Is the empty tomb of Jesus historical?

Most scholars today argue that the tomb of Jesus was found empty.  Gary Habermas, a noted resurrection expert, states that about 75% of critical scholars today accept the historicity of the empty tomb.1

Why the Empty Tomb is Historical

There are three main reasons why the empty tomb is a historical fact.  They fall under the acronym 2 (JET) – Jerusalem factor (J), enemy testimony (E), and the testimony of women (T).

First, there is the Jerusalem factor (J).  The early Christians began preaching Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.  We know this to be the case due to the numerous references in the Gospels to the preaching in Jerusalem (cf. Lk. 24:47), the book of Acts, and Paul's undisputed letters such as Galatians 1-2 where the church is headquartered in Jerusalem.  Christianity would have had an extremely difficult time being able to survive in Jerusalem with this apostolic preaching if the body of Jesus had still been in the tomb.

Second, there is the enemy testimony (or enemy attestation) (E).  In other words, the early critics of Christianity indirectly presuppose the empty tomb (see Mt. 28:12-13; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30).3  For example, in Matthew 28:12-13, the Jews acknowledge the empty tomb by stating that the disciples stole the body, “And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,13and said, "You are to say, 'His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.'”

Third, there is the testimony of women (T).  The women are the first and chief witnesses of the empty tomb.  Due to the lack of respect for women in first-century Jewish culture, it is extremely unlikely that if the empty tomb was a myth that the apostles would appeal to women as the chief witnesses to that myth.  Instead, they would appeal to men as their primary witnesses.  Even in the gospel of Luke the empty tomb and the appearance of Jesus to the women is seen as “nonsense” by the disciples (Lk. 24:10-11).

The following are some interesting quotations regarding ancient people's views of women:4

  1. Josephus
    1. “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15).
  2. The Talmud
    1. “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer. This is equivalent to saying that one who is Rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman” (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1.8).
    2. “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” (Talmud, Sotah 19a).

Therefore, due to the Jerusalem Factor (J), the Enemy Testimony (E), and the Testimony of Women (T), it is quite reasonable to believe that Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty on that Sunday morning.

  • 1. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004.
  • 2. The following acronym and three arguments come from Habermas and Licona's excellent work (ibid.).
  • 3. For Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, see for various quotes and for Tertullian’s De Spectaculis see  Note especially, “This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!”
  • 4. Habermas and Licona also cite from the Talmud Kiddushin 82b, from the church father Origen, Contra Celsum 2:59; 3:55; and the Roman historian Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Augustus 44.