Can The Wrong Tomb Theory Explain The Resurrection?

In this series, we have been discussing the Minimal Facts approach to the resurrection of Jesus. We began by explaining that certain facts about Jesus’ life and death by crucifixion were agreed upon by a majority of New Testament scholars. Even skeptical scholars who don’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead agree with these facts.  So far in the series we have looked at 3 alternate explanations for the resurrection, the swoon theory, the legend theory and the twin theory. In this post we’ll discuss the “Wrong Tomb” theory? So, can the wrong tomb theory explain the resurrection?

What Is The Wrong Tomb Theory?

The wrong tomb theory attempts to explain the resurrection in this way.  Jesus did die by crucifixion.  He was buried in a tomb, possibly by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. However, the Disciples did not know the location of the tomb.  When they went to the tomb, it was actually the wrong one.  The Disciples then came to the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead and began spreading this message. So, can the wrong tomb theory explain all the facts of the Resurrection?

Does The Twin Theory Explain The Resurrection?

As with all out theories, we test them against the agreed upon facts.  For review, here are the 12 facts we are working with.  These facts were assembled by Dr. Craig Hazen from Biola University.  

A Review Of The Facts

The facts:

  1. Jesus died by Roman Crucifixion.
  2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
  3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent having lost hope.
  4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his burial
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. Due to these experiences, the disciple’s lives were thoroughly transformed, to the point of being willing to die for this belief. 
  7. The resurrection message was the center of preaching in the early church.
  8. This message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this preaching, the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faint when he believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul became a Christian believer due to an experience which he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus. 

What Does The Empty Tomb Theory Explain?

So, which of the facts does this theory explain?  It explains numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4.  In this scenario, Jesus dies and is buried.  His disciples find an empty tomb soon afterwards.  But this is the end of the explanatory power of this alternate explanation.  

What Does The Theory NOT Explain?

What isn’t explained by this theory is why the Disciples were radically changed.  If all they found was an empty tomb, they would not have had any experiences of the risen Jesus.  There would have been no visitations to the Disciples by Jesus.  Simply finding an empty tomb would not be enough to convince the Disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.  They would probably have concluded that they either had the wrong tomb, or that Jesus’ body had been stolen.

Can The Wrong Tomb Theory Explain The Resurrection?

Mary is recorded to have been despondent at finding an empty tomb.  She believed the body of Jesus had been stolen.  This would be a common and understandable reaction to finding an empty tomb. It was not until her encounter with Jesus that she believed he had risen. 

Could They Have Been Mistaken?

And let’s not forget that the women that help Joseph and Nicodemus prepare Jesus body all knew where the tomb was.  Perhaps one of them might have a mistaken memory of where the tomb was.  But more than 4 people all forgetting the location? Not likely.

The Jewish and Roman authorities also new the location of the tomb.  They had posted guards there to prevent the Disciples from stealing Jesus body.  If rumors of a risen Jesus had started, they not only had the location of the tomb, but the motivation to produce the body and stop the rumor.  

What About Paul And James?

This explanation also fails to account for the conversion of Paul and James.  Neither of these individuals would have been convinced to change their minds about Jesus simply by finding an empty tomb.  They would have suspected a trick.  With them already being hostile to the message of Jesus, it would take more than just a lack of a body to convince them they were wrong.  They too required the additional proof of having Jesus appear to them. 

In the end, the “Wrong Tomb” theory fails to account for all the facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus.  The next alternate explanation we’ll look at for the resurrection is the “Hallucination” theory.  This theory claims that the Disciples wanted so desperately for Jesus to be alive, they hallucinated encounters with Him.  Does this theory meet the criteria of explaining all the facts?  Be sure to check out then next post and see!

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