Conservative Christian apologists from the lowliest to the most scholarly (N.T. Wright), continue to dare non-Christians to “find the missing body of Jesus.” Of course, archaeologists will probably never be able to declare with certainty that Jesusʼ corpse is “missing” from either Palestine or planet earth. Like the majority of first-century corpses, it could be dust by now, or scattered bones, or lost in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Neither would the declaration of a “missing” corpse be sufficient to prove that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky. (A missing corpse would be necessary, but not sufficient evidence.)
What is “missing” is the attention that conservative Christian apologists need to pay to items #1-5, below. Since the items remain contested, so does the entire question of a “missing body.”
Missing item #1: Uncontested evidence that Paulʼs belief in the “Resurrection” precluded a body (husk/shell) remaining on the earth and “wasting away”
If Paulʼs verses in 1st Corinthians 15 contain the earliest reference to Jesusʼ “resurrection,” then it is crucial that conservative Christians prove beyond a doubt that Paul understood “resurrection” as leaving no bodily remains behind. Paul mentions that Jesus “appeared” to him and others. But the word, “appear,” is used elsewhere in the Bible to denote visions. Neither are any conversations with Jesus described. (We will see how alleged post-resurrection conversations grew over time, below.) Even in the story that Luke tells of Paulʼs meeting with Jesus, such an appearance consisted of only a bright light accompanied by a voice — so there is no mention of corporeality, no touching Jesus, no eating with him. Paul himself described that “mortal flesh” “wasted away” or was “destroyed,” and he looked forward to receiving a “spiritual body,” an “eternal dwelling which comes from heaven” not from earth. (2nd Corinthians, chapters 4-5) Paul further explained, “What you sow [in death] is not the future body but a bare grain, whether of wheat or of some other variety.” (1st Corinthians 15:37) This verse has proven a topic of endless debate. But surely the fact was not lost on Paul (or on anyone who has ever seen a seed sprout) that after a “bare grain” is split open by the emerging plant, the seed leaves behind its husk or shell. Paul even added that the “spiritual body” lacked a stomach: “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food; but God will do away with both of them” (1st Corinthians 6:13), and, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1Cor. 15:50) Neither did Paul mention an “empty tomb.” All he mentioned was Jesus dying and being resurrected.
So what is “missing” is an uncontested answer to the question of whether the earliest resurrection teachings allowed (or disallowed) that Jesus could have left physical remains on earth.
Missing item #2: Uncontested evidence that anyone knew about an “empty tomb” story early on
The earliest Gospel that we possess, according to the majority of modern Biblical scholars, is the “Gospel of Mark.” And our earliest copies end with these words:
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the [empty] tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (NIV, 16:8)
So, the very first tale of an “empty tomb” was combined with these words, “they said nothing to anyone,” or, in other translations, “they told no one.”
In other words the “empty tomb” tale was “told [to] no one.” So no one knew about such a tale early on. For all anyone knows, an “empty tomb” story could have arisen up to forty years later, when the first Gospel (Mark) was completed.
So what is “missing” is uncontested evidence that the “empty tomb” tale was being “told” early on. [SEE NOTE AT END OF ARTICLE]
Missing item #3: Uncontested evidence that the “bodily ascension” tale arose early on
Paul does not mention the bodily ascension of Jesus (see Missing Item #1).
Neither does Mark nor Matthew. In fact Matthew has the resurrected Jesus say, “I am with you always.”
It is only in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts (both written later than Mark, and probably a little later than Matthew as well) that the tale of Jesusʼ “bodily ascension” is first introduced. Likewise it is only in the Gospel of Luke where the resurrected Jesus takes care to convince the disciples that he is “not a spirit,” but “flesh and bone,” and even eats a piece of fish and honeycomb. And after eating, “he [Jesus] led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” (Were they “led” through the streets of Jerusalem “as far as Bethany” by a fish-eating “non-spirit” “flesh and bone” resurrected Jesus?) In the last chapter of the last written Gospel (John) the resurrected Jesus even prepares breakfast (fish and bread) for the apostles. But Luke and John are later tales of the resurrected Jesus, not the earliest tales.
So, what is “missing” is uncontested evidence that the tale of the “bodily ascension” of Jesus was being told early on.
Missing item #4: Tales of meeting with the resurrected Jesus in the earliest gospel
The earliest known copies of Markʼs Gospel end with the words, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the [empty] tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (NIV, 16:8)
Early Christian editors of the Gospel of Mark agreed that its ending seemed so uninspired that they took it upon themselves to add three different endings that included some mention of a meeting with the resurrected Jesus. But none of those three later endings are considered to be original to that Gospel.
If as some have hypothesized, the original scroll of Markʼs Gospel was accidentally torn apart at verse 16:8, and its original ending lost, how could such an embarrassing loss of the resurrection ending of the earliest Gospel have occurred? Seems more likely that it ended there, with such uncertainty because the “empty tomb” story itself was new and uncertain and had not yet been elaborated as it was later to be in Matthew, Luke and John.
