The Empty Tomb: Why Doesn't Paul Mention It?
Well known is this passage from 1 Corinthians in which Paul reminds the believers at Corinth of the tradition that he handed down to them. Here we find some of the bare essentials of the faith: Christ's death, burial, and resurrection all said to have been "in accordance with the scriptures." Most scholars agree that we are dealing with a tradition that reaches back further than Paul and that, with the exception of verses 6-8, this formulation of the tradition was probably left mostly intact in its original form.
Some however have seized upon what Paul does not mention: the empty tomb. This, they say, is grounds for rejecting an early tradition about an empty tomb. The argument usually runs in this manner: "Paul did not know about Jesus' grave, and if he did not know about it, then surely no one else before him did either. The story of the empty tomb must, it follows, have originated after Paul." (Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p. 305-6) Thus the tradition of the empty tomb is concluded as being secondary to the Jesus tradition. Furthermore, what was of chief importance were the appearances of Jesus and not an empty tomb. For my own part I think this argument from silence is less than compelling.
However, my concern right now is not to prove that there was an empty tomb tradition prior to Paul but to attempt to answer the question: if Paul did have knowledge about an empty tomb tradition why does he fail to mention this? The simple answer is that he didn't see it necessary to make explicit. To understand this we must realize that Paul is passing on a very compact tradition that is lacking in many other details we might expect, most notably the event of crucifixion (Allison, p. 306).
Paul would have expected the believers at Corinth to know that the phrase "Christ died for our sins" refered implicitly to the Christ's death by crucifixion. What is striking is that this tradition concerning the mode of Jesus' death is not as prevalent as one might expect in the New Testament documents that predate the Gospel accounts and Acts. In fact, if we took away 1 Corinthians, 2 Cor. 13:14, the letter of Galatians, Rom. 6:6, and Rev. 11:8 you would have effectively removed all references to Jesus' death as crucifixion in the rest of the NT! Yet very few would assert that Jesus' death by crucifixion was not part of the tradition.
A similar argument could be made concerning the empty tomb. Paul by the simple phrase "he was raised on the third day" could have been making an implicit reference to the empty tomb that he knew the Corinthian believers would have inferred. And so just as the phrase "Christ died" implied the mode of death, crucifixion, so the phrase "he was raised" implied the leaving behind of an empty tomb. In fact, what is implicit in the phrase is that the "raising" was from the dead. That Paul doesn't qualify with "from the dead" exemplifies just how terse Paul meant this statement of tradition to be. In conclusion, due to the nature of the statement, Paul would have found the mentioning of the empty tomb to be superfulous and redundant since it was already implicit in the phrase "was raised on the third day."
Moreover, we have an example from latter Christianity that does precisely what I'm postulaing Paul may be doing here. Here's the example from a well known creed:
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried:[ He descended into hell:]
The third day he rose again from the dead:
He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
I believe in the Holy Ghost:
I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:
The forgiveness of sins:
The resurrection of the body:
And the life everlasting. Amen.
Though this is obviously much latter than the tradition that Paul cites it still exhibits a tendancy of the early church not spell out every detail that they would have viewed as already implicit. Here Jesus is said to have risen on the third day, but there is no mention of an empty tomb. Yet we know that by this time the empty tomb tradition was a significant factor in Christian belief. However, since the assertion that Jesus was raised from the dead would have implied the tradition of an empty tomb, the creators of this document did not see the need make explicit the implicit. Thus Paul could have plausibly acted likewise in his summary of the tradition he passed on to the Corinthian believers.
Of course none of this proves that Paul received a tradition about an empty tomb, but it at least provides a plausible account of why he would have failed to mention this tradition if he in fact knew of its existence.