Rather, the claim is that Jesus’ body left the grave re-animated and transformed into a body given by the Spirit (1 Cor 15:44). That is, Christian faith insists on an empty tomb.
What evidence of an empty tomb is there? After all, finding a First Century tomb with no one in it would hardly prove that Jesus had been buried there. No, the evidence is not archaeological but historical.
While liberal scholars question all sorts of things about the New Testament, it’s unquestionable as a matter of history that a Jewish rabbi named Jesus walked the earth in the early First Century and that the Christian church arose very quickly thereafter claiming Jesus as divine, indeed, as part of the Triune God — and resurrected.
Given the Jewish history of monotheism, it’s remarkable that a sect arose among the Jews claiming Jesus to be Son of God, co-equal with Yahweh, God the Father. Indeed, most Jews found this claim blasphemous. And yet this sect grew from Judaism to become the majority belief within Rome only 300 years later, despite (and to a degree, because of) severe, brutal persecution.
While the church wasn’t always persecuted, there were times when the persecution robbed the church of countless copies of its literature, both scripture and non-scripture, as well as many of its most devoted leaders. (Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom is an excellent read on Fourth Century persecutions and the rise of Constantine.)
As I mentioned earlier, Paul was teaching a very high Christology by the AD 50s in 1 Corinthians, so much so that he’d rewritten the Jews Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is One God …”) to include Jesus in 1 Cor 8:6.
Note especially —
(1Co 15:1-9 ESV) Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Paul is clear that over 500 brothers (likely meaning “men” and so not including the many female witnesses because, in the ancient world, a woman’s testimony was not valued) had seen the resurrected Jesus, along with the original 12 apostles. Paul is referring to the testimony of credible human witnesses as demonstrating the truth of the resurrection at a time when his claims could certainly have been checked and when his opponents among the Jews would have had every reason to disprove his claims.
Therefore, any history that denies the resurrection has to explain how the church came into being and made such radical claims at such an early date.
A number of theories have been proposed.
1. The apostles the stole the body.
Obviously, the Romans were worried about this very possibility, and so they posted Roman guards at the tomb (Matt 27:62-66). Roman guards could be killed if they failed in their duties.
Moreover, all the apostles other than Judas and John died as martyrs teaching the gospel. If they knew the resurrection to be a lie, why live the lie? They did not enjoy fame or wealth.
In contrast, many of the 12 “apostles” of Mormonism ultimately left the mainstream Mormon faith, many being excommunicated or disfellowshipped for supposed heresy.
2. The Jewish authorities stole the body.
Well, that makes no sense at all, although the suggestion has been made. After all, once Christianity arose and the Jewish authorities rejected their faith, the authorities only needed to produce the body (or witnesses to the theft) to entirely discredit the new religion.
As we’ve previously seen, there are references to Christianity in the Jewish Talmud as well as in Josephus, and there is no allegation that the Jewish authorities stole the body.
3. The body never left the tomb.
If the apostles had only deluded themselves in their grief, imagining that Jesus was still alive, the Jewish authorities had the actual body of Jesus available to destroy a central claim of Christianity.
Moreover, if the apostles were so self-deluded, why imagine that Jesus ascended bodily to heaven only a few weeks later? How does the Ascension serve as a delusion to protect them from the pain of the absence of Jesus?
4. Jesus arose because he never died — he swooned.
This theory assumes that the Romans could not tell when a crucified man is truly dead, which is contrary to what we know about the ruthless efficiency of Rome.
Moreover, given that Jesus had been scourged (39 lashes across his back, often as deep as the bone), beaten, exhausted, and then crucified, if he awoke in the grave, he’d still be extremely weak and very near death still. He would need weeks to recover. The apostles would not have seen a man apparently resurrected by the hand of God!
And upon reviving, Jesus would have found himself tied up in bandages glued to his body by myrrh and other spices. He’d have needed help to get out of his bandages, which is very different from the accounts we’ve received in the Gospels.
As a result, modern scholars have rejected this theory.
5. The apostles lied.
Again, if the apostles lied about the resurrection, knowing their claims to be false, why didn’t the Jewish authorities produce the body? And why did they lives faithfully and even suffer death as martyrs for a lie?
6. The apostles were deluded.
And again, why didn’t their Jewish opponent produce the body, proving them to suffer from mass hysteria?
Ultimately, the fact is the resurrection was being claimed in Jerusalem at a time when the witnesses still lived and the tomb was plainly empty. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and even the Roman guards could have been interviewed.
7. Jesus was “spiritually” resurrected.
In Resurrection Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God, N. T. Wright carefully and thoroughly demonstrates that “resurrection” in the First Century referred exclusively to a bodily resurrection. The idea that Jesus’ spirit or soul left his body and went to heaven and so Jesus was spiritually “resurrected” would have been a contradiction in terms — and hardly revolutionary.
Indeed, it would not have been considered a miracle by the Jews of the time. Even the Greeks believed that humans after death continued to exist as phantasms or incorporeal beings with only a wisp of existence. It was the claim of bodily resurrection (a redundant term) that shocked the Sadducees and the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens.
Therefore, there is simply no chance that the early church was somehow so amazed at the thought of Jesus’ soul going to heaven that, over time, they converted his spiritual resurrection into a bodily resurrection.
And, again, at the time Paul was teaching a bodily resurrection, there were still hundreds of witnesses to the resurrected Jesus alive. And the church was centered in Jerusalem — where these events happened (or didn’t) and the witnesses could have been easily found.
Once we understand that Paul was claiming a bodily resurrection with hundreds of witnesses in the 50s AD, it becomes impossible to explain the church’s faith as built on imagination, lies, or mistakes. The church had powerful enemies that controlled the governments of Judea and Jerusalem. Why would the same Jewish authorities that persecuted the early church as blasphemers, even martyring James and Stephen, not disprove the resurrection if they could? And why would the apostles have given their entire lives to a disproven delusion?