Was Jesus's body stolen from its tomb?

  • Question

    Two men run holding carrying a body in between them. The body is wrapped in bandages.

    On a Friday in c. AD 30, Jesus was crucified and laid in a rock-hewn tomb. Allegedly, on Sunday (Easter), it was found that this tomb was empty. Why was it empty? Had Jesus's corpse in fact been stolen from that post-crucifixion tomb in which it was laid?

    This question affects some important debates:

“No, after all…
  • The risk/requirements were too demotivating

    A guy lays in bed, with a thought bubble of a roman soldier catching him.

    The thought of stealing Jesus's corpse would strike any contemporary as very costly, both in general terms of effort required and chances of failure, as well as in terms of the very intimidating risks involved in such a heist. [Full page].

    We can explore 4 arguments:

    This all suggests the body was not stolen, because in light of it we know that few men (and women) would feel sufficiently motivated in spite of the risks, especially during Passover in Jerusalem. In fact, arguably no one would be motivated even if there were no risks!

    1. Notably:
      Necomancers wouldn't try, because they perform their rituals on site and and they would be in particular danger during this period.
      • Money-seeking graverobbers wouldn't try.[Forthcoming]
      • Jesus's disciples wouldn't try.[Forthcoming]
      • Jesus's apostles in particular wouldn't try.[Forthcoming]
  • No one would strip off its clothes

    Few if any contemporaries existed who, in choosing to steal Jesus's corpse, would decide to first strip the body naked and leave the graveclothes behind.

    There are 4 arguments to consider:

    • Movers would worry about the time-cost of removing the clothes.1
    • The stench of the putrefying corpse would be needlessly exacerbated.
    • Touching a corpse was very taboo (and generally repulsive).
    • Removing the clothing would be especially dishonorable.2

    This is relevant because Jesus's graveclothes remained in the tomb.

    1. The early church father John Chrysostom comments on the difficulty,

      “Especially when it was myrrh, a drug that adheres so to the body, and cleaves to the clothes, whence it was not easy to take the clothes off the body…” [Homily 90 on Matthew 28; 11-14.] He elsewhere noted that myrrh “…glues linen to the body, not less firmly than lead.”[Homily 85 on St. John]

      Merrill Tenney (NT professor at Gordon College [d. 1985]): “In preparing a body for burial according to Jewish custom, it was usually… bandaged tightly from the armpits to the ankles in strips of linen a foot wide. Aromatic spices, often of a gummy consistency, were placed between the wrappings or folds. They served… as a cement to glue the cloth wrappings into a solid covering…” [The Reality of the Resurrection (Moody, 1963), 117.]

    2. Any movers would would dislike knowingly dishonoring the corpse by stripping it. This was even far more significant/unthinkable to ancients than it is for contemporary Westerners.
  • Thieves wouldn't stupidly add risk

    Few/none who were stealing Jesus's corpse would choose to do it such that it gratuitously amplifies their chances of getting caught. This is relevant because, if Jesus's corpse was stolen, it was done in a way that was overtly1 and gratuitously2 risky.

