Opening the Word: The empty tomb

Recently, I have been teaching a weekly Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles. Written by St. Luke, Acts was written as a sequel of sorts to the Gospel of Luke, and it is the only history of the early Church in the New Testament canon. In the study, I have emphasized a simple but important fact: All of the events and speeches described in Acts took place within a few years of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. On one hand, we all know this; on the other hand, it’s easy to lose a clear sense of chronology and, thus, lose a sense of the startling nature of what took place in those first decades of the nascent Church.

The address given by St. Peter, the head apostle, to the household of the centurion Cornelius in the first reading is a case in point. Peter’s speech was similar in ways to his address at Pentecost (Acts 2), although somewhat more simple and shorter. It emphasized the anointing of Jesus as Messiah, the works and miracles performed by Jesus, and then his death “on a tree.” Peter stated, “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

So, when did Peter give his speech? Three or four decades after Jesus’ death? No, it was about seven years after the Resurrection. And, of course, when Peter declared, on Pentecost, that Jesus had been raised up by God, “releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24), it was only a few weeks after that astounding event. And yet no one yelled, “Hey, wait a second — we can show you the body of this Jesus!” On the contrary, whenever Peter, Paul or others declared the fact of the Resurrection, they were met with either belief or outrage — but never with evidence that the tomb still held the body of Jesus.

Put simply, chronology matters, for Christianity is the most historical of religions. The response, by many skeptics, is not a historical argument but a hysterical swipe, what C.S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” The simple version is that the first Christians were either too stupid or easily swayed by emotion to come to grips with the death of Jesus. But Luke was well aware of those sort of retorts. In his account of the Resurrection, he describes how the women first found the stone rolled away from the tomb, then returned to tell the others of what they saw. Yet the apostles and disciples were not convinced. Peter instead ran to the tomb, entered it and saw the burial cloths, “then he went home amazed at what had happened” (Lk 24:11-12).

The Roman leaders and many of the Jews were fully invested in keeping Jesus in the tomb, as St. Matthew noted (Mt 27:62-66). After the Resurrection, they quickly concocted the story that Jesus’ body had been stolen (Mt 28:11-15), a remarkable feat for a crushed group of men who would have had to overcome their paralyzing fear, several Roman guards, and a very heavy tomb stone.

There are many people today who are invested in keeping Jesus in the tomb. But we, as Christians, believe in the witness of the Gospel writers. We proclaim the truth and glory of the Resurrection, and we worship Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. Christ is Risen!

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.