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Did Joseph of Arimathea move the body?

Published: 29 March 2013 (GMT+10)

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 Sanders.

Flickr/James Emery

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 Sanders 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.

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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.

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).

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 Sanders

Helpful Resources

Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
US $12.00
Soft Cover

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