[SEE NOTE AT END OF ARTICLE]
So what is “missing” is an uncontested tale of meeting with the resurrected Jesus in the earliest Gospel.
Missing item #5: the earliest words of the resurrected Jesus. There are so few of them, or none, to begin with. Then they grew over time (as most legendary embellishments are capable of doing).
The earliest stories by Paul in 1st Corinthians say that Jesus “appeared,” but not where the appearances took place (Galilee or Jerusalem), nor whether any words were spoken by the resurrected Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark contains no tales of resurrection appearances nor words of the resurrected Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 28) contains 79 words of the resurrected Jesus:
“Greetings. Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The Gospel of Luke (chapter 24) contains 191 words of the resurrected Jesus:
“What are you discussing together as you walk along?. What things?. How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”
“Peace be with you. Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have. Do you have anything here to eat?.This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
[The Acts of the Apostles was also written by Luke around the time of his Gospel. It contains some words of the resurrected Jesus, but Acts is not early, chronologically speaking. The words below were allegedly heard by Paul on his trip to Damascus. But Paul himself in his letters never mentions hearing so many words. They could be a latter expansion/legendary elaboration, which most evangelists are wont to do — just look at how much preaching a pastor can squeeze out of a few words in the Bible even today. Here is Lukeʼs preachy version of what Paul heard, as featured in Lukeʼs Book of Acts chapter 26:
“‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’. ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”]
The Gospel of John (chapters 20 & 21) contains 283 words of the resurrected Jesus:
“Woman, why are you crying?. Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? Mary. Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
“Peace be with you!. Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
“Peace be with you!. Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe. Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
“Friends, havenʼt you any fish?. Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some. Bring some of the fish you have just caught. Come and have breakfast. Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?. Feed my lambs… Simon son of John, do you truly love me?. Take care of my sheep. Simon son of John, do you love me?. Do you love me?. Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go. Follow me!. If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”
The Gospel of John ends with these words by its author:
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” (John 21:25)
The “world” could not contain the books? The books we do have that tell of “things Jesus did,” consist of four slim “Gospels,” not one of them over forty pages in length. Two of them, Matthew and Luke, even repeat over 90% of what appears in Mark. So the four Gospels minus the overlapping portions would be even slimmer.
To reiterate the last sentence in the fourth Gospel: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books.” (John 21:25)
Is there a less convincing way for an allegedly “inspired” book to end? Just notice the authorʼs use of the faltering phrase, “I suppose.” “I suppose” such exaggerated speech made sense to believers back then, who were being entertained by ever new and fabulous tales of Jesusʼ infancy, youth and adulthood churned out by their fellows and incorporated into additional “Gospels” many of which we only know the titles of today. But really, ending an inspired book with a huge exaggeration, followed by the faltering words, “I suppose,” doesnʼt make much of an impression on me.
What is “missing” is anything convincing about the resurrection sayings of Jesus. In the Gospels they grow from no sayings (Mark) to increasingly longer ones (Matthew, Luke, John), and they seem like statements that devout church leaders could and would have put into the resurrected Jesusʼ mouth to suit the early churchʼs belief in its own heavenly centrality and broadening missionary ideals. Like when Matthewʼs resurrected Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Or when Lukeʼs resurrected Jesus says, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Or when Johnʼs resurrected Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. Feed my lambs.”
To reiterate what I said at the beginning, archaeologists will probably never be able to declare with certainty that Jesusʼ corpse is “missing” from either Palestine or planet earth. Like the majority of first-century corpses, it could be dust by now, or scattered bones, or lost in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Neither would the declaration of a “missing” corpse be sufficient to prove that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky. (A missing corpse would be necessary, but not sufficient evidence.)
And since the above items, #1-5, remain contested, so does the entire question of a “missing body.”
Note to Christian apologists, please donʼt bring up Peterʼs speech in the Book of Acts that mentioned Jesusʼ tomb being empty, because Acts was written AFTER the Gospel of Mark, and by that time the “empty tomb” story was already being elaborated upon and probably had been added anachronistically to Peterʼs Jerusalem speech as well.
Below are four obvious prima facie instances in the Gospels texts themselves, showing how the “empty tomb” tale grew more elaborate in its retelling from Mark to Matthew and Luke.
