The Chain of Custody – Was Jesus’ Body Stolen?

Oldest of the challenges against the Resurrection is the charge that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth was stolen from the tomb. Could the body have been stolen? An unbroken chain of custody over his body would make the stolen body charge difficult to overcome.

Procurator Pilate granted the mutilated body of Jesus to Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish council. He was joined by Nicodemus, another prominent member of the Jewish Council, both taking the body to Joseph’s own unused tomb.

The pair quickly prepared the body for burial witnessed by women from Galilee, two identified by name, Mary the mother of Joseph (aka Jose) and 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 indeed dead and buried.

What did or didn’t happen between the time Jesus was laid in the tomb before dusk on Nissan 14, until the Sunday morning of Nissan 17, is almost 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 it is not the same alleged body theft in the different timeline of the Resurrection event before sunrise Sunday, Nissan 17, described by Matthew.

Those who most certainly would not have wanted to be corroborating witnesses of a Resurrection became just that. On Saturday, the day after Jesus was buried by some of their own leaders, the Jewish leadership declared to the Roman government that the body of Jesus was still in the tomb that Sabbath Saturday morning, Nissan 16, according to Jewish day reckoning…

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 JudeaPilate – with their concern of a false fulfillment of Jesus’ own  3-day Resurrection prophecy. 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 and the Jewish Counsel’s concern that it could be stolen. Unusual from a Roman perspective, but not for the Jews. Rome had little regard for crucified victims according to Josephus; 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.” – Josephus, Wars  [iv]

Pilate most likely considered other factors, too. False witness was a capital offense so how likely was it the Jews would risk lying to him? [v] Making their claim even stronger, the last thing the Jewish leadership would want to have happen is for the body to actually be stolen body.

Would the Jewish Council take the risk that the corpse had already been stolen only to have it turn up days later proving them to be liars – unless they were confident Jesus was still buried in the tomb?

Weighing the credibility, truthfulness and motive of their testimony and concluding 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 granted permission through what was, in essence, a Roman court order to secure it they best way they knew how.  This included stationing of a koustodia, a company of guards, at the tomb. Together, the Jewish leadership and the koustodia placed a seal on the tomb as an additional security measure.

Pilate’s Roman authority required the koustodia to be 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 joint 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 responsibility 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 Roman-Jewish 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 Saturday Sabbath morning are the contingent of chief priests and Pharisees (possibly including stealth followers for Jesus, 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 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 established by Rome from the crucifixion, to his burial, until the third day when incredible events at the tomb at sunrise Sunday morning occurred while the koustodia were still stationed at their post with the seal intact. With an unbroken chain of custody over the body of Jesus, what is the possibility his body was stolen?

 

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REFERENCES:

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>

Preparation Day – Is There a Gospel Contradiction?

Preparation Day can be a confusing Jewish tradition. Some critics point to John’s Preparation Day references to claim a Gospel contraction exists thereby casting doubt on the integrity of Gospel accounts about Jesus of Nazareth.[1] In the setting when Pilate was judging Jesus, John wrote:

JN 19:14 “Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”” (NKJV)

John seems to suggest that Jesus was judged by Pilate on the Thursday before Passover which would indeed create a Gospel conflict. In fact, this view would be inconsistent with John’s own second reference a few verses later:

JN 19:31 “Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.” (NKJV)

Occam’s Razor theory suggests that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. John clearly reveals the context of the “Preparation Day” reference in verse 19:35 when he said the crucifixion occurred on a Friday clearly having in mind that the Sabbath was set to begin at dusk.

For some, this may not completely address the apparent conflict posed by 19:14 obliging a longer explanation. A big clue is found in John’s parenthetical comment in 19:31 “for that Sabbath was a high day” or, depending on the translation, a “high Sabbath” or a “special Sabbath.”[2]

All Festival holy days, according to the Law of Moses, were to be regarded as a Sabbath, “an appointed time.”[3] Bookend holy days were designated for Passover week, the first and last days of Passover.[4] When the first holy day of the Passover fell on a Friday, it created a back-to-back Sabbath scenario, a “High Sabbath.”

