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Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., examines four more alternative views that attempt to explain away the Resurrection of Jesus.
We have already examined the importance of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and we have surveyed the “infallible proofs” and other evidences for the event, including the minimal facts accepted by the vast majority of scholars who have published on the subject in the past four decades.
In the past two articles we offered critiques of skeptical and critical responses to the Resurrection. We saw that the skeptical alternative theories (mistaken identity, legend, and copycat) cannot stand up to scrutiny and essentially ignore the evidence altogether. The critical theories covered in the most recent article (hallucinations and visions) at least make an effort to deal with the evidence but fall woefully short of providing an adequate explanation for the facts. In today’s article we will examine four more alternative views and see that they also fail miserably.
Rather than specifically challenging the Resurrection accounts in Scripture, some have disputed the burial accounts of Jesus. This move essentially dodges the question of whether Jesus was raised in a glorified body. John Dominic Crossan, cofounder of the Jesus Seminar, has asserted that since Jesus was crucified His body would have either been left on the Cross to be torn apart by wild beasts or buried in a shallow grave and devoured by dogs. Regarding Christ’s body Crossan wrote, “By Easter Sunday morning, those who cared did not know where it was, and those who knew did not care. Why should even the soldiers themselves remember the death and disposal of a nobody?”1
Crossan’s proposal is fraught with problems. First, it is an argument from silence as he does not have a single ancient source to support his position. Citing what he believed normally happened to crucifixion victims does not guarantee that Jesus received the same treatment. What Crossan does cite are occasions when the bodies of crucifixion victims were left upon their crosses as a warning to all who might cross Rome. However, he does not acknowledge that these instances usually occurred in “times of acute crisis, when Roman military officers were being called in to stabilize situations which had gotten out of control.”2 Rome certainly had the prerogative to leave bodies on crosses, but they often allowed them to be buried.3
Second, contrary to Crossan’s demeaning comment, Jesus was not a “nobody.” His preaching and working of miracles had drawn the attention of thousands throughout Israel, including the Jewish authorities, who were quite interested in making sure His dead body was securely buried (Matthew 27:62–66).
Third, His death had a profound effect on the soldiers at the Cross who proclaimed, “
Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39). While Crossan would dismiss this statement, he cannot so lightly write off the evidence that Jesus was indeed buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (a rich man and member of the Jewish Council) since he accepts that the historical evidence shows that Jesus died by crucifixion. Many of these same documents assert that Jesus was buried in Joseph’s tomb, and no contrary reports have been found. The earliest mention of Christ’s burial is found in 1 Corinthians 15:4 and each of the four Gospels confirms that He was buried in Joseph’s tomb. This argument perfectly illustrates Crossan’s tendency to pick and choose which parts of Scripture he wants to believe and which he willfully rejects.4
Fourth, one of the historian’s strongest criteria for accepting a testimony as legitimate is the existence of enemy attestation. That is, do one’s enemies admit to the events in question? In this case, the Jewish authorities are said to have bribed Roman soldiers to report that Christ’s disciples stole the body. It’s true that Matthew is the only biblical writer to mention this idea, but it was still being taught for the next two centuries. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin Martyr (AD 100–165) spoke of this teaching being pushed in his day.
… yet you not only have not repented, after you learned that He rose from the dead, but, as I said before, you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilæan deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven.5
Several decades later, Tertullian (AD 160–225) acknowledged that this lie was still being used in his day.6
Crossan’s position has no historical support, and he ignores any evidence contrary to his position. Yet there are strong historical reasons for believing Jesus was indeed buried in Joseph’s tomb. Furthermore, this idea must depend upon other unreasonable scenarios to account for Christ’s appearances to over 500 people. As such, the idea that dogs or other wild animals ate the Lord’s body is without any merit.
An anti-Christian document called Toledoth Jesu proposed that Jesus was initially buried in Joseph’s tomb. But when a gardener named Juda heard about the disciples’ plans to steal the body of Jesus, he removed the body from the tomb and buried it in another grave. He informed the Jewish leaders and sold the body to them for 30 pieces of silver. Christ’s body was then dragged through the streets of Jerusalem.7
This document would be somewhat disconcerting to many Christians had it been from the first century, but no scholar places its source material any earlier than the fourth century, and it probably was not penned until the tenth century. Jewish scholars have largely rejected this book as well because its contents are highly offensive and they have traditionally taught a different view. And like the other views critiqued in this article, it does not provide any explanation for the appearances of the risen Lord to the disciples, James, and Paul.
