The Case Against the Empty Tomb

Peter Kirby wrote the chapter in The Empty Tomb entitled The Case Against the Empty Tomb. The Empty Tomb is a collection of work from various atheist from Robert Price to Michael Martin. In a past post I criticized Martin’s reasoning against Swinburne’s argument for the resurrection. I found Martin’s section entirely dubious.  Thankfully, Kirby section fairs a bit better. However, it should be noted that I am not too familiar with the arguments for and against an empty tomb – this review is merely a first reaction going off my background knowledge of the bible.

First Kirby starts off listing four other supposedly plausible scenarios that could replace the empty tomb story:

  1. Jesus was left hanging on the cross for birds.

  2. The Romans disposed of the body

  3. The body of Jesus was buried by the Jews in some sort of criminal grave

  4. The body of Jesus remained buried in a tomb.

Clearly, three and four could both be true. They both indicate that Jesus remain buried, so in what sense they are truly different I am not sure. Three is more specific but the added specificity isn’t necessary.  In any case these are plausible scenarios if there is no evidence for the empty tomb.

Kirby proceeds to argue that Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark so that they do not count as independent accounts of the same story. This notion has prima fascia credence, but I do not think it holds up under the internal evidence of Undesigned Coincidences argument, which is being popularized by Dr. McGrew (Click this link for more info: However, for the sake of argument let us grant that Kirby is right and Luke and Matthew do not count as independent witnesses. Kirby goes on to argue that the Gospel of John cannot help either, “Nevertheless, I would maintain that, even if John is literately independent, the section containing the empty tomb narrative is based on oral tradition that has been influenced by the synoptic gospels.” From what I gather Kirby argues against this by looking at symmetries between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Matthew, showing how John developed off Matthew. I have concerns that Kirby may be begging the question here, but I am not knowledgeable in a defense of the Gospel of Johns so we shall grant this too. Kirby finishes with this statement, “Since all accounts of the empty tomb are dependent on Mark, the story hangs by a slender thread indeed. The evidence that follows will cut that thread by showing that the story in Mark is most likely fictional.”  I agree that if everything is hanging on the Gospel of Mark then the empty tomb has only a very weak support. This is not to say that Jesus’ resurrection has weak evidence though. It would be weaker, but not necessarily weak. And though I disagree with the claim that everything rest on Mark’s gospel, I do want to examine the strong and weak points of Kirby’s argument from here.

First Kirby argues that Mark has fictional characteristics and one can see that Mark is basing the empty tomb story off an Old Testament story. “In 2 Kings 2:9-18, Elijah is carried off into heaven in a whirlwind in the presence of Elisha. But some believe that Elijah may still be around somewhere, so they persuade Elisha to send fifty men “who searched for three days without find him.” Now, this alone doesn’t really resemble much of the empty tomb story. Elisha supposedly saw Elijah disappear in a whirlwind, but some people wanted to believe that Elijah was still around so they searched for him. While no one thought Jesus was alive and the woman simply went to give their respect, to their surprise the body was missing. So, how does Kirby try to connect these two stories? By arguing they both reveal a poor kind of faith, “However, the act of the women evinces poor faith and misunderstanding concerning the resurrection of Jesus, and in that way the stories are similar.” So, the fact a few people had a poor understanding and perhaps acted irrationally is evidence that the empty tomb is based off 2 Kings? This is beyond dubious. What does it matter that both groups acted slightly irrationally (if they did) this happens all the time, it is human nature. That hardly shows the empty tomb story is based off 1 Kings. It is not hard to imagine that many stories have a “poor faith” in them but are not connected in anyway. I really wonder if Kirby just hastily put this section into the chapter without reflecting on it too much. But either way, no one should find this persuasive.

Moving on to more promising areas, an interesting fact about Mark is that the oldest manuscripts have his gospel ending with, “And they (the woman went to the empty tomb) said nothing to anyone, since they were afraid.” Now, scholars argue whether this is where Mark intended to end his story or if the original ending was lost. In defense of the position that Mark intended to end here, scholars claim this goes on with Mark’s theme of discipleship failure. That no one in the gospel succeeds and woman are no exception at the greatest moment. In defense of the position that the original ending was lost; it would simply be weird that the women were told that Jesus had been resurrected but then really never told anyone. I think, either one of these situations could be likely until more background information is taken into consideration.

A third argument given by Kirby is that there are improbabilities within the Gospel of Mark. One problem is that it is odd that the woman would go alone to try and anoint the body if they knew that a large rock would be in the way. Here I agree with Kirby, it would be odd if the women didn’t know if a rock would be in a way if they knew the location of the tomb before heading there. And if they knew there was a rock in the way why wouldn’t they bring help to move it? It seems dubious to me that there would be someone there just waiting to move it if someone wanted to see the body.

Kirby goes on to argue that it is also strange that a pious Sanhedrin, that is Joseph, would ask Pilate to bury Jesus, since Joseph would have better things to do. Because of this William Lane Craig suggest that Joseph was a secret admirer and follower of Jesus which would explain why Joseph would want to bury Jesus. However, this is not even needed. It is possibly the Joseph was unsure what he thought about Jesus and if the curtains really did rip apart when Jesus died, Mark 15:38, then perhaps Joseph became convinced a mistake was made. This of course assumes he was around the crucifixion and/or temple when Jesus died. This is not unreasonable assumption though. But to bolster the claim Joseph could not have taken Jesus’ body Kirby argues that it is hardly reasonable to think Pilate would allow Jesus to have an honorable burial if Jesus was a criminal. Kirby summarizes this position well,

“this would require that Joseph considered the charge against Jesus to be unjust in the sight of God. Not only is it difficult to understand why a simple, pious Sanhendrinist would be moved to conclude that such a one had been crucified unjustly, but it is hardly plausible that Pilate would have allowed Jesus to be given an honorable burial, as this would be tantamount to an admission that Jesus was crucified without just cause.”

In response, I would simply direct the reader to Mark 15:14, when the Jews starting shouting crucify Jesus Pilate responded, “Why? What has he done wrong?” then in Mark 15:15 without being given an answer, “Then, willing to gratify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. And after having Jesus flogged, he handed Him over to be crucified.” So, if the Gospel of Mark is to be believed, Pilate only crucified Jesus because of the crowds not because he thought Jesus was guilty.

The last part I want to cover in this analysis of Kirby’s argument is that if the empty tomb location was known and was indeed empty then the location would be venerated. Thus, no tomb being venerated is evidence that the tomb was not empty. I agree with Kirby on this point.


 My mind has currently change on the last paragraph. The fact the tomb was not venerated is not good evidence the tomb was never empty. The early Christians primarily celebrated  resurrection. If they celebrate resurrection, then an empty tomb is superfluous.


  1. Price, Robert M., and Jeffery Jay. Lowder. “The Case Against the Empty Tomb.” The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005. 233-56. Print.

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