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Was Jesus’ body reburied?

March 20, 2016

On Friday night I participated in a debate on the resurrection of Jesus with atheist James Fodor (President Melbourne University Secular Society). We were debating what best explains the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection. It was a well natured and thought-provoking event (and quite well attended as well – which was pleasing).

I argued that there were several historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection which require explanation. Refreshingly (and perhaps somewhat controversially in some atheistic circles) James did not deny any of these facts a priori.

The first of these facts that require explanation was that on the Sunday morning after Jesus’ crucifixion women found Jesus’ tomb empty. Most intriguingly (and surprisingly) James agreed  with this fact – that on the Sunday morning women did indeed find the tomb empty.

Whilst we agreed on the fact, we disagreed on its interpretation. James asserted that the women found the tomb empty because the body had been reburied, whereas I asserted that the women found the tomb empty because Jesus had been raised from the dead.

So which interpretation is more plausible?

The reburial thesis in more detail

James argued that after sundown on the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea reburied the body in another tomb (or taken to a common grave) without the knowledge of the disciples or the women. Hence when the women arrived on the Sunday morning, the tomb was empty.

I suggest that reburial is completely implausible. I argue that the resurrection becomes the most reasonable because of the failure of any naturalistic theory to properly account for all the facts.

Assessing the reburial thesis

The reburial hypothesis utterly fails for the following reasons.

  • There is no evidence of any reburial. There is no positive evidence to suggest a reburial, e.g. archaeological or testimonial evidence from any source that Jesus’ body was reburied. No early counter-apologists or theorists have ever proposed reburial. The earliest alternative explanation for the empty tomb was that the disciples stole the body. There was no early attempt from opponents to suggest that Joseph reburied Jesus elsewhere. In John 20:2 Mary Magdalene assumes reburial because this would be the natural response to an empty tomb (this also shows how unexpected resurrection was). The key question remains why she and the early church didn’t continue to believe in reburial (or theft)?  Particularly given that in the same narrative, John records the disciples recognising the grave clothes that Jesus had been buried in (John 20:6-7).
  • Isn’t the empty tomb evidence of reburial? James suggested that the empty tomb was evidence for reburial, but this assumes the very thing you’re trying to prove. The empty tomb is the fact we’re trying to explain – we can’t automatically assume it’s evidence for reburial. An empty tomb is equally convincing evidence of a resurrection (unless your presuppositions drive you elsewhere).
  • The unlikely silence of Joseph of Arimathea. This proposal assumes that Joseph of Arimathea moved the body and told nobody. This is implausible for several reasons:
    • Joseph was a believer and would have been known to Jesus’ followers. If he had reburied the body and inadvertently forgotten to tell anyone, it seems inconceivable that the early community wouldn’t have gone to ask him where he had moved it.
    • It appears Joseph was known to the authors of the Gospels (and also likely Nicodemus as well who appears with Joseph in John’s account). The fact that Joseph is named in the narrative suggests that Joseph was known to the recipients of the Gospels (as was Nicodemus) as well as the authors i.e. the testimony would have been connected with Joseph. It appears likely that the authors of the Gospels would have consulted with Joseph and he would have been able to explain if he reburied the body.
    • Joseph would still have been a follower of Jesus when the Gospels were published. The Gospels were published some 30+ years after the events and Joseph would have still been a believer (given what the Gospels say about him). If Joseph knew that the body was elsewhere, it is unlikely that he would be a believer in the resurrection and still a Christian believer.
    • Jesus’ followers would have wanted to give Jesus a proper burial. It seems completely unlikely that the body would have moved and his friends and followers wouldn’t have been informed – so they could finish the burial processes (precisely what the women came to do on the Sunday morning).
  • It was the Sabbath (and a particularly holy one). Jesus was buried on the Friday afternoon because the Saturday was the Passover – a particularly holy Sabbath. Joseph was a member of the Council of the Sanhedrin and would have been particularly concerned for ritual cleanliness and hence he would not defile himself by carrying a dead body on the the Sabbath (explicitly forbidden under Jewish law). It defies belief that on one of the most important Jewish holidays a leading member of the Council will stagger around carrying a dead body with 30 kilos of spices. Now James recognised this weakness in his theory and hence he proposed that instead Joseph would have waited until after sundown – after the conclusion of the Sabbath – to perform the reburial. Yet this fails to account for the next point…
  • It would have been dark. Even if Joseph waited until after sundown to move the body to be ritually clean, it would have been dark. Ancient cities were dangerous places at night and there were no street lights. It is completely implausible that a respected Jew at the conclusion of particularly holy Sabbath would go out in the dark, stumbling around with a body and 30 kilos of spices searching for a new tomb when there was no pressing need to rebury the body. Even if he had to rebury the body in haste (which is still unlikely) he could have waited until Sunday morning at first light, and that’s precisely the reason that the women went to anoint the body on the Sunday morning at this time as this was the earliest opportunity they had. If Joseph needed to rebury the body there would have been no need to move the body until the Sunday morning – he would have expected the body to still be there!
  • There is no motivation for Joseph to move the body. Why would Joseph move the body and why the rush and why would he not tell anyone? No-one was anticipating a resurrection, so there would have been no reason to move the body quickly.
  • The Jews cared for their dead (even for dead criminals). The Jews would have wanted to properly care for their dead. Even criminals were allowed a proper burial (even those buried in common graves), it seems incredulous that the body would have been moved and no-one cared to find it and wanted to carry out the necessary period of mourning, especially given that Joseph was a friend of the disciples of Jesus!
  • There were guards at the tomb. Jesus was tried for crimes against the state and hence it is hardly plausible that they would have allowed someone to move the body in the middle of the night. Matthew records guards placed by the tomb to prevent precisely such actions. How Joseph overcame the guards in the middle of the night to simply rebury the body defies clear explanation.

Conclusion

In many respects it appears that James’ theory is a modified version of ‘the disciples stole the body’. He argues that ‘Joseph (a disciple) took the body and didn’t tell anyone’. Yet for the reasons outlined above, it seems implausible that Joseph (or anybody) reburied the body of Jesus.

Hence we are still left with the historical fact that James recognises of an empty tomb. Given the utter implausibility that the body was reburied, I wonder if James will accept the other alternative to explain the empty tomb?

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From → Bible, Debates, Jesus

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