The Empty Tomb – Resurrection or Conspiracy?


For the more than 2000 years, the incident reported by the Gospels to have occurred at dawn on Sunday during Passover has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many conspiracy theories to explain away how the body simply vanished.

Two named Jewish Council members laid the dead the body of Jesus killed by crucifixion in Joseph’s own unused the tomb. Four named women from Galilee also witnessed the body of Jesus being prepared for burial on a slab stone inside the tomb, then a stone rolled in front of the entrance to it.

Setting the scene the next day, the Jewish leadership testified to Pilate the body was in the tomb and needed to be secured. Dual security methods were implemented by the authority of Pilate to prevent the body from being stolen.

Guarded by an armed Roman-Jewish military squad called a koustodia by Matthew, the tomb was sealed. Predawn of Sunday, according to Mark, finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place Joseph of Arimathea.

Four conclusions can be drawn from these two accounts:  the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph, Nicodemus or any of the Disciples; they were unaware the tomb had been sealed nor that it was being guarded by koustodia.[1]

Sunrise of Sunday begins the final phase in the sequence of events at the tomb preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. A significant number of ten verses in Matthew and eight verses in Mark describe the scenario at the tomb that morning; Luke paraphrased how events at the tomb began.

An ancient tomb in Israel

Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes a great earthquake occurred. In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus was suddenly broken.

MT 28:2-4 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)

Angelic beings pointed out to the witnesses at the tomb that it was empty. Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the tomb being opened by an angel or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe.

Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two men in dazzling apparel.[2] One speaking angel or two present angels, both can be true.

Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of events. Incapacitated by terror, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.

Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. Matthew reports the chaotic scene that Sunday morning where those present scattered in three directions.

Hardcore military squad and the four women reacted in a similar manner – they all ran away. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word as they ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”

Women of Galilee headed for the location of some of the Disciples. The koustodia split up, some diverting to the Jewish chief priests, the others to destinations unknown.

Reactions to the unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling. The guard’s message rang true to the chief priests based on their response to the information.

Chief priests were undoubtedly surprised by this unexpected turn of events. Quickly they assembled the elders of the Jewish Council (possibly including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.

Irony of ironies, areJewish leadership had just testified to Pilate the body of Jesus was inside the tomb and had implored him to secure the tomb to prevent the theft of the body. Now they were compelled to address the inexplicable missing body in-spite-of the Roman-Jewish security measures they had implemented. Matthew describes what they decided to do:

MT 28:13-14 “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep….’ If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”(NET)

Further insight to the authority of the koustodia is also revealed. Promising to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue, it confirms the guards were ultimately under Pilate’s Roman authority though strongly influenced by the Jewish leadership.

Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location of some Disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s bewildered announcement to the Disciples. She is quoted exclaiming:

JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”(NET)

Two Disciples identified by John, Peter and himself, ran to the tomb to see for themselves finding it empty save for the burial linens. The two returned home in wonderment.

Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties describing how the chain of custody had been broken by events at the tomb. Each party hearing the information reacted differently, yet neither party called the reports false.

Four women from Galilee, members of the koustodia, the broken chain of custody, two angels, and the empty tomb are details that are challenging to refute if they are false.

Were the events involving the empty tomb a false narrative or was there a Resurrection?


Updated June 7, 2024.

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NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.

Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.

[1] “Centuries later, archaeologists opened the tomb of Jesus.” News24hours. photo. 2016. <>
[2] Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.

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