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.

Origination

“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.

  1. The disciples were not expecting a resurrection, so why invent one?
  2. The disciples are the first ones to give naturalistic explanations (John 20:2, 20:13-15; Luke 24:1-11; Matthew 28:11-15).
  3. History records the disciples as timid and afraid. Nearly all of them abandoned Jesus at His death and went into hiding afterward.
  4. The historical evidence enforces that there were armed guards at the tomb. That the disciples tip-toed past them as they slept is comical.
  5. The disciples would not have died for something they knew was a hoax.
  6. 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.

Conclusion

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?

Partner With Help Me Believe

If you find Help Me Believe valuable, consider partnering with us through Patreon.

patron

Recommended Reading

                                         

Advertisements

18 Replies to “Was Jesus’ Body Stolen?”

  1. “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”

    This raises the issue of why Jesus doesn’t just appear to us right now to convince us.

    1. Maybe so, but is beside the point as to whether the body was stolen, or not; or even whether he was raised, or not.

  2. I don’t think so. What I’m talking about is what McGrew calls a “maximal facts” approach to the resurrection. The fact that I am speaking of is surprising on the hypothesis of theism, but it’s not surprising on the hypothesis of naturalism.

    1. I see what you mean, however, it isn’t surprising in Christian teaching which is that the next time Jesus returns will be to judge. The longer this is prolonged, the more opportunitites for repentance. Also, Matt. 24:14 seems to suggest he won’t return until the gospel is preached in all the earth. So, that his non-appearance since his ascension is “surprising” i humbly think is a stretch.

      1. Thanks. I’m just wondering what about the resurrection hypothesis alone predicts an ascension? And, I’m wondering how Jesus going up into the clouds isn’t any less ad hoc than saying Jesus is still on earth… but he’s just good at hiding.

      2. These are great questions. I’m not sure anything about the resurrection predicts an ascension, it certainly doesn’t necessitate an ascension. I think the better question would be, what evidence is there that he ascended? And to that I admit most of my studies have been on the resurrection alone!
        However, if we conclude that he rose from the dead then He must be somewhere. As you say, he doesn’t appear to be here unless he is the master of hide-n-seek. So where is he? The same witnesses who we concluded were telling the truth about the resurrection claim that he ascended to heaven. So for me it looks like this:
        1) Jesus rose from the dead.
        2) Jesus must be somewhere.
        3) He isn’t here.
        4)Witnesses of the resurrection claim he ascended to heaven.
        5) Jesus ascended to heaven.

        There is obviously room for doubt. I think this makes the most sense of what we know though. Hope that answers the question.

      3. Thanks. I hope I’m not coming across as mean.

        When we zoom out to include the ascension, we are getting into maximal facts territory.

        And, it seems to me, that we are starting to look at not only which facts do and don’t support the resurrection in general, but it seems that we are also looking to see which facts do/don’t support Christian theism. The result is that we are looking at what the probability that Christian theism is true, all things considered. This is a large project, and it would take a whole book to examine this issue. Nevertheless, it is an interesting subject.

  3. I have always been fond of reflecting on the Resurrection of Christ as being something so profound and divine that we humans were incapable of even conceiving it. We had already came up with gods who were capable to taking human form, but these gods possessed humans and displaced the humanity of what-ever worldly being they were after. Never in our human history have we conceived a god who was willing to empty himself wholly and completely into a man and never would we ever come with a solution to the problem of death to be that same emptied god willing giving himself up for the entire human race. As the Hollywood saying goes, “you literally could not write this stuff.” Alternate explanations for the resurrection all start from the premise that we had an understanding of God’s plan for Christ, which we did not. The Gospels are littered with moments when Christ’s followers have absolutely no clue what He is telling them about Himself, in fact at one point Peter calls Jesus out for talking about the Messiah in a way that was completely foreign, indeed borderline abhorrent to them as Jews. Everything about their experience with Christ was one profound surprise after another for the Apostles and the Resurrection itself is no exception to this rule. The only time we deviate from that obvious trend in the Gospels stories is if we try and explain away the Resurrection as anything other than the truth that is presented to us in the Gospels and Acts.

    Great post and series! Thank you for taking the time to write these.

  4. Thanks for your post. Jesus said “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” John 14: 2-3
    I have always thought that Jesus saying that he was going to a “place” meant that HE was going to be with the Father. And that at some point HE will return for HIS church. HIS words in JOHN should be a comfort to us all yes?

Leave a Reply