Was the Body of Jesus Stolen?

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 120 0

Was the body of Jesus stolen? In a previous article, I outlined the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many people, however, will immediately reject that evidence. Instead, they will propose alternative explanations for what happened on that first Easter morning. The oldest explanation for the empty tomb is what I already mentioned – that the body of Christ was stolen. In this article, I will examine the evidence for the alleged body snatchers.

The idea that the body was stolen is recorded in Matthew 28:11-15 where the Jewish leaders bribe the guards to say that the disciples stole the body. However, the argument of theft has evolved over the centuries to include Jesus’ enemies, random theft, and necromancers. However, as this article will show, the evidence is not at all in favor for these arguments.

The Body was Stolen

In his essay, The Plausibility of Theft, historian Richard Carrier argues that it is possible that Jesus’ body was stolen. Admittedly, he does mention that the plausibility of theft is not certain, but he does lay out some possibilities for it.[1] According to him, a possible identity of the thieves is necromancers. Necromancers were naturally body snatchers. Necromancers (sorcerers, witches, etc.) would use bodies or body parts in their magical practices, so naturally they had to desecrate tombs in order to get the bodies or body parts they needed.

Carrier says, “[S]orcerers would have a motive to steal any body, and perhaps an even greater motive to steal the body of a holy man, possibly a miracle worker [like Jesus].”[2] Along with this argument one can include random grave robbers who could have easily stumbled over Jesus’ grave. Seeing the opportunity, they decided to break into the tomb and take the body.[3]

Carrier also believes that the disciples could have stolen the body. He thinks that one or more disciples, or some other admirer of Jesus, stole the body without the full knowledge of all the other disciples. Carrier says, “The point of such a trick would be to inspire faith in the good teachings of Jesus and to restore his good name: for despite being crucified like a common criminal, if God took him to heaven, as an empty tomb would help ‘prove,’ this would completely vindicate Jesus as a holy man.” He concludes, “it is not improbable that at least one of them would be willing to engage such a pious deceit.”[4]

Carrier notes that with it being the Sabbath, most people would have been home, and would not be walking around the graveyards. In conclusion, no one would have seen anyone breaking into the tomb.[5]

Problems with Theft

What many skeptics do not seem to realize is that there are many problems with anyone stealing Jesus’ body. First, although Carrier does not argue for it, the old idea that Jesus’ enemies stole the body. This, of course, makes no sense whatsoever because after the disciples would have started preaching that Jesus had risen, the enemies that stole the body would have been very eager to present it and tell everyone that they had moved it.

The Disciples

The next group of people that are accused is the disciples. It is thought that they must have stolen the body to make people believe that Christ rose. However, this argument is easily refuted. First, it must be asked why the apostles would want to endure, not only martyrdom, but the social persecution that they would experience if they knew for a fact that Jesus did not resurrect. The lives of the disciples were radically changed to the point that they were willing to die, face prison, and be rejected by their friends, families, and society itself.

Scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona note that “[t]hey faced dungeons, torture, and brutal executions-not the white collar prisons that hold today’s corrupt politicians.”[6] In essence, they were being abused and were dying for a lie that they knew was false. Charles Colson, an accomplice to the Watergate scandal that brought down U.S. President Richard Nixon, makes a good point:

Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up, perpetuated by the closest aides to the President of the United States-the most powerful men in America, who were intensely loyal to their president. But one of them, John Dean, turned state’s evidence, that is, testified against Nixon, as he put it, “to save his own skin”-and he did so only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on-two weeks! The real cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks, and then everybody else jumped ship in order to save themselves. Now, the fact is that all those around the President were facing embarrassment, maybe prison. Nobody’s life was at stake. But what about the disciples? Twelve powerless men, peasants really, were facing not just embarrassment or political disgrace, but beatings, stonings, execution. Every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead. Don’t you think that one of those apostles would have cracked before being beheaded or stoned? That one of them would have made a deal with the authorities? None did.[7]

We also must remember that the empty tomb does not seem to have converted anybody except John. John even reports that Mary Magdalene immediately believed that the body had been moved or stolen. Even Peter was unconvinced by the empty tomb as was Thomas. Also, an empty tomb would not have convinced most Jews that Jesus was resurrected because Jews in the first century did not believe that anyone was going to be resurrected until Judgment Day. The idea that anyone was going to be resurrected in the middle of history was considered absurd. The empty tomb also had nothing to do with the conversions of Paul or James. The empty tomb simply had nothing to do with converting people, so the argument that someone stole the body to “prove” that Jesus had resurrected falls flat on its face.[8]

Necromancers and Random Theft

What about Carrier’s argument that it was necromancers or random grave robbers that stole the body? First, it is highly unlikely that necromancy existed among the Jews after the Babylonian Exile (586-539 BC). Also, the Jews in the first century viewed themselves as being “exiled” in their own homeland. This caused Jews to become very devout, and considering that necromancy was forbidden, the fact that some suggest “the presence of necromancers in the heart of the Jewish nation is a counsel of despair.”[9]

But what if there were necromancers in Jerusalem during the Passover? What if there were random grave robbers walking about? Carrier says that no one would have seen them stealing the body. Is this true? Quite simply, someone wanting to retrieve a dead body would have gotten one by digging up a grave; they would have not gone to the trouble of moving a 1-2 ton stone with guards.

Second, why not go out into the countryside and dig up a shallow grave of a peasant, instead of opening up a tomb in a densely populated city during the most important feast of the year. How could occultists or a random thief move a two-four thousand pound stone, get past the guards, have the time to unwrap Jesus’ body, move a dead body through a urban area during a festival that would have had thousands of people around, and do all of this in haste?[10]

Carrier also says that the necromancers would have wanted a holy man. However, Jesus died a shameful death and would not have been considered a “holy man.”[11] He also says that occultists would steal entire bodies. He quotes the ancient historian Tacitus to show that sorcerers did this in Germany.[12] However, there is no evidence that such things happened in Judea. Most sorcerers just wanted a hand or another body part. These thieves would not have broken into a tomb, unwrapped the body, and then took off with it when all they wanted was a small part of it.[13]

Conclusion

Although many skeptics have argued that the body of Jesus had been stolen, the evidence weighs against it. The enemies of Jesus had no motive and could have easily stopped Christianity in its tracks if they had stolen the body. The disciples had no motivation. Why would they endure harsh persecution and death if they knew that the entire story of the resurrection had been made up? The evidence also weighs against any kind of random grave robbers or necromancers breaking into the tomb and taking the body.

What do you think? Leave a comment below or on Facebook.


[1] Richard Carrier, “The Plausibility of Theft” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Ed. Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005. Pgs. 349.

[2] Carrier, 350-351.

[3] Ibid. 352.

[4] Ibid. 351-352.

[5] Ibid. 352.

[6] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004. Pg. 94.

[7] Charles Colson, “An Unholy Hoax? The Authenticity of Christ,” BreakPoint syndicated column 020329, March 29, 2002.  In Habermas and Licona, 94.

[8] Habermas and Licona, 97. William Lane Craig, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” In Jesus Under Fire. Ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Pg. 159.

[9] James Patrick Holding, Defending the Resurrection. Xulon Press, 2010. Pg. 391.

[10] Holding, 391-392

[11] Ibid. 391.

[12] Carrier, 350.

[13] Tim Chaffey. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Evidences and Minimal Facts.” http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2013/02/26/resurrection-evidences-and-minimal-proofs. Accessed May 14, 2013.

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