6th Century Limestone Inscription Warning Against Grave Robbery (“Captmondo” /  CC-BY-SA-3.0  more)

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

In support of the proposition that God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead, one of the lines of evidence Christian apologists point to is 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 Jesus’ disciples stole Jesus’ body out of the tomb. As set forth in this article, Christian apologists maintain the theory that the disciples stole Jesus’ body is untenable and by no means rationally compelling.

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

The historical record establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus’ tomb was found empty just days after his crucifixion and burial. The empty tomb was attested to by several witnesses, was publicly addressed in speeches given in Jerusalem where the events took place, 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 Jesus’ Disciples Stole His Body?

When confronted with the historical evidence of the empty tomb, some skeptics claim the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was because Jesus’ disciples stole his body out of the tomb.  In fact, as reported in Matthew 28:12-15, this was the explanation originally offered by the Jewish leaders :

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.

Christian apologists raise the following points in rebuttal to the allegation that the reason Jesus’ tomb was found empty was because Jesus’ disciples stole his body out of the tomb:

Rebuttal Point No. 1: Most Secular Scholars Have Given Up on the Theory that Jesus’ Disciples Stole His Body

As set forth in this article, skeptics who attempt to make the case that Jesus’ tomb was found empty because Jesus’ disciples stole his body out of the tomb run into several very difficult obstacles; consequently, almost all scholars have long since abandoned the theory:

So far as I know, there is not a single writer whose work is of critical value today who holds that there is even a case for discussion.Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg.88 (1958)

Rebuttal Point No. 2: The Disciples Didn’t Have a Motive for Stealing Jesus’ Body

Immediately following Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, the disciples exhibited great fear of being associated with Jesus and they had no motive for stealing Jesus’ body.

The disciples were understandably afraid of the Roman and Jewish leaders and fled as soon as Jesus was arrested (Matt. 26:56). Although Peter followed Jesus at a distance (Mark 14:54, Luke 22:54), while Jesus was on trial, Peter denied even knowing Jesus on three separate occasions (Matt. 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62). The disciple John reported that even after he and Peter found the tomb empty and Mary Magdalene reported she had seen the resurrected Jesus, the disciples met behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews”  (John 20:19)  [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pgs. 645, 655 (1999)] Moreover, there is no indication the disciples actually expected Jesus to rise from the dead and Jesus later admonished them for their disbelief (Mark 14:16). [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 112 (1997)]

More problematic for the theory that the disciples stole Jesus’ body is that it fails to explain the disciples’ sincerely held belief they had seen the resurrected Jesus and fails to explain why every one of the disciples maintained that belief throughout their lifetimes, despite being subjected to ongoing persecution. Ten of the 11 original disciples reportedly died as martyrs for the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The disciples simply had no motive for stealing Jesus’ body; they had nothing to gain. [See, Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pg. 1621 (2007)].

Rebuttal Point No. 3: There is No Indication the Disciples Were the Type of Men to Engage in Grave Robbery and Blasphemous Fraud

The historical record concerning the disciples’ moral character doesn’t correspond to them being grave robbers or con artists. Rather, the historical evidence is that the disciples were hardworking, honest men who lived in accordance with high moral principles. [See Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)] However, if the disciples stole Jesus’ body, they certainly new the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection was a fraud; and, if this is true, then the disciples fraudulently preached to thousands of people on multiple occasions that God had raised Jesus from the dead and thereby committed overt blasphemy by including God in their deception. [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 112 (1997)]

Rebuttal Point No. 4: The Disciples Wouldn’t Have Endured Torture, Imprisonment and/or Martyrdom for a Known Lie

All remaining 11 original disciples and many other followers were imprisoned and endured great persecution for spreading the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection. Ten of the remaining 11 original disciples died as martyrs. If the disciples stole Jesus’ body, they knew Jesus was not who he claimed to be and knew he had not risen from the dead. Why would even one of them have chosen to endure persecution and/or die as a martyr for a known lie. “Nothing proves sincerity like martyrdom.” [Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 185 (1994)] Although some people may martyr themselves for something they think is true but is really false, people do not die for something they know is false. [See, Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pg. 1621 (2007)] If the disciples stole the body, it seems very likely that at least one of them would have recanted belief in Jesus’ resurrection, especially when faced with great persecution and martyrdom (2 Cor. 11:22-23, Heb. 11:36-40).  [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)] Yet, in this case, 10 of the remaining 11 original disciples died as martyrs for their belief in Jesus and the eleventh disciple (John the disciple) lived in exile on the Isle of Patmos.

