The Case of the Empty Tomb
Around the year A.D. 165, Justin Martyr penned his Dialogue with Trypho. At the beginning of chapter 108 of this work, he recorded a letter that the Jewish community had been circulating regarding the empty tomb of Christ:
[A] godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilaean deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.
In approximately the sixth century, another caustic treatise written to defame Christ circulated among the Jewish community. In this narrative, known as Toledoth Yeshu, Jesus is described as the illegitimate son of a soldier named Joseph Pandera. He further is labeled as a disrespectful deceiver who led many away from the truth. Near the end of the treatise, under a discussion of His death, the following paragraph can be found:
Diligent search was made and he [Jesus—KB] was not found in the grave where he had been buried. A gardener had taken him from the grave and had brought him into his garden and buried him in the sand over which the waters flowed into the garden.
Upon reading Justin Martyr’s description of one Jewish theory regarding the tomb of Christ, and another theory from Toledoth Yeshu, it becomes clear that one common thread unites them both—the tomb of Christ had no body in it!
All parties involved recognized the fact that Christ’s tomb laid empty on the third day. Feeling compelled to give reasons for this unexpected vacancy, the Jewish authorities apparently concocted several different theories to explain the body’s disappearance. The most commonly accepted one seems to be that the disciples of Jesus stole His body away by night while the guards slept (Matthew 28:13). Yet, how could the soldiers identify any thieves while they slept? And why were the sentinels not punished by death for sleeping on the job and thereby losing their charge (cf. Acts 12:6.19)? And an even more pressing question comes to the mind—why did the soldiers need to explain anything if a body was still in the tomb?
When Peter stood up to preach on the Day of Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ, the crux of his sermon rested on the fact(s) that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. In order to silence Peter, and stop a mass conversion, the Jewish leaders needed simply to produce the body of Christ. Why did not the Jewish leaders take the short walk to the garden and produce the body? Simply because they could not! The tomb was empty. The Jews knew it and tried to explain it away, the apostles knew it and preached it boldly in the city of Jerusalem, and thousands of the inhabitants of Jerusalem knew it and converted to Christianity. John Warwick Montgomery accurately assessed the matter when he wrote: “It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus” (1964, p. 78). The tomb of Jesus was empty, and that is a fact.
Montgomery, John Warwick (1964), History and Christianity (Downers Grover, IL: InterVarsity Press).