Defined in the Law of Moses, God’s commandment said the weekly Sabbath is a holy day prohibiting “all manner of work.[5] The Jewish Talmud’s legal opinion expounded on the meaning detailing what was or was not considered “work” – rules notoriously enforced by the Pharisees in the Gospels.

Work prohibitions ran the gambit from cooking, drawing water, walking, carrying, making fires, feeding livestock, harvesting, etc. To avoid such violations, preparatory work for these tasks had to be completed before sunset Friday evening – the day of preparation for the Sabbath.[6]

When the Passover Nissan 15  fell on a Friday, it presented a legal conundrum. According to the Talmud’s interpretation of the Law, people were meant to “enjoy” the Passover Festival. The enjoyment factor of the Passover was confounded by the strict weekly Sabbath restrictions. It would be a negative experience to require the people, for example, to go without meals due to Sabbath work restrictions, not to mention the work responsibilities such as farming activities.

Typically on a Nissan 15th, people were customarily busy with other required and traditional activities such as at the Temple with the offering of the  chagigah sacrifice where the meat from it was to become the main course of the evening meal. That same evening was the traditional barley reaping ritual in preparation for the Wave Sheaf or the Omer offering to celebrate the Feast of First Fruits of the harvest the next day.[7]

One seemingly common sense solution might be to use Thursday, Nissan 14, as the preparation day for the back-to-back Sabbaths. For this 2-day High Sabbath, it was not that simple.

Double food preparations on Thursday, Nissan 14, to cover two days was not an option because the Passover commandment required all food from the Feast of Unleavened Bread on Nissan 15 to be consumed by midnight or else burned – no leftovers.[8] Meat from the Chagigah sacrifice would not be available until evening time meaning there would be was no prepared food for breakfast or lunch on the first day of Passover.

Rabbis as the  interpreters of the Law, the Jewish lawyers, found some legal wiggle room. Festival Sabbath language in the Law of Leviticus and Numbers used the Hebrew word abodah meaning “labor” interpreted by Rabbi Sages to be a more lenient work restriction than the weekly Sabbath “all manner of work.[9]

English translations reflect this difference saying “servile work,” “laborious work,” “regular work,” “occupations” and “customary work.”[10] JewishEncyclopedia.com explains the Passover holy day work restriction leniency:[11]

“The general purpose underlying these laws is to enhance the joy of the festival, and therefore the Rabbis permitted all work necessary to that end, while guarding against turning it into a working-day.”

In the spirit of the Passover being a celebratory festival along with its legal flexibility, typical Preparation Day work for the weekly Sabbath was allowed by the Rabbis for a Friday, Nissan 15, Passover holy day.

Wading through all the Jewish legalities, it boils down to John making references in both verses 19:14 and 19:31 to the same Friday “preparation day,” but under two different scenarios.

Verse 14 is in the context of an event marking the specific day when Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd that Friday morning, “the Preparation Day of the Passover.”

Verse 31 is in the narrower context of the very same day, Friday, when the imminent sunset would begin the weekly Sabbath and its much stricter rules – “because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath.” It is the reason Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were in a hurry to bury the body of Jesus before sunset, the beginning of a new Jewish day, the Sabbath.

Does John’s reference to the preparation day create a Bible contradiction with the other Gospels?

