Faults in the Official Story
The accusation that the disciples slipped past sleeping guards and raided the tomb is extremely implausible.
The guard consisted of well-trained soldiers. The soldiers were drawn either from the Temple guard, which was Jewish in composition, or from the Roman force occupying the city. The debate over what kind of soldiers they were hinges on Pilate's answer to the Jewish leaders who advised that he secure Jesus' tomb against intruders.
. . . Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.
The translation, "Ye have a watch," favors the view that the Jewish leaders used soldiers normally employed at the Temple. But Pilate's words are actually ambiguous. They can also be made imperative, "Have a watch ['guard']," as if he were offering them his own soldiers for the assignment (1). Who exactly formed the guard at the tomb is now impossible to say, since good arguments can be stated in favor of either possibility. Yet no issue hangs on the answer. A guard of Jews would have been no less effective in deterring grave robbers.
It is likely that soldiers from the Temple Guard were familiar with Roman military procedures and copied them as much as possible. Pilate exhorted the Jews, "Go your way, make it as sure as ye can." In a literal rendering, his words take on a slightly different cast. "Go make [it as] secure as ye know [how]" (2). He seems to be implying that they themselves know something about proper security.
The guards used sophisticated methods. A Roman guard detail varied in size from four to sixteen men (3). When sixteen participated in overnight duty, each quaternion (group of four men) took the watch for about three hours (Acts 12:4), so that four men were awake at all times (4). The four on guard stood at the object to be secured, while the other twelve slept in a semicircle with their heads pointed inward (5). Each soldier was armed with a six-foot pike, a sword, and a dagger (6).
Dereliction of duty was punishable by death. Roman armies conquered the world in part because they were highly disciplined. The demands upon a soldier were rigorous, and if he failed to meet them, he could expect no mercy. Among the offenses punishable by death were striking an officer and disposing of arms (7). Another was failure in guard duty (8), which has been a capital offense even in modern armies. If a guard detail failed to carry out its mission, superior officers would, if possible, execute only those soldiers at fault. But if they could not identify the shirkers, they would pick one soldier by lot and execute him (9). The possibility that even an innocent member of a derelict detail might lose his life caused an uneasy sleep for all.
The guards could not have slept through the theft of Jesus' body. The mouth of the tomb was shut by a stone hewn in the shape of a wheel (10). The stone was a far greater barrier than any ordinary door. If it covered an entrance 4 1/2 to 5 feet high, it must have weighed 1 1/2 to 2 tons (11). Some scholars believe that it rested in a trench (12). If they are correct, as many as ten men were required to move it. Thus, it is hugely absurd to suppose that the soldiers guarding Jesus' tomb slept peacefully while the disciples stole His body.
Consider the task before the thieves. They had to recruit a large company of conspirators, none of whom would ever turn state's evidence. To reach the tomb, the whole criminal band had to stumble in the dark through a large knot of soldiers at the tomb's mouth. They had to exert themselves in moving aside a ponderous stone, which would have creaked noisily as it rolled over a stone track just inches away from the soldiers. And then, with a corpse in tow, they had to wade through the soldiers again. Remember that the wrappings of the corpse were saturated with highly fragrant myrrh and aloes (John 19:39-40). The blast of odors from the sepulcher as soon as the stone was rolled away could in itself have wakened any sleepers just outside.
If the body had disappeared while the guards slept, they could not have known what happened to it (13). Though they might have guessed that thieves had taken it away, they could not have said who the thieves were.
If the body had been stolen, the disciples would not have found the graveclothes neatly disposed inside the tomb (14). John testifies that when he saw the graveclothes, he believed (John 20:6-8). He instantly understood from their presence and arrangement that the removal of the body had not been the work of human intruders. Had the intruders been Jesus' friends, they would have left the wrappings intact. Had they been His enemies, they might have removed the wrappings, but scarcely would they have troubled to pick them up and set them in good order (15).
If the official story was true, the guards would have been punished. Yet, in fact, the guards went scot-free (Matt. 28:11-15). Everyone in Jerusalem must have wondered why the authorities did not punish the soldiers. According to the story that the soldiers themselves were circulating, they had committed an unpardonable offense for a man under military discipline. Supposedly, while guarding something bearing on the highest security interests of the nation, they had fallen asleep, allowing some religious rabble to steal the guarded object out from under their noses. Why indeed did the authorities not punish them? Surely the prudent course for the authorities was to use severity as a demonstration that they themselves believed the official story. We must therefore suppose that the authorities would have punished the guards if they could have found any reasonable grounds for doing so. They did not lack reasonable grounds if the story was true. But since they did nothing to the soldiers, we come to the inevasible conclusion that the story was not true.
The guards must have thwarted all danger to themselves by satisfying their superiors that they had been powerless to prevent the loss of the body. No doubt they presented indisputable evidence that the body had been removed by supernatural power. Yet such evidence could only confirm the authorities in their delusion that Jesus and His chief disciples were no better than sorcerers.
If the official story was true, the disciples would have been prosecuted (16). Yet the authorities took no action against them until the church began to prosper, and even then they were never prosecuted for stealing the body of Jesus.
Faults in Modern Skeptical Theories
Although we rightly scoff at the official story, we should understand that the authorities had no better story to offer. They were close to the scene, alert to the factors bearing on public opinion, and adept at manipulating events to secure political ends. The story they put forward was doubtless the one they judged most likely to succeed in justifying themselves and in stirring up antagonism to Jesus and His religious movement.
