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The Blue Letter Bible
Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus

Don Stewart :: Was the Body of Jesus Stolen?

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Was the Body of Jesus Stolen?

Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus – Question 8

The historical evidence is clear. The tomb in which the body of Jesus of Nazareth was laid became unoccupied some thirty-six hours later. There is no disputing this. What we do know is that the body of Jesus disappeared. The question, of course, is what caused the tomb to become empty?

What Caused the Tomb to Be Empty?

Since the evidence proves the tomb was empty the question is, “What caused it to be empty?” The empty tomb means two possibilities: the body of Jesus was removed by either human hands or by supernatural power.

Did Human Hands Take the Body of Jesus?

If human hands removed the body of Jesus, then we have four basic possibilities as to who did it. The suspects include the following.

  1. The Jews
  2. The Romans
  3. Joseph of Arimathea
  4. Jesus’ disciples

Two questions immediately arise about the stolen body theory. First, concerning His enemies and Joseph of Arimathea, “Would they have stolen the body?” Next, we ask the question about His disciples, “Could they have stolen the body?”

Possibility 1: The Jews Stole the Body of Jesus

The Jews were in a position to have the body of Jesus removed from the tomb. They could have sent their representatives to take Jesus’ body and destroy it. Since they did not want the site of Jesus’ body to be used as a place of pilgrimage for His followers in the future, they removed the body to destroy all traces of Jesus’ existence.

Response

Yes, the Jews could have had the body of Jesus removed from the tomb, yet they had no motivation for such an act. This would have caused the sort of problem they were trying to avoid—rumors that Jesus Christ had risen. The Jews are the ones who asked for the guard because they were afraid His disciples would come and steal the body. If they had taken the body, then certainly they would have produced it fifty days later when Peter, in the same city of Jerusalem, proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead. Yet, they did not produce Jesus’ body neither did they ever argue that they themselves were the ones who removed it.

Possibility 2: The Romans Could Have Taken Jesus’ Body

A second possible group, that could have removed Jesus’ body, was the Romans. Since they were in charge of keeping law and order, it is possible that they could have taken the body from the tomb.

Response

The problem with them is also lack of motivation. Why would they do such a thing? They wanted to keep the peace. Stealing the body of an executed religious leader would only add to the rumors about Him. It would stir up greater conflict. Consequently, there is no motivation for them to steal the body.

Furthermore, when the Christian faith began to grow, they could have easily stopped it by producing the body. But they did not do this. Why not, if they knew the location of the body?

Possibility 3: Joseph of Arimathea May Have Robbed His Own Tomb

Joseph of Arimathea obviously had access to Christ’s body since He is the one who requested it from Pilate. It is argued that he may have had second thoughts about placing the body of Jesus in his family tomb. Upon further reflection, he did not want his respectable family tomb occupied with the body of a crucified criminal. Thus, he could have removed Jesus’ body after the initial burial and placed it elsewhere—possibly in an unmarked grave.

Response

Again, we have no motivation for him to do such a thing—especially since he and Nicodemus took the time and expense to prepare Jesus for burial. If he removed the body, then why didn’t he tell anyone? Furthermore, it was not the empty tomb that caused the other disciples to believe in Jesus. Rather it was seeing the risen Christ.

Possibility 4: The Disciples of Jesus Stole His Body

The oldest alternative explanation to the resurrection is that the body of Jesus Christ was stolen by His own disciples while the guard was sleeping. Matthew tells us this was the story the bribed Roman guard was to tell, even though they knew it was false. We read,

While the women were on their way, some soldiers who had been guarding the tomb went into the city. They told the chief priests everything that had happened. So the chief priests met with the leaders and decided to bribe the soldiers with a lot of money. They said to the soldiers, “Tell everyone that Jesus’ disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were asleep. If the governor hears about this, we will talk to him. You won’t have anything to worry about.” The soldiers took the money and did what they were told. The people of Judea still tell each other this story. (Matthew 28:11-15 CEV)

The idea that the disciples stole the body is inadequate for the following reasons.

1. How Could They Get Past the Guards?

To begin with, the disciples would have had to get by the guards at the tomb. This theory has the guard members conveniently asleep. The disciples would have had to move the large stone away from the tomb without waking any of them. While this is not impossible, it certainly is inconsistent with the facts as we know them.

