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The Empty Tomb - Was the Resurrection Myth or Reality? - Sunday, 9th March, 1997

Why is it that some Biblical scholars deny the resurrection of Christ, when it is the one critical basis to the uniqueness of Christianity? Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, USA, for example, in "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?" presents the Easter story as "late developing, pious legends." He writes "There was no visit of the women to the empty tomb at dawn on the first day of the week because there was no tomb. The body of Jesus was in all probability placed in an unmarked common grave used for criminals, covered and forgotten. Other elements of the story like angels who descend in earthquakes to speak, to cause soldiers to faint, and to roll back stones covering the tomb;...thieves who converse from their crosses of pain these are legends all, sacred legends, but legends, nonetheless."

Bishop Spong, whose controversial books have previously denied the virgin birth, attacked the Apostle Paul's views on homosexuality and ridiculed traditional views of the scriptures, now claims the resurrection was related to the reenactment of the Eucharist; that rising on the third day was not a measure of time, but a symbol of myth; that Palm Sunday actually came after Easter; that Jesus' burial was a pious story and so on. What is he on about?

There is one thing found in each of these conclusions. There is not the slightest piece of historical or archaeological evidence in either Jewish or Christian scholarship for these views. They may as well be the murmurings of a demented mind. Look for the evidence: there is none! This is simply imagination! Spong has been sprung!

Imaginative speculations are also found in the writings of John Dominic Crossan, co-chairman of the Jesus Seminar. He claims after the crucifixion the body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs! He claims His burial in a tomb was "wishful thinking." What evidence does he have from any source at all? He has none! He states it is merely his "hunch". He does not even consider the evidence of other scholars.

Barbara Thiering, in "Jesus The Man" says Jesus was poisoned, did not die upon the cross, but was buried in a tomb which was actually a latrine. It was so cold he recovered with help from Simon Magus and Judas, who also had been crucified, their legs broken, and who were buried with Him. Jesus drank some aloe juice which purged out the poison. The guard was really the latrine attendant. A second latrine attendant removed the stone, helped Simon Magus (who had both his legs broken) carry Jesus out. There Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant to Jesus, did not recognise Jesus standing there until He said "Mary". He said "Do not touch me" because he was dirty from the diarrhoea which expelled the poison. He and Mary travelled to Rome where he lived for thirty years. (p116-125). Imagination run riot! Where is the evidence to support these imaginings? There is none. These are speculative imaginings based on a false reading of the New Testament rejected by the vast majority of scholars.

What evidence is there for the resurrection of Jesus? The evidence can be grouped: evidence concerning the empty tomb; the post-death appearances of Jesus, and the reaction of the disciples. I will now deal with the Empty Tomb. At Easter I will discuss the rest of the evidence.

1. THE HISTORICAL FACT OF THE EMPTY TOMB. But someone will say "In the field of scholarship do not most accept that Jesus died upon a cross and was buried in a tomb?" Scholars accept these accounts as reliable. The credibility and authenticity of the accounts of the empty tomb are also reliable. Here are ten reasons to support the empty tomb account as true according to the Scriptures.

1. To prove the empty tomb was a lie, all the Jews or Romans had to do was to present the body of Jesus to prove he did not rise from the dead. True. But they could not do that. The tomb was empty.

2. If the apostles had stolen the body they would not have each gone to agonising deaths for what they knew was a lie. True. Those fearful men hiding behind locked doors changed character overnight into courageous men who openly defied the authorities and preached the Risen Christ. They were imprisoned, whipped, stoned, exiled, boiled in oil, burnt at the stake, crucified and everyone proclaimed he was a witness of the resurrected Christ. Men do not die like that knowing it is a myth.

3. If the Apostles had fabricated the story they would never have implicated Joseph of Arimathea who gave Jesus his own tomb. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin which "voted to kill Jesus" (Mk 14:55,64;15:1). He could deny the empty tomb easily. 4. If the Apostles had fabricated the story they would never have said women were the first witnesses at the empty tomb. A woman's testimony was worthless in first century Palestine. If they were fabricating the story of the empty tomb you would expect the leaders of the disciples to be the first witnesses. Unless women actually were there! Only true events would have put the women there.

5. Believers never venerated the tomb of Jesus. Tombs of martyrs are always venerated. But not the tomb of Jesus. Because it was empty. There was needed no shrine when people knew the Risen Lord.

6. The disciples would never have overcome the Roman guard ordered by Pilate. Each Roman Guard consisted of 16 men, rotating shifts, a fighting machine. To suggest the disciples defeated the Roman guard, stole the body away without the Roman authorities ever taking action, is absurd.

7. No conflicting stories or traditions exist to explain what happened. There are no alternate stories for the empty tomb. There is only the one testimony that Jesus was raised from the dead.

