Stained Glass Window Depicting Joseph of Arimathea with Christ’s Body (by Wolfgang Sauber / CC-BY-SA-3.0 more)

Christian apologists confidently maintain that because there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>), it is rational to believe God could have supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead (more>>).

In support of the proposition God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists point to the historically documented evidence that within days of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty.

Some skeptics attempt to explain away the evidence of the empty tomb by proposing that after Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in his tomb, he subsequently went back to the tomb and removed Jesus’ body. As set forth in this article, Christian apologists maintain the theory that Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body is inadequate and certainly not rationally compelling.

Summary of the Historical Evidence of Jesus’ Grave Being Found Empty

The historical record establishes Jesus’ tomb was found empty just days after his crucifixion and burial. The empty tomb was attested to by several witnesses, it was publicly addressed in speeches given in Jerusalem where the events took place, it was inferentially admitted by both Roman and Jewish leaders and was believed by at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul).

For a complete discussion of the historical evidence that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, go here.

Was Jesus’ Tomb Found Empty Because Joseph of Arimathea Moved the Body?

According to Matthew 27:57-61 Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. Some skeptics propose Joseph had purchased the tomb for he and his family and only offered the tomb as a temporary resting place for Jesus’ body because the Sabbath was quickly approaching (Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50-54, John 19:38-42) and Jewish law required the bodies of men who had been executed to be buried by sundown (Deut. 21:22-23).  It is proposed that after the Sabbath was over, Joseph would have moved Jesus’ body to a permanent resting place so the tomb could be used for he and his family as originally intended.

Some skeptics point out the Jewish leaders were so concerned Jesus’ disciples would steal Jesus’ body and claim he had risen from the dead they asked Pilate to appoint a guard to secure the tomb (Matthew 27:62-65). In their view, since Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph may have moved Jesus’ body out of the tomb to ensure Jesus’ disciples didn’t steal the body.

The proposition that Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body seeks to explain both the reason the tomb was empty as well as the surprise of Jesus’ followers when they found the tomb empty.

Reasons Christian Apologists Maintain the Explanation that Joseph of Arimathea Moved Jesus’ Body Out of the Tomb is Inadequate

Christian apologists raise the following points in rebuttal to the claim of skeptics that the tomb was found empty because Joseph of Arimatheamoved Jesus’ body out of the tomb:

Rebuttal Point No. 1: Joseph of Arimathea Had No Motive to Move Jesus’ Body Without Someone Knowing

Whether Joseph of Arimathea was a friend or enemy of Jesus, he had no motive for moving Jesus’ body out of the tomb without someone knowing.

Based on certain references in the gospels, many scholars maintain Joseph of Arimathea was a friend of Jesus. Matthew reports Joseph was a disciple of Jesus (Matt. 27:57). John reports Joseph “was a disciple, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38). [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs. 64-65 (1958)]  According to Luke, Joseph (who was a member of the Sanhedrin) did not consent to the council’s condemnation of Jesus (Luke 23:50-51).  By subsequently offering his grave to Jesus (whom the Jewish leaders clearly despised), many scholars maintain Joseph’s social standing with the Jewish leadership would have been greatly degraded which is notably consistent with indications in apocryphal literature that Jewish leaders were angry with Joseph and summoned him before the council. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 92 (1958)]  If Joseph was a follower of Jesus and made these kinds of sacrifices for Jesus, it seems likely Joseph would have considered it an honor to have Jesus buried in his tomb and wouldn’t have had a motive to move Jesus’ body. Nevertheless, even assuming Joseph had a reason to move the body, if he was a friend and/or follower of Jesus, he would have quickly told followers of Jesus where the burial site was so the site could be venerated.  [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs 93-94 (1958)].

