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Could Jesus’ body have been stolen before the guards arrived?

Image courtesy of www.HolyLandPhotos.orgAn open tomb

This week’s feedback comes from MM in New South Wales, Australia. He asks a friendly question about a possible loophole for sceptics of the Resurrection of Jesus. James Patrick Holding, founder of Tekton Apologetics Ministry and author of The Impossible Faith (Xulon Press, FL, 2007) provides a guest reply. He first points out an important cultural consideration often overlooked by modern Western readers, and then shows what a totally implausible set of circumstances this scenario would require.

Hi there,

I have often wondered about the time ‘gap’ between when Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb (on the Friday afternoon) and when the chief priests and Pharisees requested that the Roman guard be posted outside his tomb, the next morning (see Matthew 27:57-66).

For skeptics who desire to find a hole in the argument that Jesus’ body was resurrected, I thought it would be easy to point to this time gap. They could argue that Jesus’ body was stolen by his disciples BEFORE the Roman guard was posted. Any discussion about the disciples (or whoever they asked to steal the body) respecting the Sabbath which began Friday evening I would think would be flimsy evidence for such skeptics. After all, if they were willing to lie and deceive in order to start a new religion (as I imagine the skeptics must believe they were trying to do), then why would they feel compelled to observe the Sabbath if it stood in the way of them being able to do this?

I have tried to search on your site for this issue, and haven’t really found this point addressed anywhere. Anything I have found tends to say that it was impossible for the disciples (or others) to have stolen Jesus’ body, because they would have had to get past the Roman guards (as documented here). Or that the disciples would never have done such a thing, because of the persecution they would later suffer for the sake of a lie. I understand this argument, and it is powerful and rings true for me, but it doesn’t disprove the possibility of Jesus’ body being stolen before the guards were posted. Nobody seems to have discussed this and refuted it, or if they have, I can’t find it. Or it may be that I am missing something completely obvious that somebody (like yourselves) could explain to me.

Thanks for your ministry, and thanks for a response to this.

The argument that even allowing for the guard at the tomb reported by Matthew, the tomb was left unguarded for a short period (after the request was made to Pilate, but before the guards arrived on station) may seem to have some merit at first glance, but is effectively rebutted by two considerations.

The first is that although during that interim period, there was no one assigned by Pilate to guard the tomb, it is hardly conceivable that the tomb was not being watched at all. The suspicion of the priests hardly emerged at just that moment before they went to Pilate, and given the availability of thousands of Temple functionaries, it would be odd if they did not have someone watching the tomb (even if from afar) from the very start.

In addition to preventing theft of the body, the tomb would also need to be watched for a specific cultural reason: As one condemned to a criminal’s death, custom forbade Jesus to be mourned. Supervision at the tomb was necessary to prevent his death from being mourned by his followers. This would offer all the more reason why the tomb would effectively be guarded by persons allied with the priests who would observe from hiding and report anything suspicious, as opposed to the formal koustodia that were being requested by the priests. (This also explains, incidentally, why only Matthew mentions the guard in the first place: It was something shameful which took away from Jesus’ honor.)

Finally, there is the consideration that if the body were stolen in the interim period, we would be left with a hypothesis that Joseph put the (one-ton) stone in; then thieves later took it out (to steal the body), put it back in (to hide the theft), and then someone else (why??) took it out again (which fooled the disciples). The idea is so peculiar that I have termed the thesis, ‘The Tombstone Hokey Pokey’!

Published: 4 August 2007