Our earliest account of Jesus’ burial is found in one of Paul’s authentic letters. This letter was written around the early 50’s AD. However the account of the burial is part of a creed Paul received less than five years after Jesus’ crucifixion (1). The creed is commonly dated to within two to five years of Jesus’ death – Paul writes: “that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor. 15)
Scholar Habermas tells us that these creeds “preserve some of the earliest reports concerning Jesus from about AD 30-50” (2). In other words, we have very early attestation of the burial within five years of the death of Jesus.
Secondly, we find that the burial is part of Mark Pre-Passion Narrative material, according to exegete William Craig: “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). Please visit my article: Jesus in the pre-Markan Passion Narrative for a more in-depth view of this source. Nevertheless, the Pre-Mark Passion Narrative is dated very early, according to scholar Rudolf Pesch it dates no later than 37 AD which is a mere seven years after Jesus’ death (4). Scholar Bauckham also dates it prior to 40 AD and probably “goes back to the Jerusalem church” (5).
All four canonical gospels attest to the burial of Jesus after his crucifixion. Our earliest gospel Mark was surely used by Luke and Matthew. John, however, is independent of our synoptics: “Careful comparison of the texts of Mark and John indicate that neither of these Gospels is dependent on the other. Yet they have a number of incidents in common: For example… the burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea” (6).
Although Matthew got his content from Mark, Matthew’s author does, however, appear to make use of another tradition, that being M material. According to exegete 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).
Furthermore, both 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 indicates that this must have come from some other source apart from Mark.
Thus, overall we have six independent sources that attest to the burial: Pre-Mark, non-Mark (source behind Luke & John not found in Mark), M, John, Acts (13:28-31) & Paul. This is quite extraordinary since historians are pleased to have just two independent sources confirming a historical event. This is why, according to John Robinson, the burial is perhaps one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus” (8)
Testimony from three sources evidence that the anti-Christian Jews accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb: Matthew 28:13; Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Tryphyo, 108), Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 30). What this does it suggest that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, however, this also assumes that Jesus was buried within the tomb. The Jews did not claim that Jesus wasn’t buried, rather they claimed that the disciples stole his body from the tomb. This presupposes Jesus’ burial, thus is an indirect & independent attestation.
Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea:
All four gospels evidence a man named Joseph of Arimathea as the one who actually buries Jesus in a tomb after the crucifixion. This is at least attested to in two independent sources (Mark & John) suggesting it has a good historical probability. However, the case becomes firmer when we find that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, “is unlikely to be a Christian invention. 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).
Even the atheist Jeff Lowder, the past president of Internet Infidels & who writes for the Secular Web, tells us that “the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea has a high final probability” (10). Professor Raymond Brown also holds that the burial by Joseph is “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 straightforward account of Jesus’ burial in six independent sources no other competing accounts exists. According to Craig: “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). However, competing accounts do exist that aimed to contradict the early Christian mission & message, for example in Matthew’s gospel we have the Jewish authorities accusing the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb (Mat. 28:15). However, nowhere does Matthew or any of the other gospels (or any other ancient writing, for that matter) attest differently to the notion that Jesus was buried in a tomb. The logical conclusion to this is that Jesus was simply buried in a tomb.
My additional point:
Although Acts 13:28-31 directly attests to the burial, we also see it indirectly attested to by an early sermon. I believe that Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon by comparing David’s occupied tomb to Jesus’ empty one (Acts 2:29) can be used to support the additional information above. Basically, this verse represents an early apostolic preaching of the empty tomb, according to William Craig: “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).
Now since through this preaching we have an account of Jesus’ empty tomb as a result of God’s raising of him from the dead, it is logical to conclude that before Jesus was raised he was actually buried. In order to be raised from the dead in the tomb as an act of God, Jesus had to be buried in it in the first place. This to me is additional indirect independent attestation to the burial account, thus supporting its historicity.
The vast majority of scholars accept the burial account as historical & the minimal facts method:
It is worth noting that near universal consensus of critical scholars agree to the burial of Jesus, in fact, the burial of Jesus is one of the bedrock facts of the minimal facts method. According to Gary Habermas the minimal facts method: “considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones” (14).
The minimal facts method is the result of Habermas over the last half century or so having sifted through thousands of academic articles written by scholars in the fields of New Testament studies, Jesus studies, and ancient history. Having tallied them he has found out that all these scholars agree on four basic facts regarding Jesus, Habermas tells us: “My bibliography is presently at about 3400 sources and counting, published originally in French, German, or English” (15). The list of facts varies from a dozen facts upwards or downwards, but we need note only four that are accepted by an overwhelming majority, namely:
- 1- Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion.
- 2- Jesus’ burial in a tomb.
- 3- Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
- 4- Jesus convinced many that he had been raised from the dead.
All of these facts command near universal acceptance with the exception of fact three which commands roughly between a 67 and 75% majority. The fact is that the burial commands near universal acceptance by scholars.
I’ll conclude with William Lane Craig: “Any responsible historian, then, who seeks to give an account of the matter, must deal with these four independently established facts: the honorable burial of Jesus, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection and, hence, of Christianity itself. I want to emphasize that these four facts represent, not the conclusions of conservative scholars, but rather the majority view of New Testament scholarship today. The question is: how do you best explain these facts?” (16)
Any doubts about the historical textual evidence concerning the burial of Jesus can be dismissed since we have at least five independent sources attesting to the burial such as the pre-Markan Passion, M (Matthew’s unique material), John, Acts & Paul. The burial is also part of an early sermon in Acts 2:29 as an indirect reference, thus suggesting its early nature. Following this we also have anti-Christian polemic by the Jews that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb, thus suggesting indirectly that he was buried in it. Furthermore, of these independent sources two of them are extraordinary early (the creed in 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 & the Pre-Markan Passion Narrative) that date within a mere few years of Jesus’ death. This well suggests that we have early and independent sources for the burial account. What strengthens this further is the unlikely early Christian convention of the Sanhedrist Joseph of Arimathea who buries Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea is attested in all four canonical gospels of which two are independent making the case all the more powerful. Conclusion: Jesus was buried in a tomb.
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.