On the other hand, if Joseph was not a Christ-follower and remained loyal to the Jewish leadership, he still had no motive for moving Jesus’ body.  Because Jesus had said, “After three days I am to rise again” (Matt 12:39-49; John 2:19), the Jewish leaders were concerned Jesus’ disciples would try to steal his body and go about claiming Jesus had risen from the dead which is the reason the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked him to have the tomb guarded (Matt. 27:62-66).  If Joseph’s loyalties remained with the Jewish leadership, it seems certain he would have ensured Jesus’ body remained secured in the sealed tomb far longer than just 2-3 days after the crucifixion.  Furthermore, if Joseph moved the body, when the disciples began proclaiming Jesus had risen from the dead and made that claim a foundational doctrine of the Christian faith, Joseph and the other Jewish leaders would have quickly publicized where the body had been moved to in order to discredit the claims of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645-646 (1999)].

Rebuttal Point No. 2: Joseph of Arimathea Didn’t Have Time to Move the Body Before the Empty Tomb was Discovered

As a member of “the Council”, i.e., the Sanhedrin (see, Luke 23:50-56), Joseph of Arimathea was undoubtedly a devout Jew.   According to three of the gospels (Mark 15:42-46, Luke 23:50-54, John 19:38-42), Joseph offered his tomb for Jesus’ burial because it was close by and the Sabbath (which started at sundown) was quickly approaching.  The Jewish law further required bodies of executed men be buried by sundown on the same day they died (Deut. 21:22-23).  If Joseph temporarily offered his tomb for Jesus’ body out of reverent respect for the law, it seems very unlikely Joseph would have violated the law by removing the body on the Sabbath (sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday).

The only time Joseph could have moved Jesus’ body without violating Sabbath laws was on Saturday night or Sunday morning before dawn when the women arrived at the tomb. However, it is very unlikely Joseph would have insisted on moving the body on Saturday night when it was dark.  If Joseph did move the body Saturday night, he would have needed the help of others to get past the guards, remove the Roman seal, move the 1 to 2 ton stone that blocked the opening to the tomb, take off the grave clothes that were left behind in the grave (which John 19:39 says were covered with 75-100 lbs. of burial spices) and carry the body to its new burial site. And, all of this would have had to be done with light provided by torches. Given all that was entailed in moving Jesus’ body, it would have made much more sense for Joseph to wait until after sunrise on Sunday morning (or even some later time) to move the body, if that is what he intended to do.

Further, given the number of people who would have had to help Joseph move the body and/or the number of people who would have heard the commotion at the tomb site or seen the torches needed to move the body at night, word would have gotten out that Jesus’ body had been moved to a new resting place and Jesus’ followers would have quickly gone to the new burial site to venerate it. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 646 (1999); Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 90 (1958)] Most certainly, the news that Joseph moved Jesus’ body would have come to the attention of the Jewish leaders who would have publicized the new burial location to refute the claims of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs. 94, 112 (1958)]

Although some skeptics suggest Joseph may have moved Jesus’ body before dawn to avoid dangerous crowds, there is no historical evidence of any dangerous crowds congregating around the tomb; rather, the historical evidence is that after Jesus was arrested, Jesus’ followers fled and went into hiding (Matt. 26:56, John 20:19).  [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 91 (1958)]  Even assuming arguendo Joseph was worried about dangerous crowds, it would have made more sense for him to have waited until the crowds dispersed before moving the body since there isn’t any reason the body had to be moved so soon after burial. [Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 91 (1958)]  For example, because it was Jewish custom to visit a loved one’s tomb about a year after burial to collect the bones and place them in an ossuary, Joseph could have waited until that time to move Jesus’ body to a new resting place. [See, J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, pg. 166 (1987)]

Rebuttal Point No. 3: If Joseph of Araimathea Moved Jesus’ Body, Jesus’ New Burial Site Would Have Been Venerated

Even though it was common practice in that day to venerate the tombs of respected political and religious leaders, the historical record contains no hint that anytomb was ever venerated for Jesus.  Whether Joseph of Arimathea was a friend or enemy of Jesus, if he moved the body, he would have revealed the location of Jesus’ new burial site and the new burial site would have been venerated by the thousands of people who became Christians (see, Acts 2:41-47).

