The Empty Tomb – Conspiracy or Resurrection?

In a matter of moments, the Roman-Jewish legally imposed chain of custody over the body of Jesus since his death by crucifixion was suddenly broken. What happened?

For the more than 2000 years, the incident that occurred at dawn on Sunday,  the third day of Passover by Jewish reckoning, has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many Resurrection conspiracy theories to explain how the body simply vanished.

On or about sunrise of Nissan 17 begins the final phase in the sequence of events at the tomb preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth in that tomb.  A significant ten verses in Matthew and eight verses in Mark describe the scenario at the tomb that morning. Luke paraphrased how it began saying:

LK 24:1  “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.” (NKJV)

Setting the scene, anyone trying to steal the body would have encountered an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia. Further, the tomb had been sealed in the presence of Roman authorities and Jewish leadership. Both security measures were intended to prevent the body from being stolen.

Predawn finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place late afternoon on Friday by Joseph of Arimathea. Three conclusions can be drawn:  the women expected to find the dead body of Jesus; they were not accompanied by either Joseph or Nicodemus nor any of the Disciples; and they were unaware of the koustodia guarding the sealed tomb.

At this juncture, there are now two named Jewish Council members, four named women from Galilee, the Jewish leadership declaration to Pilate, his Roman government decision, and the koustodia guards – all witnesses to the fact that the body of Jesus was in the tomb leading up to dawn of Sunday morning.

Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes a great earthquake that struck. At this moment, the four named women and the koustodia witnessed the stone being rolled away from the entrance to the tomb:

MT 28:2-4 “And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.” (NKJV)

Witness accounts gathered by the authors of Matthew and Mark describe the tomb being opened by an angel or a young man wearing a wrap-around, brilliant white robe. Shortly thereafter, Luke’s report describes two men in dazzling apparel.[i] The angelic beings point out to the witnesses that the tomb is empty.

Seasoned Roman-Jewish military soldiers and the women of Galilee were paralyzed with fear by the traumatic sequence of events – a great earthquake, an angelic being rolling away the stone and his extraordinary announcement. Incapacitated with fear, they watched and listened as the events at the tomb unfolded.

Whether Roman soldiers or Temple Guards, both were fierce, experienced warriors. The reputation of Roman soldier discipline is legendary and requires no further explanation. 

InWars, Josephus described Jews in hand-to-hand combat defending the Temple against the Romans, each side at times taking heavy casualties.[iii] In a few battles, the Jewish defenders actually won the day. Temple Guards were especially trained to stay awake all night. Falling asleep on-duty could result in being set on fire by superiors.[iv] 

Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted in a similar manner as the four women.

Matthew reports the chaotic scene where people scattered in three directions. Mark reports the petrified and dumbstruck women didn’t say a word and ran from the tomb. Luke said they were “terrified.”[ii]

Headed for the location of some of the disciples were the women while the koustodia split up, some diverting to go tell the Jewish chief priests what they had seen, the others to destinations unknown. Unbecoming behavior by the koustodia is telling.

Direct reports from the koustodia rang true with the chief priests based on their own reaction to the information. It posed an unexpected turn of events for the chief priests who quickly assembled the elders of the Jewish Council (likely including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) to deal with their new problem.

Irony of ironies. The Jewish leadership had just the day before implored Pilate to secure the tomb to prevent the theft of the body of Jesus after testifying to Pilate the body was inside the tomb. Now the very same council was compelled to find a way to explain an inexplicable breach in their own Roman-Jewish security measures to explain the missing body. Matthew describes what they decided to do:

MT 28:13-14 “You are to say, ‘His disciples came at night and stole his body while we were asleep….’ If this matter is heard before the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”(NET)

Further insight to the authority of the koustodia is revealed. Promising to appease Pilate if the koustodia’s dereliction of duty became an issue confirms the guards were ultimately under Pilate’s Roman authority yet strongly influenced by the Jewish leadership.

Meanwhile, the women of Galilee arrived at the location as some of the disciples. John’s eyewitness Gospel joins the description of events at this point with Mary Magdalene’s bewildered announcement to the Disciples. She is quoted exclaiming:

JN 20:2 “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (NET)

Both the koustodia and the women reported the same event to two different parties describing how the chain of custody over the body of Jesus had been broken. Each party reacted differently to the information while neither party called the reports false.

One group chose to investigate the empty tomb and found more evidence inside. The Jewish Council had the option to lodge a legal complaint with Rome to challenge the broken chain of custody, but instead they chose a cover-up. Pilate was silent, too, and took no action. Why?  Did an unexplainable Resurrection actually occur?

 

Updated September 5, 2021.

Creative Commons License

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

REFERENCES:

NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.

Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.

 [i] NetBible.org. Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.
[ii] NASB, NIV, NRSV.
[iii] Josephus. Wars of the Jews. Book VI, Chapter IV.4-6; Book VI, Chapter I.1. “Temple, Administration and Service of.” JewishEncylcopedia.comhttp://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14303-temple-administration-and-service-of&gt
[iv] Talmud Mishna Middot. The Sefaria Library. <http://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Middot.1/en/Sefaria_Community_Translation?lang=b “The Temple Guards and Their Mystical Meaning.” Chabad.org. <http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3001283/jewish/The-Temple-Guards-and-Their-Mystical-Meaning.htm>

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?

 

Updated September 5, 2021.

Creative Commons License

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

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>