2. Why Leave behind Jesus’ Grave Clothes?

If the Roman guard was asleep you need to move fast. The position of the grave clothes shows the impossibility of the theft of the body. Why take the time to remove the grave clothes and leave them behind? It would have been much easier to remove the body, grave clothes and all, especially if time were a factor. The explanation that the Roman guard was asleep does not help solve this problem.

3. How Could the Guard Testify If They Were Asleep?

Furthermore, the guard story doesn’t stand up to cross-examination. What does anyone know when they are asleep? If the guard were sleeping, how did they know the disciples stole the body? How can you determine anything that’s going on while you are asleep? Couldn’t Jesus, just as easily, have risen from the dead while they were asleep without the guards knowing it?

4. The Disciples Would Have Been Liars

The stolen body theory would make the disciples of Jesus Christ out to be deliberate liars. These are the same disciples who gave us the New Testament—the same New Testament where they reported Jesus was sinless. They testified He never lied; rather He always told the truth. Yet, this theory wants people to believe that His disciples, while spreading the message of the truth-telling Jesus, lied and continued to lie about the most important event in His life! On the one hand, they proclaimed to the world the story of the most perfect man who ever lived, on the other hand, according to the stolen body theory, they pulled off this gigantic deception.

Even if they could have gotten past the Roman guard to get to the body of Jesus, they would have had to live with that lie for the rest of their lives, proclaiming it, suffering for it, and dying for it. They would have been preaching the resurrection in direct contradiction to their own knowledge of the truth.

5. They Had No Motivation for Stealing the Body

Assuming the disciples could have stolen the body, another set of questions arise, “What motivated them to do it?” By proclaiming Jesus Christ had risen, they subjected themselves to beatings and jail. They eventually died for their testimony. If they had stolen the body, they would have been liars as well as thieves. They would not only have lied for the cause, they would have died for their lie. What advantage would there have been for doing this? There was nothing to be gained for lying about Jesus. Indeed, they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by stealing His body.

Thus we can find no motivation for the disciples stealing the body. Their leader was buried with loving hands in a tomb of a rich man. Since they were not expecting Him to rise from the dead, this would have been the best end to Jesus’ life—all things considered.

6. There Was No Time to Plan the Theft

There is also the problem of time. Jesus Christ was betrayed on Thursday night, and brought to trial early Friday morning. His crucifixion took place from approximately 9:00 to 3:00 on Friday. At sundown on Friday the Sabbath began and the disciples, as observant Jews, would rest. The end of the Sabbath was on Saturday night. The first visit to the tomb realistically would have been on Sunday morning. There was simply no time to steal the body.

7. The Mental State of the Disciples Has to Be Considered

The mental state of the disciples also needs to be considered. They were now leaderless for the first time in three years. All the disciples abandoned Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane. Later Peter denied Jesus a number of times. John was looking after Jesus’ mother. Being afraid and leaderless, did they suddenly become brave? After the surprise betrayal and crucifixion, is it really possible to think they concocted a plan late Friday afternoon to have the body removed by Sunday morning?

8. The Transformed Lives of the Disciples Has to Be Explained

The mere removal of Jesus’ body from the tomb could not have transformed their sadness into gladness. In less than thirty-six hours, they went from the depths of despair to the heights of joy. They had lost hope when Christ died, but they immediately went from hopelessness to certainty, from cowards to eventual martyrs.

Something gave them the power to sustain their preaching during persecution and martyrdom. A stolen body would not have changed their lives in this manner.

9. Liars Are Usually Caught

There is another important point—liars are usually caught in their lies. This is especially true when a number of different people are lying. Cover-ups have a way of becoming public. Yet history tells us that none of the disciples ever denied the resurrection. If Jesus had not risen, one would have expected the eventual confession of at least some of them. But they all went to their deaths proclaiming Christ had risen. Why?

10. Why Weren’t the Disciples Prosecuted?

According to Roman law, the body of a condemned criminal belonged to the state. That is why Joseph of Arimathea had to ask for Jesus’ body. To steal a body was a serious offense and it is odd that neither the Romans, nor the Jews, did anything to substantiate the charges if the body had been stolen. The disciples were never prosecuted for this alleged crime. Why?

