Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Resurrection Theory I: Did the Disciples Steal the Body?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 05, 2006

Ever since Our Lord rose from the dead, special interest groups have attempted to convince Christians that He really didn’t. The Jewish leaders who had Christ put to death to protect their religious authority clearly had a vested interest in denying the Resurrection. All those who wish to decide right and wrong for themselves share this same interest. Militant secularists must also persuade us it just isn’t so. The Resurrection is too great a threat to how they want the world to be.

But we know too much about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and the subsequent dramatic rise of Christianity, to cede the field to those who wish only to deny. We have witnesses, a great host of them, including the writers of a number of different books which have come down to us in what we call the New Testament. These witnesses, who claimed to have seen the risen Christ, had every reason to retract their claims in the face of torture and death, but they held firm. Presumably, then, they believed that a true resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the only reasonable explanation for what they had seen.

The Empty Tomb

The clearest point in the historical record is that the tomb in which Christ had been buried was really empty on Easter morning. A close look at the gospels shows that, had the tomb not been empty, the disciples would have made no claim of resurrection. Moreover, if they had claimed that Christ was risen while His body still lay in the tomb, the authorities would have gone and fetched the body to put it on public display. But there was no body to fetch. Therefore, they had to propose a theory which explained the emptiness of the tomb without admitting that Christ had risen from the dead.

Although we will consider in a later column some theories which ignore the tomb, in truth only those theories which acknowledge the emptiness of the tomb have a reason to be heard. There are two such theories, and only one of them was advanced at the time by those with most to gain, the chief priests and other members of the Sanhedrin. The disciples, they alleged, had stolen the body in order to perpetrate a lie.

Serious Precautions, Unlikely Thieves

When Christ died on the Cross, the high priest asked Pilate to secure the burial site, and Pilate authorized the use of a four-man guard, which marked the tomb with the seal of the Roman Empire. The price of breaking the seal was severe punishment and the penalty for sleeping on watch was death. Meanwhile, the disciples were in a state of profound disarray and dejection. Scripture tells us they had all left Jesus and fled. They were not about to take on the trained guardians of Rome.

Nonetheless, the enormous stone covering the mouth of the tomb was rolled back, and the tomb emptied of its contents, while the guards were on duty. Understandably, the guards were very fearful of the consequences when they reported what had occurred. But the chief priest bribed them to state that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards were asleep, assuring them that he would fix things up with Pilate so that they would not be punished.

It is, of course, inconceivable that the stone could have been moved without waking the “sleeping” guards, and even more inconceivable that the grave robbers would take the trouble to unwrap the body and set the head-covering neatly aside before getting safely away. But the logical fallacy of this accusation against the disciples is more outrageous still. As St. Augustine noted, if the guards were awake, how could the theft have succeeded? And if the guards were asleep, how could they identify the disciples as thieves?

Human Psychology

We have noted that the disciples were discouraged and frightened by the events of Good Friday. They did not understand Christ’s predictions that he would rise, and they saw his death as the heart wrenching destruction of a beautiful dream. Mark ran away naked, leaving his linen garment in the hands of those who sought to detain him. Peter quailed under the glance of a serving girl. Only a few women and young John had the courage to stand by until the end and prepare the body for burial.

When Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb to complete the burial preparations, which had been interrupted by the Sabbath, she expected to need help moving the stone. So far was Mary from imagining Christ as risen that she mistook him for the gardener. She did not see the gardener and mistake him for Christ. Yet a great shift somehow occurred as Peter received Mary’s report, no longer running away but toward the tomb to confirm that it was empty. The disciples began to gather, to view things differently, to find fresh courage. Some were hard to convince—consider Thomas!—but soon they became missionaries to the world. This is inexplicable if they had stolen the body and known the Resurrection was a hoax.

Such are the ludicrous weaknesses of the “theft theory”, the first effort to explain the Resurrection away, the alternative offered by the best contemporary minds consulting together at a time of great need. But what else could they say? That Christ had simply fainted on the cross and later walked out of the tomb on his own? Actually, after over seventeen hundred years had passed, the so-called Age of Reason did come up with this idea. We’ll examine it in next week’s column.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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