If Jesus was not resurrected, how could it be that when the women went to the tomb on that Sunday morning, they found it empty?
There have been many responses by skeptics to this argument. Many perfectly natural theories have been advanced. They ranged from the swoon theory (Jesus didn't die; he was just badly wounded) to the theft theory (the body was stolen from the tomb). Each of these theories, while in itself unproven, is more probable than a resurrection. That's because tombs do get raided (and have in the first century as well), people do cheat death and hold on to dear life by a thread, only to fully recover later. On the other hand, resurrections do not happen. All these perfectly natural explanations are in themselves more likely than a man being raised from the dead.
This does not mean that a resurrection can be 100% excluded. We don't and can't know that miracles can't ever happen. But the likelihood of a resurrection, when compared with that of any of these perfectly natural (and quite common) events is so small that it can be effectively ignored.
Here then is my pet theory about the empty tomb.
We know from ancient sources (and informed apologists are also well aware of this) that the bodies of executed criminals were usually buried in a dishonourable burial, in kind of a mass grave specially set aside for criminals. This wasn't always the case, however. Sometimes the authorities allowed for an exception and there have been reported cases of convicted and executed criminals given an honourable burial in a tomb.
Scholars are almost unanimous that Mark was the earliest gospel. It was also the least embellished. Mark has fewer miracles than do the other three gospels and it doesn't have that ridiculous (and arguably embarrassing to Christianity) pericope about dead saints roaming the streets of Jerusalem during Easter (Matthew).
According to Mark, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea who himself was a member of the Council. The male disciples were not present during the burial. However, the burial was witnessed by two women; Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Mark 15:47 tells us that they saw where the body was placed.
The burial takes place in the evening (Mark 15:47) and arguably it was getting dark, if not dark already. The women were understandably traumatised as they had just witnessed a gruesome, horrible death of their guru. There is no mention that they spoke to Joseph of Arimathea or that they took any active part in the burial process. Since Jesus had just been executed as a criminal, it would make good sense to suppose that they would fear persecution and want to keep their distance. All we know is that the women saw where Jesus was buried.
On Sunday morning Mary Madalene (only one of the two women who witnessed the burial) ventures out with some other women (who did not witness the burial) to visit the tomb and anoint the body. It's interesting to pause here and note that Joseph of Arimathea took no part in this process. Why? If he buried the body (and especially if the tomb was his own tomb, although Mark does not go this far), it would make perfect sense that he should be involved. Why isn't he?
The answer might lie in Acts 13:29. That verse suggests that a tradition existed that Jesus was buried by those who had killed him. Could this mean that Joseph of Arimathea (a place that itself isn't known to any map of the ancient world) was in fact an enemy of Jesus? If that's the case, it would explain not only Acts 13:29 but also why he took no part in assisting the women in anointing the body. Remember that the women were wondering who will remove the stone. If Joseph was a fellow disciple, would they not have asked him to send some servants along (as a member of the Council he was bound to be wealthy and the gospels do echo that tradition; he would have servants) and assist in this? Naturally they would. And yet they did not. Why? Because he either was an enemy of Jesus or, if he was a disciple, the women didn't know this!
But if Joseph was Jesus' enemy, would he plead with Pilate to get his body and bury it? The answer is yes! We are told that Jesus died shortly before the Sabbath and we are well aware that the Jewish law prohibited a corpse being exposed during the Sabbath; it would defile the land. This known fact has given rise to many theories that Jesus was buried in a temporary tomb (whether that was the case or not does not concern us for our purposes here).
Now if we accept that Joseph of Arimathea was an enemy of Jesus or at least that the women thought he was (or alternatively that they did not know who he is at all), it would make good sense to conclude that they kept very good distance when watching the burial on Friday night!
Could it then be that on Sunday Mary Magdalene simply went to the wrong tomb? She had only seen the tomb from afar, in a state of fear, trauma and despair and in the evening, when it was arguably getting dark (if not dark already).
If you think this scenario is far-fetched, think about how many times you parked your car and then looked for it in the wrong place. And you, unlike Mary, had the benefit of street lighting. Unlike Mary you did not have the trauma associated with what she had just witnessed.
