Harvest House Publishers
Rays of sunlight streaked over the gently rolling hills on the east side of Jerusalem. It looked as if it would be a beautiful, sunny day. One by one people emerged from cozy stucco homes and strolled down the streets to their places of business. Rachel stopped at Rebecca’s house hoping for companionship on her way to the well. Jacob ambled down to his carpenter shop to put the finishing touches on the latest new table set. And Achaeleus donned his armor before leaving for his shift at Herod’s palace.
Outside the city gate what started as a whisper quickly rose to a roar throughout the city: “The body of Jesus, the teacher, has disappeared!”
The normally slow-moving city sprang quickly into fast-paced motion. Roman guards were running about the streets searching buildings, houses, and even the wooded areas surrounding the city. Where was the corpse of Jesus? An emergency session of the Sanhedrin was called by the religious leaders. How would they handle the public reaction to a “prophet” who predicted he would rise from the dead in three days? Many people roused family and friends from early morning activities. The news and gossip spread quickly. What had happened? Where did the body of Jesus go? Did he rise from the dead as he promised? Who saw him? Could it be that Jesus is really God?
We can only imagine what it was like in Jerusalem the day Jesus rose from the dead. Undoubtedly the news of the “missing” body was greeted differently depending on the perspective of each individual.
From the perspective of Herod, Pontius Pilate, and other Roman authorities, this introduced a new dilemma. Due to pressure from the local religious figures, they had acquiesced or agreed to the capital punishment of Jesus, despite unusual circumstances. Now they faced a potentially troublesome situation. How would the Pharisees and Sadducees maintain religious control if there was a groundswell of belief that Jesus rose from the dead? Jesus had prophesied his resurrection several times. His disciples were aware of it. The religious leaders were aware of it. And perhaps worst of all, part of the population of Jerusalem was aware of it. How would this news affect public opinion? Would people believe that Jesus truly overcame death? Would they believe that he was God? Would this cause volatile disputes between Jewish groups of people and disrupt Roman rule?
From the perspective of the Jewish religious leaders, it was a great disaster. They had presumed the execution of Jesus would eliminate his threat to their power once and for all. Now, Jesus’ disciples might proclaim that he rose from the dead and was in fact God. If the disciples gained control of public opinion, they would further emphasize the teachings of Jesus, which had always undermined the power of the religious leaders. The very authority of the Jewish Council could be threatened. It could even mean the start of a new religion that could, perhaps, shake the foundations of centuries-old Judaism.
From the perspective of the people, there was confusion. The disciples were telling everyone that Jesus was seen after he died. What did this mean? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Where was he? Exactly what did the disciples see? If Jesus really rose from the dead, did it verify his claim to be God? To many this might mean hope…hope in the many things that Jesus taught during his life on earth. Hope of eternal life.
The Jewish leaders had obvious concerns about the corpse of Jesus from the outset. They realized that an unaccounted for body would cause tremendous problems and feared the potential public response if it should be found missing. So great was this concern, that they approached Pontius Pilate for a special favor as indicated in Matthew’s gospel:
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first” (Matthew 27:62-64).
This request brought the issue of Jesus’ teachings back to Pilate’s domain. Would Pilate’s interest go beyond merely appeasing the Jewish leaders? Was he also concerned about the potential public impact if Jesus’ corpse were to disappear? Did Pilate’s concern reveal a deep-seated fear that Jesus might really be who he claimed to be? After all, that day Pilate’s wife had warned him not to have anything to do with Jesus due to a premonition that she had:
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19).
This message indicates that Pilate had been discussing Jesus in his private home with his wife. Jesus’ status must have been of some particular interest prior to the night of the trial. Furthermore, Pilate seemed to do everything he could to set Jesus free, even to the extent of offering the criminal Barabbas as a “replacement.” When the crowd insisted upon crucifying Jesus while Pilate was on the judgment seat, “[Pilate] washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility’ ” (Matthew 27:24).
Whether Pilate’s interest in monitoring the existence of Jesus’ corpse was because of his fear of political problems or because of his curiosity or fear about Jesus’ claims of deity, he quickly acquiesced to the high priest’s requests to make the tomb secure: “ ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard” (Matthew 27:65).
