(This posting is part of a book in progress, tentatively titled What Really Happened to Jesus? A Lawyer Reexamines the Evidence, and What It Means for Christians and Christianity.)
Why was Jesus’s tomb empty?
- The classic Christian account is that Jesus was raised from the dead. But that explanation is problematic in view of the evidence, as discussed in Chapter(s) __ [in progress — ed.].
- At the time, some claimed that Jesus’s disciples had simply moved the body, and that he was as dead as ever. But if that were true, it’d be difficult to explain why so many of the disciples later died willingly for their belief that in fact Jesus returned to the living.
On close examination, the evidence suggests still another possibility: After the Sabbath, someone other than the disciples secretly moved Jesus’s body to an undisclosed location, without deigning to inform the disciples or anyone else.
An obvious suspect is Joseph of Arimathea. He had motive. He had opportunity. And he had already demonstrated the self-confidence to boldly take action he deemed necessary, without consulting the Eleven or even Jesus’s family.
Background: The Twelve Were Not Jesus’s Only Friends
Unsurprisingly, the Gospels portray the twelve apostles as Jesus’s main men — his privy council, as it were, the foundation of the church despite their humble origins.
But the Gospel evidence shows clearly that Jesus’s friends and admirers also included other influential, well-off people, who did not necessarily have anything to do with, and may have paid little attention to, the Twelve.
The Gospels Tell of Influential People in Jesus’s Circle
In the Gospel stories, a variety of influential people make cameo appearances. Several of them owed big debts of gratitude to Jesus. For example, there were:
- The royal official in Capernauam whose son was ill [Jn 4.46-54];
- Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, whose twelve-year-old daughter Jesus declared was not dead but sleeping [Mt 9.18-25, Mk 5.22-23, 35-42];
- the rich young man (or ruler) who went away sad after an unsatisfying conversation with Jesus [Mt 19.16-22, Lk 18.18-23];
- Lazarus and his family, who evidently were quite well-to-do;
- Joanna, wife of Herod’s household manager, who seems to have been no pauper and who provided Jesus with financial support;
- Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both members of the Jewish ruling council and secret followers of Jesus.
It’s also likely that “important” people followed Jesus as part of the great crowds described in the Gospels. These crowds came from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyong the Jordan [e.g., Mt 4.25]. Thousands turned out to see Jesus on the occasion that he reportedly performed the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that these crowds were made up exclusively of poor people.
Jesus told lots of parables featuring rich and powerful people. That doesn’t prove anything about his social connections. But it’s not implausible that he came up with these parables, and with sayings such as the one about camels and the eye of a needle [e.g., Mk 10.25], in part because he had first-hand experience with such folks.
On some occasions, Jesus may well have told parables about the rich and powerful because that's just whom he was talking to. Good communicators tailor their message to their audiences. Jesus may well have phrased his message in terms that would catch the ears of a well-to-do elite.
Lazarus & Family Were Clearly Well-Off
According to John’s Gospel, Lazarus and his family were important in Jesus’s life. Jesus loved Lazarus and his family and wept at his death. He restored Lazarus to life [Jn 11] and dined with him just before his (Jesus’s) triumphal entry into Jerusalem [Jn 12].
Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha must have been pretty well off. When Jesus dined with them, Mary just happened to have on hand a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages, which she poured on Jesus’s feet! [Jn 11.2, 12.2-5; cf. Mark 14.3]. It’s hard to imagine how anyone other than the well-to-do would (or could) have offered such an extravagant gesture.
Strangely, the New Testament documents do not list Lazarus among the followers of Jesus. You’d think Lazarus might well have been among the most devoted to the man who rescued him from death. We might expect Lazarus to have worked alongside the Twelve; to have shared in the Last Supper; to have been there for Jesus during his agony in the Garden. And wouldn’t Lazarus have played at least some role in the early life of the church that the Twelve founded?
Maybe the wealthy Lazarus did all these things. Maybe he was right in there with the Twelve during Jesus’s ministry and in the early days of the church.
But if so, the New Testament is silent about it.
