The Mystery of the Empty Tomb

The burial of Jesus, image taken from the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea at the Washington Cathedral.

The following passage is excerpted from my unpublished novel, “The Mystery of the Empty Tomb.” The novel purports to be an annotated version of a long-lost manuscript written by Nicolaus of Caesarea, aide to Pontius Pilate, who was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Jesus’s body from the tomb. In chapters preceding this excerpt, Nicolaus describes the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem during the Passover festival, Pilate’s enmity with the high priests of the temple, the trial of Jesus, and his crucifixion.

The novel won the runner up award in the 2017 Best Unpublished Novel of Richmond award, but I have been unable to find a publisher interested in taking on the project. I am thinking of self-publishing. I would appreciate feedback from readers as to whether such a venture might be worth the effort.

The Sabbath day passed uneventfully. The laws of the Jews, which required them to observe a day of rest, precluded any activity but the observance of their holy Passover rites. Then, when the Sabbath ended at sunset, pilgrims prepared for the journey home. With the festival winding down, and with it any threat of disorder, Pilate and the Caesarea cohort readied for the march back to the coast. Having had my fill of Jerusalem, I yearned to return to my abode in Caesarea and to see my wife and children. Around the second hour,[1] my servant Menander had loaded my belongings onto a mule when a commotion occurred at the front gate to Herod’s Palace.

Joseph of Arimathea was loudly demanding an audience with Pilate. The prefect, preoccupied with preparations for the march, was not available. Then Joseph sought me out. “Jesus is gone,” said he. “He is missing from the tomb!”

“How come you by this information?” asked I.

“The followers of Jesus visited the tomb this very morning. They found that the rock seal had been rolled aside. When they entered the tomb, they saw his linen garments strewn about. But he was gone and is nowhere to be found!”

Without question, the situation warranted Pilate’s attention. Grave robbery was a crime under Roman law. Indeed, it was so common in Galilee that Herod Antipas had posted an inscription in Sepphoris for all to see.[2] The offense was known to occur in Judea and Samaria as well. Most often, thieves sought the jewelry and ornamental items buried with the dead. But it was not unknown for grave robbers to steal the body itself, usually for necromantic purposes.

I interrupted Pilate’s deliberations with the primus pilus.[3]Dominus, I beg a moment.”

“I am occupied,” Pilate said sharply. “Mind your place.”

Pilate was not moved easily to anger but when his wrath was kindled, no man would wish to stand before him. Yet he had not engaged me to act his toady. At the risk of public rebuke, I persisted: “It is Jesus of Nazareth, Dominus. His body is gone!”

The words had the same effect as if I had slapped his face. Pilate wheeled his horse around and faced me. “Get on with it, then.”

I repeated what Joseph had told me.

“Summon the priest immediately,” said the prefect. “I would hear this from his own mouth.”

Pilate held his audience while mounted upon his war horse. Even at his age, he made a formidable and warlike figure. Bowing, the councilor repeated the story he had told me. Pilate cut to the heart of the matter. “Who has done this?”

“I know not, eminence,” said Joseph.

“Whom do you suspect?”

“I have no grounds to single out any party,” said Joseph. “I can only speculate.”

“Then give me the benefit of your conjecture,” ordered Pilate.

“We angered the high priests when we laid Jesus in the tomb,” said Joseph. “Perhaps they wished to see his body desecrated and defiled. Perhaps they removed it so the tomb would not become a shrine.”

“What think you, Nicolaus?”

“That explanation is as plausible as any,” said I. “But we know so little that I cannot say with certainty.”

“We cannot let this crime go unpunished,” said Pilate. “Jesus is too well known. Word will blow through Judea like a sirocco. I cannot tolerate such an insult to Roman law. Furthermore, if there is any chance that Caiaphas was behind this criminal act, I will know of it.”

Pilate did not need to elaborate. I could read his thoughts as clearly as if he had carved them into a stele. If we could implicate Caiaphas and Annas in the robbery of Jesus’ tomb, the priests would have no more hold over him. Grave robbery was punishable by death throughout the empire by the order of Tiberius himself. Pilate could dangle the threat of arrest and execution over the priests like the sword of Dionysius.[4] They would never dare challenge him now by sending a letter to Rome.