Rebuttal Point No. 5: The Women Disciples Who Went to the Tomb Expected Jesus’ Body to be in the Tomb

The women who went to the tomb early Sunday morning were followers of Jesus and shared close relationships with the remaining 11 original men disciples. Mary Magdalene had been a long-time follower of Jesus. Mary, the wife of Cleophas, was the sister of Salome who was the mother of two of the disciples. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 101 (1958)] If the disciples or other close followers of Jesus had stolen the body, it seems likely these women would have known about it. Nevertheless, these women acted as though they sincerely believed Jesus’ body was still in the tomb:

  • The women’s decision to go to the tomb indicates they had no suspicion Jesus’ body had been stolen.
  • Mark states that as the women were on the way to the tomb, they were discussing who would help them roll the stone away from the opening of the tomb (Mark 16:3) which indicates the women believed the body was still in the tomb.
  • The fact the women were carrying burial spices with them (Mark 16:1-2, Luke 24:1) is a further indication they fully expected to find Jesus’ dead body in the tomb.

Rebuttal Point No. 6: The Guards Would Have Prevented the Disciples from Stealing the Body

As stated in Matthew 27:62-65, after Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate and reminded him that Jesus (who they referred to as the “deceiver” or “imposter”) 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.’” Pilate responded, “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 without a bribe.
    • 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)]

      Example of a Roman Seal

      EXAMPLE OF A 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 Temple Guard was sent to secure Jesus’ tomb, any theory which asserts the disciples stole Jesus’ body must provide a reasonable historical explanation of how the disciples moved the 1 to 2 ton stone that blocked the opening to the tomb, broke the seal and removed Jesus’ body from the tomb without alerting the guards.

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

According to the original story concocted by the Pharisees and passed on to the guards who were bribed to perpetuate the story, the disciples stole Jesus’ body after the guards fell asleep. In addition to the problem of explaining a group of guards trained not to fall asleep all fell asleep at the same time, the following question must be answered: “How did the guards see who stole the body if they were asleep?”

Rebuttal Point No. 7: If the Disciples Stole Jesus’ Body, they Wouldn’t Have Left the Grave Clothes Behind or Folded the Head Napkin

John 20:3-7 reports when John the disciple got to the tomb, he looked in the tomb and “saw the linen wrappings lying there.” Shortly thereafter, Peter aka Cephas arrived and went inside the tomb and “beheld 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 any of Jesus’ followers had stolen the body, it seems rather unlikely they would have taken the time to remove the linen grave clothes Jesus’ body had been wrapped in and rolled up the face-cloth that had covered his head (John 20:3-7).

Rebuttal Point No. 8: If the Disciples had Conspired to Steal Jesus’ Body, the Conspiracy Would Have Eventually been Exposed

There is nothing in the historical record to indicate any of the remaining 11 original disciples had what it would have taken to carry out a plot to steal Jesus’ body from a guarded tomb. Nevertheless, even if they had successfully carried out such a conspiracy, sooner or later conspiracies are uncovered, especially when the conspirators are subjected to threats of persecution, torture and/or execution. [See, Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pg. 89 (1958); Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]  In his book Loving God, Chuck Colson (Former Special Counsel to President Nixon) compared the actions of Jesus’ disciples with the men he conspired with as part of the Watergate Cover-up. In spite of ongoing threats, beatings, torture and even martyrdom, not one of Jesus’ disciples ever divulged anyone had been involved in stealing Jesus’ body. Contrarily, those involved in the Watergate Cover-up (who were at the pinnacle of power) gave up the President of the United States to keep from going to prison or to get a reduced sentence. As noted by Colson, giving others up to save oneself is the true nature of humanity. If the disciples stole Jesus’ body or they otherwise knew the resurrection was a lie, at least one of them would have told the truth about their dead leader to save their own lives or the lives of their friends and/or family. [See, Charles Colson, Loving God, pgs. 68-69 (1983)]

