According to the gospel narratives Jesus Christ, following his crucifixion, was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. There are several reasons why one can consider this to be a historical fact.
One discovers that Christ’s burial is attested in early sources, one of which is Paul’s authentic letters within which there is an early creed. 1 Corinthians was penned by Paul around the early 50’s AD, and the creed within it is dated to within three to five years of Christ’s crucifixion (1). Accord to the creed Christ “was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4, emphasis added). According to historian Gary Habermas, these creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50,” and therefore constitutes early evidence for Christ’s burial (2).
The burial narrative is also part of Mark’s pre-passion narrative material. Exegete William Lane Craig explains that “The burial account is part of Mark’s source material for the story of Jesus’ Passion. This is a very early source which is probably based on eyewitness testimony and dates to within several years of Jesus’ crucifixion” (3). Other scholars agree to the earliness of Mark’s pre-passion narrative which, according to scholar Rudolf Pesch, dates no later than 37 AD, a few years after Christ’s crucifixion (4). Scholar Bauckham also dates this material prior to 40 AD, stating that it probably “goes back to the Jerusalem church” (5).
From the above we have two early and independent sources for the burial account in the form of a creed and Mark’s pre-passion narrative. However, one learns that all four canonical gospels attest to the burial of Christ after the event of his crucifixion. The earliest gospel Mark narrates it in chapter 15 verses 42 through 47. However, it is important to note that Mark’s burial narrative was used by the authors of Luke and Matthew, and they therefore do not count as independent sources. John, however, is independent of the synoptics, and in which the burial story is also found (John 19:38-42) (6).
Although Matthew obtains his content from Mark’s gospel, Matthew’s author does, however, appear to make use of another tradition, that being M material. According to Craig,
“As for the other Gospels, that Matthew has an independent tradition of the empty tomb is evident not only from the non-Matthean vocabulary (e.g., the words translated “on the next day,” “the preparation day,” “deceiver,” “guard [of soldiers],” “to make secure,” “to seal”; the expression “on the third day” is also non-Matthean, for he everywhere else uses “after three days;” the expression “chief priests and Pharisees” never appears in Mark or Luke and is also unusual for Matthew), but also from Matt. 28.15: “this story has been spread among Jews till this day,” indicative of a tradition history of disputes with Jewish non-Christians” (7).
Further, the gospels of Luke and John have the non-Markan story of Peter and another disciple inspecting the tomb, which, given John’s independence of Luke, indicates a separate tradition behind the story. This suggests it must have come from some other source apart from Mark.
A final source is from the book of Acts which narrates Christ’s execution by Pilate, his burial in a tomb, resurrection, and resurrection appearances (13:28-31).
In terms of independent attestation, the historian has six independent sources attesting to Christ’s burial in the form of the pre-Mark passion narrative, the source behind Luke and John not found in Mark, M, John, Acts, and Paul. Given that historians are often pleased to have just two independent sources confirming a historical event, this appears quite compelling. According to John Robinson, the burial is perhaps one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (8)
According to the criterion of enemy attestation an event is attested to by the enemies of a historical figure or movement which historians believe gives it a high probability. The burial seems to satisfy this criterion. Three historical sources claim that Jews accused the disciples of stealing Christ’s body from the tomb, namely, the Gospel of Matthew (28:13), Dialogue with Tryphyo (Justin Martyr), and De Spectaculis (Tertullian). However, the strength of this ultimately rides on the reliability of Matthew’s narrative of the Jews alleging that the disciples stole the body (28:13), which has come into doubt for some historians as a matter of objective history. However, assuming that Matthew’s detail can be accepted, it would suggest that Christ’s tomb was found empty which would assume that he was buried within it. At no point, according to Matthew, did the Jews claim that Christ wasn’t buried, rather they claimed that the disciples had stolen his body from the tomb.
Christ’s Burial by Joseph of Arimathea
All four gospels state that a man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea was the one who buried Christ in a tomb after the crucifixion, which is attested to in two independent sources (Mark and John). It is also unlikely that Joseph of Arimathea have been a Christian invention given that,
“There was strong resentment against the Jewish leadership for their role in the condemnation of Jesus (I Thess. 2.15). It is therefore 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” (9).
Professor Raymond Brown gives the burial the designation of “very probable,” since it is “almost inexplicable” why Christians would make up a story about a Jewish Sanhedrist who does what is right by Jesus (11).
No Competing Accounts
Other than the accounts of Christ’s burial in six independent sources there no other competing explanations. As Craig explains,
“No other competing burial story exists. If the burial by Joseph were fictitious, then we would expect to find either some historical trace of what actually happened to Jesus’ corpse or at least some competing legends. But all our sources are unanimous on Jesus’ honorable interment by Joseph” (12).
The Burial in an Early Sermon
Although Acts 13:28-31 directly attests to the burial, one discovers that it is indirectly attested to in an early sermon in which the apostle Peter compared David’s occupied tomb to Christ’s empty one (Acts 2:29). Acts 2:29 presents an early apostolic preaching of the empty tomb. Craig writes,
“The empty tomb is implied in the contrast between David’s tomb and Jesus’: “David died and was buried and his tomb is with us to this day.” But “this Jesus God has raised up” (2:29-32; cf. 13.36-7). Finally, the third line of the tradition handed on by Paul summarizes, as I have said, the empty tomb story” (13).
Historians Accept Christ’s Burial as a Historical Fact
Near universal academic consensus holds that the burial of Christ is one of the surest things we can know about him. It is one of the events often cited in the Minimal Fact approach, a method which outlines the facts that are “so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones” (14).
1. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. p. 38.
2. Habermas, Gary. 1996. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Chapter 7, p. 143.
3. Craig, W. 2009. Independent Sources for Jesus’ Burial and Empty Tomb. Available.
4. Pesch, R. quoted by Horton, M. in: Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1).
5. Bauckham, R. 2008. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. p. 243.
6. Barnett, P. 1997. Jesus and the Logic of History. p. 104-5.
7. Craig, W. 2009. Ibid.
8. Robinson, J. 1973. The Human Face of God. p. 131.
9. Craig, W. The Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
10. Lowder, J. 2005. Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig. Available.
11. Brown, R. 1994. The Death of the Messiah. Vol 2, p. 1240-1.
12. Craig, W. The Resurrection of Jesus. Available.
13. Craig, W. 2009. Ibid.
14. Habermas, G. & Licona, M. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. p. 44.
15. Habermas, G. The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity. Available.
16. Craig, W. Jesus and his passion. Available.