Atheist Richard Carrier has promoted several alternatives to the Resurrection, including the idea that the body of Jesus was stolen from the tomb. He hastens to add that his essay “demonstrates the plausibility (but by no means the certainty) of the hypothesis that the body of Jesus was stolen.”8 Carrier does not really push for a specific culprit in such a theft. Essentially, he raises one argument from silence after another in an effort to claim that the hypothesis is feasible. He even goes so far as suggesting that the Resurrection account in Matthew is simply a “literary remodeling” of Daniel in the lion’s den.9
Besides the fact that not one shred of historical evidence exists for Carrier’s proposal, there are other difficulties to overcome. Did anyone have a motive to steal the body? As we’ll see in the next section, the disciples cannot be charged with this theft. The Jewish and Roman leaders certainly would not have stolen the body without later unveiling it to stifle Christian preaching, nor did any of them ever make such a claim. Carrier’s idea is that occultists would have been interested in taking the skull of a holy man to perform their rituals. However, this practice is not known to have existed in Judea, and such thieves would not have taken the time to unwrap the body from the grave cloths10 and steal the entire body when all they allegedly wanted was a small part of it.11
Another difficulty with the theft idea is that the tomb was guarded by soldiers, so a thief would need to somehow perform his larceny without being noticed by people who were watching to make sure no one stole the body. Carrier appeals to Matthew 27:62 to point out that the guard was not set until the day after Jesus was buried, so “the whole night and part of the morning would still have been available for the unguarded body to be stolen.”12 While this is accurate, it is highly improbable that the soldiers who “
went and made the tomb secure [and sealed] the stone” (Matthew 27:66) would not have made sure the body was still in place—that is why they were specifically assigned to the tomb.
Carrier’s hypothesis depends upon an incredibly inept group of soldiers. Matthew reports that after Jesus appeared to the women, the soldiers went back into Jerusalem and reported to the chief priests “
all the things that had happened” (Matthew 28:11)—the tomb was now empty. But this raises some obvious questions. If the theft had occurred prior to the guards being stationed at the tomb, why was the massive stone now rolled away? The stone weighed an estimated three–four thousand pounds and was rolled down a slope by Joseph and Nicodemus to seal the tomb after they placed the body of Jesus inside (John 19:38–42).13 Furthermore, were the soldiers so incompetent that they allowed someone to sneak past them and break in? Did the soldiers suddenly decide to break the emperor’s seal and double-check to see if Christ’s body was still in the tomb? No, when they secured the tomb they would have certainly made sure the body was present. And even if they had not, there is no legitimate way (other than the biblical reason) to explain why the tomb was opened during their watch.
Even if we were to grant this preposterous scenario any credibility, it would only explain why the tomb was empty. The stolen body hypothesis must rely upon other improbable or impossible views, such as the mass hallucination or vision theories, to explain the eyewitness testimony of the disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, as well as the conversions of James and Paul. They must also provide an adequate explanation as to why the disciples were suddenly transformed into fearless proclaimers of the gospel. But these skeptics continue to promote far-reaching hypotheses with no historical support in their efforts to justify their refusal to admit the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection.
As mentioned previously, Justin Martyr and Tertullian reported that a common Jewish argument against the Resurrection was that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and then proclaimed He had risen from the dead. The Gospel of Matthew records this claim as well.
Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.” (Matthew 28:11–15)
Before highlighting the problems with this hypothesis, we need to identify the soldiers at the tomb. Were they part of the Jewish temple guard or were they Roman soldiers? The confusion on this point stems from Pilate’s response to the request for the sealing of the tomb. He said to the chief priests and Pharisees, “
You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how” (Matthew 27:65). At first glance, this would seem to indicate Jewish guards, however, the words here are “grammatically ambiguous. They could be translated as a command, have a guard, making it probable that Pilate was giving the Jews temporary use of a group of Roman soldiers, or as a statement, you have a guard, making it more likely that he was telling the Jews to use their own temple police.”14 So which view is correct?
David MacLeod, in agreement with the majority of commentators, pointed out four reasons for taking the Greek word for “guard” in these verses (κουστωδὶα, koustōdia) as a reference to Roman soldiers.
That it was Roman soldiers and not temple police who guarded the tomb is more likely for four reasons: First, they would not have needed Pilate’s permission to use the temple police. Second, in [Matthew] 28:12 the soldiers are identified with the same word (στρατιώτης) used in [Matthew] 27:27, where the soldiers are undoubtedly Roman. Third, [Matthew] chapter 28 (v. 14) implies that the soldiers are answerable to Pilate. Fourth, the Greek can be understood to mean this.15
Let’s look now at the multiple problems with the claim that the disciples stole the body. First, why would these men even attempt such a feat? They were on the run or in hiding (Mark 14:50) and did not expect Jesus to rise from the dead, “
for as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9; cf. Matthew 16:21–22; Luke 24:6–8; John 2:22). Although Jesus had told them on multiple occasions that He would die and rise again, the disciples did not understand His words because they, like their fellow Jews in those days, expected the Messiah to usher in an unending Jewish political kingdom. That the Messiah would die was far from their expectations. So when Jesus was crucified, the disciples were distraught and fearful.