Rebuttal Point No. 9: If the Disciples Stole Jesus’ Body, James and Paul Would Have Suspected it and Would Never Have 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. Both of these skeptics were Jews and certainly heard the story being spread around by the Jewish leaders that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body when the guards fell asleep (Matt. 28:11-15). According to the writings of Justin Martyr, Jerusalem authorities had dispatched representatives throughout the Mediterranean to explain Jesus’ followers had stolen Jesus’ body. [See, Josh McDowell & Bill Wilson, A Ready Defense, pg. 232 (1993)] If there was any persuasive evidence the disciples had stolen the body, James and Paul would have believed that evidence instead of believing Jesus had been raised from the dead. Further, if at some point after James and Paul converted to Christianity they learned the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, they would have abandoned the Christian faith. However, not only did James and Paul never recant their belief in the resurrection, they continuously served the role of being important church leaders and died as martyrs. [See, Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pg. 1621 (2007); Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]

Rebuttal Point No. 10: Peter Specifically Denied He or the Other Disciples Had Engaged in Cleverly Devised Tales

Peter aka Cephas specifically denied that he and the other apostles had followed cleverly devised tales; rather, Peter insisted they reporting what they observed as eyewitnesses of Jesus’ majesty (2 Peter 1:16). [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645 (1999)]. In spite of threats, beatings, being arrested and even martyrdom, the apostle Peter never divulged that he or any of the other disciples had been involved in stealing Jesus’ body.

Rebuttal Point No. 11: The Disciples’ Reactions When they Found Out the Tomb was Empty were Inconsistent with them Stealing Jesus’ Body

The reactions of the disciples when they found out Jesus’ tomb was empty was confusion and fear. John 20:9 reports after Peter and John found the tomb was empty they did not yet “understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” John 20:19 reports after Peter aka Cephas and John the disciple found the tomb empty and after Mary Magdalene reported she had seen the resurrected Jesus, the disciples met behind closed doors “for fear of the Jews.” [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 645, 655 (1999)] When the women reported they had seen Jesus alive, the disciples initial reaction was to think the women were talking nonsense (Luke 24:10-12).  Some of the disciples did not believe Jesus had bee resurrected until after they personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes (John 20:25). Thomas didn’t believe Jesus had been resurrected even though the other ten apostles told him Jesus had appeared to them (John 20:19-25). [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 656 (1999)] These are not the reactions one would expect if the disciples had stolen the body.

Rebuttal Point No. 12: The Explanation the Disciples Stole 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), 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 Justand 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 the disciples stole Jesus’ body (even if only a few disciples were involved) 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) claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. [See, Gary Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?”, pgs. 1621-1622 (2007)] If the disciples stole Jesus’ body, Jesus was still dead and his body was somewhere. Accordingly, those who attempt to explain away the empty tomb by proposing the disciples stole Jesus’ body must also 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.

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the rebuttal points set forth above weigh against the explanation that Jesus’ tomb was found empty because the disciples stole Jesus’ body out of the tomb. The other alternative explanations skeptics have offered to explain away Jesus’ 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. 3, 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)

Chuck Colson, Loving God (Zondervan, 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“Tan 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:  This photograph, taken by “Captmondo”, is a photograph of a limestone inscription of a warning to grave-robbers found in Giza and  believed to be from the 6th Century.  Downloaded from www.wikimedia.org which states the image is licensed under licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Roman Seal:  This image is a photograph 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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