Pilate continued: “I want you to get to the bottom of this. Conduct an inquiry. Question whomever you must. Do not rest until you have uncovered the culprits.”

At this command, I was dismayed. I had important affairs to settle with the steward of my estate back in Caesarea, and I longed to see my wife and children. Some men could happily march on long campaigns or voyage to far-off seas but I was not one of them. The luxurious apartments of Herod’s palace were no substitute for my own hearth, and no tumble with a tavern whore was as satisfying as the embrace of my loving Hestia. But I saw the sense in staying in Jerusalem to sniff out the hoodlums who absconded with Jesus’ body before the scent went cold.

“I shall do as you order, Dominus,” said I.

“Find those responsible and I will reward you well,” said Pilate. “Connect the crime to Caiaphas, and I shall make you a rich man.”

*****

Joseph guided me to Jesus’ sepulcher. We arrived to find some curiosity seekers loitering near the doorway, too timid to enter. Pilate had granted me an eight-man detachment[5] from Longinus’s centuria – the same men who had escorted Joseph’s burial party to the sepulcher – and I put the guard to good use. The decanus, an energetic young man by the name of Sextus, chased away the onlookers before they had a chance to pilfer anything, and set a guard at the tomb so I could investigate the scene without distraction.

The sepulcher was set in a cliff of fractured, crumbling rock from which patches of brush sprouted like the hair of a mangy dog. The entrance lacked ornamentation of any kind – no columns, no entablature, not even a door — just a hole cut into the cliff and a heavy, disk-shaped stone that could be rolled aside to provide admittance. The entrance was low, requiring visitors to stoop in order to step inside.[6]

“Hardly fit for the king of the Jews,” said I.

“It was the closest sepulcher at hand,” said Joseph. “A funerary guild dug it for Jerusalemites whose families own no sepulcher of their own. We had no time to look for a more suitable place.”[7]

“How far did you progress in your burial preparations?” I asked.

“We cleansed Jesus of blood and grime and we swaddled him a burial shroud. Then, for lack of time, we left,” said Joseph.

Ducking as I entered the tomb, I stepped into a gloomy chamber where I was immediately assaulted by a stench of dust, decay and sickly sweetness. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I discerned nothing but shadows. Although reason told me that spirits did not exist, there was no knowing such a thing for certain. If lost souls did linger upon the face of the earth, it would be in a place like this manor of the dead. For a moment, a sense of such dread seeped into me that I thought of stepping back into the light. I understood why those addicted to superstition –  fearing demons and vengeful spirits –  would hesitate to enter. Or, once they had entered, why they would rush to leave.

Gradually, my anxiety lifted and my sight improved. On either side of the room, ledges were cut into the walls, forming shallow, waist-high alcoves with arched ceilings where bodies could be placed and attended to. Upon one such bench lay a burial shroud, rumpled as if it had been haphazardly deposited there, while a smaller linen lay on the floor. [8] Those were Jesus’ burial linens, I expected, and I would examine them momentarily, but first I determined to take a quick tour of the tomb. On the far side, the chamber opened onto a passageway from which radiated several dozen shafts. Some were empty; others were closed with tight-fitting limestone seals. Inside each closed compartment was a decaying body. Deeper into the sepulcher where light barely penetrated, I dimly perceived shelves lining the passageway, upon which patrons had stored several ossuaries of wood and stone. It was the practice of the Jews, once the bodies in the shafts had fully decomposed, to shift the remains to space-saving bone boxes. Only a few such ossuaries were in evidence, and I saw no sign of recent activity.