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

NKJV = New King James Version translation

Gospel references: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20

[1] Wells, Steve.  The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. 2017. “423. When was Jesus crucified?”  http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/passover_meal.html rel=”nofollow”</a>  “101 Bible Contradictions.”  Islamic Awareness. n.d. Contradiction #69. <http://www.islamawareness.net/Christianity/bible_contra_101.html rel=”nofollow”</a>
[2] NIV, NASB, NLT, NKJV.  Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. Book V, Chapter 15. <http://philologos.org/__eb-lat/default.htm>
[3] Exodus 31:12-17; Leviticus 23:1-44.  The Babylonian Talmud. Trans. Michael L. Rodkinson.  1918. Book 1, Sabbath, Chapter I; Book 2, Tract Erubin; Book 3, Tract Pesachim, Book 3, Chapter IV. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/talmud.htm>   Soncino Babylonian Talmud.  “Shabbath.” <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/shabbath/index.html>  “Shabbat” and “Festivals.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. < http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com>
[4] Exodus 12; Numbers 28.
[5] Exodus 23; 31; Leviticus 23.
[6] Exodus 16.
[7] Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V, Chapter 14.  “’Omer (= “sheaf”).”  JewishEncyclopedia.com.
[8] Deuteronomy 16.  Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826 -1889.  The NTSLibrary. 2016. <http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/The%20Temple%20by%20Alfred%20Edersheim.pdf>
[9] Leviticus 23; Numbers 28.
[10] KJV, NET, NIV, NASB, NLT, NRSV, NKJV. Net.Bible.org. Hebrew text, footnote #20 for Numbers 28:18. Strong. “`abodah <5656>.”  The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.
[11] The Babylonian Talmud.  Rodkinson.  Book 3, Tracts Pesachim, Chapter IV and Book 4, Tract Betzah (Yom Tob).  “Holy Days” and “Festivals.”  Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011.

Good Friday Or Should It Be Good Thursday?

Tradition says Jesus was crucified on Good Friday of Easter weekend. Not everyone agrees – some say that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday, the day before the Passover rather than Friday, the first day of Passover.[i] Was it Good Friday or Good Thursday?

Exacerbating the issue, others argue there is a conflict in the Gospels on the crucifixion timing which, in turn, serves to invalidate the Gospels’ credibility and by extension, its claim that Jesus is the Son of God.[ii]  The accuracy of Easter and Passover are called into question by this verse:

JN 18:28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.(NRSV)

John says the priests were worried about becoming defiled which would then disqualify them from “eating the Passover” meal.[iii] It is easy to draw the conclusion that “to eat the Passover” refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread to be eaten at its appointed time to launch Passover week.

If the verse is understood in this way, it would mean Jesus was crucified on Nissan 14, a Thursday that particular year. As such, the verse would indeed be a contradiction with the other Gospels, even John himself, which say Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover, a Friday.

All may not be what it appears to be. It helps to remember that Jewish days begin at Sunset, not midnight.

What if there was another separate Passover meal that concerned the priests on Friday, the first day of Passover, after the Feast of Leavened Bread? There was…and it involved a legally required Passover sacrifice.[iv] The Talmud, the Jewish Bible, differentiates between the first two Passover meals.

First of the two meals occurred at sunset beginning Friday, Nissan 15, with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The meat for the main course was taken from the paschal sacrifice offering earlier that afternoon, Thursday, Nissan 14. The meal was to be consumed by midnight with any leftovers burned.

The second Passover meal, Chagigah, was to be taken from the legally required festal sacrificial offering on the first day of Passover, Nissan 15. This meal was to be consumed over the course of two days and one night.[v]

Chagigah, as the first day of Passover meal later came to be called, involved the meat taken from a sacrifice offered by an individual at the Temple earlier in the day with the assistance of a priest who was also a beneficiary.[vi] Jewish Law stipulated that a portion of the sacrificial meat was to be given to the priest as a gratuity for his own Chagigah Passover meal while the remaining meat was to be taken home by the offerer for his own personal Chagigah meal.[vii]

Priests were held to a higher Rabbinical standard with special rules that did not apply to the general populace. Entering Pilate‘s headquarters, the Praetorium, was one of those things that would place the priests in a state of ritual defilement.[viii] Defilement worries centered on the consequences impacting their Chagigah meal.

