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Did Joseph of Arimathea move the body?

There is no shortage of scenarios used to try to explain away the empty tomb without appealing to the Resurrection. One of the most common accusations is that the disciples stole the body and lied about it (invented by the Jews at the time of the Resurrection; Matthew 28:13). However, it has been pointed out that most of the disciples died for their faith; surely no one would take the hoax that far, dying for what they knew was a lie, when recanting could have saved their lives. However, Martin H., a member of the Australian Skeptics, wrote in with a different perspective, criticising Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s article Should we trust the Bible? The letter is printed below entirely, then it’s followed by a point-by-point response by New Testament specialist Lita Cosner.

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Who says the disciples needed such a motive? Whether there were Romans is unclear. When he said: “Ye have a watch” Pilate could have been telling the Jews to use their own people. We can imagine Pilate, once disinterested, now uninterested, saying: ‘You’ve used enough of my resources already. Do it yourself.’ Heavily armed? Perhaps, but certainly not a “cohort” in the true sense of the term.
There is no suggestion that the Roman or Jewish authorities believed that the body disappeared through resurrection. By Dr S’s logic, they could ONLY have blamed the watch. There would have been repercussions, such as court martials and executions, but we hear of none. No one blamed the watch.
Perhaps there was no watch. Only Matthew mentions one. It is another example of Matthew being the only gospel writer to lay claim to a spectacular event. Only he has graves opening up at the time of the crucifixion. Only he has the door of Christ’s tomb opened by an angel as an earthquake takes place.
More importantly, if we trust Matthew, there was a time when no “watch” was guarding the tomb. The reason why scholars do not have the “major difficulty” that Dr S asserts, is that there is nothing like the concept of a chain of custody, familiar to criminal lawyers. The Bible reveals that there are several earthly reasons why the body might have disappeared. We are told that Joseph of Aramithea took the body and had it placed in “his own new tomb”. Before any watch appeared, he may have decided to move it.
He may have thought his tomb insufficient for the Son of Man. He may have been warned that this was no time to be seen as sponsoring Jesus; so move it. On that first night we can imagine a tense atmosphere in the town. People would have regarded the tomb as a dangerous place. J of A could expect not to be disturbed. He had every right to re-open his tomb and had nothing to fear if he was questioned.
Once the fuss started some days later, he may also have decided he had more to lose than to gain in revealing the truth. What harm if they believe he rose anyway?
I suggest that if you want to found a resurrection story on the Biblical accounts (there being no others) then you get more mileage from the stories about the risen Jesus. The ‘missing body’ is a non-issue.

Lita Cosner responds:

Who says the disciples needed such a motive? Whether there were Romans is unclear. When he said: “Ye have a watch” Pilate could have been telling the Jews to use their own people. We can imagine Pilate, once disinterested, now uninterested, saying: ‘You’ve used enough of my resources already. Do it yourself.’ Heavily armed? Perhaps, but certainly not a “cohort” in the true sense of the term.

Well, yes, that’s one of the options. He said, “Ἔχετε κουστωδίαν” (echete koustōdian), which could be imperative; i.e.: “Take a guard”, or indicatively, “You have a guard (so use your own people!).” Commentators are pretty evenly divided about which is meant, so we must look beyond the grammar to the wider context about what Matthew says about this guard. In Matthew 28:12 they are called τοῖς στρατιώταις (tois stratiōtais), “[the] soldiers”, but again, that could theoretically be used of a temple guard or Pilate’s guard.

©istockphoto.com/digitalskillet

We know that Pilate didn’t really have any love for the Jews. He had mixed the blood of some of the Galileans with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1, an event probably not attested in secular literature—if any literature of that period can properly be called ‘secular’; ‘non-biblical’ is probably the more precise term). And when he finally agreed to crucify Jesus, he gave the Jews one last insult, by inscribing ‘King of the Jews’ on the titulus (John 19:21—see also Inscriptions on the Cross). Carson says that “the wording is Pilate’s last act of revenge in this case. He has already taunted the Jews with Jesus’ kingship (vv. 14–15); here he does so again, mocking their convenient allegiance to Caesar by insisting that Jesus is their king, and snickering at their powerless status before the might of Rome by declaring this wretched victim their king” (Carson, D.A., Gospel of John, PNTC). Philo in his Embassy to Caligula and Josephus in The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews corroborate this picture of Pilate. So as Carson says:

Pilate refuses to use his troops but tells the Jewish authorities that they have the temple police at their disposal; and he grants the leaders permission to use them. This explains why, after the Resurrection, the guards reported to the chief priests, not to Pilate (28:11). Pilate’s answer in v. 65 must therefore be construed as cynical. He is saying, “You were afraid of this man when he was alive; now he is dead, and you are still afraid! By all means secure the tomb as tightly as possible, if you think that will help; but use your own police.” (Carson, Matthew 13–28, EBC, p. 586).

This would also explain how the chief priests were able to bribe them to say they fell asleep—for a group of Roman soldiers, this would be akin to suicide, because the penalty would be death. The penalty for mere Temple police would be much lighter, however.

Some commentaries do a good job of setting out the case for the soldiers being Roman, but I find the above scenario more convincing.

There is no suggestion that the Roman or Jewish authorities believed that the body disappeared through resurrection. By Dr S’s logic, they could ONLY have blamed the watch. There would have been repercussions, such as court martials and executions, but we hear of none. No one blamed the watch.

The fact that the watch had to be bribed to lie about what happened to the body suggests that the Jewish leaders did believe that Jesus was raised, and tried hard to cover it up.

On the contrary, the fact that the watch had to be bribed to lie about what happened to the body suggests that the Jewish leaders did believe that Jesus was raised, and tried hard to cover it up. We don’t hear about the watch afterwards because they have no part to play in the story after this. Perhaps they realized how silly the story was: if they were asleep, then how could they possible know the identity of the thieves?

Perhaps there was no watch. Only Matthew mentions one. It is another example of Matthew being the only gospel writer to lay claim to a spectacular event. Only he has graves opening up at the time of the crucifixion. Only he has the door of Christ’s tomb opened by an angel as an earthquake takes place.

This isn’t convincing. The Gospel authors each had their own agendas for writing, their own ‘portrait of Jesus’ that they wanted to present. Again, Carson says:

This pericope is peculiar to Matthew; and it is often viewed as a piece of “creative writing” designed to provide “witnesses” to the Resurrection (Schniewind) or to provide “evidence” that Jesus’ body has not been stolen. But there are several things in favor of the pericope’s historicity.
  1. It must be taken with 28:11–15. Thus the account of the guards at the tomb does less to assure us that the body was not stolen than to provide background for the report that it was.
  2. This may be the reason why the other evangelists omit it. In the circles they were writing for, the report circulated by the Jews may not have been current; so no explanation was necessary. In Matthew’s Jewish environment, he could not avoid dealing with the subject.
  3. Matthew has regularly given information in the passion narrative that the other evangelists omit (e.g., 27:19, 34–35, 62–63); and it is methodologically wrong to doubt the historicity of all details that lack multiple attestation—not least because such “multiple attestation” may sometimes go back to one literary source.
  4. If Matthew were trying to prove Jesus’ body was not stolen, why does he not have the guards posted immediately, instead of waiting till the next day (v. 62)?
  5. On the other hand, the chief priests and the Pharisees would not necessarily be defiling themselves by approaching Pilate on the Sabbath, provided they did not travel more than a Sabbath day’s journey to get there and did not enter his residence (cf. John 18:28). Their action is not implausible if they still saw some potential threat in the remains of the Jesus movement. (Carson, Matthew 13–28, EBC, p. 585).

