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 Judea – Pilate – 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.
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>