Disqualification from performing their Chagigah sacrificial duty on the first day of Passover meant the priests would not have received their lawful portion of the sacrificial meat – no meat for their Chagigah Passover meal intended to be consumed over two days and a night.[ix]

Jewish legalities rule out the Feast of Unleavened Bread as the one referenced in John 18:28. Jewish Law provided two remedies for a ritually defiled priest to partake of the evening Feast or any other.

Rabbinic ritual defilement could be absolved after sunset by means of a ritualistic purification bath. Since the Feast of Unleavened Bread began after sunset, the purified priest could still partake of it if he had performed a ritual purification bath.

Additionally, the Law designated a make-up day called the “second Passover.” It’s purpose was intended for those who could not participate in the first traditional Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Logical, perhaps much bigger, reasons why the defilement concern of John 18:28 does not refer to the crucifixion of Jesus on Thursday, Nissan 14, preceding the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Earlier in the afternoon of Nissan 14, shortly after midday, upwards of a quarter million paschal sacrifices had to be performed at the Temple!

It was an all-hands on deck scenario where all the Priests served a vitally important role at the Temple requiring massive preparations with a packed and rigid schedule. Activities involved the sacred sacrificial rituals for the most popular annual Festival in all the land that drew crowds of about 3 million.[x] 

With this in mind, how conceivable is a scenario where high level priests pursued their vendetta against Jesus beginning after the evening dinner of Wednesday, Nissan 13, throughout the night into Nissan 14 with an overnight inquisition and a trial; Roman hearings the next morning; and ending with the crucifixion of Jesus at 3pm on Thursday Nissan 14 … at the very same time tens of thousands of pascal lamb sacrifices were being performed at the Temple? It would be like NFL Super Bowl event managers taking the day off on Super Bowl Sunday to attend to personal business.

Consider, too, the Roman factor – Passover was the one Jewish festival where the troublesome crowd of millions of pilgrims worried the Romans more than any other.[xi] How likely is it that Roman authorities would risk triggering a riot by crucifying Jews on the same day as their sacred paschal sacrifices at the Temple? On the other hand, the next day, the first day of Passover, Nissan 15, the crowds were dispersed by Jewish Law to their local housing accommodations to celebrate the Passover Festival with very minimal activity.

Did John’s reference to the priest’s defilement concern of missing the Passover meal actually pose a credibility issue with the other Gospels that said Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover?

 

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

NRSV = New Revised Standard Version translation

[i]  Doig, Kenneth F. New Testament Chronology.  Chapter 18.  <http://nowoezone.com/NTC18.htm>  Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. Book V.  <http://philologos.org/__eb-lat/default.htm>
[ii] Wells, Steve.  The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. 2017. “423. When was Jesus crucified?” http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/passover_meal.html> “101 Bible Contradictions.”  Islamic Awareness. n.d. Contradiction #69. https://www.islamawareness.net/Christianity/bible_contra_101.html>
[iii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 11. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/temple11.htm>
[iv] Edersheim. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. Chapter 11.  “Ablution.”  Jewish Encyclopedia.  2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com>
[v] The Babylonian Talmud. Trans. Michael L. Rodkinson.  1918.  Book 3, Tract Pesachim.  <http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/talmud.htm>   Streane, A. W, ed. A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud.  1891. Chagigah 7b.  <http://www.archive.org/stream/translationoftre00streuoft/translationoftre00streuoft_djvu.txt>
[vi] Leviticus 3.
[vii] Leviticus 7:29-32.  Edersheim. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. Chapters 5 & 11.  Streane.  A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud.  Glossary:  “Chagigah.”
[viii] Leviticus 22.
[ix] Leviticus 22;  Numbers 9. Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book III, Chapter X. 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>
[x] Josephus, Flavius.  Wars of the Jews. Book VI.. < http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[xi] Antiquities. Book XI, Chapter IV; Book XX, Chapter V. Josephus. Wars. Book V, Chapter V.