It is a historical fact that the tomb of Jesus was empty on the third day. As succinctly put by Paul Althaus, the message of Jesus' resurrection "could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact…" Anyone could have gone to the tomb to check for themselves, and some of them very well may have. What people disagree on, however, is where the body of Christ went. (Photo credit: EBible Teacher)
Some claim that Jesus merely fainted, yet we have examined this and found it to be fallacious at best. Others claim that the disciples were merely hallucinating, and we have examined issues with that theory, but regardless, it does not provide for what happened to the body. Still others claim that the disciples came and took the body, formulated the Gospels, and perpetrated what they knew to be a lie for the remainder of their lives. In this entry, we will look at that claim.
The theory originates in the Bible, but not in a positive way. Matthew 28:11-15 conveys, "While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, 'You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day."
So from this we can glean that the Roman soldiers had gone to the Chief Priests to report on what had just transpired: two angels appeared at the tomb, the stone was rolled away, and the body of Jesus was no longer present. Having recognized what this meant for the followers of Jesus, the Chief Priests quickly devised a plan, and spread the story that the disciples stole the body. It is true that it has been widely circulated among the Jews even to this day - but also to the Gentiles.
As Gary W. Jensen asserts, "At least one skeptic (Dr. John Dominic Crossan) has wrongly asserted that Roman law automatically forbade Jesus' burial, and that he must therefore have been thrown anonymously into a common pit. This is not sustainable. Raymond Brown has shown that Roman burial policy varied with circumstances and did allow the possibility of personal burial of some of the crucified. This scenario would also contradict the consistent Jewish protests that the body had been removed. Furthermore, the Gospels could not have successfully invented as owner of the tomb one so specific as a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43). Had the Gospels been false on this matter they would not have been able to withstand the swift correction and ridicule from the Jews."
Bear in mind that the Romans nor the Priests had any reason whatsoever to steal the body. In fact, by producing the body, they would have been able to stifle any talk of a resurrection. Yet the body was never produced, even though it would have been easily within their power to find it - if it was only a corpse. Professor E. F. Kevan says that although the empty tomb does not provide irrefutable proof of a resurrection, it only leaves us two options: "Those alternatives are that the empty tomb was either a Divine work or a human one." For objectivity's sake, both options ought to be considered, not merely ruled out due to personal bias.
"Could Christ's followers have taken the body? It would have been difficult. Roman soldiers found guilty of leaving their posts were generally put to death. And it was common knowledge that the penalty for breaking a Roman seal was execution. Disciples bent on body-snatching would have first have had to overpower the battle-tested Roman soldiers, then break the Roman seal. Yet even if they succeeded they would face a final challenge: moving aside the two-ton stone door that covered the entrance to the rock tomb."
As the above text points out, these were battle-tested Roman soldiers. Roman soldiers trained for several years under harsh conditions, and it is likely that there were several at the tomb, more than two. Consider: if there are two-five, perhaps more soldiers stationed at the tomb, and a few or all of the disciples come to the tomb, and the guards are merely sleeping, what does this show? It shows that their training was worthless. Even if a few of the soldiers slept, it is possible that they worked in shifts.
Before we continue, perhaps we ought to clear up why the Romans were guarding the tomb. Note that generally, soldiers have no need to guard the tomb of a deceased person, so why were they planted at the tomb of Christ? Matthew 27:62-66 gives us our answer. "The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 'Sir,' they said, 'we remember that while he was still alive the deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell people he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than that first.' 'Take a guard,' Pilate answered, 'Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.' So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard."
It is evident, however, that there was more than one guard. Matthew 28:4, 11, and 15 says "guards" and "soldiers," indicating more than one soldier. Now, if the disciples were somehow successful in moving the stone, it would have made a rather large noise, which ought to have awoken the battle-trained soldiers. The story devised by the High Priests does not seem to stand up. The enemies of Jesus had no reason to remove the body, and His disciples did not have the power to do so.
Wilbur M. Smith points out, "It should be noticed first of all that the Jewish authorities never questioned the report of the guards. They did not themselves go out to see if the tomb was empty, because they knew it was empty. The guards would never have come back with such a story as this on their lips, unless they were reporting actual, indisputable occurrences, as far as they were able to apprehend them. The story which the Jewish authorities told the soldiers to repeat was a story to explain how the tomb became empty."
It is important to note that the disciples were in a depressed and cowardice state, with the thought in mind that they would not see Jesus anymore. That they could suddenly have the braveness, confidence, and courage to tackle such a feat as to take on Roman guards and roll the stone, stealing Christ's body, is a fallacious idea. The disciples were in no mood to attempt such a thing. Just a few days before, Peter had thrice openly denied Jesus. Where did he get the courage to suddenly take on the Roman soldiers?
Fallow's Encyclopedia says, "How could they have undertaken to remove the body? Frail and timorous creatures, who fled as soon as they saw him taken into custody; even Peter, the most courageous, trembled at the voice of a servant girl, and three times denied that he knew him. People of this character, would they have dared to resist the authority of the governor? Would they have undertaken to oppose the determination of the Sanhedrin, to force a guard, and to elude or overcome soldiers armed and aware of danger? If Jesus Christ were not risen again (I speak the language of unbelievers), he had deceived his disciples with vain hopes of resurrection. How came the disciples not to discover the imposture? Would they have hazarded themselves to undertaking an enterprise so perilous in favor of a man who had so cruelly imposed on their credulity? But were we to grant that they formed the design of removing the body, how could they have executed it?"
It is also interesting to note that the grave clothes were nice and neat. Merrill Tenney, in The Reality of the Resurrection, states, "No robbers would ever have rewound the wrappings in their original shape, for there would not have been time to do so. They would have flung the cloths down in disorder and fled with the body. Fear of detection would have made them act as hastily as possible." Disorder and disarray typically accompany grave robbers. Keep in mind the terror and hurry of the thieves and it does not add up.
A fourth century author, Chrysostom, makes a good point, "And what mean also the napkins that were stuck on with the myrrh; for Peter saw these lying. For if they had been disposed to steal, they would not have stolen the body naked, not because of dishonoring it only, but in order not to delay and lose time in stripping it, and not to give them that were so disposed opportunity to awake and seize them. Especially when it was myrrh, a drug that adhered so to the body, and cleaves to the clothes, whence it was not easy to take the clothes off the body, but they that did this needed much time, so that from this again, the tale of the theft is improbable."
There would have been no reason to leave the grave clothes behind, casting further doubt on the theory. In fact, the clothes and spices could have been sold, and would have been of more value than a corpse. If the clothes had been unwrapped, the powdered myrrh and aloes would have fallen on the floor, yet in John, when we read of Peter in the tomb, says nothing about the spice while describing the tomb in detail. This detail would have had no reason to have been overlooked.
Also, the disciples had no reason for removing the body. If they did, the only reason would be to deceive others, but history shows that these men appeared to have been good, honest men. How could they have preached with such passion on a subject for years and years that they know to be an absolute lie? No sane person would be beaten, whipped, and even suffer gruesome deaths for such a thing. It is one thing for people to die for what they believe in, it is another thing entirely to die for what you know to be an absolute lie.
Neither is the theory that the Jews, Romans, or Joseph of Arimathea any better. None stand up to scrutiny, all are easily collapsible. As William F. Albright observed, “In my opinion, every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew between the forties and the eighties of the first century A.D.” It is significant that avid Jews converted virtually overnight to Christianity. What would make Jews who had hung an alleged criminal accept Him as their promised Savior? What would make them worship Him as God, and change the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday?
The radical conversion of Saul is also important. Saul, a Jew (and natural-born Roman), heavily persecuted the Early Church, and was even presented at Stephen's stoning. (Acts 7:58-60) He got permission from the High Priest, and got letters from him to take to the synagogues in Damascus. On his way to Damascus, the Bible conveys that Saul saw Jesus, and that those with him heard Jesus. Saul was blinded, and remained in Damascus for three days until the Christian Ananias healed him.
Saul then becomes Paul, and begins to avidly preach and defend Christianity. He goes on several missionary journeys, writes several letters (which make up much of the New Testament), founds several churches, and advocates the risen Jesus even unto his death. This Paul was radically converted, and went from heavily persecuting the church to heavily advocating the Church. Now, consider, if the disciples knew the resurrection to be a fake, why would they so heavily promote it?
Timothy Keller points out, "Why would the leaders of the early Christian movement have made up the story of the crucifixion if it didn't happen? Any listener of the gospel in either Greek or Jewish culture would have automatically suspected that anyone who had been crucified was a criminal, whatever the speaker said to the contrary. Why would any Christian make up the account of Jesus asking God in the garden of Gethsemane if he could get out of his mission? Or why ever make up the part on the cross when Jesus cries out that God had abandoned him? These things would have only offended or deeply confused first-century prospective converts. They would have concluded that Jesus was weak and failing his God. Why invent women as the first witnesses of the resurrection in a society where women were assigned such low status that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court?"
Keller continues, "It would have made far more sense (if you were inventing the tale) to have male pillars of the community present as witnesses when Jesus came out of the tomb. The only plausible reason that all of these incidents would be included in these accounts is that they actually happened. Also, why constantly depict the apostles - the eventual leaders of the early Church - as petty and jealous, almost impossibly slow-witted, and in the end as cowards who either actively or passively failed their master? Richard Bauckham makes similar arguments about the deception of Peter's denial of Jesus, even to the point of his calling down a curse on his master (Mark 14:71). Why would anyone in the early church want to play up the terrible failures of their most prominent leader? No one would have made such a story up, and even though it is true, Bauckman reasons that no one but Peter himself would have dared to recount it unless Peter himself was the source and had authorized its preservation and propagation."
One last consideration: if the New Testament was unreliable, indicating that the soldiers were not bribed to tell this story, then the question arises: if the soldiers were sleeping, how is it that they would know whether or not the disciples came and took the body? Sleeping soldiers does not a good case make. It is evident from careful investigation that the Theft Theory does not stand to scrutiny. The only idea that fits the historical, biblical, and archaeological evidence would be that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified ca. April 30-33 AD outside of Jerusalem at Golgotha, that He was taken down after His death and put in a tomb and wrapped by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, the tomb was guarded by Romans for three days, and on the third day, the stone rolled away, the angels sat on the stone, and Jesus was not in the tomb - because He was resurrected.
If Jesus has been resurrected, that indicates He is divine. If Jesus divine, that indicates He is God. If Jesus is God, then His claim that He is "the way and the truth and the life, No one comes to the Father except through me," (John 14:6) that none can be saved unless they put their trust in Jesus and accept Him as savior, shouldn't we at least consider Christianity as the probable truth? Jesus is a confirmed historical figure, and though other postulate theories to explain away the empty tomb, none of these theories have stood to careful investigation. The only rational explanation is that Jesus had risen to life on the third day.
Thank you for reading this entry of "The Truth." We trust it has proven informative, insightful, and helpful. Feel free to comment below (but remain civil), email firstname.lastname@example.org or The Truth Ministries team at email@example.com, visit our facebook page, or visit our Ministry website. Take care, dear reader, and May God bless you. Troy Hillman
 Paul Althaus in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man (SCM Press, 1968), p. 100. Print.
 Jensen, Rev Gary F.. "Was Jesus Christ’s body stolen from his tomb?" Christian Answers Network. 1998. Web. 05 April 2011.
 Kevan, Ernest F. The Resurrection of Christ. London: The Campbell Morgan Bible Lectureship, Westminster Chapel, Buckingham Gate, S.W. I, June 14, 1961. Print.
 Stan Campbell, et. al, . "Jesus: The Empty Tomb" Inside The Mysteries Of The Bible: New Perspectives On Ancient Truths. 2010: 64. Print.
 Smith, Wilbur M. Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965. Print.
 Fallows, Samuel (ed.). The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopedia and Scriptural Dictionary. Vol. III. Chicago: The Howard Severance Co., 1908. Print.
 Tenney, Merril C. The Reality of the Resurrection. Chicago: Moody Press, 1963. Print.
 Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Found in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. X. Edited by Philip Schaff. New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1888. Print.
 William F. Albright in an interview in Christianity Today (January 18, 1963), p. 3.
 Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. 1st ed. New York City, New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 108. Print.
 Ibid, 109.