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Witless women & dishonest disciples? Why empty tomb conspiracy theories fail

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Part 4 of 8 in a series of articles by Derek Caldwell on the resurrection. Published March 30, 2024

A few arguments in favor of the empty tomb bear similarities to those arguing that Jesus did, in fact, die. First, no contemporary is denying the empty tomb. Rather, they are denying the interpretation of the empty tomb given by Christ’s followers. As a matter of fact, when Matthew writes about the Jewish denial of the resurrection and their claim that the body of Jesus was stolen, he says that “this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (Matthew 28:15). In other words, he is describing the alternative interpretation of the empty tomb, which implies they do not reject that the tomb was legitimately empty (something no doubt investigated by Jewish authorities). Since Matthew appears to have been writing to a Jewish audience, it makes sense that he would report on this false narrative.1 

Along with that, we see again an “embarrassing” detail: in every Gospel, women—including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and others—are the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Their testimony would not have been accepted in the ancient world, and so if one were to fabricate such a tale, it seems more likely that a prominent Jewish leader (like, perhaps, the aforementioned Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus) might be placed in this part of the narrative. Well, we might say, women were only considered uncredible witnesses in a court of law, so this argument does not work. True enough, but women overall were undervalued and disrespected in this culture.2 Surely, we can see that their status in a court of law is but a reflection of their status in the cultural landscape. We see this reflected in the biblical text itself: their testimonies are not believed, and Peter and John go racing to the tomb to verify it for themselves (John 20:3). Of course, at the same time, incredible claims require some empirical verification! If anything, this also goes to show that these ancient people were not ignorant zealots willing to believe just any religious claims, or those claims that enhanced their material lives (which the Resurrection did not do, by the way—quite the opposite in fact). 

Sadly, one of the other arguments put forth against the veracity of the empty tomb is that perhaps the aforementioned women were at the wrong tomb. There are a few things that make this difficult to believe. First, the women were some of the few who personally went to the tomb of Christ at the time of his burial (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55-56). They knew where it was because they had been there before. Second, this happened in Jerusalem, a very public place, at a tomb that had Roman guards stationed at it. It would have been hard to miss even if they hadn’t already been there in the past. And third, there is still the problem of the missing body. If they were at the wrong tomb, surely someone would have recognized that (especially considering that Roman and Jewish leaders would have wanted to produce the body of Jesus and douse this political and religious fire) and simply found the right tomb and shown them the body of Jesus. I started this paragraph off with sadly because, it seems to me, this argument is a sign that we still do not think very highly of a woman’s ability to critically think and have a credible testimony—or merely to remember which tomb her friend, or rabbi, or son was placed in.  

There are several other theories that have arisen since the time of the crucifixion for what might have really happened, yet the closest accounts we have all affirm that Jesus died, was buried, and His tomb was later found empty. Louis Markos helpfully gives a quick breakdown of the various theories that have arisen since then that attempt to say that, essentially, the tomb was empty because Jesus never really died or because His body was stolen. Let’s go through a few of those now.

First, did the disciples steal Jesus’s body? That would mean that they would have somehow stolen the body out from under the Roman guards who had been placed there (see Matthew 27:62-66). If anything, the cowardly actions of many of the disciples during the crucifixion (another one of those embarrassing admissions that is a sign of authenticity) make this theory seem highly unlikely. In truth, they wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near the tomb of Jesus at that point. They seemed to think all was lost, so why risk further harm (something they were clearly keen to avoid) by going to the guarded tomb? And when we add the historical detail that it was against Roman law to violate tombs and move bodies for nefarious reasons—something even punishable by death during the time of Jesus according to an ancient marble slab unearthed in 18783—the thought that the disciples stole the body becomes more far-fetched. 

Next, if they stole the body, why would they continue to live the lie of the resurrection even after it became readily apparent, through ostracism and violence, that their lives would be much, much harder moving forward because they proclaimed that the resurrection had happened? Some have claimed that thieves stole the body, but anything that thieves could have gained from the body (like expensive burial clothes or a ransom to turn it over to people who wanted to disprove the resurrection) was apparently never attained, as no one produced a body and the burial clothes were left in the tomb. Some even say that perhaps Romans or Jews stole the body—but then why not just present the body in order to squash the Christian revolution that both groups despised? 