I pondered a moment how some Jews believed in an afterlife while others did not. The aristocratic Sadducees had a saying, identical to what we Epicureans believe: “From dust to dust, ashes to ashes” – just as there was nothingness before life, there was nothingness after. There was no reason to fear death, for there would be no more pain than we felt before we were born. But the mass of the people, who suffered much during their lives and yearned for something better, deluded themselves that their souls would survive the disintegration of their bodies and upon the resurrection would ascend into heaven and live in the house of their lord, Yahweh, with all manner of angels, heavenly hosts and long-passed friends and family members. They believed this with no evidence whatsoever. No one had visited this place and returned to tell others of what they had seen. It existed only in peoples’ imaginations. Such was the power of men to believe what they wanted to believe.

Returning to the front of the tomb to inspect the two pieces of burial apparel, I conceived of two theories to explain the placement of the garments. The first was that Jesus had recovered from seemingly mortal wounds and removed the linens himself. But I had no explanation of how he might have budged the stone that sealed the door  – an impossibility from inside the tomb, especially for a man who had been close to death –  nor why, had he contrived to escape, he would have left the linens behind rather than use them to conceal his nakedness. The second possibility, which I found far more plausible, is that someone else moved the stone, entered the tomb and found a shroud-covered body lying on a bench. Wanting to ascertain that the corpse was that of Jesus, the intruders first removed the napkin wrapped around his head and dropped it upon the floor, for they had no further use of it, and then they pulled back the shroud to look upon the body and face to confirm Jesus’ identity.

I thought it curious that the burglars, whoever they were, had left the shroud behind. The linen cloth was finely woven and a thing of value. Had the visitors been reverent disciples of Jesus intent upon relocating his body to a more worthy location, surely they would have taken the time to wrap him in the shroud and wind the cloth around his head, as Joseph and Nicodemus had done. But instead, the interlopers abandoned the linens. That suggested to me that the removal of Jesus’ body was an act of theft. If the robbers had been as discomfited as I was upon entering the tomb, perhaps fearing retribution from Yahweh, demons or the spirits of the dead, they would have fled with Jesus’ body as soon as they could, not caring if they left the linens behind.

I summoned Joseph into the tomb. “Just to confirm,” I asked, “are these the shroud and napkin that you placed on Jesus?”

“Yes,” said he.

“What about the perfumes and spices?” I asked. “Did you leave them here in the tomb?”

“No, Nicodemus gave them to the Galilean women outside the sepulcher on the day of the crucifixion,” said Joseph. “It was their intention to return this morning and finish the burial preparations that we could not complete.”

I was astonished that Nicodemus would hand over such a treasure to someone he did not know. “What assurance did he have that the women would not abscond with the spices?”

“You will have to ask him about that,” said Joseph. “As for myself, I did not consider the possibility. One of the women was Jesus’ mother. The others were obviously devoted to him and they were mourning. It seemed appropriate that those who loved Jesus complete the ablutions.”[9]

“What is your conclusion from seeing the burial linens lying about in this manner?” I asked.

“We did not leave them this way,” said he. “Whoever took the body of Jesus must have stripped them from his corpse and laid them aside.”

“The linens are expensive, are they not?” said I.

“Indeed, I would think so,” said he, “although only Nicodemus could tell you what he paid for them.”

“Whoever took Jesus’ body was not a friend,” said I. “If the intruders revered Jesus and were intent upon moving him to another tomb, surely they would have taken his burial garments as well. And surely they would have informed those who buried them of their actions.”

“That stands to reason,” said Joseph. “I have heard nothing in that regard.”

“If the culprits did not take Jesus for a reverent purpose,” said I, “then it follows that they removed him for a malign purpose. We are dealing with grave robbery here.”

“I cannot fault your logic,” said Joseph, “although I desperately hope that you are wrong.”

*****

I could think of little else that could be accomplished at the sepulcher. Determined to have the linens left precisely where the grave robbers had placed them, should I need to revisit the scene, I resolved to close the tomb to snoops and relic hunters. I ordered Sextus, commander of my escort, to seal the sepulcher and post a two-man guard to watch the tomb around the clock. Then I resolved to question the Galilean women as soon as I could.