The scenario is entirely plausible. And it's way more plausible than a resurrection. People mistake locations all the time. Every day. And resurrections simple don't happen. If we are to conclude a resurrection, we would have to have extremely compelling evidence. We would need to positively exclude all "the usual suspects"; all natural hypotheses. But can we exclude this one? No.
Let's keep going with the scenario. Mark tells us that the women ran away in fear and said nothing to anyone as they were scared. In fact this is where Mark's gospel actually ends. The remaining verses are later additions. I'm not kidding. Scholars call this the "Short ending of Mark". Our earliest manuscripts of Mark end right there. Some apologists argue that this is too abrupt and therefore there must have been some further text that simply got omitted (a copying error) in our earliest copies.
But there's a major problem here. Why would the women be scared? They have (so Mark tells us) just been told that their master isn't dead; he's alive again and wants to meet with his disciples! Is that something to be scared of? Or is that a reason to rejoice? Of course it's the latter! And if we accept that Jesus performed miracles in his lifetime and Mary Magdalene was aware of this (and thought of him as the messiah), being scared of his resurrection would make no sense at all.
So why was Mary scared? Could it be that she thought the body was removed and put in an dishonourable grave for criminals? Could she think that the authorities will now go after those who were close to Jesus, including herself? Maybe.
What if Mary wasn't scared at all? What if she said nothing about it (for a while anyway) because she realised she probably got the wrong tomb? It's a major embarrassment to have to go back to the disciples and say "oh gosh, you know, I just can't remember where he was buried on Friday, couldn't do the anointment thing". How do you avoid that embarrassment? You say nothing at all.
But we know that Mary did break her silence as otherwise Mark's author would never hear about the empty tomb at all. When did she break it? What did she say? We can't know. Mark (in his earliest known version) is silent on this.
Now, on this version, the disciples never do find out what happened to Jesus' body. They might speculate it was moved to a dishonourable grave (and maybe it was; the fact that Mary got the wrong tomb doesn't mean that the right one wasn't empty for that very reason!) But some of them, having strong faith in their guru, might speculate that he was resurrected. If you have any doubts about what faith can do, read up on doomsday cults. Start with the Heaven's Gate. Faith can move proverbial mountains. There's absolutely nothing surprising in the disciples, having found out about an empty tomb, speculating that Jesus was risen. Perhaps one of them had a dream about this the following night? Entirely possible and very natural in the circumstances. How many of us have a dream about a traumatic or strange event shortly after it happens? Of course, most of us make nothing of it. But back in the superstitious 1st century dreams were thought of as a major source of truth. Just remember the Christian tradition of Joseph (Christ's stepdad) having dreams about virgin birth (Matthew 1:20) or that it's now safe to go back to Israel from Egypt (Matthew 2:19). If you were facing mortal danger (to you, your wife and her child) and had a dream where an angel tells you "it's safe now", would you take the risk? I hope you say "no". In the least, you'd want to verify that it's true. But early Christian tradition places a lot of emphasis on dream visions. This in itself should make us suspicious as it has the marks of superstition.
But I digress. Could a disciple have a dream that Jesus had risen? Of course. Could various disciples then experience visions of Jesus? Naturally. Perhaps in dreams and perhaps in other people whom they met. Remember the appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24)? Two disciples travel alongside a man and have no idea this man is in fact Jesus. They don't realise this until much later, after they part his company (note that the word in Luke 24:31 translated as "vanished" in many translations is in fact "aphantos" which also means to simply "go out of one's sight"). This is one example of the "Jesus appearing but not looking like Jesus" tradition in early Christianity. Another one is in John 20:14. Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Jesus speaks to her, she looks a him but doesn't recognise him. The same theme appears in Matthew 28:17. The disciples go to Galilee, they see Jesus and worship him. The author adds "but they doubted" (often translated as "but some doubted"; the Greek word translated as "some" is "ho" and means "this, that, these").