The Gospel of Mark, ends merely with the empty tomb, and a “young man in a long white garment” who tells the women, “He [Jesus] is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.” There is no mention of the “young man” being an “angel.” In fact Mark mentioned another “young man” (same Greek phrase) who was present at Jesusʼ arrest. Someone tried to grab the “young man” who “fled” away “naked,” leaving behind the linen cloth he had been wearing. (Mark 14: 50-52) So the “young man” in a “long white garment” sitting in Jesusʼ empty tomb on Sunday morning could be the same “young man” at Jesusʼ arrest. Mark could be trying to impress the reader with the faith of an anonymous “young man” who was the last to leave Jesus when he was arrested (who had to flee away naked), and also the first to arrive at the empty tomb (clothed in a “long white garment” covering his previously naked body). The “young man” could remain unidentified in both cases to draw readers into the tale of Jesusʼ resurrection, to allow them to envision themselves as that young man, and imagine how he went from being naked to clothed in a long white garment — the last to leave Jesus on the night of his betrayal and the first to arrive at Jesusʼ empty tomb full of faith. So by using the phrase, “young man” twice at such crucial times in that Gospel, the author may have been trying to get his readers to identify with that human figure and his faith. But sometime between the writing of Markʼs Gospel and the later three (Matthew, Luke and John) Markʼs description of a “young man” was dropped in favor of purely “angelic” figures. The other Gospels even dropped Markʼs story about the “young man” who “fled away naked at Jesusʼ arrest.” Instead, at the tomb Matthew has “the angel of the Lord who descended from heaven; his countenance like lightening, and his raiment white as snow,” and, Luke has “two men in shining garments [clothes that gleamed like lightning - NIV]…a vision of angels” (Luke 24:4 & 23), and John has, “two angels in white.” So you can see how the story has grown. Not only has the “young man” become an “angel” in Matthew, but in Luke and John he has become “two angels.”
In Mark, the words spoken at the tomb by the “young man” were, “He [Jesus] is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.”
Matthewʼs “angel” at the tomb speaks the same words as Markʼs “young man,” but Matthew adds that one of the women encountered Jesus briefly on her way back from the tomb.
One of Lukeʼs two “angels” does not speak the same words at the tomb as Markʼs “young man” or Matthewʼs “angel”, instead the words are changed in Luke so that no mention is made of Jesus “going before you into Galilee, there you will see him.” In Luke the words became, “Remember how he spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day raise again.” “Galilee” changes from a place where Jesus has “gone” and where Jesus “will be seen” (in Mark/Matthew), to a place where Jesus gave his discourse about the Son of Man being raised (in Luke). But didnʼt Jesus speak about the resurrection not just in Galilee, but also in Judea? The announcement in Mark is more to the point: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” Lukeʼs point in his Gospel and Acts was to talk about appearances of the resurrected Jesus in and around Jerusalem (which is where they all occur in the Gospel of Luke and Acts). So it would have been an obvious faux pas to cite the words of Markʼs “young man,” which were: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” For Luke, the disciples needed to remain in Jerusalem, otherwise the disciples would have been depicted as running off to Galilee (fifty miles from Jerusalem) to see Jesus who had “gone on there before them,” as Mark (and Matthew) say.
Lukeʼs Jerusalem appearance stories include seeing Jesus in Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem; then in Jerusalem, where the disciples remained; and then on a mountain in Bethany (again not very far from Jerusalem), where Jesus “parted from them.” Luke-Acts added that Jesus told his disciples to “stay in the city,” and that Jesus ascended from mount Olivet, “near Jerusalem, a Sabbathʼs day journey away.”
The changed message at the “empty tomb” suited Lukeʼs collection of Jerusalem appearance stories, thus leaving behind the original story in Mark and Matthew that Jesus went before the apostles to Galilee and thatʼs where Jesus was first seen. Comparing the messages delivered at the “empty tomb” shows how the story changed, apparently to suit an increasing number of new post-resurrection tales spread perhaps by a growing number of church members in Jerusalem.
Even the story of the “guards at the tomb” (found only in Matthew) provides comparative Gospel readers with evidence of an awkward emendation. Mark mentions no guards, and the women go to the tomb “to anoint” Jesusʼ body. But in Matthew where “guards” are assumed, and contact with the body would not be foreseen as possible, the women no longer go “to anoint” Jesus, but merely “to look at the grave.”
Mark and Matthewʼs story of the death of Jesus on the cross are the same, except that Matthew inserts two verses that mention an extraordinary miracle, the “opening of many tombs and the raising of the many.” Here is Markʼs version, followed by Matthewʼs with the insertion:
- With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
- The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
- And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
- Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
- And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
- And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
- And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
- Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
What is embarrassing about this insertion in Matthew is the lack of corroborating testimony throughout the New Testament and Josephus. No mention is made elsewhere of such a miracle, nor of who the raised saints were, what happened to them, what they said, or how such a miracle so near the time of Jesusʼ own resurrection, may have affected belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
And if the tale of “many” empty graves could be swallowed by the Matthewʼs day, it should give conservative Christian apologists pause to reflect on how easily the story of one “empty tomb” like Jesusʼ (in Mark) could also have been found believable not long before Matthewʼs Gospel was written. In fact, it makes one wonder, what wonʼt a believer believe?
Finally, note the cumbersome phrase in Matthewʼs tale that they [the raised saints] came out of their graves “after his [Jesusʼ] resurrection.” That phrase was probably added to grant Jesus some sort of priority, i.e., “after HIS resurrection.” But it only makes the tale less believable (if that is possible), because the Greek states literally that the saints “arose” at Jesusʼ death but didnʼt “come out of their graves” until after Jesusʼ resurrection, a day and a half later. So what where they doing in their “risen” states and in their graves for a day and a half, before they “came out” and went into the holy city? Amazing what a lot of trouble the phrase, “after his resurrection,” can get you into!
End of Note