8. If the disciples made up the story, they would have used the Jewish belief in the resurrection. The Jews believed that the resurrection would occur universally to all saints, never with one individual, at the end of the world, not while they were alive. The Gospel record is completely contrary to what the Jews believed. So something different must have occurred to change their beliefs.

9. If the disciples made up the story, they would have gone somewhere else to tell it. The disciples preached the empty tomb in the very city where Jesus was executed and buried. So many people there were eyewitnesses and therefore could have contradicted the story if they thought otherwise. But they could not. The tomb was empty!

10. The early date of Paul's account in 1 Cor. 15:3 8 makes the theory of a legend a lie. Because, writing only twenty years after the resurrection, when most eyewitnesses were still alive, Paul says he "received" these facts. They predated his writing. There was no time for legend and myth to develop.

2. ALTERNATIVE THEORIES OF THE EMPTY TOMB. If there were no other views existing in the early church about the Empty Tomb, what about alternate theories since then? There are four theories.

A. The Conspiracy Theory. That is, the disciples stole the body. No New Testament scholar today believes this theory. It would have been impossible to steal the body of Jesus with the Roman guard there. It is psychologically implausible because it does not take into account the effect that the crucifixion had on the disciples. They were sad, depressed, and cowardly after the crucifixion. Why would they suddenly become bold if they knew Jesus was really dead? The disciples were clearly sincere seekers of the truth. To turn them into frauds and liars over night is to make them contrary to their character.

B. The Swoon Theory. This theory states that Jesus was not completely dead when they took Him down from the cross. When He was in the tomb, He gained His strength, unwrapped Himself, moved the two ton stone from the tomb, and escaped the guards without them ever knowing. This is ludicrous. This is the theory Barbara Thiering embellishes.

C. The Wrong Tomb Theory. This theory says the women eyewitnesses went to another tomb with no body in it. So they thought Jesus had been raised. But this means Peter and John also went to the wrong tomb. And the Jews went to the wrong tomb. And the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Romans also went to the wrong tomb, and the guard went to the wrong tomb, as did Joseph of Arimathea who had purchased and owned the tomb. By any probability, not likely!

D. The Hallucination Theory. This theory says everyone hallucinated an image of Christ. But the nature of a hallucination does not present twelve people or 500 people seeing the same thing. Neither were they all people susceptible to hallucinations. Neither does it take into account the 15 different appearances of Jesus to hundreds of people over seven weeks. It was not a one time event. Hallucinations don't happen like that.

No alternate theory is credible. What happened to the body if Jesus did not rise from the dead? How do you explain the empty tomb attested by friends as well as enemies, by believers and sceptics, by those who wanted Jesus alive, and those who wanted Him dead? They all agreed: the body was gone! The tomb was empty. To this day, no-one has given a more rational answer than that of the scriptures: God has raised Him up from the dead!

Only such a powerful fact could have made Christianity arise out of a culture that was so antagonistic towards it. Only such a fact would cause so many Jews to give up their Sabbath, sacrificial system, the Law, and to believe in the very thing they thought was blasphemous: that Jesus was God's son. Something happened 2000 years ago, that changed the course of history from B.C. (Before Christ) to A.D. (Anno Domini: the year of our Lord). The only reasonable explanation is that Jesus Christ really lived, died, was buried, and rose again to which there was an empty tomb as evidence. This certainly makes for a reasonable faith. That something was an empty tomb and the historical record of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. No other answer is satisfactory.

3. WHY THEN DO SOME REJECT THE RESURRECTION? Why do Spong, Crossan and Thiering make these claims that the Resurrection of Christ is myth, not reality? Because myth not reality, is the inevitable consequence of their presuppositions. They work from a basic assumption of prejudice against anything that is supernatural. They believe only those things for which they can find a naturalistic explanation.

They accept a narrow mind-set that excludes anything they cannot explain. No naturalist can accept the historicity of the miracles of the Gospels or Jesus' resurrection. That mind-set must deny their miraculous nature or their historical occurrence. Their presupposition of naturalism affects their historical assessment of the evidence.

We should treat the gospels seriously as a source of information on the life and teaching of Jesus, and the historical origins of Christianity. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar started with "the assumption that the narratives of the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythical elements.. by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first century listeners." They reject any evidence that does not fit in with their worldview before they even started. To the Jesus Seminar, the historical Jesus of Nazareth cannot be divine, able to work miracles, and by definition be raised from the dead. Jesus' resurrection from the dead is not an option. So they rely upon their imaginings! So much for fair, open mind scholarship deciding upon written or archaeological evidence! Their prejudice impedes a fair assessment of the evidence. If you believe the scriptures as God's Word, then you have no trouble believing God raised Jesus from the dead! REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:



THE JESUS QUEST Ben Witherington III IVP 1995

THE FIVE GOSPELS R W Funk Macmillan 1993


JESUS THE MAN B Thiering Doubleday 1992

JESUS UNDER FIRE M J Wilkins Zondervan 1995

Gordon Moyes

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