The historicity of the stolen body

I’m catching up on some issues that ended up on the back burner while I was under the weather, and one of them is this comment by Kevin Harris over at Evangelical Realism, on the topic of whether the “Resurrection theory” is a more historical explanation than the non-supernatural alternatives proposed by critics. Kevin claims that the critical theories are disqualified by application of Craig’s six criteria for historical credibility: historical fit, early independent sources, embarrassment, dissimilarity, semitisms and coherence. Just for fun, I’d like to take one of the alternatives and run it past Craig’s six criteria.

The theory I’m going to evaluate is this: that the body of Jesus was moved by some lesser group of disciples without the knowledge or consent of the others, causing them to find the tomb empty. This additional shock, coupled with the common human experience of feeling like the deceased is still “here” somehow, resulted in the disciples believing that Jesus had somehow risen in a spiritual body, producing the original resurrection stories. These stories later became formalized as stories of a physical resurrection, and thus the Christian church was born.

Now let’s apply Craig’s criteria.

1. Historical fit. This theory is a very good fit to the story, at least as reported in the Bible. If lesser disciples stole the body without the knowledge or consent of the apostles, the theft would not remain secret for long. Sure enough, Matthew records that there were indeed widespread reports in the region saying that disciples had taken Jesus’ body. Matthew tries to discredit these reports by claiming that some guards were bribed to spread them, but the fact that it’s even an issue shows that the theory is consistent with the historical facts.

Another historical fit is the timing: the crucifixion and “resurrection” are supposed to have occurred in connection with the high holy day of Passover, during which many visitors came to the Temple from the surrounding region. This would have brought together a large number of Christians who didn’t normally encounter one another, making it more likely that some believers might act without consulting the others. It also makes it more likely that many Christians, in the city for the holy day, would not know that Council member Joseph of Arimathea was secretly a Christian. This would give them a plausible reason for removing Jesus’ body from what they would see as the property of the Council responsible for his death.

Another historical fit is the religious culture, and its strict prohibitions regarding personal holiness and the handling of the dead. If a small group of lesser disciples, under the stress and trauma of Jesus’ violent death, acted impulsively by handling and moving a dead body during the Passover Sabbath, they might be very reluctant to expose themselves to the disapprobation of their peers once they came to their senses and realized what they had just done, especially considering that stonings were not unheard of in that culture, legal or not.

Another historical fit is Jesus’ reported teachings relaxing Sabbath prohibitions, which is one of the charges made against him by the Sanhedrin (and supported by numerous passages in the Gospels). Disciples who followed a teacher famous for allowing “forbidden” activities on the Sabbath would be disciples who were noticeably less likely to be inhibited by traditional Mosaic prohibitions, and thus more likely to impulsively engage in activities—like moving dead bodies on the Sabbath—that they would later think better of.

One last historical fit I’ll mention: if lesser disciples took Jesus body (they wouldn’t see it as stealing), then these disciples, at least, would know he did not rise from the dead. It’s interesting, therefore, that Paul refers to Christians who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, in I Cor 15. There’s also evidence of early Christian sects such as the Ebionites who accepted Jesus as Messiah but did not believe in his deity or physical resurrection (though some of them seem to have believed in physical manifestations after his death). Christians who knew that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead would have to spiritualize the idea of resurrection in order to believe in it, much like modern liberal believers do today. Thus, the existence of Christians and Christian sects that did not believe in literal resurrection makes a good historical fit for the theory that disciples took Jesus’ body and knew he did not literally rise.

2. Independent, early sources. While we don’t have the first-hand records of the early reports, we know that there were enough of them that Matthew felt the need to discredit them by attributing them to bribery. Likewise, Paul’s debate over fleshly resurrection versus spiritual resurrection, in 1 Cor. 15, is an independent witness to the fact that the earliest resurrection stories involved a spiritual body, as explicitly contrasted with the fleshly body that was buried. Paul’s testimony is corroborated by the many ghost-story-ish legends reported in the Gospels, in which Jesus does such non-physical things as walking through locked doors, appearing and vanishing, and changing into the form of unrecognized people. These same Gospels also record stories of Jesus manifesting the attributes of a physical resurrection as well, but these “materializing” elements don’t appear in earlier documents like 1 Corinthians.

3. Embarrassment. Again, reports of disciples stealing Jesus body would be a huge embarrassment to writers like Matthew, so he’s most likely telling the truth when he records the existence of such widespread reports. As a further evidence of the embarrassment this caused, notice that he deals with it by just making up a counter-claim (as so many Christians seem to do when in a tight spot). He doesn’t tell us that God spoke to him and revealed that the guards were bribed. Certainly none of the guards would take a bribe and then run out and tell the victims, nor would the Sanhedrin send Matthew an email and say, “Bribed grds to lie about u, lol.” Matthew just blurts out an accusation, with no evidence to back it up.