Joseph did not know where Jesus’ disciples were staying in Jerusalem, if indeed they were in the city at all. I feared that they might depart for Galilee with the other pilgrims, in which case they would be exceedingly difficult to locate, for I had no idea in which towns or villages they resided. I held out the hope, however, that Jesus’ disciples would hew to the traditional mourning customs of the Jews, which meant foregoing work and travel. If they were still in Jerusalem or nearby, I would find them.

From the tomb Joseph and I proceeded to the temple in search of Nicodemus. Joseph knew his usual haunts and had no trouble locating him. We met in the Court of the Gentiles – I had no desire to compromise my situation by entering the forbidden precincts again. I pressed Nicodemus for details of the burial that I might have missed. He added nothing to Joseph’s account on that score. But as a consolation for my efforts, he did tell me where to find some of Jesus’s disciples. The Galilean women, he said, were staying in the house of John, a young priest of his acquaintance. John, Joseph and Nicodemus were partisans of the Pharisees, a faction of Jews known for their scrupulous adherence not only to the laws of Moses but to the unwritten laws handed down by the elders. Unlike many Pharisees, however, they were sympathetic to Jesus.

The Pharisees were well established in Jerusalem, Judea and thereabouts – less so in Galilee –  and the people held their opinions in higher esteem than those of the aristocratic Sadducees. The high priests embraced the doctrine of the Sadducees. The lesser priests – lesser in terms of wealth, not learning or lineage – hewed to the doctrine of the Pharisees. While the Pharisees and Sadducees shared the belief that the temple of Jerusalem was the true sanctuary of the Jews’ god – in contrast to the Samaritans, who had their own temple on Mount Gerizim, or the Qumranites, who had rejected the temple leadership for more than a hundred years – they were often at odds on how to interpret the calendar, keep the law and conduct the temple rites. Among the Pharisees there were two factions: one that viewed Jesus as a charlatan, sorcerer and violator of Jewish customs, and one that saw him as a pious man of god, perhaps even a prophet.

I asked Nicodemus what had moved him to assist in Jesus’s burial.

“Jesus was not guilty of the crimes of which he was accused,” said Nicodemus. “He was a good man, a healer who acted with the power of god. And he was steeped in knowledge of the divine mysteries.”

Divine mysteries? That was a term I had not heard in connection with Jesus before. I probed for details but Nicodemus was reticent. Only after I told them that he could withhold nothing from me if he wished to recover Jesus’s body did he open up just a little. Jesus, he said, had ascended through the seven levels of heaven and gazed upon the throne of god – but not upon his face, for his face was so terrible to behold that it would be like staring into the noonday sun. Craving to experience such wonders, Nicodemus had prevailed Jesus to instruct him in the mysteries of heaven on several occasions. As the priest spoke of invoking the secret names of angels, archangels, archons and aeons controlling the ascent into heaven I recalled my recent thoughts regarding the absurdity of believing that the dead would rise to abide in the heavenly manor of the lord. No man had visited the throne of god so no one could speak of it, or so I had thought. Now, it appeared, there were Jews, of whom Jesus and Nicodemus were two, who claimed to have done that very thing. This was a side of Jewish belief of which I knew nothing. Feeling more lost than Theseus in the labyrinth, I cut short this distraction and fixed upon my objective: finding those who made off with Jesus’s body.

Nicodemus knew where the disciple John lived and agreed to lead me there. That was my good fortune, for without his guidance I might have gotten lost in the crooked streets of the lower city, so-called because of its location in the valley between the Temple Mount to the east and the Upper City to the west where the high priests, merchants and wealthy landowners lived. Many of the houses here were no more than wattle-and-daub hovels, but John’s was solid and capacious, if not ornate. Built in the Grecian style with thick outer walls, the inner apartments faced a courtyard with palm trees. I am not sure how the young man had acquired such a handsome dwelling. Most likely, he had inherited it. [10] But I did not think to ask at the time, as I had more pressing matters on my mind.

It was a stroke of good fortune that Nicodemus, not Sextus and his contubernium of soldiers, accompanied me, for when John answered the door, he shied away as if I were Mastema[11] himself. “We are in mourning here,” he barked. “Have you no respect?”

