Did the Apostles steal the body?

TESTIMONY: Matthew 27:62-66

The next day, the one following the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’ Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day, lest his disciples come and steal him and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ This last imposture would be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, “The guard is yours; go secure it as best you can.” So they went and secured the tomb by fixing a seal to the stone and setting the guard.

COMMENT

Matthew records how the chief priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to take measures to prevent Jesus’ followers from perpetrating a fraud. They feared that Jesus’ body would be stolen and then his disciples would pretend he had risen from the dead. Pilate allowed them to seal and secure the tomb themselves, and so they did.

HOSTILE WITNESS

In his 1965 best-seller The Passover Plot, Hugh Schonfeld popularized what is called the “Swoon Theory,” which teaches that Christ’s resurrection was not a resurrection at all, but a resuscitation. According to this theory, Jesus never died—he was only wounded and unconscious. After spending time in the tomb, he revived, unwrapped his burial cloths, rolled back the stone, and appeared to the apostles (who misinterpreted his reappearance as a resurrection).

Our hostile witnesses’ actions as described in Matthew 27:62-66, above, speak against this theory. They knew that Jesus was dead. Their concern was keeping Jesus’ followers out of the tomb, not keeping him in.

In addition to giving counter-testimony to the Swoon Theory, our hostile witnesses provide indirect evidence in another dispute: whether the prodigies described in Matthew 27:51-54 as having occurred during Christ’s crucifixion actually happened.

To settle that dispute, let’s start with this: As far as we can tell, there was no widespread expectation that Jesus would rise on the third day. The Jews generally understood that the Messiah would “[remain] forever” (John 12:34), and that the only resurrection which would take place would be at the end of time. This belief was so widespread and ingrained that even after Jesus repeatedly told His own disciples that He would rise, they failed to comprehend it (Mark 9:10; Luke 18:31-34; John 2:22, 13:7). Christ’s death on the cross, then, should have ended any hope that He was the Messiah, just as happened with the dozen or so pseudo-messiahs after their deaths.

Given all this, did the Jewish leaders really have any reason to fear that Jesus’ disciples, who were in hiding, could convince the populace that He rose from the dead? Yet the Jewish leaders feared exactly that, and took measures to prevent it. Why? What could have possibly have happened after the crucifixion to convince the very people who jeered at Jesus on the cross that He might rise from the dead after all?

Matthew’s account of prodigies when Christ died (darkness at noon, earthquake, open tombs, temple veil torn, etc.) just might provide the answer. Could it be that whatever expectations that were dashed when Jesus died were brought to life again by these strange occurrences (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39)? If these things did occur, the crowd that witnessed them would have been moved to see that Jesus was something more than just a charismatic teacher or even a prophet, and their expectations would have been raised that perhaps He would rise again as He claimed. This would also explain our hostile witnesses’ otherwise unfounded fear that Christ’s disciples could convince the populace that He did rise. Hence the measures taken by the Jewish leaders to ensure that Christ’s disciples couldn’t tamper with His body.

THE EMPTY TOMB

TESTIMONY: Matthew 28:12-15

They assembled with the elders and took counsel; then they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him while we were asleep.’ And if this gets to the ears of the governor, we will satisfy [him] and keep you out of trouble.” The soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present [day].

COMMENT

The directions given to the guards were both necessary and self-contradictory. The well-trained, fully-armed detachment could easily have fended off the disciples had they attempted to steal Christ’s body. The only way the disciples could have succeeded would have been to steal the body while the guards were asleep. But this is highly unlikely. After all, this wasn’t the first time Roman soldiers had set up a watch. Surely they took precautions to ensure that someone was always awake and on duty. Even if they all did fall asleep, it beggars belief that the disciples could have broken the seal and rolled a large stone away from its entrance without waking anyone

HOSTILE WITNESS

Our hostile witnesses affirm two very important facts. First, the tomb really was empty. Obviously, they wouldn’t have needed to bribe the guards if Jesus’ body remained in the tomb. Second, they provide what appears to be the earliest official explanation by nonbelievers of the empty tomb: The disciples stole the body.

The report that the disciples had stolen the body in order to perpetrate a fraud could have made it up the Roman chain of command; our hostile witnesses seem to have anticipated this when they offered to bribe not only the guards, but if necessary the guards’ superiors. As we will see later, there is evidence that such a report did make its way to the ear of the emperor, provoking an official rescript to prohibit the removal of dead bodies from tomb with ill intent.”

Love, He is Risen!!! Praise Him!!!
Matthew

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