The Roman guard (consisting of at least 16 soldiers) responsible for the tomb of Jesus was in obvious shock with the events of the resurrection. When they observed the angel who rolled away the stone covering the tomb, the Bible says they became “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4). The absence of Jesus’ corpse presented them with a difficult problem. Typically, if such guards allowed a prisoner (or in this case a corpse) to escape while they were sleeping or deserting their posts, they would face the same sentence as the prisoner. In this case crucifixion. The guards were concerned for their fate resulting from the empty tomb because they first approached the religious leaders to obtain help in approaching the political authority, probably so the military leaders wouldn’t punish them. In addition, there was a need to provide a cover-up for the disappearance of the corpse:
Some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day (Matthew 28:11-15).
So the Roman guard was essentially forced to provide a concocted story of sleeping while Jesus’ disciples stole the body. In return for propagating the story, they received a large payment and protection from the highest local authority—the governor. But if they were sleeping, how would they know the disciples stole the body? They wouldn’t have witnessed it. On the other hand, it would be difficult for 16 separate guards to keep the story of an angel with an appearance “like lightning” a secret for long (see Matthew 28:3). Someone would likely tell another person at some point in time. Just like today, when such a story “leaks” out, it eventually ends up in print—in the Bible in this case.
Nevertheless, the “official” story of the guards falling asleep and the disciples stealing the body was supported by the religious and political establishment, so it is easy to understand why it became the ongoing popular story among the Jews who opposed the Christians.
The Jewish authorities had a serious problem. Jesus, who had prophesied that he would be raised from the dead in three days, was nowhere to be found three days after his crucifixion. It was their worst nightmare. Now the followers of Jesus could call him God and have evidence to back it up. It didn’t take long for the effects of the resurrection to have a major impact. Jesus’ disciples immediately started celebrating his deity and began promoting it throughout the region. Within days, thousands were following Jesus as the Savior of the world. The authority of the official Jewish leaders and their teachings started waning among many.
With no corpse to prove Jesus’ human mortality, the authorities couldn’t prove that Jesus was simply another human being. Since they desperately needed Jesus’ corpse, the Jewish leaders would have certainly used every means at their disposal to hunt down and find it. Families, friends, acquaintances, and anyone who had known Jesus would have been questioned. Workers in the synagogues would have been enlisted to search the places where a body might have been placed. In short, if the body of Jesus could be found, Christianity would have been stopped dead in its tracks and the threat to historical Judaism would have ended. The Jewish authorities would maintain their rule. However, if the corpse could not be produced, the religious leaders’ plight would be grave.
The political establishment of Rome also had a stake in finding the corpse of Jesus. After all, Israel was a volatile religious state that could be threatened with any serious challenge to traditional Judaism. The teachings by Jesus were antiestablishment at their best and heretical revolutionary at their worst. However, they went even further when we consider that he positioned himself as God incarnate. Many Jews would be forced to deal with the complex and hard to understand issue of the Trinity, which states that God is three persons in one God ( Jesus refers to this in Matthew 28:19).
So a conflict between the religious leaders and followers of Jesus seemed inevitable. It would clearly be in the best interest of the Roman establishment to find Jesus’ corpse to keep the peace.
The Romans would have great resources at their disposal to attempt to find a body. Most importantly, they could invoke capital punishment on anyone found to be hiding the body. In fact, archaeology has located a first-century tomb in Nazareth that has an engraved message citing the death penalty for anyone found to be grave robbing. This unusual, harsh penalty, interestingly, was found in Jesus’ hometown. It was placed at a grave site soon after the resurrection. Perhaps it was in response to it?
When we consider the disciples during the time of the crucifixion and resurrection, we realize it would be absurd to think they might have stolen the body of Jesus. First, we must consider the disciples’ unstable state of mind. Even though they had been warned repeatedly by Jesus that he would be crucified and later raised from the dead, it was obvious they doubted the prophecy. On the critical night of the betrayal, the disciples didn’t even stay awake. During the period of his trial, Peter denied him three times. When he was crucified, the disciples were scattered and there was reluctance to believe in the resurrection. In the case of Thomas, he stated he would believe only when he placed his hand into Jesus’ wounds. None of these events are indicative of a band of well-organized disciples capable of quickly formulating a clever plan to steal a body under professional Roman guard.