Known facts prohibited the authorities from sponsoring any of the foolish explanations that modern skeptics have invented for the empty tomb. They could not say, for example, that Jesus' body had been deposited elsewhere. They themselves had certified Joseph's tomb as Jesus' place of burial by sending a guard there. The people of Jerusalem knew that the authorities could not have erred concerning the whereabouts of Jesus' body. Besides, the allegation that His body rested in another place would have left embarrassing questions. Why were the authorities unable to produce His body? Who opened Joseph's tomb during the hours before Sunday dawn, while the guard was on duty? Why, in the ensuing days, did many of Jesus' followers report seeing Him?
To explain the empty tomb, the authorities could not say that Jesus had escaped alive. They would have been laughed to scorn. On almost any day of the week, the people of Jerusalem could go outside the city and watch a crucifixion. They knew that the Roman executioner did his work with brutal efficiency, leaving no survivors. They knew, moreover, that a man near death after scourging and the cross would not be strong enough to extricate himself from a tomb like Joseph's, a tomb sealed by an enormous stone. In order to escape, he would need help. So, the theory that Jesus survived crucifixion and burial necessarily implies that His disciples took Him from the tomb. It therefore founders on all the same difficulties that we find in the official story. Indeed, it is even more problematic. It requires us to believe that a man with nearly fresh and nearly fatal wounds to his head, back, arms, and feet could have convinced Mary and many others that his body had passed into a perfect, immortal state. And it creates the needless mystery of what happened to Jesus after His appearances ceased.
Integrity of the Apostles
In their effort to debunk the Resurrection, the Jewish authorities adopted the strategy of maligning Jesus' disciples. They portrayed them as petty conspirators who committed theft and fraud in furtherance of their cause. But what kind of men were the disciples?
The disciples, for all their faults, were devoutly religious men. All had forsaken home and livelihood to follow Jesus, a teacher of high ethical principles. A few had formerly espoused the severe disciplines of John the Baptist (John 1:35-42). They were not a gang of thieves. Criminal conduct would have been totally out of character (17).
What purpose could have lured the disciples into a conspiracy to fake the Resurrection? Stealing and lying invariably arise from base motives—from lust, greed, or cowardice. Yet from the beginning, the church was devoted to communal life and worship, never to any purpose that might have spawned cynical deceptions. Money flowed from rich to poor rather than to the apostles (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35). Immorality was not tolerated (Acts 15:20; 21:20). The only political dynamic within the church was the hope that Jesus would soon return to establish His eternal kingdom. Yet this hope was untenable unless Jesus had actually risen from the dead.
A liar normally abandons his lie as soon as it fails to accomplish its original selfish purposes, or as soon as it puts him in jeopardy. Yet the apostles of Christ were willing to proclaim the Resurrection even after the church came under intense persecution. In mockery of infidel attacks on the Resurrection, someone has observed, "Amidst sufferings the most grievous to flesh and blood, they [the apostles] persevered in a conspiracy to cheat the world into piety, honesty and benevolence" (18).
From the first, the apostles knew that to preach the Resurrection was dangerous (19). Not only were they challenging the entrenched power of the Pharisees and Sadducees; they were exalting a man whom these Pharisees and Sadducees had put to death. The religious authorities hardly relished the accusation that they had killed the very Lord of life (Acts 3:14-17). The apostles had every reason to expect that they would pay dearly for their impudence, and indeed they did. Virtually every man at the forefront of Christian witness was martyred. While the church was still in its infancy, the Jews killed Stephen, one of the original deacons (Acts 7:59). A few years later, Herod beheaded James brother of John (Acts 12:2). Both Peter and Paul lived in constant danger of their lives, and both eventually died at the hands of an executioner, Peter by crucifixion and Paul by beheading (20). According to tradition, a martyr's death befell every apostle except John (21). Yet the terrors of torture and death could not wring from the apostles any confession that they had fabricated the Resurrection. Their unshakable witness to the Resurrection proves that they themselves believed in it to the very depths of their souls (22).
Yet another circumstance admits no explanation except that Jesus rose again. That circumstance is the amazing growth of the church within weeks after the followers of Jesus saw Him crucified and buried (23). His death deprived them of a charismatic leader. It dashed all their hopes that they would soon enter a Messianic kingdom on earth. It left them discouraged and aimless. Rather than carry on the work of preaching and almsgiving, they cowered in secret places, fearful lest the authorities should find and kill them also. How could a movement so demoralized regain the energy, the leadership, and the popular support needed for continuing existence? Yet the movement did not merely continue to exist. The apostles soon made bold evangelistic thrusts that brought thousands into the church. What was the cause of their new zeal if it was not their belief that Jesus actually rose from the grave? How did they succeed in setting off wildfire growth in the church if they were not armed with overwhelming evidence for the Resurrection (24)?
The doctrine that Jesus had conquered death was historical dynamite. Within forty years, the church took root throughout the Roman world (Rom. 1:8) (25), and within two hundred years, Christianity began to challenge official paganism for supremacy (26). Although unaided by the sword and frequently opposed by official persecution, propagation of the new faith was accomplished at a speed with few historical parallels. Surely, it would be strange if the amazing growth of the church had no impetus at the beginning except the shameful death of its founder.