If Joseph was a friend of Jesus, he would have wanted Jesus’ followers to know where Jesus’ body had been moved so they could visit the new burial site and venerate it.  On the other hand, if Joseph remained loyal to the Jewish leadership, he and the other Jewish leaders would have quickly publicized the location of Jesus’ new burial site to discredit the claims of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead (see, e.g., Acts 2:22-24, 32).

Once the Jewish leaders publicized the new location of Jesus’ burial site, it would have been venerated by Jesus’ followers who were growing in numbers and in passion.  However, instead of pointing to a new burial site, the Jewish leaders went to great lengths to tell people all over Jerusalem and the surrounding area Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body. According to the writings of Justin Martyr, Jerusalem authorities dispatched representatives throughout the Mediterranean to explain Jesus’ followers had stolen Jesus’ body. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 232 (1993)]   [For a list of reasons why the claim that Jesus’ disciples stole his body was, and still is, an untenable claim, go here]

Rebuttal Point No. 4: The Guards Would Have Prevented Joseph from Removing Jesus’ Body from the Tomb

As reported in Matthew 27:62-65, after Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate and reminded him Jesus (who they referred to as the “deceiver”) had said, “After three days I am to rise again.” (See, Matt 12:39-49; John 2:19). The Jewish leaders then asked Pilate to “give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, lest the disciples come and steal him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’”  Pilateresponded, “You have a guard, make it as secure as you know how.”

As noted below, some scholars contend Pilate’s statement, “You have a guard” was an order dispatching a Roman guard to secure the tomb; other scholars maintain Pilate was telling the Jewish leaders to use their own guard (the temple guard) to secure the tomb:

Roman Guard Theory: Josh McDowell points to the following facts in support of the theory the term “guard” (koustodia in Greek) was used by Matthew to refer to a Roman guard:

    • The phrase interpreted, “You have a guard” is in the present imperative and should be interpreted: ‘Have a guard (koustodia).’” [Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 227 (1993) citing to Greek scholar A.T. Robertson] The word koustodia was used to refer to the guard unit of a Roman Legion which consisted of four (4) to sixteen (16) highly trained soldiers who slept in four hour shifts. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 228 (1993)] Similarly, William Lane Craig states the word Matthew used to refer to the guards was a word often used to refer to Roman soldiers, not temple officers. [See, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pg. 43 (1998)] That the guard consisted of multiple men is supported by Matthew 28:11 which states that “some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.”
    • Matthew reported the Jewish leaders bribed the guards into saying the body had been stolen (Matt. 28:12-15), however, if the guard was a temple guard, it wouldn’t have been necessary for the Jewish leaders to bribe them because they would have done whatever the Jewish leaders said to do.
    • Matthew 27:66 reports the chief priests and pharisees “went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.” A seal was set by stretching a cord across the stone and fastening it at both ends with sealing clay stamped with the official signet of the Roman governor. Anyone breaking the seal would have incurred the wrath of Roman law. As explained by A.T. Robertson and Vegitius (a military historian), a seal could only be placed on the stone in the presence of a Roman guard. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 230 (1993)]
      Exemplar Roman Seal (more)

      EXEMPLAR ROMAN SEAL (MORE)

Temple Guard Theory: Since Matthew states the guards reported to the Jewish authorities, it seems likely they were temple guards because Roman guards would have reported to Pilate, not the Jewish authorities. [See, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pgs. 42-43 (1998)]However, it should be noted that according to John, when Jesus was being taken into custody by the Jewish authorities, it was a Roman centurion leading a group of Roman soldiers who actually arrested Jesus. So, there is precedence for Roman soldiers reporting to Jewish authorities. [See, Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with William Lane Craig, Ph.D., D.Th.”, pgs. 42-43 (1998)] Even if Matthew was referring to a temple guard instead of a Roman guard, a temple guard consisted of ten Levites who were well-trained guards. Temple guards were not permitted to sit down or lean against anything while on duty and any guard found sleeping on the job was beaten and burned with his own clothes. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 227 (1993)]

