Here are some common theories about what happened to Jesus’ body right before they found the empty tomb, and why they are wrong:
- The disciples could not have stolen it.
The type of guard posted on Jesus’ grave was a Praetorian Guard, which consisted of four hardened soldiers. During each of the four watches of the night, one would keep watch while the other three slept. Their discipline was so strict that falling asleep on duty was punishable by death. The offending soldier was stripped, tied to a stake, and his clothes were used to start a fire to burn him alive. If it could not be determined who had fallen asleep (if for example, the guards tried to conceal the identity of the offender), one of the soldiers was chosen by lot and executed. So the guards were well motivated not to let anything happen to the body.
The disciples were Galileans, easily recognizable as such by their accents. The disciples were terrified of the authorities after the crucifixion; most likely they were afraid that they would be crucified as Jesus’ accomplices.
Even if the disciples had been brave enough to attempt stealing the body, the guards would have stopped them. Even if the guards had cooperated for some reason, the disciples’ efforts would have been very conspicuous, because the stretch of time between the crucifixion and the resurrection was occupied by the Sabbath. Just the effort of moving the stone would have been a violation of the Sabbath and would have made them subject to arrest—just the sort of thing they were most eager to avoid.
What is truly noteworthy about the guards is that they fled the tomb and immediately went to the Jewish authorities rather than their own commanders. The only explanation is that something extraordinary had happened, and they needed the Jewish authorities’ cooperation to avoid punishment.
- Jesus could not have survived the crucifixion.
In crucifixion, the victim hangs by his arms against the cross, making it necessary for him to pull up the weight of his entire body by his outstretched arms in order to inhale. Gradually, the victim becomes exhausted by the effort. In addition, the chest muscles are pulled from the rib cage, making it increasingly more difficult to breathe. Finally, the tortured victim succumbs to exhaustion and passes out. Without conscious, strenuous effort, it is impossible to breathe, and the victim dies of suffocation.
There are records of people being taken down alive from crosses, but only the freshly crucified survived, and then only for a few hours.
The night before the crucifixion, Jesus did not sleep. He spent the first part of the night in prayer, and the rest of it being tried in various places, which required Him to walk from place to place. Finally, He was beaten and whipped and made to carry His own cross, which had to be quite heavy if it was large enough to hold Him. In fact, He was so exhausted that He couldn’t carry the cross the whole way. Then He was nailed to the cross. The cross was lifted with Him on it and dropped into a hole in the ground. The force of the impact would have been painful and injurious. He survived six hours on the cross.
The Romans determined that He was dead and permitted Him to be taken down for burial. He was wrapped tightly in grave clothes.
Finally Jesus was buried in a cold, dank tomb that was sealed with a boulder and guarded by soldiers who would suffer the death penalty for abandoning their post. He lay there from Friday evening until Sunday morning without food, water, heat, or assistance to untie his hands, or to unravel the bandages.
There is no way that Jesus could have survived. But even if He did manage to survive, He could not have left the tomb. Tombs were not designed to be exited from the inside. The rock that sealed it was too heavy for the women to move it even if they pooled their efforts; if Jesus had survived, He could scarcely have had the strength to move it unassisted, even if it were possible to move it from the inside.
- The Sanhedrin did not steal it.
The Sanhedrin knew of Jesus’ saying that He would be resurrected and went to a lot of trouble to have the tomb guarded to forestall any theft of the body that would give rise to resurrection rumors. If they had stolen the body, they would have exhibited it to end the Christian movement in its infancy; which was, after all, the whole point of engineering the crucifixion in the first place. After the resurrection, the Christian movement grew even faster than before the crucifixion, yet the Sanhedrin did not parade the body around publicly. The only explanation is that they didn’t know where it was.
- The women could not have stolen it.
The women could not move the stone that sealed Jesus in. Since they had no access to the body, they could not have stolen it.
- Joseph of Arimathea could not have moved the body.
Joseph buried Jesus hastily in his own tomb to honor Jesus and to assure that His body was buried before the onset of the Sabbath at sundown. It is entirely possible that he would want to move the body to free the tomb for its originally intended occupant. However, there was no time. The burial took place right at the start of the Sabbath. The work of moving the body was not possible until sunrise on Sunday. According to the gospel accounts, the women left while it was still dark and arrived at the tomb at dawn and found it empty. Joseph would have needed about a half-dozen assistants to move the stone and transfer the body and much more time than was available. In addition, he would have had to overcome the guard on the tomb.
Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin. When the resurrection rumors started flying, they could have taken legal action against him for the true location of the body. There is no evidence of any conflict between Joseph and the rest of the Sanhedrin.
- The disciples were surprised by the resurrection.
The disciples did not believe the resurrection until they had evidence for it. When the women returned from the grave site, the men thought they were hysterical. They investigated the tomb themselves. Thomas refused to believe the others until he saw Jesus. The disciples on the road to Emmaus heard of the resurrection reports and disbelieved them until they met Jesus. These reactions are entirely normal and believable.
The resurrection accounts are difficult to harmonize; something we should expect from a startling factual occurrence. If the whole thing was a fiction, the disciples would have gotten their story straight before they went around accusing the authorities.
The disciples, who were demoralized, afraid for their lives, and ready to call it quits, suddenly became bold and unafraid of even the worst penalties, and the authorities could not refute what the disciples said.
- The authorities were at a loss how to react.
The authorities did not produce a body. They seemed to be unable to answer even the most inflammatory public statements made by the disciples. The worst they did was that they arrested some of them, instructed them to stop preaching their message, and released them.
- Christianity began in Jerusalem.
All of the events took place in public in Jerusalem. Jesus had been in public conflict with the authorities for a week, He was arrested at night, but in the presence of a large number of people. His trial before Pilate took place with a large, unsympathetic mob outside that demanded His execution. He was paraded through town under guard and bearing a large cross. He was executed in public with a large crowd in attendance. He died in front of witnesses and government authorities who certified His death. He was buried in a nearby tomb owned by a prominent and wealthy citizen; it must have been easily recognizable. Jesus remained in the tomb for a longer period of time than any person had survived crucifixion under better circumstances.
The last place we should expect the story of His resurrection to be accepted would be in the very town where He had been executed. Under normal circumstances, we should expect His disciples to withdraw from Jerusalem, regroup, and proclaim His resurrection from some other place. Yet Christianity started with great success in a city where any curious person could walk over and examine Jesus’ tomb!