Lots of people seriously doubt that Jesus really died on the cross and later rose from the dead as the Bible says He did. We’ve already looked at some of the reasons that people often give for these doubts and also provided some answers. This time around we’ll spend some time checking out the very first objection to Jesus’ resurrection, namely…
The Disciples Stole the Body
Believe it or not, the first and oldest objection to Jesus’ death and resurrection is actually found within the Bible itself. We can set the stage for this objection by checking out chapter 28 of Matthew’s gospel where two women are returning to Galilee after finding Jesus’ empty burial tomb and then actually meeting Jesus after His resurrection…
“While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 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” (Matthew 28:11-15 NIV).
Now let’s think about this story that the guards were given to tell and see if it really lines up with the facts. To start, let’s take a quick look at the chain of events that started immediately following Jesus’ death…
“Late that afternoon Joseph from Arimathea, an honored member of the Jewish Supreme Court (who personally was eagerly expecting the arrival of God’s Kingdom), gathered his courage and went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead so he called for the Roman officer in charge and asked him. The officer confirmed the fact, and Pilate told Joseph he could have the body” (Mark 15:42-45).
So following Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pontius Pilate and asked for his permission to take Jesus’ body from the cross. After checking to make sure that Jesus was really dead, Pilate gave Joseph permission to take Jesus’ body down from the cross. Joseph then took Jesus’ body to his own burial tomb and wrapped it up in linen (see Mark 15:46).
Inside the burial tombs of Jesus’ day were usually found small two rooms- one served as a kind of entrance area while the second room featured a location where the body of the deceased person was placed. This was the place where the body would be prepared for final burial.
Now this burial process was actually a pretty complicated affair. After washing the body, the people making the preparations would wrap the body with cloth strips while placing a mixture of spices and finely ground scented wood in between each strip. This mixture acted as a kind of “glue” for the cloth strips that surrounded the body. It’s estimated that the total weight of Jesus’ encasement was about 120 lbs. (54 kg). Now it’s important to remember that this whole encasement was definitely not like those “mummy” type horror movies that you may have seen on television- you know, the kind where the mummy jumps out from his tomb and start chasing people around. This was not like that at all- this was a very tight package.
So once everything was finished, the tomb would then be secured. Matthew 27:60 tells us that Joseph did this by rolling a large stone against the tomb entrance. In those days many tombs had big stones placed outside the entrance way to keep people from breaking in. Some tombs actually had grooves cut into the rock in front of the entrance. A large stone was then placed into this groove and held in place by a wedge. When it was time to seal the tomb, the wedge was removed which then allowed the stone to roll down across the entrance and cover it up completely.
Now how large a stone would be necessary to secure an average sized tomb of Jesus day? Well, author Josh McDowell reports that two engineering professors once decided to find out how big a stone would be needed to cover the entrance of an average tomb. Based on their calculations they found out that a stone big enough to cover an entrance of this size would need a minimum weight of 1½-2 tons (1524-2032 kg). (1) To get an idea of how much weight this is, just keep in mind that 2 tons would be the approximate weight of a large luxury style automobile.
So with this in mind, lets stop for a moment and review what we have so far. First we have a dead man. His body has been encased in a kind of Plaster of Paris. He is in a cave with a mega-stone across the entrance. Now if you were like most people, you would probably say that this all sounds pretty secure, right? Well despite what we’ve just read it seems that certain people weren’t satisfied with that level of security…
“The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “‘After three days I will rise again.'” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.’
‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard” (Matthew 27:62-66 NIV).
When Pilate says “Take a guard…” in the Scripture quoted above he is more literally saying, “you are given custody” which means that the religious leaders were given the services of a Roman sentry. In other words, a trained guard unit was assigned to protect the tomb and stop anyone from messing around with it. Now when you see the word “guard” above don’t get the wrong idea. These guards were definitely not like the guys that you see riding around in a golf cart patrolling the mall or letting people in and out of an office building. The sentry consisted of up to 16 Roman soldiers who functioned somewhat like the National Guard in America today.