Whether a Roman Guard or a Temple Guard was sent to secure Jesus’ tomb, those who propose Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body must provide a reasonable historical explanation of how Joseph could have broken the Roman seal, moved the 1 to 2 ton stone that blocked the opening to the tomb, removed all the graveclothes from Jesus’ body and then removed the body from the tomb without alerting the guards.

AN EXAMPLE OF THE DISC-SHAPED STONES USED TO SECURE ENTRANCES TO TOMBS IN JESUS’ DAY

If for some reason the guards let Joseph of Arimathea into the tomb to move Jesus’ body, the guards would have reported that fact to the Roman and Jewish leaders who would have then pointed people to Jesus’ new tomb to discredit the claims of Jesus’ disciples that he had risen from the dead.

Rebuttal Point No. 5: If Joseph Moved Jesus’ Body, He Wouldn’t Have Left the Grave Clothes Behind

According to John 20:3-7, when John the disciple got to the tomb he looked in the tomb and “saw the linen wrappings lying there.” Shortly thereafter, Peter akaCephas arrived and went inside the tomb to see ” the linen wrappings lying there and the face-cloth, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.”

If Joseph of Arimathea moved the body, it seems rather unlikely he would have removed the linen grave clothes Jesus’ body had been wrapped in (which John 19:39  says were covered with about 75 lbs of burial spices) or taken the face-cloth off and folded it before leaving it behind (see, John 20:3-7).  It seems much more likely Joseph would have moved Jesus’ body to its new burial site without removing the burial linens or face-cloth.

Rebuttal Point No. 6: If  Joseph Moved Jesus’ Body, James and Paul Would Have Suspected it and Would Have Never Converted to Christianity

James (later known as James the Just) was Jesus’ half-brother and a skeptic during the time of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 7:1-10). Paul fka Saul was a Pharisee who hunted down Christians to arrest and persecute them.

If there was a reasonable suspicion Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin) had moved Jesus’ body, James and Paul would have believed that explanation instead of believing Jesus had been raised from the dead. Further, if at some point after James and Paul converted to Christianity they learned Joseph had moved Jesus’ body, they would have abandoned the Christian faith which was centrally founded on Jesus’ resurrection. However, not only did James and Paul never recant their belief in the resurrection, they continued to serve as important church leaders and eventually died as martyrs. [See, Gary Habermas, The ApologeticsStudy Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pg. 1621 (2007); Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 7: The Explanation Joseph Moved Jesus’ Body Doesn’t Explain Jesus’ Post-Crucifixion Appearances

As set forth in the article entitled “The Resurrection Best Explains Jesus’ After-Death Appearances to Multiple Eye Witnesses – Introductory Summary (here), the resurrected Jesus appeared to over 500 people, on twelve separate occasions, over a forty day period (except for his appearance to Paul) and to at least two skeptics, James the Just and Paul fka Saul. [For a complete index of the witnesses with referenced notations of when each witness saw Jesus and what they observed, go here.]

The explanation that Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body doesn’t explain why so many people saw Jesus alive after he died on the cross and was buried in the tomb. Even James the Just and Paul fka Saul (both of whom were skeptics at the time) saw the resurrected Jesus. [See, Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pgs. 1621-1622 (2007)] If Joseph moved Jesus’ body, Jesus was still dead and his body was somewhere. Accordingly, those who attempt to explain away the empty tomb by proposing Joseph moved Jesus’ body must explain the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]. Although skeptics have attempted to provide a reasonable alternative explanation for the eyewitness accounts of Jesus being seen alive, Christian apologists steadfastly maintain none of the alternative explanations are adequate much less rationally compelling (more>>).

