Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb, and, peering in, saw the wrappings and nothing more; and he went home amazed at what had happened. Luke 24 v12 (omitted in many manuscripts)
The account of the disciples going back to the tomb where some of them had seen Jesus being buried, and finding it empty is central to the Easter story. Without the empty tomb, it is quite possible that nothing further would have been heard of Jesus of Nazareth and his little band of followers. Without the empty tomb, there would have been no thought that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Without the empty tomb, there would have been no Christian church, and no Christian religion. But finding a tomb empty and believing that its erstwhile occupant is no longer dead are very different things. In our text, Peter is amazed, puzzled, by the emptiness of the tomb; there are no angels to tell him that Jesus is no longer dead, which is perhaps why this verse is omitted from many manuscripts.
The most respectful way that first century Jews disposed of dead bodies was not by burning them, or exposing them to scavengers, or burying them. They wrapped and anointed them and then placed them in a ‘tomb’ so that they could slowly decay; then when only the bones were left, they took them and laid them finally to rest. The whole process would be expected to take many months. To keep scavengers out in the meantime, the entrance was blocked, but the closure had to be removable, such as a large stone rolled across the entrance. The ‘tomb’ was therefore only a temporary resting place; it was intended in due course to become once again an empty tomb. Such expensive treatment would not have been given to most people; its cost made that impossible. And it certainly would not be accorded to the bodies of executed criminals; they would simply be chucked into the fires where rubbish was routinely disposed of. But the gospel account says that Jesus’s executed body was not treated like this. If it was to be saved from being burned on the rubbish tip, someone needed the boldness to act quickly, before the Sabbath began; they needed access to officials so they could get hold of the body; they needed somewhere to put the body. Jesus’s closest friends could not have provided any of this. The involvement of someone like Joseph of Arimathaea as he is described in the gospels thus makes complete sense.
But notice the timings of the events recounted in the gospels: the body had to be out of sight before the Sabbath started at sunset following the afternoon crucifixion, and the disciples don’t find the tomb empty till early on the morning of the third day after the day of the crucifixion, including that day. But the Sabbath had ended at sunset the previous evening; it would have been lawful for Joseph to send his men to the tomb where Jesus’s body had hurriedly been laid and under cover of darkness give it a respectful but not overly-expensive burial. Mary’s question to the ‘gardener’ in John’s Gospel assumes that something like this had happened, so it could not have been unlikely. Such an account leaves the question of why, when the disciples were later claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead, Joseph did not come forward and quash their euphoria. But notice that nothing further is heard of him at all, neither in support of nor in opposition to the early church; he simply disappears, perhaps no longer interested, perhaps waiting to see how things turned out, perhaps just keeping his head down.
I’m not saying that this is in fact what happened; I’m only saying that it would account for many of the details in the gospel story, including the empty tomb. What it would not account for of course is the disciples’ firm conviction that they had experienced Jesus alive after they had found his dead body missing when they went to anoint it. I have seen it argued from a careful analysis of the New Testament accounts that no explanation for this conviction is more convincing than to say that Jesus really did rise from the dead. I’m afraid I don’t see this: surely any explanation must be more convincing than to suggest that a dead man stopped being dead. Maybe Pilate had released Jesus as the gospels suggest he wanted to do, and had a badly beaten up and therefore hard-to-recognise man crucified in his place. Maybe the soldiers were mistaken when they thought Jesus did not need to be finished off. Maybe the traumatised disciples, having had the shock of seeing the empty tomb and desperately wishing Jesus was not dead, had a series of collective hallucinations. Maybe …, maybe … What is not a ‘maybe’ but absolutely certain is that the disciples believed Jesus had risen from the dead, which would go a long way to explain why a close study of the New Testament accounts supports that belief. But it does not mean they were correct. And it is clear that the story of the empty tomb was embellished and made less puzzling in the re-telling: notice how Mark’s young man in a white robe at the tomb becomes, in Luke, two men in dazzling garments and, in Matthew, an angel with a shining face who single-handedly moves the stone. Reverse this process and we come to our text: Peter’s simple amazement at the complete and unexplained emptiness of the tomb.
Certainly something happened to transform the little band of traumatised disciples into the hugely successful mission that was the early church. Part of the explanation for this transformation was the discovery of the empty tomb; another part was the appearance of the energetic and creative genius of
– who, of course, did not see the empty tomb. But perhaps the most important part was that what the disciples remembered of Jesus’s teaching was indeed worth remembering – remembering, and passing on. And for us this has to be what matters, far and away more than the details of what happened to Jesus’s body after his crucifixion, important as they clearly were to his friends at the time. It would be – perhaps I should say, ‘it is’ – ironic and sad if a preoccupation with the fate of Jesus’s body trumps an interest in his teaching, the teaching for which he was prepared to die because he knew it to be life-giving. Of course we probably know of that teaching only because his earliest followers were convinced he had risen from the dead; but the value of the teaching does not depend on that belief. So perhaps we might say that it has been providential that the disciples interpreted the empty tomb in the way they did. St Paul