Thinking that Pilate and I had tried to save Jesus, I was mystified by his reaction. Then it hit me that he knew nothing of my exertions on Jesus’ behalf. Having seen me only in the company of the Roman soldiers at Golgotha, he associated me with Jesus’ executioners. Fortunately, Nicodemus reassured him that I had interceded with Pilate to have Jesus buried, that Pilate was angered that Jesus’ body had been taken from the grave, and that my mission was to determine how Jesus came to be missing from the sepulcher and, if possible, to recover his body so he could be properly laid to rest.

“I will do everything within my power to find Jesus,” I promised. “We wish to see him given every dignity due the dead.”

John pondered the offer briefly, then said, “Then you are welcome here.” Inviting us into his house, he bade us to be seated in a shaded portico looking onto the courtyard. A servant brought us a tray of cakes garnished with fig jam and pistachio nuts. “Forgive the poverty of my hospitality,” said he, as he took a seat beside us, “but a number of Jesus’s disciples have taken refuge with me, and our pantry is nearly empty.”

John was a handsome young man with pleasing features: glowing brown eyes, thick lashes and smooth skin, as fair as a woman’s, barely concealed by a thin wispy beard. He wore fine raiment and conversed as easily in Greek as in his native tongue. Clearly, he had not spent his life toiling in the vineyards or threshing wheat in the field – he belonged to the temple aristocracy. Although it took him some time to warm to me, I found him well-mannered and quick of mind. He discerned my desire to question the Galilean women before I could even voice to the sentiment. “The women are resting in their rooms,” he said. “I shall gather them here. And there is one other to whom you should speak as well.”[12]

Moments later, a half dozen Galilean women seated themselves around us. John introduced each of them to me: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and Joanna the wife of Chusa.”[13]

I do confess, my stomach fluttered at the sight of Joanna. Even now, dressed in mourning black, she was a striking woman, and I took great pleasure in beholding her beauty. “I can remember the name of the others, for they all bear the name of Mary,” I said to her. “However shall I remember yours?”

My little jest fell flat, for no sane man would forget the name of such a goddess. “Joanna is not a difficult name to remember,” she blushed. “We are most grateful for your assistance, good sir.”

One other disciple stood out. Older than John by several years, he was a large, simple fellow garbed in a plain woolen robe. His hands were hard and sinewy, his beard wild and ill shorn, and his face tanned and etched by the sun. The others, even John, deferred to him. “If you seek the people who have committed this abomination,” said the older disciple, “we will do our best to help you.”

“I appreciate your offer,” said I. “And who be you?”

“My birth name is Simon, son of Jonas,” said he. “But our lord gave me another: Peter.”

“Peter was the first to enter the tomb,” said John.

“Tell me how you came to discover the empty tomb,” said I.

As the senior and most respected member of the group, Peter started telling the story. After the crucifixion, he said, the Galilean women lingered by the cross, hoping that they might recover the body. When Joseph and Nicodemus arrived at Golgotha, the women knew them not, nor why they had come. “Only when the burial party took Jesus down from the cross and wrapped him in linen did they perceive that Joseph and Nicodemus had it in mind to honor our lord. The women were too timid to approach and offer assistance, but they followed them to the tomb and watched from a distance as they entered.”

I glanced at the women to gauge their reaction. Out of deference, they let Peter speak about events they had seen but he did not. All but Joanna stared at the floor. In their legal disputes the Jews placed less value in the testimony of women than did the Grecians of Syria and the Decapolis, but in my observation, women were no more likely to misrepresent the truth than men. Wanting to get the account directly from them, not filtered through Peter who was not there, I looked straight at Joanna, the only one bold enough to hold my gaze. “You and your companions followed Joseph and Nicodemus to the tomb,” I said. “Then what?”

Joanna, a woman of high station, was accustomed to speaking forthrightly. “We saw Joseph, Nicodemus and their servants enter the tomb, but for only a brief time. The sun was setting and all work was forbidden on the Sabbath.”

“Did you enter?” I asked.

“No, we stood without,” said Joanna.

