Was Jesus’ Body Stolen?
Last week, we began a series leading up to Easter Sunday. Our series will examine the different theories of Jesus’ Resurrection. Our first theory, the apparent death theory, was found wanting. This week we will examine the Stolen Body Theory. This theory purports that Jesus’ body was stolen, usually by his disciples.
“As they were on their way, some of the guards came into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders and agreed on a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money and told them, “Say this, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him while we were sleeping.’ If this reaches the governor’s ears, we will deal with him and keep you out of trouble.” They took the money and did as they were instructed, and this story has been spread among Jewish people to this day.” (Matthew 28:11-15)
The Stolen Body Theory (SBT) is the oldest of the natural explanations of Jesus’ Resurrection. Unlike last week’s theory, the SBT admits that Jesus did actually die on the cross. It also admits that he was buried in a tomb. Only, as the verses above show; he wasn’t resurrected, but stolen. The Jewish leaders needed an explanation, and needed one quick. They couldn’t let word spread that this Jesus had resurrected. What’s interesting is that this theory should be more believable than a resurrection, right? If, after my death, my body goes missing; what’s easier to believe, that I raised from the dead, or that my body was stolen? Obviously, it would be easier to believe that my body had been stolen. It was no easier to believe in a resurrection in the first century than it is in the twenty-first century. Yet, the Jewish leaders’ theory isn’t the theory that won the day. The Resurrection was believed, and spread quickly despite the Jewish leaders’ efforts.
Issues With the Disciples Stealing the Body
The most popular theory is the original one – that the disciples stole the body. This is problematic for quite a few reasons.
- The disciples were not expecting a resurrection, so why invent one?
- The disciples are the first ones to give naturalistic explanations (John 20:2, 20:13-15; Luke 24:1-11; Matthew 28:11-15).
- History records the disciples as timid and afraid. Nearly all of them abandoned Jesus at His death and went into hiding afterward.
- The historical evidence enforces that there were armed guards at the tomb. That the disciples tip-toed past them as they slept is comical.
- The disciples would not have died for something they knew was a hoax.
- A hoax would’ve been unconvincing to enemies of the faith, like Paul and James, who converted after what they believed was an experience with the risen Jesus.
Issues With Anyone Stealing the Body
Had someone stolen Jesus’ body there is no reason the disciples would’ve said, “He is risen!” As previously mentioned, they were not expecting Him to raise from the dead. When the women arrive at the empty tomb they don’t immediately say, “He is risen!” Mary weeps and says, “They’ve taken my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put Him.” (John 20:13) After examining the historical witness, it becomes obvious that in order to convince any of Jesus’ followers of a Resurrection, you would need strong evidence.
The disciples became convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead because they believed they had encountered Him! They didn’t believe based on someone else’s testimony; they believed because they believed they had seen Him. So convinced were they, that they defied the authorities and gave their lives for this cause. Once timid, poor, uneducated fishermen became bold pro-claimers of the Resurrection. So convinced was Paul, an enemy of Christians, that he had experienced the risen Jesus, that he not only forsook all that he had ever known, but gave his life for the cause, as well.
The historical witness is inconsistent with a stolen body. Justin Martyr, writing around 165 A.D., writes:
“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 Galilean 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.” (Dialogue With Trypho.)
The earliest writings present the Stolen Body Theory as nothing more than a lie, and for good reasons. An interesting aspect of the SBT is that it actually admits to the crucifixion of Jesus and to the empty tomb. We now know, according to early historical documents, that Jesus died and a few days later His tomb was found empty. The Jewish leaders of the time spread a stolen body theory to prevent chaos. The disciples, who abandoned Jesus and were not expecting a resurrection, suddenly became convinced that He rose from the dead. What could account for this? What do you think happened?
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