We’re told in Matthew 27:66 that these guards “sealed” the stone in front of the tomb entrance. This was done in a very simple but effective way. First a cord was stretched across the stone covering the tomb entrance. Each end of the cord was then held in place across the stone with a piece of clay. This clay was then stamped with the governor’s identifying mark for security. This seal was the means by which the Roman government certified the fact that Jesus’ body was actually inside that particular tomb. Anyone caught breaking the governor’s seal and entering the tomb would be subject to severe punishment and it’s been said that the penalty for breaking a Roman seal was upside down crucifixion.
Now this brings us back to our original question- did the disciples steal Jesus’ body and later claim that Jesus had risen from the dead? Well, let’s think about what would have been necessary for them to actually do that.
In order for the disciples to steal the body and later claim that Jesus had risen from the dead, they would first need to get past an entire Roman security force- a security force whose only reason for being there was to prevent that very thing. Next, they would have to knowingly break the official seal of the Roman government with the understanding that if they were caught, they would be killed for it. After that, they would have to move a 2-ton stone from in front of the tomb to gain access to the burial area. Following that, they would have to move the body (which probably weighed about 250-300 lbs. [113 – 136 kg] including the burial encasement) and then get past the soldiers a second time without anyone seeing or hearing them do any of it.
Now if the disciples had all been the dashing, daring, James Bond, secret-agent types, it might be reasonable to accept the possibility that they actually stole Jesus’ body from the tomb. After all, it would have taken a great level of skill and ablility to steal this body. But let’s look at the men who were said to have pulled off this theft. Think about it for a moment: among the disciples we have…
- Four fishermen (James, John, Peter and Andrew)
- A tax collector (Matthew also known as Levi)
- A skeptic (Thomas)
- A political extremist (Simon)
- And four nobodies (everybody else)
Lets face it, would these guys be your choices if you were looking to pull off the mother of all burglaries?
Not only that, Matthew 26:56 says that all the disciples ran away from Jesus while He was still alive. If the disciples had bailed out on Jesus while He was alive then why would they go back for Him after He was dead? After all, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus after Jesus was arrested (see Matthew 26:69-75). Thomas was so sure that it was over for Jesus following His death that he said, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands– and put my fingers into them– and place my hand into his side” (John 20:25). These guys clearly lacked the will and determination necessary to steal Jesus’ body.
So it seems that there is little evidence to support the theory that the disciples removed Jesus’ body from the tomb. The Doctor believes that you have to totally disregard both the evidence and common sense in order to believe that the disciples actually stole Jesus’ body from the tomb.
However there is one last thing- as we saw in the Matthew 28 Scripture quoted earlier, the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb were told to claim that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they were sleeping. Now think about this for a moment- if this were really true then how would the soldiers know that the disciples had stolen the body if they were sleeping when the disciples supposedly had taken it? Not what Sherlock Holmes would call a good case is it?
So there you have a few answers to some of the more common objections people raise about Jesus’ death and resurrection. There are some others but all of them can be answered if you are willing to take the time to pray, study and check out the Scriptures for yourself. While it’s true that questions like this can sometimes be hard to answer, you should also remember that it’s OK if you are ever faced with a Bible question that you can’t answer right away. Listen, no one has a total lock on all Biblical knowledge and even the best pastors, teachers and Bible scholars sometimes run into questions that they have trouble answering.
It’s perfectly OK to tell someone, “I don’t know the answer to that one, but I’ll find out”. Then make it your responsibility to pray, look up the right Scriptures, speak with your Pastor, youth Pastor or other church leaders and get the answers that you need for yourself and for others. Remember- good answers always exist for honest Biblical questions; you just have to find them. Finally, don’t forget this piece of good advice from the book of 2 Timothy:
“Work hard so God can say to you, ‘Well done.’ Be a good workman, one who does not need to be ashamed when God examines your work. Know what his Word says and means” (2 Timothy 2:15).
(1) Josh McDowell, A Ready Defense pg. 226