“We encountered the women when we left the tomb,” interjected Nicodemus. “I asked if they were followers of Jesus, and they said they were. Then Joanna asked if they might attend to Jesus when the Sabbath had passed. I gave her my blessing, and I donated the perfumes that my servants and I had not had time to anoint him with.”

“Did anyone else approach the tomb?” I asked.

“Not that we saw,” said she.

“I saw servants of the High Priest by the cross,” I said. “Are you certain they did not follow you?”

“They did not,” said Nicodemus, “The execution grounds had cleared out as the Sabbath approached. We saw no one but the guards whom you assigned to watch after us.”

I had not considered the guards. It was possible that one of them had leaked word of the tomb’s location. I had not cautioned them to keep it a secret. But I deemed the prospect of such an occurrence to be remote, for the guards had little interaction with the locals – unless they were beating or abusing them.

“Could you have been observed by someone loitering by the crucifixion grounds?” I asked. “Could someone have watched from afar?”

“I cannot say,” said Joanna. “My mind was elsewhere.” She huddled with the other women, and there commenced a great whispering back and forth. At length, she said, “We noticed little, for our grief made us inattentive. But the land thereabout was patched with vegetable gardens. There could have been farmers tending them, although I cannot recall with any certainty.”

“Tell me how you discovered the empty tomb,” said I.

“We left before daybreak to perform the final ablutions,” said Joanna. “Along the way, we discussed whether we would be strong enough to move the stone that sealed the entrance. We were hoping to find someone to help us – one of the gardeners, perhaps –  but when we arrived, we saw the stone had been rolled away.”[14]

Astonished, afraid and knowing not what to make of the sight, Joanna recounted, the women fled back to John’s house in the city of Jerusalem.[15] When they spoke of what they had witnessed, John and Peter both dashed out the door. John, being younger and fleeter of foot, was the first to arrive at the tomb.

“I looked into the doorway and I could see the linen clothes inside,” said John, “but I dared not go in.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I knew not what it meant for Jesus’s body to be missing,” said John. “I was frightened.”

“I arrived soon after, and I did enter the tomb,” said Peter. “I wanted to see my lord.”

“And what did you observe?” I queried.

“I saw the shroud lying upon the bench and the napkin from his head upon the floor,” said Peter.

“Did you touch them? I asked.

“I disturbed nothing,” he said. “I did not know what to make of it. I, too, was frightened.”

“This is very important,” I asked. “Did you see anyone near the tomb?”

“No,” said both men.

I looked at the women. “No, we saw no one,” Joanna confirmed.

“I did,” said Mary of Magdala. Aside from Joanna, she was the youngest and comeliest of the women. “I saw Jesus.”[16]

Mary would have caused no more consternation had she tipped over a pail of night soil. John chastised her: “This is not an occasion for diverting tales!”

“When the others rushed back to find you, I was distraught. I stayed by the tomb,” Mary said. “Then a man walked up to me, and he said, ‘Woman, why do you weep?’ And I, supposing him to be the gardener, said, ‘Because they have taken away my lord, and I know not where they have laid him. If you have moved him, please tell me where you have placed him, so we can carry him to his proper resting place.’ And then he said my name, ‘Mary.’ That’s when I realized that he was Jesus.”

“And then what happened?” asked John.

“And then he walked away.”

“He appeared to you not in the form of Jesus but of another man, is that right?” said John, asking the very question I had in mind. But he put it more gently than I would have. “How did you know it was Jesus?”

“He knew my name. I felt his presence.”

Half the women of Galilee and Judea bore the name of Mary, thought I, inwardly scoffing. But I did not openly mock her, for I did not wish to antagonize her companions, who shared her grief. “Was he wearing clothing?” I asked as delicately as I could.

“Yes, of course.”

“The soldiers stripped him naked, and the burial shroud was left in the tomb. Where do you suppose he could have found garments to wear?”

“I don’t know,” said Mary. Her eyes were rimmed red from continual weeping. Her cheeks were sunken, her skin as pale as parchment. “Like Lazarus, he arose from the grave. It’s a miracle.”