N.T. Wright argues (note: N.T. Wright is no conservative; at least not as most people would define conservative, so his words have even extra weight):

The story, obviously, is part of an apologia for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is an attempt to ward off any suggestion that the disciples had in fact stolen the body, which must have seemed the most natural explanation for the emptiness of the tomb. But, while the historian is always cautious about accepting obviously apologetic tales, there are further considerations which make it very unlikely that this one was actually invented from scratch within the Christian community.
For a start, it is implausible to suppose that the whole story would have been invented in the first place, let alone told and finally written down, unless there was already a rumour going around that the disciples had indeed stolen the body. If nobody had suggested such a thing, it is difficult to imagine the Christians putting the idea into people’s heads by making up tales that said they had.
Furthermore, a charge such as this would never have arisen unless it was already well known, or at the very least widely supposed, that there was an empty tomb, and/or a missing body, requiring an explanation. If the empty tomb were itself a late legend, it is unlikely that people would have spread stories about body-stealing, and hence that Christians would have employed the dangerous tactic of reporting such stories in order to refute them.
Finally, the telling of the story indicates well enough that the early Christians knew the charge of stealing the body was one they were always likely to face—and that it was preferable to tell the story of how the accusation had arisen, even at the risk of putting ideas into people’s heads, rather than leave the accusation unanswered. (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 638).
More importantly, if we trust Matthew, there was a time when no “watch” was guarding the tomb. The reason why scholars do not have the “major difficulty” that Dr S asserts, is that there is nothing like the concept of a chain of custody, familiar to criminal lawyers. The Bible reveals that there are several earthly reasons why the body might have disappeared. We are told that Joseph of Arimathea took the body and had it placed in “his own new tomb”. Before any watch appeared, he may have decided to move it.
He may have thought his tomb insufficient for the Son of Man. He may have been warned that this was no time to be seen as sponsoring Jesus; so move it. On that first night we can imagine a tense atmosphere in the town. People would have regarded the tomb as a dangerous place. J of A could expect not to be disturbed. He had every right to re-open his tomb and had nothing to fear if he was questioned.

All of this is simply speculation. And it relies on the assumption that the Jewish Temple police and the high priests were too dumb to check the tomb before they sealed it. Lack of modern forensic handling of evidence or not, it stretches credulity to think they would have been that stupid.

Also, if Joseph of Arimathea moved the body, why would the women still be looking for the body? Joseph had some connection to the Jesus movement (he is called a “disciple of Jesus” in Matthew 27:57); surely he would notify some of them that the body had been moved, even if he couldn’t have been bothered to notify the Jewish guard.

Finally, your theory ignores a vitally important detail—Joseph of Arimathea was a devout Jew, and the time that the tomb was unguarded was from Friday night to Saturday morning—i.e. part of the Sabbath, during which no Jew would want to touch a dead body (that’s precisely the reason that the women waited until after Sabbath sundown to come to the tomb).

The missing body is precisely the issue when we’re talking about the Resurrection.

Once the fuss started some days later, he may also have decided he had more to lose than to gain in revealing the truth. What harm if they believe he rose anyway?

If being a Christian in the first century was associated with riches and respect in society, your theory here might have one less strike against it. But Joseph of Arimathea was already a respected and wealthy Jew. And first-century Christians were not a privileged group—they drew their ranks disproportionately from slaves and women. Jewish Christians were subject to synagogue discipline, and eventually expelled from the synagogue entirely, disowned by their families and shunned by their former friends. In short, a wealthy Jew who helped the Christian cause at all was risking all his wealth and social status. It would be totally illogical for someone to pull a hoax like that, because not only would there be no conceivable benefit, there could be substantial consequences. Think about it: the 11 remaining disciples spent the time from Jesus’ crucifixion until His resurrection locked away and afraid for their lives. While Jesus gently chided the disciples for not ‘getting’ His explicit predictions of His resurrection, there’s no indication that they expected Him to literally rise from the dead.

I suggest that if you want to found a resurrection story on the Biblical accounts (there being no others) then you get more mileage from the stories about the risen Jesus. The ‘missing body’ is a non-issue.

I suggest that the missing body is precisely the issue when we’re talking about the Resurrection. The Jewish leaders went to the lengths of bribing the guards to lie to cover it up. It’s been the point of contention between the Jewish and Christian faiths—the non-Christian Jew believes that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because He died; the Christian believes that Jesus was proved to be the Messiah when He was raised.

The main, damning point against your hypothesis is that it is pure conjecture with no basis in the historical data. We at least have an early record of the Resurrection claims; the people who accuse the disciples of stealing the body at least have a record of the accusation that they stole the body, but no one in the whole 2,000 years since Jesus died and rose has thought, “Hey, maybe it was Joe of Arimathea!”