4. Dissimilarity. This one might need some further elaboration: it refers to the incident being unlike earlier Jewish ideas and/or later Christian ideas. Again, we have a great fit here, because earlier Jewish thinking was opposed to handling dead bodies on Passover Sabbath, and later Christian ideas insist that Jesus walked out of the tomb (or possibly flew out, or wafted through solid stone, etc.) under his own power. The early story that disciples took Jesus body is thus dissimilar to both earlier Jewish thinking about proper Sabbath behavior and to later Christian thinking about the resurrection. By Craig’s standards, this gives the theory additional historical credibility.

5. Semitisms. Doesn’t really apply here, but that’s true about most Biblical stories too. And, as Craig himself says, these criteria are positive-only criteria: their presence means the story is more likely to be true, but their absence does not make it less likely.

6. Coherence. Does this theory fit with facts already established about Jesus? As we’ve seen, it definitely does: Jesus’ teaching about relaxed Sabbath restrictions, his conflict with the Sanhedrin (creating opposition between his disciples and the priests), his teaching about spiritual truth, etc, all fall right in line with creating a mental environment within which some believers might find it ok to move his corpse, and other believers might find a deep, spiritual significance in the absence of his body.

Craig doesn’t mention it, but we could expand #6 into the whole seventh criterion: does the theory fit what we actually see in the real world? Do we see believers so committed to believing in the resurrection that they will cherry-pick the facts, and create artificial “spiritual” contexts within which to interpret them, and equivocate, and deny, and when all else fails, fall back on the idea of “divine mystery” as an explanation for the irreconcilable?

There are those who say Jesus never existed, and that the Gospel stories just condensed out of the swirling miasma of superstition and myth and cultures in collision. They may be right, and a lot of what they say is pretty undeniable, either way. But I think that even if Jesus did exist, and did preach, and did die, and did disappear from his tomb, it’s not too hard to see how this could happen through forces and agents no different than those we see around us all the time.


  1. KG says

    It seems to me much more likely that nothing unusual happened to Jesus’ body at all, whether or not it was put in a tomb*, and that all the gospel accounts of an empty tomb are later inventions, while Jesus’ post-mortem appearances were simply dreams or hallucinations – such appearances of the dead to those close to them in life are quite common,, and it’s worth noting that Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus had supposedly cast devils (i.e., she had suffered come serious psychiatric illness) has a prominent part in the post-mortem appearances. I think 1 Cor 15 supports this: Paul makes no distinction other than one of timing between the appearances to the disciples and others shortly after Jesus’ death, and the appearance to him years later, which was clearly a vision (i.e. hallucination), as those with him did not have the same experience. Once stories of poast-mortem appearances started circulating, they would naturally become more and more elaborated.

    *I’ve read that under Roman law, the body of an executed criminal could only be claimed by a near relative. “Joseph of Arimathea” appears nowhere else in the NT than in the gospel accounts of him asking Pilate for Jesus’ body.

  2. DaveL says

    As much as Craig would like to pretend that his criteria are comparable to those used by actual historical scholars, there is one glaring omission that proves they are not: physical plausibility. Real historical scholars consider the requirement of a literal miracle as a strong indication that a narrative is not historically accurate – and for good reason.

    • KG says

      Good point – and as I’ve observed to a believer in the resurrection elsewhere, this critical attitude of ancient historians is by no means limited to religious issues, or even to obvious violations of physical reality: the numbers given for ancient armies (e.g. the Persian army invading Greece in the 5th century BCE) are not credited when they exceed what is reckoned logistically feasible.

    • Sophia Dodds says

      I was also under the impression that real historical scholars also tend to want contemporary evidence that the deceased person in question did, in fact, exist. *hums*

  3. mikelaing says

    Yes, I vote for #7, plausibility.
    Not only commonly observed bullshitting to support incoherent views today, but that the whole idea of virgin birth -> resurrection was already widespread in those times, and more likely to be seen as a valid explanation and accepted without argument.
    Further more, your explanation meets the main plausibility requirement: anyone that claimed a resurrection happened just now, would be hospitalized as insane – we know magic is not real. Why do some people think it could have happened then, without noticeable or recorded consequence, no less, but is an irrational idea in today?

    Aughhhh, the bible is a non sequitor, bah 🙂

  4. says

    If Craig is into ‘historical credibility’ you have to wonder why he isn’t a Muslim. I mean, there’s some pretty rock solid evidence that Mo was cruising around the desert doing all kinds of things.

    What more could Craig want?

    Also, Bobby Henderson is just a phone call away. Can’t beat that for credibility.

    Also, nice post 🙂

  5. Thorne says

    I’m not sure I get the problem with moving a body on the Sabbath. Isn’t the Sabbath defined as being from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday? That would have left all of Saturday night for these disciples to take the body, without having to violate the Sabbath, wouldn’t it?

  6. SAWells says

    The body in the story was missing from the tomb in the story because the author of the story said it was. And we’re done 🙂

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