The others looked at her sympathetically, knowing that she, like they, had suffered a great loss. Joanna put a hand upon Mary’s arm. “Did he say where he was going?”

“No,” said Mary.

“Did he explain why he took the guise of another man?” asked Joanna. “Why would he seek to confuse those who love him?”

“He didn’t say,” Mary said, as she broke down in inconsolable sobbing. “All I know is that it was him.”

“Dear, dear, you need rest,” said Joanna, touching her arm. “Let me take you to your room. I will stay with you.”

John seemed chagrined by the scene. “Mary loved Jesus greatly,” he said once she was out of earshot. “But she is temperamental. Jesus cast from her seven demons. One day she seems fine, then the next….” He shrugged. “I wonder if Satan is up to some trickery – deceiving us so we give up the search for Jesus’s body.”

“Hers is not a story I can take seriously,” said I.

I asked a few more questions but the disciples revealed nothing of interest until, as I was ready to go, I beseeched them to answer one more: “Could there be one among you who revealed the location of the tomb to the priests, perhaps without realizing it?”

“Judas!” said Peter.

“Who is Judas?” I asked.

“He was the keeper of the purse,” said Peter. “And a traitor.” He spat those last words from his mouth as if they were gristled meat.

“He betrayed Jesus to the servants of the high priest,” said John.

*****

[1] About 7 a.m.

[2] A stone tablet known as the “Nazareth Inscription,” announcing an “edict from Caesar” and dating to the first half of the 1st century C.E., surfaced in the town of Nazareth in 1878. Although the authorship is not evident from the tablet itself, Nicolaus attributes it to Herod Antipas, the tertrarch of Galilee. Caesar, stated the inscription, ordered capital punishment for anyone who “has destroyed, or in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones.”

[3] The senior centurion of the cohort.

[4] More commonly known as the sword of Damocles. When the courtier Damocles said he envied Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius let him sit in his seat – with a sword, suspended upon a horse hair, hanging above his head.

[5] Nicolaus uses the Latin word contubernium, referring to a unit of eight men, the smallest of the Roman army. The contubernium was led by a decanus, a low-ranking officer.

[6] John 20:4-5: refers to the “other disciple … stooping down, and looking in.”

[7] The Gospels say nothing of a funerary guild.

[8] Nicolaus’s account is very close to John 20:6-7: “Simon Peter… went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.”

[9] Nicolaus’ account explains an apparent contradiction between John and Mark. John 19: 39-40 states: “There came also Nicodemus … and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” But Mark 16:1 states: “When the Sabbath was past, Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.” It makes no sense for the women, who beheld the actions of Joseph and Nicodemus from outside the tomb, to anoint Jesus a second time. Nicolaus’ explanation, that Nicodemus conveyed the spices to the Galilean women to complete the preparations, explains the apparent contradiction.

[10] The fact that John took on Mary the mother of Jesus as his own mother suggests that he was an orphan.

[11] Mastema was an arch-demon in Jewish lore.

[12] Historians have conjectured that John and the “beloved disciple” are the same, but little is known about him. Nicolaus’ description is not supported by any other source.

[13] Each Gospel lists different names of the women at the tomb, reflecting the different oral traditions that Mark, Luke and John drew upon. (It is less clear that Matthew had any authoritative knowledge to contribute.)  Mark 15:47 noted that “Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joses” saw where Jesus was laid. Luke 24:10 refers to “the women also, which came with him from Galilee,” later specifying “Mary of Magdala, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them.” John 20:1-18 focuses exclusively upon Mary of Magdala, while Matthew 27:56, for what it’s worth, mentions “Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.”

[14] Mark 16: 3-4: “And [the women] said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulcher? And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.” Luke 24:2-2: “Very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulcher … and they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher.” John 20:1: “The first day of the week cometh Mary of Magdala early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulcher, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulcher.” Matthew’s story of an angel descending from heaven, rolling back the stone, and greeting the astonished women when they arrived, is inherently incredible and conflicts with earlier accounts.

