Why Wasn't There any Veneration of Jesus' Empty Tomb?

Jesus’ empty tomb was not venerated by early Christians until the 4th century, according to Eusebius [Via Constantini 3.25-32]. James D.G. Dunn: “there is no evidence whatsoever for Christians regarding the place where Jesus had been buried as having any special significance,” with pilgrimages and veneration. Dunn claims this was “because the tomb was empty.” Peter Kirby argues that Dunn’s conclusion is faulty. “It is plain to see that the site of the tomb of Jesus would become a site of veneration and pilgrimage among early Christians regardless of whether it was occupied or empty.” According to Peter Kirby, “The fact that there was no tomb veneration indicates that the early Christians did not know the location of the tomb of Jesus, neither of an empty tomb nor of an occupied tomb. The best way to avoid this conclusion is, I think, to assert that there was tomb veneration despite the silence of any first-, second-, or third-century writers on such an interest.” And how likely is that? Even James D.G. Dunn admits “that it was quite customary at the time of Jesus for devotees to meet at the tomb of the dead prophet for worship (Matt. 23:29). And it continues today in the veneration accorded the tombs of Abraham in Hebron and of David’s tomb in Jerusalem." Just the very fact that Christians since the 4th century have “venerated” what they thought was the empty tomb of Jesus is evidence for this. I myself worshipped at Gordon’s Calvary while in Jerusalem.


One possible suggestion for why the tomb of Jesus wasn’t venerated for the first few centuries is made by Bryon McCane. He argued that Jesus was given a shameful burial, based upon Jewish customs of that day, along with hints in the gospel texts themselves. He then concludes by saying, “The shame of Jesus' burial is not only consistent with the best evidence, but can also help to account for an historical fact which has long been puzzling to historians of early Christianity: why did the primitive church not venerate the tomb of Jesus? It is a striking fact--and not at all unthinkable--that the tomb of Jesus was not venerated until it was no longer remembered as a place of shame.”

Why Christians wouldn’t have venerated the empty tomb of Jesus, if there was such a site, is puzzling to me, no matter whether Jesus had an honorable or dishonorable burial. McCane’s suggestion fails to account for the fact that if there was an empty tomb of a resurrected Jesus, it would change everything for the early Christians. For this would’ve been a completely new situation, unlike any other shameful burial these Jews had previously known. The early church would’ve believed that the empty tomb signifies hope in a resurrection, like Jesus had experienced. To stand near the opening would've been to stand on the very ground the resurrected body of Jesus stood, if that's what they believed. According to their own beliefs it was the resurrection of Jesus from that empty tomb which provided their victory over sin and death. And remember here, we’re talking about people who would later die for their faith. If that’s true of these followers, why would they care what others thought about the tomb of Jesus? His crucifixion at the hands of the authorities would not cause them to change their minds about Jesus, either. And there is no evidence of any laws prohibiting visiting the gravesite of someone thought to be a “criminal.” Surely mothers were always permitted to visit the sites of their criminal sons...what law would ever prevent that?

McCane also says there are “two other historical phenomena which argue strongly against likelihood that early Christians would have venerated the tomb of Jesus.” The first is that the earliest Christian communities (from ca. 30 CE to the Jewish War of 66-72) “were powerfully influenced by apocalyptic eschatology and by charismatic religious experiences. The coming of the Holy Spirit into their midst convinced them that the Age to Come was dawning, and that Jesus would return to earth in glory very soon. The focus of their attention was on the present (the Spirit) and the immediate future (Jesus’ glorious return), not on the past (his death and burial). As a result, even if they had not regarded the tomb as a place of shame, they would still not have been likely to venerate it.” Secondly, “during the Jewish War of 66-72 the city of Jerusalem was almost totally destroyed by the Roman army. Christians left the city and did not come back in significant numbers. Knowledge of the tomb among Christians – including its location – would have disappeared.”

What can be said about McCane’s first phenomena? He’s certainly correct about the eschatological mentality of the earliest Christian communities. But I still fail to see how anything would change for them. When I venerated what I considered to be the empty tomb of Jesus in Israel in 1989, in our midst were charismatic Christians, who thought Jesus was returning soon. During those years there was a great deal of expectation that Jesus would return to earth soon. There was even a book out called “88 Reasons Why Jesus Will Return in 1988.” He didn’t. But the year 2000 wasn’t that far off. Among many Christians there was a higher than usual expectation of his return (the parousia). Even with this mentality, here we were worshipping at the tomb. So I see little reason here to think eschatological hope would cause the early Christians to neglect the empty tomb, if there really was one.

McCane’s second phenomenon has some more force to it. He’s correct that with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD Christians left the city and did not come back in significant numbers. But is he correct that knowledge of the location of the tomb among Christians “would have disappeared?” All it would take is for one Christian to remain in Jerusalem to remember it. He would tell others and they would surely hold worship services there, even by night if they had to. To claim the location of the tomb would have disappeared is quite a large claim to make, something that seems improbable to me. However, McCane has given several good reasons for the lack of tomb veneration that do indeed mitigate the force of Kirby’s objection.