An interesting side note at this point is the irreconcilable contradiction between Matthew and Luke. In Matthew Jesus appears to the disciples in Galilee. In Luke, the first appearance to all of them is on the night of the Resurrection and takes place in Jerusalem. Galilee is some 70 miles from Jerusalem. So if Luke's version is true, the Luke appearance must have taken place before the Matthew one (as the disciples had to travel to Galilee for the Matt appearance and couldn't possibly make it there on the same day). But according to Matthew, the disciples doubted when they saw Jesus in Galilee. If they had already had the Lukan appearance (complete with Jesus eating fish to prove he's not a ghost; is Luke saying he looked like a ghost?) there's no way they would still doubt. It also makes no sense that Jesus would tell the women (see Matt 28:10) to tell the disciples to go see him in Galilee if he was in fact going to appear to them in Jerusalem that very night (Luke 24).
This small digression is important as it's a good example of how unreliable our "evidence" of Jesus's bodily appearances is. Apologists tend to claim that eyewitnesses often get confused about detail. That's true. As a litigation lawyer with some 15 years' experience, I'm the first to admit that. You can be confused about the colour of someone's jacket or about whether a car was going 35 or 40 miles per hour. But that's a far cry from getting the very location of an event wrong. And yet the first appearance in Matthew is Galilee while that in Luke is Jerusalem.
Of course the above issue becomes irrelevant altogether once we realise that both Luke and Matthew are dated by most scholars to well after 60AD, some 30 years after the alleged events. In addition, neither claims to be an eyewitness of the events or an actual disciple of Jesus. Both are greatly based on Mark (copying entire portions, often word for word). It's accepted by scholars that both gospels are based on earlier tradition. And tradition is simply a fancy name for "legend". Legends get embellished with time. That's their nature.
So what do we end up with? A woman confused about the location of a tomb finds an empty one instead. Grief-stricken disciples then conclude a resurrection must have occurred. This leads them to experiences of appearances of their master. Tradition suggests appearances in other people, where the disciples later conclude that who they saw was Jesus. Gospel traditions of actual appearances to a group of disciples (physical bodily visitations) are years later and are mutually inconsistent. Therefore, they can be excluded as legend that formed over the years.
What about the appearances mentioned in Paul's letters? Aren't they an early tradition? Yes they are. But Paul does not describe a physical appearance. In fact, he gives no detailed account of any appearance at all. Instead all we get is a list of people that Jesus apparently appeared to. The word used is "Horao" and it means "to see, become aware, to see within one's mind". This is consistent with the "appearances" I have described above. Clearly Paul has heard that the disciples have "seen" Jesus after the resurrection. But how he heard it is a mystery, as are the details of what he heard. He swears throughout his letters (Galatians and 1 Cor) that his sources aren't human tradition. Of course, apologists who claim an early tradition must necessarily play this down; Paul must have been lying about his sources of information. One way or another, all this reflects is that there was an early tradition of disciples "seeing" Jesus. The appearances to Peter, "the twelve" (interestingly at that time there would only be "the eleven" as Judas had apparently committed suicide - something Paul doesn't appear to be aware of), 500, James, then "all the apostles (how is that different from "the twelve" and does it include Paul - also an apostle himself?) and finally Paul himself. We know that the appearance to Paul was a vision and not a physical bodily visit. And Paul makes no attempt to differentiate between this appearance and the appearances to the others. Rather, all form part of the same laundry list. There's therefore absolutely no reason to assume that the tradition of appearances that Paul relies on is a tradition of actual bodily visits, as opposed to visions (either in dreams or by seeing Jesus in other people, as in the Emmaus incident).
To conclude this point, early appearance tradition does not support a claim that the disciples believed in physical visitations by the Risen Jesus, such that could be taken as evidence of Resurrection.
1. Mary Magdalene mistakes the tomb
2. The disciples conclude Jesus was resurrected
3. They start looking out for him and see him in dreams, visions and in other people
4. With decades, a tradition of physical visitations develops
5. By the time the Gospels are written, the physical visitation tradition exists and has already diversified into a number of inconsistent accounts
What we see above is a perfectly natural and reasonable course of events. It's consistent with the evidence, if considered properly. And it's greatly more likely than an actual resurrection. People do make mistakes and do see things in dreams. People do "see" departed loved ones when they look at other people. Resurrections, on the other hand, do not happen.
There is much more to be said. For instance, why would a tradition like the one in 4 develop? But let's leave it for another day.