Joanna, Wife of Herod’s Steward, Was No Pauper
Then there’s Joanna, one of the women who provided financial support for Jesus "out of their own means" [Lk 8.3]. Luke’s phrasing suggests she was unlikely to have been poor.
Joanna’s husband Chuza was of some importance himself. He served as household manager for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee whom Jesus belittled as “that fox” [Lk 13.32]. Such a man also seems unlikely to have been a pauper, and presumably was not without influence.
(Chuza is not recorded as having been a follower of Jesus. One wonders whether he might have been an inspiration for Jesus’s parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16. Luke reports that Joanna was one of the women who discovered the empty tomb on Easter Sunday [Lk 24.10]. It’s hard to know what to make of that fact.)
The Upper Room’s Owner Must Have Been Well-to-Do
There’s a hint of intrigue about the unnamed Jerusalem householder who hosted the Last Supper. This man was sufficiently well-off to afford a house in the city itself, one with a large guest room upstairs. Jesus seems to have known the man well enough to borrow the upper room to celebrate the Passover [Mk 14.13-16] — a time when Jerusalem was normally jam-packed with “the great crowd that had come for the Feast” [Jn 12.12], and space presumably was at a premium.
The householder’s family doesn’t appear to have used the upper room for its own Passover feast. This may suggest that the family didn’t live there. Perhaps the house was a rental property. If true, that would tend to confirm that the householder was reasonably well-to-do. That he was willing to let Jesus use the upper room at high season, and apparently for free, says something about their relationship.
Jesus’s disciples evidently didn’t know this householder. Before the Passover feast, Jesus told two of the disciples (according to Luke 22.7, it was Peter and John):
As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there. [Lk 22.10–12]
Note that Jesus didn’t tell Peter and John, “We’re doing Passover at so-and-so’s house; go set it up.” Instead he told them how to find a man who would lead them to the house. He also told them what to say to the house’s owner — it almost has a ring of a secret password to it — so that the owner would allow them into the house to prepare the meal.
Both this householder and the man carrying water to his house were clearly strangers to the Twelve (and vice versa). But not, apparently, to Jesus.
Jesus Had Friends in High Places
Two of Jesus’s most intriguing relationships were with members of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
- Nicodemus is mentioned only in John’s Gospel. That document recounts that Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council who came by night to visit and converse with Jesus [Jn 3.1–21]. John’s Gospel also says that on one occasion Nicodemus objected when the chief priests and Pharisees berated the temple guards for not arresting Jesus [Jn 7.50–51].
- According to all the Gospels, Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, a member of the ruling council, a good and upright man, and a secret disciple of Jesus [Mt 27.57–60; Mk 15.42–47; Lk 23.50–55, Jn 18.38–42].
It was those men — not any of the Twelve — who cared for Jesus’s body after his death.
Another Possible Narrative
As the Sabbath Begins, Joseph of Arimathea Takes Charge of Jesus's Body
Jesus died on a Friday afternoon. Sunset was approaching; the Sabbath would be starting. “So, as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea . . . went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body” [Mk 15.42–43; emphasis added].
With only Pilate’s permission, and with Nicodemus’s help, Joseph took the body down from the cross. He wrapped it in linen cloth.
Joseph's own, new tomb was handy [Mt 27.60, Jn 19.41]. He laid Jesus's body in it [Mt 27.57–60; see also Mk 15.42–47; Lk 23.50–55; Jn 19.38–42].
Evidently Joseph was sufficiently self-assured to take this initiative on his own, without consulting anyone except Pilate. According to John's Gospel, both Jesus’s mother and the beloved disciple had been standing by the cross as Jesus was dying [Jn 19.26]. Joseph apparently claimed and buried Jesus's body without so much as a by-your-leave to either of them.
Purely by coincidence, Jesus’s disciples learned what Joseph had done: Two of Jesus’s women friends “followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how [Jesus’s] body was laid in it” [Lk 23.55; see also Mk 14.47, Mt 27.61]. The women watched as Joseph “rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away” [Mt 27.60–61; see also Mk 15.46–47, Lk 23.54].
