The Empty Tomb – Conspiracy or Resurrection?
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.
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.
[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.com. http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14303-temple-administration-and-service-of>
[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>