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The next resurrection myth is that the Apostles (or Jesus’ followers) stole Christ’s body. This particular hypothesis has been around longer than any other. The Book of Matthew speaks about this theory as having been created in order for the Jewish leaders to deny the resurrection. They bribed the guards to keep them quiet (which, as an aside, is good evidence that the guards were Roman and not from the temple — otherwise, why would the Jews have to bribe them?):
Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” 15 And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
It is interesting to note that by the time Matthew was written, this theory had been in circulation for nearly 30 years.
However, there are several problems with this theory:
1. The resurrection is evidenced by more than the empty tomb.
One positive about the stolen body theory is that it does well in assuming the empty tomb. This is a basic fact that most scholars, liberal and conservative, accept. Gary Habermas uses this in his “minimal facts” approach where he evidences the resurrection from a few basic facts that the majority of scholars accept.
But this theory fails today for the same reason it failed in the first century: The resurrection is evidenced by much more than the empty tomb. Of course, the empty tomb is a necessary condition for the event, but the appearances and ascension of Christ are also components that form the bedrock of the resurrection testimony. 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?
2. The deaths of the Apostles
Tradition 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. Their deaths make no sense if the stolen body theory is true. They were killed for being Christians. Their Christianity was based on a belief that Christ arose. However, the stolen body theory would ask us to believe that these men died in a state of their own deception which brought with it no earthly rewards. Rather, they endured terrible suffering, rejection, and martyrdom. Even if one could see an initial motive for this kind of deception (which is far-fetched as well), this motive would have quickly yielded to self-preservation.
Similarly, one would have to explain why these Jews who followed the Mosaic Law found the reason and ability to create such a significant lie about their Messiah, holding to this this position for the rest of their mortal lives.
3. The unacceptability of resurrection
To say that the disciples stole the body is to say that they made up this story. It is not that they were mistaken, or out of their mind (We will deal with those folks later), but that they were being intentionally deceptive.
Now, 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” (Gal. 3:13). Who would want a cursed man to be their Messiah? The Greeks, on the other hand, would have nothing but disdain for the idea of a bodily resurrection since, from their perspective, the material body was something from which we desire to escape. They were dualists who believed that all of the material world was evil and all of the spiritual world was good. Our goal, then, should be to die and leave our physical material bodies behind (good riddance!). The resurrection of Christ went against all of their ideals.
At that time and place, the Gospel of a crucified and resurrected God was about the dumbest story anyone could ever invent. Normally, when people fabricate stories, they have some degree of marketing potential. However, this story was counterproductive on every level. It was a foolish story. However, this fact actually evidences its historicity. Such a story could not possibly be expected to sell . . . unless it was true.
4. No evidence
Ultimately, when all is said and done, this myth suffers the same fatal blow of every other alternative: there is no evidence. The only reason why such a theory would be accepted is because one does not want to accept the “embarrassment of riches” with regard to the evidence that Christ rose from the dead. But, other than that, there is no reason to even consider this theory.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]