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.[1]

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)

An ancient tomb in Israel

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


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

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

[1] “Centuries later, archaeologists opened the tomb of Jesus.” News24hours. photo. 2016. <>
[2] Greek text. Matthew 28:2, aggelos and katabaino. Mark 16:5, neaniskos, periballo, and stole. Luke 24:4, astrapto and esthesis.

Chain of Custody – Was the Body of Jesus Stolen?


Oldest of the arguments against the Resurrection is the charge that the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth was stolen from the tomb. To steal the body, a Roman/Jewish chain of custody over his body would make the claim 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 took the body to Joseph’s own unused tomb and quickly prepared the body for burial.

Witnessing the scene were women from Galilee, two identified by name, Mary the mother of Joseph (aka Jose) and and Mary Magdalene.[2] The women watched Joseph roll 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 just before dusk on Friday, Nissan 15, until the Sunday morning of Nissan 17 is limited on details because of the Sabbath although some activities are reported in Matthew and Mark.

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 morning, Nissan 16:

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 had 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 and the Jewish leader’s concern that it could be stolen. Rome otherwise had little regard for crucified victims, according to Josephus; however, Rome did allow the Jews’ custom to bury their crucified dead:[3]

“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 [4]

Pilate most likely considered other factors, too, such as the validity of the testimony of the Jewish leaders. False witness was a capital offense making it highly unlikely they were lying to him. If the body was stolen and later found, it would complicate matters even worse. Weighing the credibility and motive of their testimony, then 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 the body the 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.

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.[6]

It was the 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, 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.[7]

A similar type of seal and guard process appeared to be utilized at the tomb. The koustodia were accountable to Pilate as evidenced after the resurrection event on Sunday morning when some the guards reportedly ran to the chief priests instead of Pilate. Additionally, Jewish leaders promised the guards they would handle Pilate if their adverse behavior became an issue.

Placed at the scene of the tomb holding the body of Jesus of Nazareth are the contingent of chief priests and Pharisees (possibly including stealth followers of Jesus, Joseph and Nicodemus) to witness the seal being placed on the tomb and the posting of the koustodia. Jewish leaders left with full confidence the sealed tomb was secure alleviating their anxiety that someone might steal the body of Jesus.[8]

Archenemies of Jesus obtained a legally established Roman-Jewish chain of custody over the body of Jesus that remained unbroken until Sunday morning. At dawn that Sunday morning, incredible events occurred at the tomb while the koustodia were still stationed at their post with the seal intact.

Considering there was a legally established Roman-Jewish chain of custody in place, what is the possibility his body was stolen?


Updated July 17, 2023.

Creative Commons License

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.

[1] Pearce, Jonathan MS. “Matthew and the guards at the tomb.” 2012. < rel=”nofollow”> “Gospel Disproof #38: The guards at the tomb.” 2014. < rel=”nofollow”>  Chain. Business2Community. image. 2015. <×200.jpg
[2] Edersheim, Alfred.  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V. 1883. n.d. <>
[3] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews. Book IV, Chapter VIII;
Google Books. n.d. <
[4] Josephus.  Wars. Book IV, Chapter V.
[5] Jahnige, Joan. “The Roman Legal System.” KET Distance Learning. 2017.>  Adams, John Paul. “The Twelve Tables.” 2009. California State University – Northridge. <>
[6] Josephus.  Antiquities. Book XV, Chapter XI; Book XX, Chapter I.  Wars.  Book II, Chapter XVII; Book V, Chapter VI.
[7] 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). n.d. <>  Smith, Mahlon H. “Lucius Vitellius.” 2008.>  “Lucius Vitellius.” Ed. Jona Lendering.>  “Chain of Custody in Drugs Cases.” ProhealthLaw. photo. 2015. <–519822927.jpg>
[8] “koustodia”, G2892l (Strong) “#2892 κουστωδία koustodia;” “strategos <4755> and “speira <4686>” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d.>