Jewish belief in resurrection presupposes an empty tomb
Most scholars - not just Christian scholars - accept that the tomb was found empty. For the disciples to preach resurrection at all presupposes an empty tomb. In Jewish belief, the idea of bodily resurrection stems from the writings of the prophets themselves. Daniel 12:2 says "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" and Isaiah 26:19 says "Your dead will live; their bodies will rise..." The Jews expected at the end of the world that the righteous would bodily rise from the dead and live forever with God, what made Christianity unique is they were proclaiming that one had risen ahead of time as the firstfruits of what was to come to all the righteous. (1 Cor. 15:23) The Greco-Roman world thought this belief was strange at best and at worst detestable. The Book of Acts records that when Paul preached the resurrection in Athens that "some of them sneered". (Acts 17:32)
Also, we have a tacit confession from the Jewish leadership that the tomb was empty, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 28:12-13 says: After the priests had assembled with the elders and agreed on a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money and told them, “Say this, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him while we were sleeping.’
This story continued for some time. Writing at around 150 AD, Justin Martyr wrote that this story was still being spread in his day: "His disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven” (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 108)
Tertullian, in 200, also corroborated this idea: “This is he whom his disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said he had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!” (De Spectaculis)
The testimony of women revisited
We already discussed that the earliest witnesses to the empty tomb of Jesus were women, and how that is an unlikely Christian invention. Because women were not considered credible witnesses in Jesus' time, the fact that the Gospel writers included the embarrassing details of the women being the witnesses to the empty tomb shows the unlikelihood of the empty tomb narratives being fabricated.
Immediate proclamation revisited
We also discussed the disciples' immediate proclamation of the resurrection in Jerusalem. It would have been easy to stop this movement by simply going to Jesus' tomb, pulling out the body, and exposing the followers of Jesus as frauds. The Jewish leadership was not at all happy with this new movement, and they could have easily produced the remains of Jesus' body to squelch the Christian movement had the tomb not been empty. But this never happened.
Could the woman have gone to the wrong tomb?
Someone might ask: Well, what if the women went to the wrong tomb and were deceived? In response, it’s unlikely that the whole group went to the wrong tomb because according to Luke they saw it on the eve of the Sabbath (Luke 23:55-56). This theory does nicely account for their report of the empty tomb since on this hypothesis the tomb to which they actually went was actually empty. But the "wrong tomb" hypothesis doesn’t consider all the other details in the women's reports: for their claim of having seen the risen Jesus, or for the apostles' failure to clear up the situation, and for the failure by the Jewish authorities to clarify the issue, especially Joseph of Arimathea.
There has been some speculation that Joseph of Arimathea simply temporarily buried Jesus' body in his own tomb before moving it on Saturday night after the Sabbath was over to bury it in a graveyard for criminals, leaving the women to discover an empty tomb on Sunday morning. But this hypothesis has some serious issues. It’s hard to understand why Joseph of Arimathea would provide a new tomb for Jesus' body immediately after his death, and then remove it as fast as possible after the Sabbath. Furthermore, this theory can’t explain the women's claims that they actually saw Jesus. The women and the disciples were not deceived.
Could Christianity take off with Jesus still in the tomb?
"Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection of Jesus, it is doubtful they would have generated any following. So long as the body was interred in the tomb, a Christian movement founded on the belief in the resurrection of the dead man would have been an impossible folly."
- Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University. Holds two doctorates. Authored or edited over forty books, including Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus.