Was Jesus Christ’s body stolen from his tomb?

There is no question that Jesus Christ's tomb was mysteriously empty. As Paul Althaus has said, the resurrection message “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…”[1] Dr. Craig observed that, “Conflicting traditions [to the empty tomb story] nowhere appear, even in Jewish polemic.”[2]

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.[3] This scenario would also contradict the consistent Jewish protests that the body had been removed.[4] 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.

How have doubters of Christ's resurrection responded? Some skeptics have claimed that someone must have stolen Jesus' body from the tomb, and that this led to the stories of miraculous resurrection. Is this possible?

The Jews and the Romans

Damascus Gate - Old Jerusalem Neither the Jewish nor the Roman leaders, who guarded the tomb (Matthew 27:62f) would have taken the body. Rather, both had every motive to produce the body publicly in order to humiliate the disciples and nip their movement in the bud. And since the scene in question was right at Jerusalem, it was completely within their power to locate the corpse should it still have existed. Yet to their dismay, no such body was ever produced. If the Jews had the body, they would have wheeled it in at the day of Pentecost when all Jerusalem was in an uproar because of Peter's sermon on the Resurrection of Christ.

Christ's Followers

[Read the account from Matthew of what really happened]

Likewise, is highly unlikely that Jesus' followers could have removed the body with a Roman guard protecting the tomb, plus a large stone door. And it won't work to charge them with inventing the account of the sleeping guards in Matthew. 28:11f. That story would only have served as apologetic propaganda had the guards stayed awake.

Why would the disciples (or anyone else) want to risk their lives to steal Christ's body? The biblical record shows the disciples were scared, discouraged and disheartened. Their only motive could have been to deceive. But everything we read about these men indicates they were good and honest. How could they have gone out the rest of their lives and daily preached that Christ had risen from the dead when they knew all along it was a lie? Would they have sacrificed and suffered so greatly for something that they know was an outright deception?

It would have been foolish to hide the corpse and fake a resurrection. The consequences of their loyalty to Jesus included beatings, imprisonments, and even death. No sane person chooses these for what they know is false. Under such pressures, liars confess their deceptions and betray their cohorts.

The explosive growth of the Church is strong evidence for Jesus' resurrection. Significantly, it wasn't the powerful, but commoners, burdened with every cultural strike against them (1 Corinthians 1:26f), whose Resurrection message peaceably transformed the Roman Empire. Who would ever have predicted such an “impossible” feat? Yet it actually did happen![5]

Jewish Family at Passover

That Christianity originated in Judaism[6] is further evidence for his resurrection. Renowned archaeologist 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.”[7] Jewish bias against the Jesus of the New Testament was massive. What else would have led Jews to accept a shamefully hung (Galatians 3:13) “criminal”, as their promised Messiah when they had longed for a military deliverer? And what else would have moved Jews to break their monotheistic convictions[8] to worship Jesus as God the Son (John 1:18), or change their worship day from Saturday to Sunday (Acts 20:7)? A mere invented myth would have been powerless to overthrow such hopes and traditions.

“Jesus was so unlike what all Jews expected the Son of David to be that His own disciples found it almost impossible to connect the idea of the Messiah with Him.”[9]
     -Millar Burrows

It is, as the New Testament states, Jesus' resurrection that singly overcame that “impossibility” (Acts 2:24).

Conversion of Saul

In addition, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus points to a momentous miracle. Beginning as a violent enemy of the Church (Acts 8:3; 9:1, Galatians 1:13), he was utterly turned around into becoming Jesus' servant. Choosing suffering for Christ's sake (2 Corinthians 11:23f), Paul gave up all he had, endured persecution, and preached the Gospel in city after city all the way to Rome, where he died a martyr's death. He is credited with having had greater influence over the course of the Roman Empire than any other figure of the First Century apart from Christ.[10] Nothing short of Christ's resurrection has remotely explained his major transformation.

The Other Apostles

The other Apostles too, overcame fear to brave suffering, imprisonment, and even death, as they proclaimed the good news of the risen Christ across their world. Is it thinkable that these people would die so willingly for a mere myth? “Each of the disciples, except John, died a martyr's death… because they tenaciously clung to their beliefs and statements,” observes researcher Josh McDowell.[11]

In contrast to others who have died for an unverifiable hope beyond the grave (e.g., mystics seeking reincarnation or Moslem militants expecting reward from Allah), Jesus' disciples lived and died for the historically verifiable claim that the grave was empty and that he was seen alive again.

Legal scholar Dr. Simon Greenleaf, founder of the Harvard Law School, notes:

"Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, [early Christians received] contempt, opposition… and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate, and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only [continued] their work with increased vigor and resolution… The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of like heroic constancy, patience, and unblenching courage… If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error. From these [considerations] there is no escape but in the perfect conviction and admission that they were good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed…and well knew to be true.[12]

Dr. Greenleaf is considered by many to have been one of the greatest legal minds we have had in the U.S. He was formerly an outspoken skeptic of Christianity and who set out to disprove the deity of Christ. In the end he concluded that the Resurrection was true “beyond any reasonable doubt.” Greenleaf became a Christian after studying the evidence for himself. Many top legal minds agree with Greenleaf that if the case for Christ's death and resurrection were taken to a court of law, it would undoubtedly win. The claims are very well established and verified by independent and converging proofs.

SIX SKEPTICAL OBJECTIONS most frequently leveled by critics of Christ's resurrection

  1. Christ's resurrection is a myth, not history.

  2. The Resurrection stories are full of contradictions.

  3. Miracles are not possible.

  4. The body was stolen.

  5. Jesus only fainted and then recovered from his wounds.

  6. The witnesses were just “seeing things.”

Author: Rev. Gary W. Jensen, M.Div. Edited aand expanded by Paul S. Taylor, Christian Answers. Used by permission.

References and footnotes

  1. Paul Althaus in Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus-God and Man (SCM Press, 1968), p. 100. [up]

  2. Dr. Craig in M. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, editors, Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), p. 149. [up]

  3. Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, Vol. II (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. 1205f. [up]

  4. See the Jewish Justin Martyr, “Dialogue with Trypho,” and the “Toledoth Yeshu,” a Jewish tale that the owner of the grave sold the body of Jesus which was then dragged through the city streets. Both are discussed by Gary Habermas in Gary R. Habermas and Anthony G.N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?—the entire transcript, Terry L. Miethe, editor (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 99f. [up]

  5. “That the Christian movement could have succeeded, so that the humble men who fished on the shores of the Sea of Galilee are today better known than the very Caesars who ruled the world…is so amazing that it would be incredible if we did not know it to be the case.” [Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion (Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 140.] [up]

  6. Acts 2:5-43, 6:7. [up]

  7. William F. Albright in an interview in Christianity Today (January 18, 1963), p. 3. [up]

  8. “Monotheism,” drawing on Deuteronomy 6:4 (“The Lord our God is one Lord”), set Israel's belief in contrast with the polytheism of its neighbors. It appeared to exclude, even in principle, Jesus' claim to be deity. In reality, however, the same Hebrew word “one” (echad-__) is used in Genesis 2:24 (“two become one flesh”), Joshua 9:2, and Judges 20:1, and implies a composite unity. Thus, while Jewish bias strongly opposed Jesus' claim to be God's Son, the word in question actually allows and even implies such a possibility. [up]

  9. Millar Burrows, More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking Press, 1958), p. 68. [up]

  10. Sir William Ramsey, as cited in Wilbur Smith, Therefore Stand (Wilde, 1945), p. 246f. [up]

  11. Josh McDowell, editor, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, California: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972), p. 255. [up]

  12. Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists (Kregel, 1995-reprint from 1847 edition), pp. 31-32. [up]

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