The Empty Tomb – Conspiracy or Resurrection?
For the more than 2000 years, the incident reported by the Gospels to have occurred at dawn on Sunday has been debated countless times. Believers say it was a Resurrection; skeptics have proposed many conspiracy theories to explain away how the body simply vanished.
Two named Jewish Council members and four named women from Galilee witnessed the evening the dead the body of Jesus had been laid in the tomb, embalmed and a stone rolled in front of the tomb entrance.The Jewish leadership testified to Pilate the next day that the body was in the tomb and needed to be secured. Dual security methods were implemented by the authority of Pilate to prevent the body from being stolen.
Setting the scene, the tomb was guarded by an armed Roman-Jewish military squad, the koustodia, and had been sealed. Predawn of Sunday finds Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jose, Salome, and Joanna fretting about who would roll away the stone set in place by Joseph of Arimathea.
Four 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 the tomb had been sealed and the tomb was guarded by koustodia.
Sunrise of Sunday begins the final phase in the sequence of events at the tomb preceded by the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. A significant number of 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)
Calm and quiet quickly took a dramatic turn when Matthew describes a great earthquake occurred. 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.
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. 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.
Reactions of witnesses to a traumatic event are indications of what was going through their minds. The hardcore military squad reacted to the events that Sunday morning in a similar manner as the four women – they all ran.
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.”
Headed for the location of some of the disciples were the women of Galilee. 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 some of 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 testified to Pilate the body of Jesus was inside the tomb and implored Pilate to secure the tomb to prevent the theft of the body. Now the very same Jewish leaders were 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, it confirms the guards were ultimately under Pilate’s Roman authority though 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.
Four women from Galilee, two members of the Jewish leadership, testimony by the Jewish leadership, Pilate’s affirmation, the chain of custody, koustodia, two angels, and the empty tomb are details making a false conspiracy challenging to defend.
Were the events involving the empty tomb a false narrative or was there a Resurrection?
Updated July 17, 2023.
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NET = NET Bible translation; NKJV = New King James Version translation.
Gospel Resurrection account: Matthew 28, Mark 16; Luke 24, John 20.
 “Centuries later, archaeologists opened the tomb of Jesus.” News24hours. photo. 2016. <https://news24hours.in/2016/10/31/centuries-later-archaeologists-opened-the-tomb-of-jesus-christ>
 NetBible.org. Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.