It’s not as if Christians haven’t ‘done their homework’—N.T. Wright and Michael Licona have both written huge, well-researched books about the Resurrection (there are others, of course, but I’m referring to those which I’ve personally read). An informed criticism of the doctrine of the Resurrection will take into account the best arguments of those who believe in the Resurrection.

Sincerely,

Lita Cosner

Published: 29 March 2013 (GMT+10)

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Readers’ comments
Nick D., Australia, 29 March 2013

It's amazing that so many people just can't accept the resurrection despite there 500 eye witnesses. How many would finally convince them, 501?!

David T., Australia, 29 March 2013

Isn't it interesting that, to prove part of the Gospel is untrue, people "set up" their case by quoting from other parts. How do they know they and we can trust the bits they rely on? Especially when the Skeptics' line on Jesus is that He simply wasn't even born. If that was so, how can they build a case for how He died, where He was buried, and what happened to a body that didn't exist in the first place? The Skeptics' claim that they have a case to explain that a " 'missing body' is a non-issue" - is itself a non-issue. Except that too many people blindly, uninformedly, accept it.

Bastiaan G., Netherlands, 29 March 2013

The whole idea of a stolen body does not make any sense if you read further.

We can read in acts that there were so many witnesses who saw Him after his death.

Of course one could argue the disciples made that up too. That doesn't make sense either, since the disciples would not let themselves be cruciefied for a story they made up themselves as happened to Peter.

So the only logical conclusion is that it truly happened as is written in scripture.

Andrew N., United Kingdom, 29 March 2013

Of all the attempts on the part of desperate skeptics to refute the Historical fact of the Resurrection from out of the dead by the Jewish Messiah Yeshua this one takes the biscuit.

Lita, it must be Easter!

The LORD is Risen. The LORD is Risen INDEED, Hallelujah.

1 Corinthians 15.

David C., United States, 29 March 2013

Nice response, Lita.

Skeptics will always have objections to the resurrection account. They will disregard or ignore the evidence for it while holding fast to their own flimsy theories designed to debunk. It's always the same thing; the body was stolen, either by the disciples or by Joesph of Arimathea. It's clear most skeptics aren't interested in finding out the truth, just in rehashing old arguments and theories in order to make themselves feel more comfortable with the worldview they've chosen to defend.

That the original disciples never recanted their resurrection accounts despite leading very rough lives as they spread the Gospel, is evidence that they were witness to something incredible. That every disciple except for John, experienced very torturous and inhumane deaths and never once recanted what they had seen, is also evidence that they were a part of something remarkable.

William M., United States, 29 March 2013

Not surprising that the "skeptics" would take this tact, i.e., try to get CMI to concede to placing the "missing body" in a negotiable position. I'm thankful that Lita and CMI are circumspect, and I'm sure the Holy Spirit plays no small part in this. God bless you all for your ever-vigilant efforts and your reliance on the Holy Sprit for wisdom in responding to these subtle satanic attacks!

Jerdan S., United States, 29 March 2013

I understand the reason for this debate of sorts but I also fail to see why it can even be brought up. If Christ's body were to have been stolen and He not have risen, then what of the account of Jesus coming before the disciples? Is that supposed to just be "part of the story?" It seems to me that the fact that the body was missing can be easily explained by the scarred body of Christ that was living and breathing among the disciples. The fact that Jesus presented Himself in his original bodily form, in which He died right before their eyes, means that His body could not have been stolen. If it were, and He were to have appeared in a likeness of Himself, I do not believe that He would have kept those characteristics and that His body would have been renewed as if He were prepared for His ascent to heaven. Even if it had been moved, there is still no body and it still would not have prevented Him from arising. So maybe the real argument goes back to whether one believes that He arose or not. If He didn't then we are all lost, and we all know that isn't true.