Then, perhaps, did Jesus pass out instead of actually dying on the cross? Was he not really dead when placed in the tomb? In this scenario, known as the swoon theory, the tomb would have been empty because Jesus woke up and escaped. The major problem with this is that Romans were proficient executioners and they knew how to tell when someone was deceased.4 Medical experts of today have found in the testimonies of Jesus’s death quite enough to convince them that He was actually dead as well. In particular, when Jesus has a spear thrust into his side to confirm His death, both blood and water come rushing out. There is rich theological significance here, but there is also real medical significance. Lee Strobel had the chance to interview Alexander Metherell, a medical doctor who has studied these narratives extensively, about what convinces him that Jesus truly died on the cross. Metherall explains: “The spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid—the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion—came out. This would have the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, followed by a large volume of blood, as the eyewitness John described in his gospel.”5 The spear to the heart proved Jesus was dead. And even if he had not been dead, as medical doctor Joseph Bergeron explains, the spear to the heart “would be the most straightforward way to deliver a coup de gras.”6 

Finally, it should also be noted that there is no account of someone thinking Jesus had been resurrected because of the empty tomb alone. The empty tomb is necessary for what will come next, but it is not what convinced anyone of Jesus’s resurrection. An empty tomb perhaps could have been spun to make someone believe that Christ had been resurrected spiritually, but not bodily. No, the evidence needed for these early believers was to see or touch the physical, formerly deceased, resurrected body of Christ. No one said, “Yes, I saw the body of Christ, but I must know for sure whether the tomb was empty or not!” The vast majority of those first believers never even saw the empty tomb. Why would they need to? Once you see Christ in front of you in the flesh, a simple deduction would tell you that the tomb was empty. 

The gospels, as CS Lewis notes rightly notes in The Screwtape Letters, were written not necessarily to prove something in an apologetic sense, but to encourage those who had already come to an understanding of the truth through the evangelistic efforts of eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Christ. “The ‘Gospels’ come later and were written not to make Christians,” Lewis writes in the character of Uncle Screwtape, “but to edify Christians already made.”7 It is quite fascinating and providential, then, that these accounts—while somewhat sparse due to their following the standards for written biographies of their age—do contain all of these little details that would prove so necessary for us attempting to establish their reliability today. Either the authors knew what questions modern people would be asking a couple thousand years later, or the divine hand prepared the Gospels for a timeless reception. 

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell

Derek Caldwell is researcher and content creator for Embrace the Truth.


1 There are inter-textual reasons for believing the Gospel of Matthew was written to a Jewish audience. Unlike other Gospels, it references Jewish customs and rituals by name without feeling the need to elaborate on what they are, which implies that Matthew’s audience was familiar with Jewish life and custom. But beyond that, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-c. 200 AD) writes that Matthew wrote a Gospel for the Hebrews in their own dialect, which may be a reference to the Gospel we have today. In that case, what we have may be a Greek translation of the original Hebrew version, or perhaps by “dialect” he simply meant one written for the sensibilities, in cultural jargon, and perhaps in a “Hebraic style” of the Hebrew people, who all probably would have known some Greek. See Burge, et al., The New Testament in Antiquity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 167. Or it could be that Matthew wrote out his Gospel in both Hebrew and Greek versions for distribution. Papias seems to imply that Matthew’s Gospel was originally written in Hebrew and then subsequently translated into other languages. See the words of Papias preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.16.

2 Several ancient authors openly mocked Christians for the openness to women as equals that we find in this and many other instances of the Gospel. See Michael J. Kruger, “Early Christianity Was Mocked for Welcoming Women,” TGC, The Gospel Coalition, August 27, 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/early-christianity-welcoming-women/. 

3 Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 161. 

4 Louis Markos, Apologetics for the 21st Century (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 169. 

5 Alexander Metherall, MD, in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 199.

6 Joseph W. Bergeron, MD, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Medical Doctor Examines the Death and Resurrection of Christ (Rapid City, SD: Crosslink Publishing, 2019), 111. This is a very interesting look at the crucifixion, but definitely not for the faint of heart. 

7 CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 126. 

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