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.