Second, even if the disciples were motivated and ready to steal the body of Jesus, it would have been extremely difficult. The timing of the event would have occurred during the Sabbath (possibly even back-to-back Sabbaths since the day after Passover is always a “special Sabbath”—note John 19:31). Movement during the Sabbath was limited and would have been an obvious problem if the disciples were planning a major theft of a body. Then there was the issue of a ragtag band of disciples sneaking past the best trained guards in the world. Finally, there were the problems of moving a two-ton stone and breaking an official seal without detection.
The entire ministry of Jesus was focused on his role as the Son of God. In that role, the triumph over death through the resurrection was paramount. A dead Messiah would serve no purpose for the disciples. They had no motivation to steal the corpse of Jesus; it would be much simpler to just acknowledge they had been mistaken about Jesus. Furthermore, there would be nothing to gain by concocting a story of a resurrection and spreading it. To the contrary, once the persecution started, it would have been obvious that there was everything to lose by perpetuating a story of a phony messiah.
The 12 disciples were not the only ones to see the risen Christ! For instance, we know that several women saw him on the day of the resurrection. There was Mary Magdalene, Salome, and “the other Mary” (possibly the wife of Clopas or the mother of James and John). We also know that Jesus appeared to many other people, including 500 people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6). Having so many other witnesses would make it more difficult for the religious leaders and Romans to sell the story of the disciples stealing the body. After all, why would other people, beyond the disciples themselves, claim to see the risen Christ?
Jerusalem is faced with two opposing vantage points. On one side, the religious and political authorities indicated there was no corpse of Jesus because “against all odds” the disciples had stolen the body. Certainly these leaders would have commanded enormous respect from the populous. On the other hand, there were the disciples and other people who claimed to have witnessed the resurrection indicating that Jesus had risen and, hence, there would be no corpse. Of course, such a supernatural resurrection would also be against the odds. So the city had the dilemma of a difficult decision between their leaders and credible witnesses. At stake was a foundational change in religious belief. At stake was the lives of many.
The result of Jerusalem’s decision to believe the leaders or the disciples immediately following the resurrection is historical. The disciples and eyewitnesses won easily. Christianity exploded in the city, and within days, thousands of people became followers of Christ. This is particularly significant because strict religious belief was of paramount importance to the Jews. The idea of a God that included Jesus as part of the Trinity was revolutionary. Yet by A.D. 70, some estimate that an enormous percentage of Jerusalem had become Christian. Even today, in a culture far more tolerant of diversity, it would be unheard of to envision a new religion taking over such a large part of the populous in such a short period of time. Yet we know Christianity grew very quickly. Otherwise there would have not been persecution that history records as occurring immediately. Christianity continued to spread in spite of the persecution.
In the days following the crucifixion, many precautions were taken to protect the corpse of Jesus, including the posting of a Roman guard. Even so, since the day of the resurrection, no body of Jesus has ever been located. There was every reason for the Jewish leaders to do everything they could in order to locate Jesus’ body. Failure to do so would, and did, result in undermining their religious authority. Likewise, Roman leaders would have every incentive to do everything they could to locate the body of Jesus. Otherwise, a volatile dispute between the traditional Jews and followers of Jesus could ensue—and it did. This meant a threat to the peaceful Roman rule of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory.
It would have been virtually impossible for the haphazard band of disciples to overcome the Roman guard and steal the body of Jesus. Nor would there have been any reason for them to do so. Despite the explanation presented by the Jewish leaders and the Roman guards that the disciples had stolen the body, the city of Jerusalem was not accepting it. Instead, the people accepted the story presented by the eyewitnesses that Jesus had risen from the dead. Many gave their lives to verify this strong belief.
In a nutshell, all the Jewish leaders and Romans had to do in order to end Christianity forever was to produce the corpse of Jesus. They couldn’t do it. And Christianity has since become the largest religion in the world.
The tomb was empty.
The inability of the Jewish leaders and the Romans to produce the corpse of Jesus is powerful evidence that it didn’t exist—given that everything reasonable was done to protect it and there was no motivation for others to steal it. The logical conclusion would be that Jesus indeed rose from the dead.
Excerpted from Evidence for Jesus by Ralph O. Muncaster. Copyright © 2004 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.