Was Jesus’ Body Really Buried in a Tomb?

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Wearing blue jeans, white socks, and a dark-blue sweater with red turtleneck collar, William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th., lounged on a floral couch in his living room. On the wall behind him was a large framed scene of Munich.

It was there, fresh with a master of arts degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham, England, that Craig studied the resurrection for the first time, while earning another doctorate, this one in theology from the University of Munich. He later taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and then served as a visiting scholar at the Higher Institute of Philosophy at the University of Louvain near Brussels.

While he is internationally known for his writings about the intersection of science, philosophy, and theology, he needed no prompting to discuss the subject that still makes his heart beat fast: the resurrection of Jesus.

Before looking at whether the tomb of Jesus was empty, I needed to establish whether his body had been there in the first place. History tells us that as a rule, crucified criminals were left on the cross to be devoured by birds or were thrown into a common grave. This has prompted John Dominic Crossan of the liberal Jesus Seminar to conclude that Jesus’ body probably was dug up and consumed by wild dogs.

“Based on these customary practices,” I said to Craig, “wouldn’t you admit that this is most likely what happened?”

“If all you looked at was customary practice, yes, I’d agree,” came his reply. “But that would ignore the specific evidence in this case.”

“Okay, then let’s look at the specific evidence,” I said. With that I pointed out an immediate problem: the gospels say Jesus’ corpse was turned over to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very council — the Sanhedrin — that voted to condemn Jesus. “That’s rather implausible, isn’t it?” I demanded in a tone that sounded more pointed than I had intended.

Craig shifted on the couch as if he were getting ready to pounce on my question. “No, not when you look at all the evidence for the burial,” he said. “So let me go through it. For one thing, the burial is mentioned by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3 – 7, where he passes on a very early creed of the church.”

Craig agrees with various scholars that this creed — a statement that Christians would recite to summarize their beliefs — undoubtedly goes back to within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion, having been given to Paul, after his conversion, in Damascus or in his subsequent visit to Jerusalem when he met with the apostles James and Peter.

“This creed is incredibly early and therefore trustworthy material,” Craig said. “Essentially, it’s a four-line formula. The first line refers to the crucifixion, the second to the burial, the third to the resurrection, and the fourth to Jesus’ appearances. As you can see, the second line affirms that Jesus was buried.”

That was too vague for me. “Wait a minute,” I interjected. “He may have been buried, but was it in a tomb? And was it through Joseph of Arimathea, this mysterious character who comes out of nowhere to claim the body?”

Craig remained patient. “This creed is actually a summary that corresponds line by line with what the gospels teach,” he explained. “When we turn to the gospels, we find multiple, independent attestation of this burial story, and Joseph of Arimathea is specifically named in all four accounts. On top of that, the burial story in Mark is so extremely early that it’s simply not possible for it to have been subject to legendary corruption.”

“How can you tell it’s early?” I asked.

“Two reasons,” he said. “First, Mark is generally considered to be the earliest gospel. Second, his gospel basically consists of short anecdotes about Jesus, more like pearls on a string than a smooth, continuous narrative.

“But when you get to the last week of Jesus’ life — the so-called passion story — then you do have a continuous narrative of events in sequence. This passion story was apparently taken by Mark from an even earlier source — and this source included the story of Jesus being buried in the tomb.”

While those were good arguments, I spotted a problem with Mark’s account of what happened. “Mark says that the entire Sanhedrin voted to condemn Jesus,” I said. “If that’s true, this means Joseph of Arimathea cast his ballot to kill Jesus. Isn’t it highly unlikely that he would have then come to give Jesus an honorable burial?”

Apparently, my observation put me in good company. “Luke may have felt this same discomfort,” Craig said, “which would explain why he added one important detail — Joseph of Arimathea wasn’t present when the official vote was taken. So that would explain things. But the significant point about Joseph of Arimathea is that he would not be the sort of person who would have been invented by Christian legend or Christian authors.”

I needed more than merely a conclusion on that matter; I wanted some solid reasoning. “Why not?” I asked.

“Given the early Christian anger and bitterness toward the Jewish leaders who had instigated the crucifixion of Jesus,” he said, “it’s highly improbable that they would have invented one who did the right thing by giving Jesus an honorable burial — especially while all of Jesus’ disciples deserted him! Besides, they wouldn’t make up a specific member of a specific group, whom people could check out for themselves and ask about this. So Joseph is undoubtedly a historical figure.”

Before I could ask a follow-up question, Craig continued. “I’ll add that if this burial by Joseph were a legend that developed later, you’d expect to find other competing burial traditions about what happened to Jesus’ body. However, you don’t find these at all.

“As a result, the majority of New Testament scholars today agree that the burial account of Jesus is fundamentally reliable. John A. T. Robinson, the late Cambridge University New Testament scholar, said the honorable burial of Jesus is one of the earliest and best-attested facts that we have about the historical Jesus.”

Bible Gateway

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