Joe S., United States, 29 March 2013

Most interesting assumptions,however it would lead one to believe then that the appearing Jesus in the upper room would not have happened.Thomas would have been involved in an elaborate hoax when indicating he put his fingers in Jesus hands and so forth and so on,all in all i think it was well written,and in my opinion Jesus is who he claims to be-The risen Christ. Amen

A. R., United Kingdom, 30 March 2013

Imagine a court room in which a trial is taking place. The incident in question occurred many years ago. No witnesses remain alive. However, the prosecution introduces as evidence several written statements detailing the event being examined. Some were written by eye-witnesses of the incident in question. Others are second hand accounts, collating what the writers had heard from eye-witnesses of the incident.

One by one, the statements are read out. Both judge and jury listen intently, piecing together the accounts to see if they coalesce into a consistent narrative. In spite of the differences in emphasis, the diverse details and distinctive viewpoints included by the witnesses, the written statements together all point to the same conclusions. The evidence is consistent, even though it takes some work to piece together the full story.

Then the defence brings in a "witness". In cross questioning, the witness admits that he was not alive at the time of the incident. So, he was not present when the incident occurred, and he admits that he has never met an eye-witness. He has never been to the place where the incident took place, and has never met any of the protagonists. However... he is convinced that he knows what happened far better than the eye-witnesses, who in his opinion must be wrong, because, he asserts, the writers of the statements all had axes to grind. He has formulated a theory on the basis of his own musings on the matter. Oh, no, he has no axe to grind himself... does he? He must be right, as his conclusions are based entirely on logic.

The witnesses were men of integrity, men who suffered, and in some cases, died, because they believed what they had written.

Which evidence would you want the court to base its verdict on?

Randy S., United States, 30 March 2013

Lita, since your skeptic correspondent likes to make up stories, maybe he won’t mind if I try my hand at it. Now this Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, a prominent councilman, and was himself waiting for the full revelation of the kingdom of God. Himself a disciple and believing that Jesus was the promised Messiah – for he was a studied man – he was fully persuaded that Jesus would rise from the dead. Knowing beforehand of Jesus’ impending death, as the scriptures predicted, he had a tomb specially prepared to receive the body and prove out its subsequent resurrection. A new tomb, one hewn out of rock, wherein a body had never been laid. One with a single opening to serve as the entrance and exit. One with a stone large and heavy enough to permanently seal the opening once in place. While the most notable disciples cowered in fear, Joseph of Arimathea found courage to approach Pilate for the body of Jesus. Witnesses from the high priest watched from a distance as he and Nicodemus placed Jesus’ body in the tomb then rolled and dropped the heavy stone in place to seal the entrance. When he later heard of the sentry commissioned to guard and seal the tomb, he was all too happy, knowing that it would only lend credence to the reality of the resurrection. No, Joseph of Arimathea did not move the body of Jesus. In fact, he buried it good and “deep”, with plenty of witnesses, in a nearby, brand new tomb – of the kind that only the rich could construct and own. One well-known and envied by every poor and middle-class head of household in Jerusalem. You might say after the events of that evening most everybody knew where Jesus’ body was! And that’s exactly the way Joseph of Arimathea had envisioned it. All that was left was to wait for Sunday morning.

Dean Y., South Africa, 30 March 2013

Great response, Lita. The empty tomb is a critical part of of the history of the resurrection. Gary Habermas also made the point that it is well supported by the argument from embarrassment. The fact that women were the first to discover the empty tomb was unlikely to have been promoted in all four gospels unless it was, in fact, true! It was not customary in the time and culture for women to even testify in a court of law. The fact that the apostles openly declared this fact just goes to show how important historical accuracy and truthfulness was to them.

Erik W., United States, 30 March 2013

Great apologetics reading over Easter. Thanks! Personally I find the numerous "counterproductive" details (the disciples weren't expecting a resurrection, the tomb was initially unguarded, etc) to be strong confirmation of the truth of the details reported, because why would you bother to undermine your case if you were really making up a 'conspiracy theory' from scratch with the intent to convince people? There's consequently no evidence that the Gospel accounts, or the rest of the Bible for that matter, are mythical inventions, because they lack the sort of embellishment one would expect, and have far too many "embarrassing details" included.

Happy Easter!

Hans G., Australia, 30 March 2013

Martin H. uses 4 x may;

3 x if;

2 x would;

2 x could and

1 x perhaps

in his argument. Is this a solid base?