Conclusion

The principle of Occam’s razor, which states simple explanations are preferable to more complex explanations, only states one should not multiply causes beyond necessity. Therefore, Occam’s razor can only be relied on to exclude the need for a supernatural explanation if a sufficient natural explanation can be offered (more>>).

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the rebuttal points set forth above weigh against the explanation Jesus’ tomb was found empty because Joseph of Arimatheamoved Jesus’ body out of the tomb. The other alternative explanations skeptics have offered to explain away the empty tomb are similarly inadequate (more>>).Consequently, Christian apologists maintain it is reasonable to look beyond the alternative explanations offered by skeptics for an explanation that adequately explains all of the historical evidence, including the explanation that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead.

In sum, Christian apologists candidly concede if God does not exist, Jesus was not resurrected from the dead. Nevertheless, Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and the following seven independent lines of evidence reasonably establish God did supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead:

  1. The resurrection best explains the historical evidence of Jesus being seen alive in a resurrected body on at least twelve (12) separate occasions by more than 500 witnesses, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul) (here>>)
  2. The resurrection best explains why the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty within days of his crucifixion and burial (here>>)
  3. The resurrection best explains why Jesus’ disciples were transformed from fearful fleers to faithful followers who endured great persecution and became martyrs for their faith (here>>)
  4. The resurrection best explains why even Jewish leaders and skeptics converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified, even though Christianity was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection
  5. The resurrection best explains why there is no evidence any site was ever venerated as Jesus’ burial site even though it was common practice to venerate the burial sites of religious and political leaders
  6. The resurrection best explains why the early Church centered its teachings and practices around a supernatural event like Jesus’ resurrection instead of something less controversial like Jesus’ moral teachings
  7. The resurrection best explains the sudden rise and expansion of Christianity so soon after Jesus death even though he had been crucified by the Romans as a political traitor and declared a religious heretic by the Jewish religious leaders

Following a two day debate over the evidence of the resurrection between Dr. Gary Habermas and well-known skeptic, Dr. Anthony Flew, a panel of five philosophers from American universities (including the University of Virginia, James Madison University and the University of Pittsburgh) voted 4 to 1 in favor of the case for the resurrection, with 1 judge voting the debate was a draw. After listening to both sides of the debate, one of the judges concluded the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was “strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead.” [Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)]. Another of the judges stated:

Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Dr. Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.

[Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)] Because there are good reasons to believe God exists and that he supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists insist it is not only unfair for skeptics to claim Christians are intellectual simpletons for believing in Jesus’ resurrection but it is intellectually dishonest to write off the resurrection as mere foolishness.

For information on how to know God personally, go here.

© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson

Published:  Nov. 6, 2012 / Last Updated:  Feb. 25, 2013

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QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE

John F. Ankerberg and John Weldon, Ready With an Answer(Harvest House Publishers, 1997)

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics(Crossway; 3rd Edition, 2008)

Norman L. Geisler, BAKER ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS(Baker Books, 1999)

Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection: Updated Edition(Wipf & Stock Publishers; Updated Edition, 2004)

Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe“Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?” pg. 1621 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)

Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics(IVP Academic; 1St Edition, 1994)

Josh McDowell (compiled by Bill Wilson), A Ready Defense The Best Of Josh Mcdowell(Thomas Nelson, 1992)

Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?(Zondervan,1958)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (Zondervan, 2004)

IMAGE CREDITS & LICENSING

Slideshow Photo:  Photograph by Wolfgang Sauber of an 1879 stained glass window by Alexander Gibbs & Co. which shows Joseph of Arimathea with Christ’s body.  The stained glass window is located in St. Collen’s parish church in Northern Wales.  The image was downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

Roman Seal: This photograph is an example of a Roman seal. The image was provided to www.wikimedia.org by “portableantiquities”. Wikimedia states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Photograph of a Tomb: Photographer unknown.

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