But the women arrived to see that the huge stone had been rolled away from the entrance, and the tomb was empty. "The burial cloth was simply lying there on the place where they had laid the body," McBrien said.
The immediate reaction was panic and concern that someone had taken Jesus' body. But what happened next stunned the women, according to the Gospels. "They see an angelic apparition in the tomb who informs them that Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead, and they are absolutely unraveled by this. Filled with trembling and fear, they flee from the tomb," Craig said.
"And then the word begins to spread," said Strobel. "The women have discovered the tomb empty. That's impossible. How could it be? He's resurrected? That's absurd!"
The story of Easter Sunday has been retold for two millenniums. "It is the pivotal event of all history. History is broken into two parts -- a faith has gone around the planet. Billions of people are followers of Jesus, down through history, as a result of this story from the first century," Strobel said.
For centuries Christians have believed that Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the place where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead.
But nearly every single detail of the Easter story remains a question of debate. Among them : Was the tomb really empty? And even more basic: Was Jesus was ever buried in the first place?
"Most people who were crucified were probably put into large burial pits," said Kathleen Corley of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
This has led a number of scholars to question the whole account of Jesus' burial -- as perhaps made up by the Gospel writers later on.
"I think they were unsuccessful in finding the location of his body, because I think Jesus was probably buried in a criminal's grave that would have been a large pit for a large number of people," Corley said.
But Jewish scholars also familiar with first-century history say it's very feasible that the Romans permitted Jesus' followers to bury him. "I'm not sure that we can settle any of these questions with the sort of certainty we would like. I don't see any reason to doubt the Gospel tradition," said Baumgarten.
Daniel Schwartz, a professor of history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said it rings true to him that Jesus could have been removed from the cross and buried by his followers. "I think that there's plenty of precedent, plenty of evidence for people who were crucified and buried," he said.
It would be easy enough to prove Jesus had a tomb, if anyone could say for sure where it was. But the early Christians didn't seem to have marked the spot. Two shrines in Jerusalem are said to be the location -- the large, often-visited Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a site called the Garden Tomb just down the road from the church. The Garden Tomb was discovered only in the 1850s.
Ken Trestrail, a guide at the Garden Tomb, said it is believed to be the site where Joseph of Arimathea had a garden.
The only thing the Bible really tells us about the location of Jesus' tomb is that it was close to the place of the crucifixion, Golgotha. But it gives no information about where Golgotha, which means "place of a skull," actually was.