9 comments:

Krystalline Apostate said...

This has always been a contention for me: where the hell is the bloody thing? You say you venerated the 'empty tomb' in 1989, but I always thought there was debate as to where it is exactly.
I spoke w/Richard Carrier at the West coast atheist meet in CA last year, & he lectured on how tough the Romans were about grave/tomb robbing, & how no one in the Roman govt. of Jerusalem lifted a finger during the entire alleged '3 days'. Especially since a cadre of their soldiers were supposed to guard the damned thing.

Jennifer said...

I disagree with McCane’s assertion as well. Regardless of the fact that Jesus’ burial place was shameful, the resurrection was anything but. The event would have overpowered any shame associated with the place, as the power of God would have been on it. It would have been holy ground. There’s no way the people would have avoided it.

Furthermore, the gospels themselves tell us that at least four different women visited the tomb of Jesus after he was buried, thinking he was still dead: Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, Salome, “and others with them” according to Luke. If it was acceptable for Jewish women to visit the grave of a dead body, buried in shame, then it certainly would have been more than acceptable to visit the empty tomb of their risen Lord.

I also don’t buy the argument that Christians “forgot” the location of the tomb after the destruction of the temple. Let’s not forget that the early Christians were mostly Jews, and none of them has forgotten the location of Abraham or David, despite many, many more years and dispossessions.

Great post. Thanks.

Dave Barrett said...

It sure is a puzzle isn't it? Up until about 400 A.D. Christians are totally uninterested in veneratoring the sites where Jesus was born, died and rose from the dead. After 400 A.D. every Christian is fascinated by the idea of traveling to and experiencing these places. There are only two explanations -- 1. (The offical Christian explanation) The first few generations of Christians were not interested in such things. Not really much of an explanation is it? Why should the first few generations of Christians be so different from all the following generations?
2. Up until 400 A.D. Christians did not go looking for the earthly places where Jesus had been for the same reason that followers of Mithria did not go looking for his birth place or the followers of Zeus did not go looking for his. What changed about 400 A.D. was that Christians only then started believing the gospel stories as history rather than myth.

Mark Plus said...

The whole thing about how the women planned to anoint Jesus' putrefying body doesn't sound right to me. Jewish culture had strict taboos both about physical contact with corpses and physical contact between men and women, which these allegedly Jewish women, not related to Jesus, would have to violate. I can see why the Gospel accounts lend themselves to alternate theories about Jesus' natural survival and his unrecorded marriage to Mary Magdalene, who felt comfortable handling his naked body.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

To me this is more indirect evidence that Jesus never existed and that the story of Jesus was nothing more than a dream of Pauls where lots of other stuff was added (like the virgin birth) at a much later date.
Perhaps early Christians were so used to not having evidence, they didn't even bother seeking it.

John said...

When discussing the history of Christianity, it is good to keep in mind the major changes that took place when Constantine came into power (in the 4th century). It is entirely conceivable that the role of persecution in the first few centuries contributed to a much different mindset among early Christians than among those with "freedom of religion" in the 4th century.

Dave Barrett said...

re: john's suggestion that the disinterest of Christians before about 400A.D. in the earthly places where Jesus was born, taught, died and rose from the dead was tied to persecution.
But Christians have been persecuted at various times and places since 400A.D. and it has not lessened their faith or their devotion. Besides, the persecution before 400A.D. was not aimed at getting the Christians to not visit, talk or write about Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Galilee. Christians wrote voluminously during this period. Nothing prevented the pre-400 Christians from writing (as so many post-400 Christians have done) about their curiousity about, desire to or experience of visiting the holy places where Jesus had actually been on earth - standing on the spot where Jesus stood. And yet none did. There must have been something fundamentally different about per-400A.D. Christianity and post-400A.D. Christianity and persecution was not it.

The only possible explanantion is that pre-400 Christians did not really see the gospels stories as history. Just as today no one looks for Santa Clause when they go to the North Pole and the vast majority of people who understand the fictional nature of the Sherlock Holmes stories do not look for his flat when they are on Baker street in London, pre-400A.D. Christians did not look for Jesus' tomb when they were in Jerusalem.

Only when Christians started thinking of the gospel stories as history did they start wanting to find and visit those places where Jesus had been "when he became flesh and dwelt among us." And, just like those people who think the Sherlock Holmes stories are not fiction and go looking in vain for his flat in London, Christians look for evidence that Jesus was here and to find the holy places.

jo_jo said...

Wow, the ignorance in the comments section is about par for the atheist/skeptic course.

1st, Jennifer claims that we know precisely where King David and Abraham are buried. That's false.

2nd, Mark's comments on Jewish burial customs are incredibly wrong. They were actually buried and then removed, once decomposed, and stored in an ossuary. This, by necessity, would require touching the body twice, not to mention the immediate preparation and moving of a body to the grave itself, and preparing it for the 7 day grieving period.

You guys need to do your homework.

jo_jo said...

Furthermore, the ignorance on display also ignores the story of Emperor Hadrian.