Why do people always look for mistakes? To take control over an issue? Does God need help to express Himself? And if the body was shifted, it did not stopped the Resurrection.

Doug T., United States, 31 March 2013

Thorough, well researched, yet to the point. Excellent work!

Doug

Steven G., Canada, 31 March 2013

I've always thought it would take an inordinate amount of money to bribe Roman guards to claim they fell asleep on duty because they would have to bribe their way out of being put to death.

David B., Australia, 31 March 2013

Like all sceptic views on the resurrection of Jesus this starts with the assumption resurrection could not take place, therefore find the evidence to disprove the record. The question our friend could ask is, why accept any of the record at all? Why accept those points that support my theory but reject those that do not?

The simple yet profound record is that many saw Jesus after his resurrection, (1 Cor. 15:1-8) and those that had reason to doubt needed only to produce the body, or witnesses that it had been moved. Joseph could not have moved the body without accomplices, and it’s doubtful that two or three people struggling through the countryside or city with a corpse would not have been noticed by someone. It was in the utmost interest for the authorities to crush this sect before it took hold and would have been relatively easy to prove it did not happen. Not even false witnesses were produced to refute the claim (as used in the trial of Jesus). Historians of the day did not adversely comment either. The overwhelming evidence of available records (we just happen to call New Testament writings) and the willingness of fearful disciples to preach that gospel, and suffer for so doing, point decidedly to the resurrection being factual. (Not forgetting there are three other unrefuted cases of resurrection in the gospels.) Paul reminds his readers that the resurrection is central to salvation, not to believe renders faith and salvation impossible (1 Cor. 15 :12-21).

One must also take into account that the resurrection of Jesus was not understood by the Jews of the day and was therefore a revelation in more ways than one. The question could be asked, how did these ‘ignorant and unlearned men’ concoct, or understand, something that had evaded the most learned of the day,

Linda C., Canada, 1 April 2013

Can't Martin H even include his full name? I was taught to sign my writing, even if it was controversial.

Lita Cosner responds

We normally only include the last initial of the correspondent when we publish feedbacks. He did include his full name in the original message.

Robert W., United States, 3 April 2013

Over 100 pounds of myrrh would have been used to secure the Saviors burial wrappings. The shellack like solution would have dried to a very tight enclosure. Indeed, mummy like. The Biblical account when Peter and John first gazed into the tomb on resurrection day points to these undisturbed grave cloths and is the precise reason John immediately knew Christ arose supernaturally.

There was no speculation on Johns behalf of any body snatching. No one could have removed that body and left the stiff wrap totally undisturbed.

Also, the stone was rolled away to allow inspection, Christ would have not needed it open to exit.

Furthermore, both the Sanhedrin and the Romans knew all about not only Christs appearances after the resurrection, many other graves were opened on that Sunday and testimonies given in the city by them. There is more evidence of the resurrection of

Christ than there is that Julius Ceasar even existed.

Run to Christ. Actually, just open your heart and mind. He's standing there knocking.

Robert S., Australia, 5 April 2013

"...you get more mileage from the stories about the risen Jesus. The ‘missing body’ is a non-issue." (?)

You can't have a risen Jesus without a missing body.

Wayne W., United States, 11 April 2013

Christ arose. Besides the evidence at the tomb, and in Gods Word over and over in Psalms and Isaiah, etc. There's the ascension, with it's witnesses. Remember Saul of Tarsus was converted post resurrection and moved from persecutor to the most prolific Biblical constructor. The disciples could only have been emboldened by resurrection. Cowards in hiding after crucifixion, nine to ten of them eventually gave their lives for the cause of Christ. They hadn't been looking for resurrection: scripture is clear that God prevented their comprehension of that concept. When Jesus spoke of His death and resurrection, they didn't understand what He meant.

Just like it takes more faith to believe evolution over creation, (much more), knowing how Jesus was hated by the Pharisees and that they would have found the body had it been anywhere other than in its glorified living state, they would have tracked it down and paraded it through the streets.

But the greatest evidence of all is receiving Christ in trusting faith, and feeling the Holy Spirit seal that belief in ones soul. Only then can one know it is just as Gods Word says it is.

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