One wonders: Who was this guy? What gave him the notion that he could come in from out of nowhere and claim Jesus's body?
Joseph of Arimathea is nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament, not before, not after. It was the Eleven who had accompanied Jesus in his ministry for three years. They were the ones who were like Jesus's family. They should have been the ones making decisions about the body. At the very least, they should have been informed about what was done with the body. Right?
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the Twelve didn't play quite the central role in Jesus's life that the Gospels all suppose. Maybe some of Jesus's other, well-connected friends — such as Joseph of Arimathea and NIcodemus — had reason to assume that they were the ones who could stand in as the Teacher's "next of kin" after his death.
Did Joseph of Arimathea Move Jesus's Body After the Sabbath?
There seems no doubt that Jesus’s tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning. All the Gospels record that on the morning after the Sabbath, one or two of the Twelve (now Eleven) and some of Jesus’s women followers went to his tomb. The Synoptic Gospels variously recount that an angel, or a young man, or two men, advised the women that Jesus was not there, because he had risen from the dead [Mt 28.2–6, Mk 16.4–7, Lk 24.2–6].
Perhaps. But a simpler explanation for the empty tomb comes to mind: After the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea returned to the tomb (which was his own, remember). He rolled the stone away from the entrance, just as he had rolled it up to block the entrance on Friday. He removed Jesus’s body and took it to an undisclosed location. He kept this information to himself, not telling Jesus’s disciples what he had done.
Why would Joseph have moved Jesus’s body from the tomb? There are a couple of obvious possibilities:
- It was one thing to give Jesus's body a temporary resting place; the Teacher should not hang dead on the cross during the Sabbath.
But leaving the body there permanently, in Joseph’s own tomb? That would have been another matter entirely.
- We can assume Joseph saw Jesus’s women disciples watching him as he laid the body to rest. So Jesus's resting place was known, and Joseph knew it.
If Joseph had left the body in the tomb after the Sabbath, it might have become a rallying point for dangerous civil unrest. That was something the chief priests and scribes had feared in the first place [Mk 14.1–2; Jn 11.47–53]. As a member of the ruling council (not to mention someone whose fortune gave him a vested interest in social stability), Joseph would have wanted to avoid that risk.
It's not difficult to imagine Joseph taking matters into his own hands again, just as he did on Friday afternoon: Go back to the tomb. Move Jesus's body to a secret location. Problem solved.
Why didn’t Joseph of Arimathea tell the Eleven what he had done? The better question is: Why would he have told them? After all —
- The wealthy Joseph didn’t ask permission from the Eleven, nor even from Jesus’s family, before claiming Jesus's body. Neither, apparently, did he deem it necessary to go to the disciples to tell them what he had done with the body. (In fact, there's no indication in the New Testament that Joseph ever had any contact with the disciples at any time.)
- The Eleven were fishermen and others of no particular social standing. In contrast, Joseph was a rich man, a member of the ruling council — he was "somebody."
- If Joseph's purpose in moving the body was to prevent Jesus's resting place from being a focal point of civil unrest, then telling the disciples where to find the body likely would have been self-defeating.
From what little we know of Joseph, if he did remove Jesus’s body from the tomb, it would have been in character for him to keep his own counsel about it.
Joseph thereafter goes unmentioned in the New Testament. Apart from legends that he journeyed to Britain and founded the Celtic Church, we have no evidence that he — or any other of Jesus's influential friends — played any role in the church founded by the hoi polloi Eleven.
What About Jesus's Post-Mortem Appearances?
Suppose Joseph of Arimathea did secretly move Jesus's body from the tomb. If we are to credit the New Testament writings at all, we still must accept that at least some of Jesus’s disciples “encountered” the Teacher in the days and months after his death.
Not only that, many of these disciples willingly went to their own deaths — usually violent ones — believing that Jesus lived. How can we explain that, if not by a resurrection?
We will explore some evidence relating to these questions in the next chapter [in progress — ed.]