[15] The Gospel accounts do not say explicitly that the Galilean women stayed with John, although the Gospel of John implies that Peter did and Mary the mother of Jesus did.

[16] Mark 16:9-11. “Jesus … appeared first to Mary of Magdala, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept. And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.” John 20:11-18: “Mary stood without at the sepulcher weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulcher … She turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.  … Mary of Magdala came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.”

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9 responses to “The Mystery of the Empty Tomb

  1. When referencing God his name should be capitalized just as Jesus is capitalized. Great read though – would love to read the whole story

    • Glad you liked it. I did not capitalize “god” because the story is told from the perspective of Nicolaus of Caesarea, an ethnic Greek and disciple of the Epicurean philosophy who did questioned the existence of any and all gods.

  2. Great story. I think the footnotes should be incorporated into the story. I always like Tom Clancy’s approach of teaching while entertaining. I learned a lot about submarines by reading The Hunt for Red October. Even as an observant Catholic there is a lot of history around biblical times that I don’t understand. While they pre-date your story I have always wondered about the Hittites. Who were they? What became of them? They are referenced in the Old Testament but, as far as I know, not in the new. Another question – how did the Romans politically interact with the Jews in Israel during the time of Christ? How did Pilate work with the Sanhedrin?

    A good story that also teaches a bit of history and culture would be great in my opinion. John Grisham meets Will & Ariel Durant.

    • How did the Romans politically interact with the Jews in Israel during the time of Christ? How did Pilate work with the Sanhedrin?

      We know a surprising amount about the Roman interaction with the Jews thanks mainly to the works of Flavius Josephus, supplemented by bits and pieces from other sources such as the New Testament itself. As for Pilate, he had a contentious relationship with the high priests of the temple. Much of modern scholarship views Pilate very negatively, as sort of a brutal, Reinhard Heydrich-like figure. In my novel, based upon my interpretation of the sources, the narrator Nicolaus regards Pilate as a stern but benign figure.

      The precise nature of that interaction between Pilate and the high priests is critical to our understanding of the trial of Jesus. Many scholars have portrayed the gospel accounts as inaccurately deflecting blame for Jesus’ crucifixion from Pilate to the high priests. My interpretation suggests that the tenor of the gospel accounts (excluding Matthew who just made stuff up) was essentially accurate. Pilate wanted to free Jesus because, as the old saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Jesus was an enemy of the priests, therefore, Pilate saw him as a useful foil.

      • It’s those kind of explanations and interactions that I think would add to the book. Your Nicoulas could explain these things through conversations. Again, I think it’s a great storyline. Adding some historical explanation to the narrative would be a great add in my opinion.

  3. Jerusalem was such a crossroads of history and culture and Empire in that day, and we have so many different, detailed perspectives on it, that it’s a shame not to write more fiction in that setting. Yes, fiction can serve as a way to make it all more approachable to us two millenia later.

    But fiction is the only way to fill the many voids in the record with educated, researched surmise for today’s readers about things people in that day would have assumed went on behind the scenes. The NT accounts are just a brief summary, after all.

    • The story of the Jews in the 1st century A.D. and the rise of early Christianity is one of the most fascinating eras of human history. It is one of the most well-documented eras of the ancient word, both in terms of texts and archaeology. But there is enough ambiguity in our knowledge that the material lends itself to many different interpretations.

      A century ago Albert Schweitzer wrote a book, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in which he argued that each generation reinterprets Jesus according to its own view of the world, and recasts Jesus in its own image. That observation is just as true today as it was then. The dominant scholarly interpretation of Jesus is what I call “social reformer Jesus.” In the end, I believe, as Schweitzer did, that Jesus is best understood not as a social reformer but as an eschatalogical prophet who anticipated the imminent establishment of God’s reign of justice on earth.

  4. Dear Jim,

    Secular scholars’ fashions may change with the times and their “needs,” but the Orthodox Church’s position has remained the same. Jesus Christ was messiah and God-Man. He created all things and will come again to judge the world.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  5. Impressive weave of history and imagination. Bravo!

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