Why the Relocation Hypothesis Fails to Account for the Empty Tomb

Responding to Jeff Lowder and the Skeptical Relocation Hypothesis for the Empty Tomb

Why the Relocation Hypothesis Fails to Account for the Empty Tomb
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Atheist Jeff Lowder is a proponent of the “relocation hypothesis” to explain the empty tomb during the resurrection of Jesus. His primary writing on the topic comes from a book he co-edited, The Empty Tomb, and he has further responded to critics such as Stephen Davis, and Josh and Sean McDowell. The relocation hypothesis says that Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was always meant to be a temporary resting place for Jesus’ body. According to the hypothesis, on Saturday night after Passover, Joseph had the body moved to a dishonorable burial site elsewhere. Since the soon-to-be Christians did not know the body of Jesus was moved, they were surprised to find the tomb empty. What happened after this, Lowder doesn’t say. According to him, the relocation hypothesis isn’t meant to explain anything after the tomb is found empty. This limitation helps his argument significantly; he does not even attempt to explain the conversion of the disciples, James, or Paul. But this also severely limits his argument as a reason that Christianity isn’t true.

Still, even if we take it on its own, the relocation argument faces significant challenges. Lowder defends the relocation hypothesis, writing:

What, then, are the other types of evidence relevant to the final probability of the relocation hypothesis? There is conclusive evidence to show there is “a high prior probability that the Jews would bury an executed criminal like Jesus dishonorably” (266). Moreover, as I argued in my chapter, there is circumstantial evidence that favors the relocation hypothesis over the honorable burial hypothesis: (a) the rushed chronology of Jesus’ burial as described in Mark’s gospel; (b) Mary’s statement in John 20:2,7 (c) Joseph would have defiled his own tomb by storing Jesus’ body in it; and (d) the empty tomb itself.

In an average Jewish criminal case, it certainly would be more likely for the body to be buried dishonorably rather than honorably. However, we know Joseph of Arimathea was a secret follower of Christ and a member of the Jewish ruling body (John 19:38, Mark 15:43, Matthew 27:57, Luke 23:50). We also know there were other wealthy followers of Christ, such as Nicodemus (John 19:39). I think Lowder is being too skeptical about the probability of powerful people wanting to bury Jesus honorably given the entire body of evidence we have.

Speculating on background information can also lead to absurd results. For example, it’s more likely, based on how often flights arrive safely, that terrorists did not board United Airlines Flight 175 and crash it into the World Trade Center, but we call those who think they did not “conspiracy theorists”. In the same way, all the reliable evidence we have points to Jesus’ honorable burial in Joseph’s tomb, and coming up with conspiracy theories in direct contradiction with the data we have will be an exercise in frustration.

Would Joseph have defiled his tomb? If he truly believed Jesus to be an innocent man wrongly convicted and perhaps even the Messiah, why would he believe Jesus was defiling his tomb? If Joseph was uninterested in Jesus as Lowder claims, why wouldn’t he have commandeered a commoner’s tomb for temporary storage? Or left the body to rot on the cross for a day? Would not even a single night of a gross blasphemer’s corpse in his tomb defile it? Lowder denies that Joseph was a follower of Christ based on “prior probability”, but he is just cherry-picking verses to support his hypothesis while denying others. All four gospels talk of Joseph, and all four agree he was a follower of Christ.

More questions arise: Why does Christianity exist if Joseph of Arimathea, a Christ-follower known to the disciples and member of the Jewish ruling council, moved the body? Did he tell no one? Who helped him remove the stone? Did they tell no one? Why didn’t Joseph say that they moved the body once the disciples started talking about a risen Jesus?

The relocation hypothesis is creative and better than most skeptical theories because it tries to explain a little well rather than much poorly. But, even in the little it attempts to explain, it fails. It simply does not fit the evidence available to us and should be rejected. The resurrection of Jesus continues to be the best explanation for the empty tomb and all the events that took place afterward.