    1. This should be granted. After all, corpse-theft was known to be a crime with severe penalties. One reason we know this is because the “Nazareth Inscription” says corpse-theft was subject to capital punishment.
      D.A. Carson (NT professor at Trinity Evangelical; Ph.D from Cambridge): “Molesting graves was a serious offense in the ancient world, subject at times to the death penalty. The famous ‘Nazareth Inscription,’ recording an ordinance of Caesar to thin effect, confirms this… [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8. (Zondervan, 1984), 590.]
      Bruce Metzger (NT professor at Princeton): “In any case, the inscription contributes yet another testimony to what we knew already concerning the sanctity with which tombs were generally regarded in antiquity and the variety of penalties against violatia sepulchri'" ["The Nazareth Inscription Once Again" in New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, ed. Metzger (Brill, 1980), 91., citing Zuleit in "Violations of Sepulture in Roman Palestone" in JRomS 22 (1932), 197.]
      W. D. Davies (Christian Origins professor at Duke]) & Dale Allison (NT prof. at Princeton]): “What it [the 'Nazareth Inscription'] does show is ‘that tomb violation was very serious’” [International Critical Commentary, Matthew: Vol. 3: 19-28 (T & T Clark, 1997), 672.]
      Craig Evans (NT professor at Asbury, DSS Inst. founder): “An inscription from Nazareth of uncertain date, though probably pre-70, may have some bearing on our understanding of the sanctity of the grave in late antiquity. The Nazareth inscription reads…: ‘Ordinance of Caesar: It is my pleasure that graves and tombs—whoever has made them as a pious service for ancestors or children or members of their house—that these remain unmolested in perpetuity. But if any person lay information that another either has destroyed them, or has in any other way cast out the bodies which have been buried there, or with malicious deception has transferred them to other places, to the dishonor of those buried there, or has removed the headstones or other stones, in such a case I command that a trial be instituted, just as if they were concerned with the gods for the pious services of mortals. For beyond all else it shall be obligatory to honor those who have been buried. Let no one remove them for any reason. If not, however [i.e., if anyone does so], capital punishment on the charge of tomb robbery I will to take place.’” [Word Biblical Commentary: Vol. 34b, Mark 8:27-16:20 (Thomas Nelson, 2001), 553.]
    2. This should be granted for two reasons. Namely: If Jesus's corpse was stolen, they chose to steal it right during an extra risky, yet brief,…
      • …presence of men professionally stationed to guard the tomb[Forthcoming]
      • …surge of potential whistleblowers who could see/smell the corpse. (After all, the corpse disappeared during the Passover festival, which lasted just a few days, but during which the population of Jerusalem swelled three-fold from all the incoming Jews.)

      William Lane Craig: “Given the tumultuous confusion at Jesus' public trial and execution--and during Passover time no less--this sort of derring-do strains credulity.” [In Defense of Miracles, ed. by Geivett & Habermas (1997, IVP), 260.]

  • The corpse was well guarded

    By the day after Jesus's corpse was buried, guards had been stationed at the tomb.

    But, so what? Plausibly:

    • The body was stolen before the guards arrived?1
    • The body was stolen while the guards were sleeping?2
    1. It's unlikely that the body was stolen before the guards arrived because…
      • …the guards believed Jesus's corpse was in its tomb when they arrived. (This is relevant because and their belief would plausibly have been grounded in their actually checking the tomb first).

      Raymond Brown (NT professor at New York): “[The authorities] would have taken the elementary caution to have the sepulcher checked to see that the body was still there before they sealed it on Saturday. That would have been part of their securing it as they 'know how' (27:65). …they were scarcely so naive as to guard an empty tomb.” [Death of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1994), 1309.] • …more than one day would be needed for the would-be corpse-thieves to covertly do two necessary things: First, to learn the location of Jesus's corpse, which likely required a series of inquiries (and answering why they are asking), followed by the inevitable verifying/scoping-out the area beforehand. Second, to assemble a team of men who are extremely motivated to steal Jesus's corpse (which was required.

    2. It's unlikely that the body was stolen while the guards were sleeping because, while the guards were reportedly bribed to say they fell asleep (Mt 28:13), they almost assuredly did not. After all, they would not have have allowed themselves to. We know this because they knew they had far too much at stake to risk it; Roman guards who leave their post are executed (Dion. Hal. Antiq. Rom. VIII.79; relatedly, see Polybius Histories 6.37-38), and William Lane Craig notes that “If it was a [Jewish] Temple guard unit… [they] were made up of ten guards who [were not] allowed to sit down or lean against anything while on duty. If found asleep on duty, they were beaten and burned with their clothes.”
      • …even if the guards had fallen asleep, they would have woken up when the stone was being rolled away.
  • The stunt would need days of prep.

    Few/none who would steal Jesus's corpse would be able to steal it within 40 hours (“Mission Impossible”).1 This is relevant because Jesus's corpse was gone within 40 hours of its entombment (i.e. by Sunday morning).2

    1. Few could steal Jesus's corpse within 40 hours because more than 40 hours would be needed to safely/covertly do two things:
      • To safely and covertly learn the corpse's location. It requires asking around to learn where the corpse was buried. It also likely required the inevitable scoping-out of the area beforehand to know the kind of tomb, blocking stone, and possible entrance/escape routes.
      • To safely and covertly assemble a team of men who are extremely motivated to steal Jesus's corpse (which was required).
    2. In other words, the feat was somehow performed between Friday “when evening had already come” (Mk 15:42) and Sunday morning (“Very early on the first day of the week” [Mk 16:2], “while it was still dark” [Jn 20:2]).
“Yes, after all…