According to the Gospel of Matthew, the first objection to Christ’s resurrection was that the disciples stole the body. The guards at Jesus’ tomb went to the chief priests and elders with startling news involving angels and an empty tomb. We read a brief account of what transpired at this meeting:
And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Matt. 28:12-15 English Standard Version)
Earlier the chief priests had requested of Pilate that Jesus’ tomb be made secure. Knowing that Jesus had taught he would rise in three days, they feared his body would be taken by his followers, who would then proclaim him raised. So Pilate granted they use the temple guard (Roman soldiers assigned to the temple) to put a seal on the tomb and to watch it. (cf. Matt. 27:62-66)
Amazingly, the stolen body theory continues to prevail as a favorite among skeptics. Indeed, it is the most natural objection considering the circumstances of the crucifixion. After all, it is supposed, since dead people do not come back to life, and since Jesus’ followers considered him the Messiah, and considering Jesus himself spoke of being raised again, it is most probable that after Jesus’ death the disciples came and took his body and then proclaimed him alive.
To most, this is a reasonable explanation. But it is only reasonable because those who put forth the argument have not considered the evidence carefully. When the facts are weighed, it becomes clear that it is highly improbable that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. The naturalistic assumptions behind the disbelief in resurrections will be dealt with in a later post. For now let’s consider why the objection at hand is faulty. First, I will lay out some facts relevant to the discussion, and then proceed to build my case.
Fact #1: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
Fact #2: Jesus was buried in a tomb.
Fact #3: This same tomb was found empty.
Fact #4: The disciples immediately began proclaiming Jesus to be resurrected.
These facts are well established and affirmed by virtually all NT scholars. With these in view as a foundation, the following arguments will be offered:
1. The Roman guards would have never allowed the disciples to steal the body. In addition to being highly trained soldiers, falling asleep on the job or being otherwise derelict in duty was punishable by death. No amount of cleverness or bargaining would sway the soldiers. One could posit that the disciples came in such numbers and force that the guard was overpowered. But this fails for three reasons. First, such an occurrence would likely have either greatly injured or killed the guard, making their later report to the chief priests unlikely. Second, such an act would have been met with swift and severe punishment by the Roman authorities. The ‘Jesus movement’ would have been squashed immediately. Third, violence neither marked Jesus’ teachings nor the teachings of his earliest followers. It is incredibly unlikely his followers could commit such an act and then turn around and spread his love.
2. A stolen corpse does not inspire people the way the disciples were inspired. Let’s follow the logic here. If the disciples did somehow manage to retrieve Jesus’ body, what do we assume they did with it? Did they just move it someplace else and bury it in secret? And how would this act of deceit cause them to go from fearful, cowering followers of a condemned Messiah, to the fearless preachers of a risen Messiah? If Jesus was not raised, and they knew this to be true, it would be insanity to willingly die for what one knows is a lie. People will sometimes willingly die for what they truly believe, even if it is actually untrue; but people will not willingly die for what they know to be false. The writings and teachings of these men indicate they were completely convinced that Jesus had risen from the grave. The tomb was empty and the disciples had nothing to do with it.
3. A mere empty tomb would not inspire the disciples the way they were inspired. Is it possible that someone else took the body of Christ? Perhaps some fanatical wing of Jesus’ followers stole the body, the disciples found the tomb empty yet never found out who did it. Well, this argument fails from the start since it cannot overcome the objections above regarding the guard. But assuming such an event did occur, would the disciples’ reaction be one of elation and empowerment? Rather, would it not more likely be bewilderment and sadness that someone stole the body? They would be beside themselves wondering who would do such a thing. In fact, the initial reaction of the women at the tomb was that someone took Jesus’ body, and it greatly upset them.
4. If the disciples’ took the body, they would not have women as the first witnesses. In 1st Century Palestine, a woman’s testimony was next to worthless. It is highly unlikely that the conniving disciples would concoct a story about the resurrection that allows women to be the first witnesses. If they had wanted to attract their fellow Jews, this was not the way to go – unless it really happened that way.
5. If the disciples’ took the body, they would not have portrayed themselves the way they did. Throughout the Gospels accounts, and even to the end, the disciples are portrayed in quite unflattering ways. They doubt, say stupid things, do stupid things. If they made the whole thing resurrection account up, would they really portray themselves this way? I suppose someone could object that the Gospel writers’ were using some kind of ploy. They intentionally used these unfavorable accounts to make the whole story more believable. But such an argument projects modern ways of writing onto 1st Century writers. People back then simply did not write that way.
It is telling indeed that the earliest argument against the resurrection of Christ was this one. The religious leaders did not pretend to offer up arguments of mass hallucinations or argue that Jesus did not really die. They knew better, though it seems probable they still were not convinced of the resurrection. Perhaps they thought the soldiers were exaggerating the whole angel story, or maybe they thought that the disciples had help from magicians of some sort. But it is certain that they knew the tomb was empty. We must not fail to see what these religious men failed to see – the best answer for the empty tomb is the resurrection