In my previous post I showed why – based on secular historical evidence – there are overwhelming reasons supporting the claim that the tomb of Jesus was empty that first Easter Sunday. Of course this does not prove the resurrection – there are other good explanations for an empty tomb apart from a resurrection.
However, any explanation for the absence of the body must also account for the situation on-hand: the Roman seal over the tomb, the Roman patrol guarding the tomb, the large (1-2 ton) stone covering the tomb entrance, the 40 kg of embalming agent on the body. The list goes on. Space does not allow us to look at all factors and scenarios to explain the missing body. In the videos of Session 7. News Pregnant with Hope: Considering the Death & Resurrection of Jesus I look more thoroughly at several options but in this post I want to briefly consider the most contemplated explanation – that the disciples themselves stole the body from the tomb, hid it somewhere and were then able to mislead others.
Did the disciples steal the body of Jesus?
Let us assume this scenario, avoiding for the sake of argument some of the difficulties in explaining how the discouraged band of disciples who fled for their lives at his arrest, could re-group and come up with a plan to steal the body that totally outwitted the Roman guard. They then broke the seal, moved the massive rock, and made off with the embalmed body – all without leaving any trace. Let us assume that they successfully managed to do this and then entered onto the world stage to start a religious faith based on their deception. Let’s analyze it from here.
Motivation of the Disciples
Many of us today assume that what motivated the first disciples was the need to proclaim brotherhood and love among men – and Christ’s death and (spiritual or metaphorical) resurrection was the catalyst for this message. But in the book of Acts, recounting events that occurred just weeks after the death of Jesus you can notice that the contentious issue was “the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2). This theme is paramount in their writings. Notice how important Paul rates the issue of Christ’s resurrection:
For … I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died …buried, that he wasraised on the third day… he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless … your faith is futile…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men…. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised – ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’… (I Corinthians 15: 3-32)
Clearly (in their minds at least) the disciples placed the importance and their witness of the resurrection of Jesus at the utmost center of their message. Now, let us assume that this was really false – that these disciples had indeed stolen the body so the counter-evidence against their new message would not put a stop to them. They may have perhaps been successful in fooling the world, but they themselves would have known that what they were preaching, writing and creating great social upheaval for was basically false. Yet they gave their lives (literally) for this mission. Why would they do it – IF they knew that the basis of it was false? People give their lives to causes (worthwhile and otherwise) because they believe in the cause for which they fight or because they expect some gain from the cause.
Consider the suicide bombers in the Middle East as an example. This is surely the greatest modern-day example of extreme devotion to a cause – and a dangerous one at that. Now we disagree with their cause – but they themselves surely believe in the cause for which they are sacrificing themselves and killing others. They go to the extremes that they do precisely because they believe they will go to paradise after death as a reward for their sacrifice. Now this belief may be false – but at least they themselves believe it – or they would not give their own lives (and take those of others) on such a drastic wager. The difference between suicide bombers and the early disciples are that they are not in a position to factually verify their belief, whereas the disciples were.
Consider from their own words what price the disciples paid for the spreading of their message – and ask yourself if you would pay such a personal price for something that you knew to be untrue:
We are hard pressed on every side… perplexed… persecuted, struck down… outwardly we are wasting away…in great endurance, in troubles, hardships, distresses, in beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger… beaten … sorrowful … poor … having nothing… Five times I received from the Jews the 39 lashes, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, … , I have been in danger from rivers, from bandits, my own countrymen, from Gentiles, in the city, in the country, in the sea. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep, I have known hunger and thirst… I have been cold and naked… Who is weak and I do not feel weak. (II Corinthians 4: 8– 6:10; 11:24-29)
They believed in their cause – and therefore could not have fabricated a hoax
The more I ponder the unshrinking heroism of all their lives (not one cracked at the bitter end and ‘confessed’), the more I find it impossible that they did not sincerely believe the message they were proclaiming. But if they believed it – they certainly could not themselves have stolen and disposed of the body of Jesus. One of the greatest criminal lawyers, who taught law students at Harvard how to probe for weaknesses in witnesses, had this remark to say about this issue:
“The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unflinching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted” (Greenleaf. 1874. An examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. p. 29)
Silence of the Authorities
Related to this is the silence of the enemies of the disciples – Jewish or Roman. These hostile witnesses never seriously attempted to tell the ‘real’ story, or show how the disciples were wrong. As Dr. Montgomery states,
“This underscores the reliability of testimony to Christ’s resurrection which was presented contemporaneously in the synagogues – in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross-examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case … had the facts been otherwise” (Montgomery. 1975. Legal reasoning and Christian Apologetics. p. 88-89)
In this brief study we have not had the space to consider every facet of this question. However, the unwavering boldness of the disciples and the silence of the coexistent hostile witnesses speak volumes that Christ may indeed have risen and that it is worth taking a serious and thoughtful examination. One way to do so is to view the public presentation I gave on this topic at the University of Wyoming which covers these themes in greater detail. It is also informative to understand that the extraordinary timing of Jesus’ crucifixion – happening on the Jewish Passover, and its location – being in Jerusalem – had great prophetic meaning in the Old Testament. It is like the whole sequence of improbable events was the plan of a Mind that could span millennia.
Nicely argued — you considered many different explanations and, I think, took them apart very methodically.
How would you respond to the theory that someone OTHER than the Disciples stole the body? I have read that Jews, for example, hold that the body was stolen by a gardener and then sold to the Jewish religious leaders. Or, it could have been a group of anonymous followers of Jesus who did not end up martyred and took the secret of their deed to their graves. Or maybe someone who just wanted to stir up trouble for the Roman Empire.
All of these people would have had to get past the guards, yes…if they were really there. Some atheists theorize that Matthew’s inclusion of guards was a piece of fiction added precisely to counter the whole body theft idea.
I also think this has been nicely argued but….
Guards could also be quite easily bribed to look the other way by any group who wanted the body for any reason. A group of people who wanted ‘Christianity’ to successfully permeate the world could have kept their actions secret from the disciples for this reason. of course the fact that none of these ‘confessed’ is harmful to this hypothesis but it is a possibility and a non-trivial one.
Also is there evidence that Jesus’ body was incarcerated in this way? Is it certain that his body was put in the cave? Was he actually dead when and if this happened?
I am a believer in the (at least partial) continuity of soul after death and indeed before ‘it’ passes (again at least partially) into a new life. Perhaps this offers alternative scenarios.