Could the Body of Jesus Have Been Stolen?
Oldest of the challenges against the Resurrection is the charge that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth was stolen from the tomb. Standing in strong opposition is the chain of custody over the evidence jointly established by the Roman government and the Jewish council.
Procurator Pilate granted the mutilated body to Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish council. He along with Nicodemus, another prominent Jewish council member, took it to Joseph’s own unused tomb for burial.
The pair quickly prepared the body for burial witnessed by women from Galilee, two identified by name – Mary the mother of Joseph or Jose and Mary Magdalene.[ii] Joseph then rolled a stone in front of the tomb entrance – confirmation by the two Jewish Council members that Jesus was dead.
What did or didn’t happen between the time Jesus was laid in the tomb at dusk on Friday, Nissan 15, until the following Sabbath morning, Nissan 16, is a complete gap in the timeline of the Gospels. It offers an opening for skeptics to say the body was stolen from the tomb that first night, although not the same alleged theft in the timeline described by Matthew before sunrise Sunday morning.
Those who most certainly would not have wanted to be corroborating witnesses became just that. The Jewish leadership declared to the Roman government that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb Saturday morning, Nissan 15…
MT 27:62-64 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.”(NET)
Top level Jewish leadership approached Rome’s jurisdictional authority of Judea – Pilate – to state their concern implying it could also be a problem for him. As a Roman Procurator whose governing capacity included serving as a judge, Pilate had to weigh the truthfulness of their claim as well as the potential political consequences.
First was the declaration that the corpse of Jesus was lying in a tomb that Saturday morning. Unusual from a Roman perspective, not one of the Jews. Rome had little regard for crucified victims according toJosephus; however, Rome did allow the Jews’ custom to bury their crucified dead:[iii]
“Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified , and buried them before the going down of the sun.”[iv]
Pilate most likely considered other factors, too. False witness in the Roman Empire was a capital offense so how likely was it they would risk lying? [v]What if the corpse had already been stolen and then it turned up later? That would be the last thing the Jewish leaders would want to have happen making the validity of their declaration even stronger.
Weighing the credibility and truthfulness of their testimony and concluding they were telling the truth that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, an irritated Pilate issued a terse decision:
MT 27:65-66 “Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how.” And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.”(NASB)
Pilate issued what was, in essence, a Roman court order to station koustodia, a company of guards, at the tomb and secure it they best way they knew how. Together, the chief priests, Pharisees and the koustodia placed a seal on the tomb as an additional security measure.
Pilate’s Roman authority was required to deploy the koustodia making them accountable to him; however, because some of the guards later ran to the chief priests after the events at the tomb on Sunday morning, it suggests at least some koustodia also had a form of accountability to the Jewish council. Was there such a thing as a Roman-Jewish military squad?
Josephus described a “seal” process involving a combined Jewish-Roman military style squad led by a “Roman captain of the temple guards.” The Roman captain, who resided in the Tower of Antonia adjacent to the Temple, was assigned to a contingent of armed Temple guards.[vi]
It was this Roman captain’s role to match his seal ring with a matching seal ring possessed by the Temple leadership to verify the integrity of the seal, in this case, used to secure the Chief Priest’s vestments worn at the Jewish festal sacrifices. This seal process was temporarily in place only from the death of King Herod until Vitellius became president of Syria in 35 AD – the period of years virtually coinciding with the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth.[vii]
Placed at the scene of the tomb holding the body of Jesus or Nazareth that Sabbath morning are the contingent of chief priests and Pharisees (probably including stealth followers, Joseph and Nicodemus) to witness the seal being placed on the tomb and the posting of the koustodia. Jewish leadership left with full confidence the sealed tomb would remain secure for three days following his crucifixion alleviating their anxiety that someone might steal the body of Jesus.[viii]
Archenemies of Jesus obtained a Roman judgement confirming that the chain of custody over the body of Jesus was legally in tact from the Roman crucifixion, to his burial, until the incredible events at the tomb at sunrise Sunday morning. With an unbroken chain of custody over the body of Jesus, what is the possibility his body was stolen?
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
NET = NetBible translation; NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
Gospel references: Matthew 27-28, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19.
[i] Pearce, Jonathan MS. “Matthew and the guards at the tomb.” 2012. <http://www.debunking-christianity.com/2012/06/matthew-and-guards-at-tomb.html rel=”nofollow”> “Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb.” FreeThoughtBlogs.com. 2014. <http://freethoughtblogs.com/alethianworldview/2012/02/27/gospel-disproof-38-the-guards-at-the-tomb rel=”nofollow”>
[ii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V. 1883. Philogos.org. n.d. <http://philologos.org/__eb-lat/default.htm>
[iii] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter VIII;
Google Books. n.d. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[iv] Josephus. Wars. Book IV, Chapter V.
[v] Jahnige, Joan. “The Roman Legal System.” KET Distance Learning. 2017. http://www.dl.ket.org/latin2/mores/legallatin/legal01.htm> Adams, John Paul. “The Twelve Tables.” 2009. California State University – Northridge. <https://www.csun.edu/~hcfll004/12tables.html>
[vi] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I. Wars. Book II, Chapter XVII; Book V, Chapter VI.
[vii] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I. Smith William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 1857. “L. Vitellius” (#5); “C. Cassius Longinus” (#18), and “L. Cassius Longinus” (#19). OpenLibrary.org. n.d. <https://archive.org/stream/schooldictionary00smituoft#page/n9/mode/2up> Smith, Mahlon H. “Lucius Vitellius.” VirtualReligion.net. 2008. <http://virtualreligion.net/iho/vitellius_1.html> “Lucius Vitellius.” Livius.org. Ed. Jona Lendering. 20John Simkin14. <http://www.livius.org/person/vitellius-lucius>
[viii] “koustodia”, G2892l (Strong) “#2892 κουστωδία koustodia;” “strategos <4755> and “speira <4686>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com>