The fact is that the authorities did not really believe that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body. Otherwise they would have immediately arrested them when these same disciples publicly proclaimed in the same city of Jerusalem that Christ had risen.

11. There Is the Problem of Moving a Dead Body

There is something else. If the disciples were able to steal the body they could not have brought it into the city again. Not only was the road lined with houses, people would have been sleeping outside by the roadside at that hot time of the year. Furthermore, this was the holiest day of the year. The Jews were not allowed to touch a dead body. If they were carrying Jesus’ body on the road that night, someone would have seen them and remembered what they saw.

12. Why Was There No Veneration of His Burial Place?

The Jews venerated the graves of their religious leaders. If Jesus Christ were not buried in Joseph’s tomb, then He must have been buried elsewhere, yet there is no trace of any burial place in Jerusalem for the body of Jesus. No tradition exists anywhere that Jesus remained buried.

13. Why Did They Die for Jesus If They Lied about His Resurrection?

Finally, there is the ultimate question, “Why did they die for Jesus?” If they had stolen the body, they would have died for a lie knowing it was a lie. The disciples who would have “died for a lie” included Peter (crucified); Andrew (crucified); James, son of Alphaeus (crucified); Philip (crucified); Simon (crucified); Thaddaeus (killed with arrows); Thomas (died by a spear thrust); Bartholomew (crucified); and James, the son of Zebedee (killed with the sword). Jesus’ disciples were transformed from cowards to martyrs. Why?

It is one thing to lie; it is quite another thing to die for a lie if you know that it is a lie. The disciples sealed their testimony in their own blood. To save their own lives they would only have had to confess to lying, yet they never recanted their testimony.

Furthermore, they died separately. It is one thing to die as a member of a group. Indeed, strength could be gained from each other as you are awaiting death. However, each of the disciples died separately, apart from one another, apart from any type of moral support. Again, we ask the question, “Why?”

A Better Answer Is Needed

Interestingly, the idea that Jesus’ body was stolen has become less popular as time goes by. Those who reject the fact that Jesus came back from the dead usually put forth some other theory to explain what they think really took place.

Consequently, these different factors make the popular stolen body theory hopelessly inadequate. The disciples were no longer capable of raiding the tomb and the other possible culprits had no motivation for stealing Jesus’ body. We conclude that the body of Jesus was not stolen.

Summary – Question 8
Was the Body of Jesus Stolen?

It has been popular to assume that the reason Jesus’ body was missing on Easter Sunday is because it was stolen. If true, then either it was the Jews, the Romans, Joseph of Arimathea, or the disciples of Jesus stole the body.

The Romans and Jews had no motivation to do this. Even if they had taken Jesus’ body, they could have easily have produced it once the resurrection was proclaimed.

Joseph surely could have removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. However, if he did do this, the Roman and Jewish authorities would have certainly questioned him. They would have made him produce the body.

The most likely suspects would be Jesus’ disciples. However, there are a number of reasons as to why they did not do this.

They would have had to get past the Roman guards. This would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do.

There is also the fact that the grave clothes remained in the tomb. The fact that they were still in the tomb is inconsistent with stealing Jesus’ body.

The guard which testified that the body of Jesus was stolen were not in a position to make such an assertion. If they were asleep, like it was claimed, then how did they know the body was stolen and that the disciples did it? Simply put, they could not.

Moreover, if they truly knew that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body then why weren’t they prosecuted? Especially when these same disciples continued to proclaim that Jesus Christ had risen; proclaiming the message in the very same city where the events took place.

There is the moral problem of Jesus’ disciples lying about see Him after His death. They would be thieves as well as liars. However, there is no motivation for them lying. Indeed, they only suffered the rest of their lives for proclaiming Christ had risen.

Furthermore, there was no real time to plan the theft. Even if there was their mental state was not one of such that would allow them to hatch such a plot.

When all the facts are looked at, the stolen body theory does not make sense.

It is interesting to note that most scholars today do not argue that the body of Jesus was stolen. They see the problems trying to maintain this theory that does not explain the facts as we know them. While they attempt to explain away the resurrection, they do not do so by accusing Jesus’ disciples of being thieves and liars.

Was the Tomb of Jesus Really Empty? ← Prior Section
Did Jesus Actually Die on the Cross? Next Section →
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