Over the years, I’ve heard and seen rumours that various dead people, like Elvis Presley, have been spotted very much alive in various places. A major problem with these rumours is the grave where the person’s body is buried. This isn’t the case when it comes to the burial site of Jesus. Did you know that the best historical evidence showing that the tomb of Jesus became empty under highly unusual circumstances came from a non-Christian source?
In 2019, two tombs were opened on Vatican property just outside of Vatican City. One was the tomb of Princess Sophie von Hohenlohe, and the other was for Duchess Charlotte Frederica, who died in 1840. To everyone’s surprise, the tombs were empty. The historical accounts leave no doubt about the deaths of these two women, but why are the tombs we thought their remains were buried in, empty? An empty tomb is not that unusual by itself. They are found not that infrequently. There would need to be something highly unusual about the circumstances at the time the tomb became empty before we would give it even a fraction of a second’s consideration.
So do we have anything in the historical record to indicate something unusual about the tomb of Jesus and how it came to be empty?
Before we look at the evidence, I need to introduce you to a technique that historians use to determine if a portion of a story is likely to be true or not. It is called the “criterion of embarrassment.” It is not only useful in analyzing ancient accounts; it can also be very useful today when examining whether someone is telling the truth about something or not.
Imagine that you had a very angry, heated argument with your neighbour one afternoon. The next morning, your neighbour was found murdered in his own house. Since you are a neighbour, the police think you might be a potential suspect, so they ask you to give them a statement of what you were doing that night and of any recent interactions you had with your neighbour. Because you are an honest person, you include a mention of your angry exchange the day before, even though you know this will work against you and make your own defense less believable, since you have just supplied the police with a motive.
The authorities, in examining your statement, may or may not believe your whole story, but there is one part that they will take as highly credible — the part where you mention your quarrel with your neighbour.
Why is that?
The reason it is accepted as credible is that the mention of the angry exchange with your neighbour works against you. It actually casts more suspicion on you, not less. It is an embarrassment to what you are trying to accomplish. Therefore, it is not likely to be something you would fabricate if it were not actually true, since it gives the investigators a reason to doubt the rest of your story.
This phenomenon is called the criterion of embarrassment, which historians are able to use when assessing the validity of an historical account. If the author includes something that possibly contradicts what they are trying to say, or embarrasses them, then historians will assign a higher level of credibility to that particular incident, even if they doubt the rest of the account. The author simply would have no reason to include it, and every reason to NOT mention it.
So here’s where things get interesting when it comes to the tomb of Jesus. The four gospel accounts all state that Jesus physically rose from the dead, leaving behind the empty tomb. That is what the writers are claiming and it is the centerpiece of Christianity. Without the resurrection of Christ, the Apostle Paul states that faith in Christ is foolishness, and that remains true today. Everything depends upon it, including eternal life and a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
So we know what the writers are claiming. Do they mention anything that works against their claim? The answer is yes.
In Matthew’s gospel there is an alternative account as to how the tomb got empty. Matthew records that the religious leaders in Jerusalem spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body when the Roman guards fell asleep at their post.
This alternate explanation provides a competing explanation. For this reason, the criterion of embarrassment makes the existence highly likely of this competing story in the mind of the historian. To clarify, we can be pretty confident that the religious leaders actually circulated the story that the disciples stole the body while the Roman guards slept.
So let’s think about this for a moment. What does this tell us about the empty tomb? It actually concedes and confirms three things.
First, the location of the tomb was known to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, otherwise they could simply say Jesus’ body had not even been put in a tomb, but tossed outside the city into the dump where it was now unrecognizable.
Second, the alternative story concedes that the tomb had been guarded by a Roman guard. A Roman guard consisted of a group of four soldiers. It could include multiple groups of four, but it always consisted of a minimum of four soldiers, a unit which the Romans referred to as a “Guard.”
Third, the story circulated by the religious leaders confirms that the tomb was empty on the third day, otherwise, there would be no need to circulate the story. Jesus had said he would rise on the third day, so if the tomb became empty anytime after that, there would have been no guards and Jesus’s prophecy would have been falsified.
There is one more thing we can take a critical look at . . . how likely is it that a Roman guard would have all fallen asleep, soundly enough to allow the disciples to quietly roll aside a large rock, and tip toe off with the body?
Fortunately, we have an ancient account from Polybius that gives us some insight into the discipline Roman soldiers were expected to exercise, and what happened if they fell asleep on duty. In Polybius’s work, called Histories, written around 120 BC, he records that the penalty for a Roman soldier who fell asleep on duty was to be beaten to death with clubs and stones by the other soldiers. This provided enormous incentive to never fall asleep on duty.
We can conclude, therefore, that although it might be possible that all four guards fell asleep on duty, it seems implausible, given that they would have likely faced a brutal execution if they did . . . and keep in mind that was not merely a token guarding of some boring doorway. Jesus had come before Pilate, the Roman procurator. Jesus had a huge following. This was a high value situation where, for all they knew, they could be attacked at any moment by Jewish zealots.
None of this proves that Jesus rose physically from the dead in an immortal body on the third day, but it is the third piece of very real evidence in the historical case. To recap . . . here, and in the last two videos, we have looked at three highly unusual circumstances surrounding the resurrection of Christ that make this event unique in human history. First, there is a back story of prophecies that goes back centuries before this event, the existence of which we can verify. Second, there is the historically documented explosion of belief that he had risen from the dead, which swept across the Roman empire within a few decades. Third, the historical technique of the criterion of embarrassment tells us that the religious authorities did concede that the tomb had been guarded by Roman soldiers, but was empty on the third day. These three things make the case for the resurrection of Jesus unique in human history, but there is one more thing we need to look at in the next video . . . what does history say about the resurrection appearances of Christ?