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Monday, May 01, 2006 

The Empty Tomb: Why Doesn't Paul Mention It?

"For I delievered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve." 1 Cor 15: 3-5

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.

Christopher-Good post. Two things always get me with respect to what Paul knew (or didn't) about 'the historical Jesus': 1) the lack of information regarding Jesus' earthly ministry (i.e., the stories and information we are given in the gospels); and 2) the absence of a mentioning of the empty tomb. As I think your post drove at, it almost seems expected that Paul might have written about it somewhere (perhaps evens developed a point from it).

Regarding your input on the issue, Stephen Neill introduced the similar position of von Campenhausen in his "Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1886" (updated later by NT Wright): "But here the weight of the evidence tells in exactly the opposite direction; Paul's statements that the Lord was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, are almost unintelligible if he was not familiar with that part of hte tradition which dealt with the empty tomb" (308).

There seems to be a great deal that Paul should of, and probably did, know about the life and ministry of Jesus. But it is striking that he rarely mentions such things. Conversely, Paul does know sayings of Jesus (including at least we do not [Acts 20:35]).

Neill goes on to point out that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on the empty tomb is a non-sequitor: "The fact that the tomb was empty, if it is a fact, proves that the tomb was empty and nothing more" (309). Here we are solid ground, I think, for the historical basis of belief in Jesus' (yes...bodily) resurrection.

PS-Don't forget a few other references to Jesus death on a cross: Eph 2:16; Phil. 2:8; Col. 1:2; 2:18; Heb. 12:2 and 1 Pet. 2:24.

Thanks, Derek for the comments. Sorry for the oversight on the references to Jesus' death on the cross, I suppose I got a bit zealous. Your site looks excellent and I am going to promptly add it to my links.

One thing I didn't point out in this post is that even if Paul was not familiar with an empty tomb tradition, I still think he would have believed the tomb was empty given the "normative" understanding of resurrection and the context of the discussion which clearly indicates that the transformation at the resurrection is something that happens to the former body.

Am I missing something? Neill is saying if the empty tomb is a fact it only proves there was an empty tomb. The resurrection belief is however grounded in actual appearances (whatever their nature) like those mentioned by Paul and later believers. The tomb is not the "basis of the belief", right?

As to the rest of the discussion, Paul doesn't seem familiar with gospel traditions in some significant ways. Most significantly, where are the women in Paul's account? Would he have analyzed the spirit/flesh distinction so carefully in 1 cor 15 if he had known Luke 24's different handling of it. Would he not have spoken of Thomas touching of scars and the like. Shouldn't he have mentioned the ascension when declaring his lordship? In the creedal section brevity might have been important, but his extended discussion in 1 Cor 15 would have been a perfect place to talk about the Easter day's "events".

It would be interesting to contemplate what we would say if Jesus had been cremated. I think we would not be having this argument about whether or not the urn was empty on Sunday morning. We wouldn't be saying traditional Judaism or sound theology requires
the urn to be empty "ashes must be redeemed or it makes no sense".

It would be enough to have Jesus appear again to his disciples in some "spiritual bodily" way which suggested a reality which was not simply ghost-like but a participation in eternal life and the power of God. We would say the "Lord is Spirit" just like Paul's explanation in 1Cor15. The Spirit is the resurrected Jesus. And so we are the "body" of Christ as Paul says. I'm with Luke Timothy Johnson on this one. Paul is in fact interested in the form of the resurrection of Jesus, he is speaking about it every time he mentions the Spirit.

Or the other mental exercise that helps is to contemplate the guards at the tomb being awake and attempting a re-arrest of Jesus. Or could Pilate have seen Jesus and repented? Shouldn't the palm sunday crowds have gathered on the road to Emmaus? Did Jesus not want them to know about his vindication? (We all know it is a matter of faith, not some historical sighting). Why didn't Peter at Pentecost refer all those gathered to the empty tomb? (Because the Spirit came and filled them all. Jesus was present, one didn't need to confirm he was absent from the tomb).

This obsession with the body being resuscitated, which in my opinion is what the gospels indicate, is the position that is missing the point. It is making a fetish of Jesus' body (like Mary who clung to him in John 20) instead of understanding his real spiritual presence.

I don't think any of this denies the new creation or reality of a future embodied with Jesus.

Paul doesn't mention the empty tomb because there wasn't one. He would have regarded the corpse of Jesus as the empty, dead seed-case from which a life-giving spirit emerged.

This is the only possible reasons why the Thessalonians and the Corinthians did not believe that dead corpses would rise agaim. They had never heard stories of such things happening. What had converted them to a belief in a resurrection of Jesus, yet a denial that dead bodies could rise, except a resurrection that did not involve a dead body rising?

It is interesting that even in 1 Thess. 4:14, Paul says that he believed Jesus died and rose again. Didn't he know? Did he not get all his information from the scriptures, as he says in 1 Corinthians 15?

'Shouldn't the palm sunday crowds have gathered on the road to Emmaus?'

The Palm Sunday story is interesting.

There is a week-long Jewish festival that is associated with waving palms, shouting Hosannah, and reading from (IIRC) Psalms 116-118.

And it isn't Passover.

It is a little like reading stories of fireworks at Christmas. People can set off fireworks at any time, but it just sounds strange.

There's a bigger issue with this verse than an empty tomb. The passage 1 Cor 15: 3-5 mentions that Jesus appeared to the twelve. This means that as early as Paul's writings, the story of Judas dying hadn't been created according to the Gospels, and was inserted later as the legend developed more.

Jesus' Tomb was not Guarded or Sealed the entire First Night!

Holy Grave Robbers!

I had never heard of this until today: How many Christians are aware that Jesus’ grave was unguarded AND unsecured the entire first night after his crucifixion??? Isn’t that a huge hole in the Christian explanation for the empty tomb?? Notice in this quote from Matthew chapter 27 below that the Pharisees do not ask Pilate for guards to guard the tomb until the next day after Jesus’ crucifixion, and, even though Joseph of Arimethea had rolled a great stone in front of the tomb’s door, he had not SEALED it shut!

Anyone could have stolen the body during those 12 hours!

The empty tomb “evidence” for the supernatural reanimation/resurrection of Jesus by Yahweh has a HUGE hole in it!

“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard[a] of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.”[b] 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”
—Matthew 27

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