ashland.


The purpose of this essay is not to determine the historicity of Jesus or the validity of apologists’ historical claims. Instead, this paper accepts at face value the key evidence for the resurrection (namely, the empty tomb and appearance stories) and proposes that they are most plausibly interpreted as the result of a confluence of …

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