Contending for Easter Part 4: The Unlikely Undertaker

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As part of an Easter blog series, the Canadian Apologetics Coalition wanted to give you, the reader, good reasons to believe that Jesus is the risen Son of God. Yesterday’s blog established that Jesus died by crucifixion. Today, we want to examine what happened to his body. Was Jesus actually buried? Does it matter? I believe it does. The importance of establishing that there is historical evidence for Jesus’s burial is the pivot on which turns further proof that Jesus was actually dead and that he came to life again. We will look at why this is not just a legend, why Joseph of Arimathea as an unlikely undertaker matters to the account, and that the tomb of Jesus was public knowledge.

NOT JUST A LEGEND

So how can we know that the burial account (or for that matter, the entire Easter story) is accurate and not just the stuff of legend? Legends are events that get embellished overtime, so we would need evidence that dates to within a few years of Jesus’ crucifixion, preferably from more than one source.

We have several sources within the New Testament (NT), but can we trust it as a compilation of early source documents? (See Tawa Anderson’s blog from Monday, March 25th on The Gospel Truth). As for accuracy, we have come to know that the NT has not changed with translation over time. In fact, there are over 5000 manuscripts and fragments in existence today in the original Greek[1] that help verify the integrity of our modern translations. Fredric Kenyon, who was a scholar and paleographer said:

“In no other case is the interval of time between the composition of the book and the date of the earliest extant manuscripts so short as in that of the New Testament…The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”[2]  

That being said, the first four books of the NT (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), all record the burial of Jesus but each adds a different slant on it. Some would argue that those would be contradictions, but actually they need not be. Actually, they each add a part to make the story more complete, much like witnesses at a crime scene. Crime scene investigators expect to get different information from each witness; indeed, they hope witnesses see different things so that clues are offered up that will solve a case. If witnesses all tell the same story, investigators suspect collusion and dishonesty. So, it is a good thing that each gospel reports the same event with differing details so we can have a better understanding of what happened.

The Apostle Paul gives another independent account of the burial of Jesus in his first letter to the Corinthians:  “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”(NIV). The wording of this verse stands out because it is different from Paul’s usual style. Paul is passing on information here that was given to him very probably by Peter. Somewhere around three years after Paul’s conversion, he went to see Peter in Jerusalem. According to Galatians 1:18, he met with Peter for two weeks and scholars believe he could possibly have received this “creed” then. If so, that dates this statement of faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection to within five years of that event from within the same city where it happened.[3]

Working with the reliability of the New Testament, which was ever so briefly touched on above, we have five independent sources of the burial of Jesus (each author of the gospels and Paul), one of which has a creed including the burial of Jesus that dates to within a possible five years of the event itself. This is not the stuff of legend.

 THE UNLIKELY UNDERTAKER

Joseph of Arimathea is another important factor in establishing the veracity of Jesus’ burial. The burial accounts in the Gospels tell us that this man got permission from Pilate to bury Jesus, and then worked quickly to get Jesus’ body off the cross before sundown because the Sabbath started that evening (Jews were not to do any work after that time). He wrapped Jesus’ body in cloth and put it in his own new tomb cut out of rock, then rolled a big stone in front to seal it. The amazing thing was that this guy was part of the Jewish Ruling Council, called the Sanhedrin, which was the group that had just condemned Jesus to death! According to William Lane Craig, it is “highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the court that condemned Jesus who honors Jesus by giving him a proper burial instead of allowing him to be dispatched as a common criminal”.[4] There are those such as John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, who would have us believe that in accordance with historical Roman practice, Jesus was probably left as carrion on the cross. Although Craig would agree that this was “customary practice”, he would argue that this assumption in regards to Jesus ignores the specific evidence put forward in this case. [5]

TOMB OF JESUS WAS PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE

As just mentioned, Joseph of Arimathea went and got permission from Pilate to bury Jesus in his own tomb. The next day, Matthew tells us that upon the request of the chief priests and Pharisees, Pilate dispatched a guard to the tomb. As well, the women in Jesus’ life are present in the background throughout the crucifixion and the burial. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all record these women witnessing where Joseph of Arimathea put Jesus’ body, and John tells of Mary coming to the tomb early the day after the Sabbath, inferring that she knew where it was. Therefore, people witnessed the burial of Jesus, and the location of the tomb was public knowledge. If the Resurrection had been false, once the disciples started preaching about it, the authorities could have simply produced the body in the tomb and people would have considered the whole idea nonsense.

Hopefully, this has your interest piqued. I have only skimmed the surface of these topics in order to show that the NT is historically trustworthy; the burial is not a legend, but a witnessed account, carried out by a well-known man of the community. Thus, Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb that was known to Jews and Gentiles alike – a tomb that his followers returned to on the first day of the week, only to find it empty.

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[1] Craig L. Blomberg in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 193-194.

[2] Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology (New York: Harper, 1940), 288-289. Emphasis his. As quoted in Prepared Defense 2.0, by Clay Jones.

[3] For a much more extensive treatment of this topic – Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith. 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 360 – 389.

[4] Craig, William Lane. “The Resurrection of Jesus.” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus [accessed March 5, 2013].

[5] Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 279-280.