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Was Jesus’ Body Stolen? (Alternate Resurrection Theory #1)

If you’re not a Christian, the story of the resurrection of Christ is perplexing. What I mean is that the resurrection represents a confusing situation. It’s an event without rival in history. I’m not saying that you don’t have what you believe to be valid reasons for rejecting it. But rather that if you do reject it you have a lot of explaining to do.

The Resurrection of Christ from the Tomb

The Resurrection of Christ from the Tomb

Almost a third of the world’s population base their faith on the resurrection of Christ. This doesn’t make it true, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand either. This belief has endured for two-thousand years. So a lot of people believe it and it has a rich historical pedigree. So far, so good, but It’s also a story filled with historical markers. The Bible mentions times, real geographical locations, dates, and historical people. In short, the Resurrection is very falsifiable. Yet it endures.

Related Product: The Resurrection of Jesus DVD Course by Dr. Gary Habermas

You probably see the problem for the non-christian already. If they deny the resurrection, they have to explain two things:

  • How did a belief in the resurrection come about?
  • Why did Christianity grow so quickly in the first and second centuries?

In the days leading up to Easter, I’m going to review the four most significant naturalistic theories on the resurrection. These are theories that argue that Christ did not really rise from the dead.

Jesus’ Body Was Stolen (Alternate Resurrection Theory #1)

This particular hypothesis has been around longer than any other. The book of Matthew speaks about this theory. Matthew says that is was created so the Jewish leaders could deny the resurrection. They bribed the guards to keep them quiet.

Matthew 28:11–15 (ESV)

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place.

12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers

13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’

14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”

15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.

It’s interesting to note that by the time Matthew was written, the “stolen body” theory had been around for almost 30 years. There are several problems with this theory. Let’s take a look at four of them.

1.  The Resurrection Is Supported by More than the Empty Tomb

One thing the stolen body theory has going for it is that it does account for the empty tomb. The empty tomb is a basic fact that most scholars, liberal and conservative, accept. Gary Habermas and Mike Licona use this in their “minimal facts” approach. The minimal facts approach seeks to support the resurrection from facts agreed upon by a majority of scholars.

The stolen body theory fails today for the same reason it failed in the first century: the resurrection is supported by more than the empty tomb. Of course, the lack of a body is a necessary condition for the resurrection to be true, but the appearances and ascension of Christ are also bedrock components of the resurrection testimony.

Related Product: The Case for the Resurrection DVDs by Mike Licona and Michael Patton

Stealing a body is one thing. Making it appear to be alive is a whole other kettle of fish. If the Apostles stole the body, how did they animate it to fool those who say they saw him alive? How did they make this body appear to ascend into heaven? How did they get this body to appear to Paul some years later? The stolen body theory just totally misses the mark here.

2. The Deaths of the Apostles

Tradition and history tells us that all the Apostles (except John) died a martyr’s death. The traditions for the deaths of James, Peter, and Paul are almost beyond debate.

The Apostles’ deaths make no sense if the stolen body theory is true. The Apostles were killed for being Christians. Their Christianity was based on a belief that Christ rose from the dead.

[Tweet “The stolen body theory would ask us to believe that these men died knowing that what they were dying for was untrue.”]

The stolen body theory would ask us to believe that these men died knowing that what they were dying for was untrue. It gets worse. They would have also died having attained no earthly rewards. Rather, they endured terrible suffering, rejection, and martyrdom for nothing. Even if one could concoct an initial motive for this kind of deception (which is far-fetched all by itself), this motive would have quickly yielded to the Apostles’ sense of self-preservation.

Similarly, one would have to explain why Jews who followed the Mosaic Law could rationalize creating such a significant lie about their Messiah and then maintain that lie for the rest of their lives.

3. The Unacceptability of Resurrection to Jews and Greeks

To say that the disciples stole Christ’s body is to say that they made up the resurrection. It’s not that they were mistaken. That would be one thing. It’s not even that they were out of their mind. They would have to have been intentionally deceptive. If you’re a first century Jew trying to get a new religion off the ground a resurrected messiah is exactly what you wouldn’t do. Let’s look at two reason why this would be the case.

[Tweet “If you’re a first century Jew trying to get a new religion off the ground a resurrected messiah is exactly what you wouldn’t do.”]

First, let me back up for a moment and speak about the unacceptability of both the death and resurrection of Christ. It was culturally reprehensible at all levels to have a crucified and resurrected Messiah. The Jews certainly were not expecting their Messiah to be killed, especially in this manner. “Cursed is any man who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). Who would want a cursed man to be their Messiah?

The Resurrection by Ugo Da Carpi

The Resurrection by Ugo Da Carpi

Second, the Greeks would have nothing but disdain for the idea of a bodily resurrection. From their perspective, the material body was something to escape. The Greeks were dualists. They believed that the material world was evil and the spiritual world was good. Their goal, then, was to die and leave their physical, material, bodies behind (good riddance!). The resurrection of Christ (as some sort of solution to mankind’s problems) went against everything they believed.

The Gospel of a crucified and resurrected God (for both Jew and Greek) was about the dumbest story anyone could ever invent. Normally, when people fabricate stories, they build in some degree of marketing potential. However, this story was counterproductive on every level. It was a foolish story. However, this foolishness actually evidences its historicity. The story of the resurrection could not possibly be expected to sell… unless it was true.

4. There’s Just No Evidence for the Stolen Body Theory

Ultimately, when all is said and done, this myth suffers the same fatal flaw every other alternative suffers from: there is little or no evidence for it. The best evidence we have for the stolen body theory is that the New Testament mentions it!

Further Reading: The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus

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One Response to “Was Jesus’ Body Stolen? (Alternate Resurrection Theory #1)”

  1. Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions guards at the tomb. John’s Gospel says nothing about guards. If John was an eyewitness, as Christians claim, isn’t that a pretty important detail to leave out of your story? This Gospel problem of the missing Roman soldiers in the Book of John raises another important issue. Christians often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly arisen from the dead. A stolen body hypothesis is impossible.

    This argument completely collapses in John’s account, however, because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occurred! Mary clearly didn’t feel as though the scenario of Jesus’ body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew’s guards didn’t dissuade John’s Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus’ body because Roman guards do not exist in John’s story.

    To further compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts, John’s Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time, only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus’ corps. As far as John’s Mary is concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it.

    But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying12 , one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

    (John 20:11-13)

    Although in Matthew’s account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John’s Gospel the angels do not mention that anyone rose from the dead. The angels only ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary responds by inquiring whether the angels removed Jesus’ body. Then, Mary turns and sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the “gardener” if he was the one who carried away Jesus’ body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus.

    When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” which means Teacher.

    (John 20:14-16)

    It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John become hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every missionary must answer is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are simply gazing at two entirely different stories.

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