It has been argued that one reason for the historicity of Jesus’
resurrection, as opposed to the disciples having stolen the body, was that
the idea of a crucified and subsequently risen savior was foreign to first
century Jewish thought. If I understand the argument correctly, its
strength is in the assumption that the very idea of stealing the body and
inventing a resurrection story wouldn’t have occurred to the disciples,
therefore they wouldn’t carry out the act, therefore we have one less
naturalistic explanation for the empty tomb. In their minds, their
“savior” was dead, that was it – game over. Yet the grounds on which the
Jewish leaders requested a tomb guard was to defend against that very
concern. Doesn’t the fact that the Jewish leaders remembered Jesus’ words
and recognized the threat, lead us to the possibility that the disciples
might entertain the same notion? (a second question below)


Yes and no, but more no than yes. The Jews asked that a guard be put on
the tomb not to guard against the possibility of an actual resurrection,
but to guard against the possibility that the followers of Jesus might
steal his body in order to be able to claim that Jesus was in fact
resurrected. I mention this in my book “Reasons for Belief” The “stolen
body” theory used to explain away the resurrection of Jesus only makes
sense if we allow that the disciples might have stolen his body.

Having said that, the question is whether it is realistic to think that
the Jewish concern was legitimate. Might the disciples have chosen to
steal the body and to use this fait acompli to perpetuate their little
movement? To a worldly, greedy, dishonest corrupt person, such as some of
the Jewish Sanhedrin, this may have seen like a possibility. However, to
the followers of Jesus as we know them, this seems like an outrageously
remote possibility. I go into a lot of detail in RFB, but what we know
about the character of the apostles and about their frame of mind at the
time makes this paranoid idea of the Jewish leaders seem ridiculous. I
agree that the detail in the gospels about what the Jewish leaders did to
see that the tomb was guarded raises a legitimate question, but I believe
the placement of the guard, in the big picture, creates a STRONGER, not a
weaker case for the resurrection. The reason I say this is that even if
(contrary to everything we know about Peter, John et al) the apostles
conceived of a plan to steal the body, the Roman guard placed at the tomb
almost certainly would have caused them to come up with a new plan to
deceive the people. No, this is not a good argument against the
resurreciton of Jesus.

By the way, from the point of view of ancient mythology, the idea of a
resurrection was not unknown. The Greeks and the Persians had such
stories. However, these stories were clearly taken to be mythical. No
one, as far as I know, actually took them literally in the sense that
they believed an actual historical person died and was physically raised.
There is no evidence that the disciples of Jesus expected him to be
resurrected, despite his prophecies to that effect.

Second Question:

It has also been argued it is unreasonable that the disciples, if they had
stolen the body and lied about it, would have persisted in that lie when
others began to die the horrible deaths of martyrs. Yet it seems
completely reasonable that if, unbeknownst to the majority, the body was
stolen by a small number for the purpose of reviving hope, and if , to
their dismay, someone subsequently died because of their lie, then they
would have a strong reason to continue in their silence. Guilt and the
fear of public shame and ridicule have always been some of the strongest
motivators. Under these circumstances, each subsequent tragedy or death
would snowball the motivation to NOT come clean.

One can make this argument. About whom is it being made? Do we have a
name? How did they get past the guards? Most importantly of all, how
do we explain the 500+ eye witnesses to the resurrected Jesus? This is an
interesting argument. The logic is pretty clean, I would have to say, but
it does not solve most of the problems. It is a twist to the “stolen
body” theory which is worth throwing out there in anticipation of what an
skeptic might bring up, but in the final analysis, it is not a serious
argument against the resurrection.

John Oakes, PhD

Comments are closed.