Second, if the disciples were guilty of stealing the body of Jesus, why did they suddenly become fearless gospel preachers? If they knew their message was a sham, why would they be willing to endure continual persecution, imprisonments, and eventually martyrdom? As explained in the third article in the series, liars don’t make good martyrs. Some people may be willing to die for a lie, but only if they believe it to be true. However, to think that a group of men, with nothing to gain and likely everything to lose from an earthly perspective, would be willing to suffer and die for what they knew to be false strains credulity to the breaking point.
Third, how would a group of fishermen, a tax collector, and other members of the general public overpower or sneak past highly trained soldiers? A couple of possible answers come to mind. Like Carrier proposed, they stole the body before the guard was set the day after the Crucifixion. But this raises the exact same objections mentioned above and seriously calls into question the competency of a koustōdia of Roman soldiers.
Fourth, the other possible answer to the above question is precisely what the Jewish leaders bribed the soldiers to say: “
His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept” (Matthew 28:13). Since the guards were sleeping, the disciples just needed to be very quiet as they stole the body. Besides the fact that Roman soldiers would either be severely beaten or killed for falling asleep on the job,16 we would have to assume that the disciples somehow quietly broke the Roman seal and silently rolled a massive stone away from the mouth of the tomb. Next, we must assume that the disciples took enough time in the tomb to unwrap the Lord’s body and fold the face cloth (John 20:7). Then they must have carried the body out of the tomb without waking a single soldier.
Of course this entire scenario is absurd, but it gets worse (or better if you are a Christian). Keep in mind that this was the leading view of unbelievers in those days. It was the best explanation Christ’s enemies could come up with. “
His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept” (Matthew 28:13). Read it again. Did you catch the glaring contradiction in this theory? How would sleeping soldiers know who stole the body if their eyes were shut? The best skeptical view of the day refutes itself.
As Joseph informed his brothers, God often uses for good what men intend for evil (Genesis 50:20). Ironically, as David Turner noted, the posting and bribing of the Roman soldiers turned them into evangelists for the risen Savior.
In this passage the soldiers who were guarding Jesus’ tomb became evangelists of Jesus’ resurrection! Previously the leaders purported to need guards for fear that a resurrection hoax might occur, but those very guards later reported that a genuine resurrection had occurred. The leaders had outsmarted themselves: the very guards they secured to prevent a potential problem could not testify to an actual problem. So a “cover up” had to be concocted, and money must change hands to ensure that everyone had their story straight.17
Each of these four alternative beliefs proposed by critics and skeptics to explain away the Resurrection of Jesus propose that something happened to the body of Jesus before the tomb was found empty on that first Easter morning. Some skeptics have proposed even more outlandish tales, such as the idea that aliens stole the body of Jesus, but such views go beyond special pleading and suffer from many of the same objections to these four views.
While each of these positions admits the first (Jesus was crucified) and the last (the tomb was empty) of the minimal facts, none of them can account for the appearances of the risen Savior to more than 500 people, including the skeptics James and Paul. As such, these highly improbable or impossible hypotheses must depend upon other implausible views, such as the hallucination or vision ideas. Thus, the moved body scenarios become weaker and weaker and eventually collapse under the weight of their own inadequacies and the eyewitness testimonies preserved in God’s infallible Scripture.
Once again we see that the objections to the Resurrection are not based on the evidence. Instead, they are founded upon a determined effort to explain away what any open and honest investigator of the details would readily conclude: Jesus rose from the dead. Because the implications of this historical event completely destroy anti-Christian belief systems, the critics and skeptics have chosen to cling to ridiculous, baseless, and often self-contradictory proposals so they can continue in their rebellion against the Creator. While claiming to be rational, the skeptics have opted for irrational ideas to justify their unbelief. To believe in the resurrected Christ is a very reasonable faith. To deny the Resurrection, one must either stick his head in the sand or take a blind leap into the dark.
Thankfully, God is merciful and “
so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; cf. Romans 5:8). Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, but He did not stay in the grave. He gloriously rose from the dead, and He offers forgiveness and eternal life with Him to all who turn from their sins and believe upon Him. He is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), and the only one who can save us from God’s coming wrath (Acts 4:12; Romans 5:9–10). Would you call on His name today?
If you are already a Christian, are you actively sharing the good news of the crucified, buried, and resurrected Savior with others? The early Christians boldly proclaimed the truth of the Resurrection wherever they went. Knowing that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, what excuse do we have to do anything less than our forefathers of the faith did?
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