The Empty Tomb: The Stolen Body Theory

Was the empty tomb the result of a malicious or crafty theft? Can this popular argument explain the rise of the Resurrection belief?

The stolen body theory takes us right back to the time of the apostles. It was the original “anti-apologetic” to the Resurrection belief and the first recorded attempt to explain the occurrence of the empty tomb. The blame has been set on a few different faces over the years, from the original claim of the disciples being the perpetrators to Joseph of Arimathea, even the gardener. We’ve already cleared Joseph and the Jewish authorities here in our look at the Wrong Tomb theory (see link 1 below). The disciples and the gardener present no real obstacles but we will briefly address the latter here for argument’s sake. The former we will address in our look at the Conspiracy Theory.

The main point we will address here is the claim that the body was stolen by another kind of thief altogether. The problem is I haven’t seen any critic provide any real direction to who this person was. They’re quick to assume and conclude before we’ve even gotten anywhere, leaving the real legwork to those who aren’t satisfied with face-value assumptions/speculations. Who could this person be and what motive would they have to take the body of Jesus?

The Necromancer.

Let’s take the most reasonable route here and assume that the thief was someone in need of a body. How about someone like a necromancer, who would have a real motive to steal a body? Let’s ask some questions: would this be a resident of Judea or Jerusalem, where witchcraft was forbidden by the Old Testament law? Do we have any historical records that such practises took place in Judea at the time? If not, did the thieves have to travel?

No, this person was most likely not a resident of Judea, given their occupation. No, we don’t have any historical records of this being practised at the time in Judea, especially at the tomb of a wealthy official. Foreigners did travel to Jerusalem, but the records we have of these travels have nothing to do with necromancy. The closest we have is the Parthian Magi, but then they were diviners and astrologists, not necromancers. We can also ask why they would travel for something that would have been just as easily accessible in their own cities.

It isn’t reasonable to assume that the thief would be a Jew, either, since Jews of the first century saw themselves as those who were in some ways exiled in their homeland. As a result, they committed themselves to follow the law. This was the reason groups like the Pharisees formed; they got so lost in their well-meaning pursuit of redemption that their hearts became hardened.

However, what about that one? “The one” is what I’ve dubbed this popular argumentive tactic used by online skeptics. To paraphrase it, one may make an argument like the following,

“You’re arguing that Jesus rose from the dead. Wouldn’t the idea of just one deviant troublemaker be more reasonable than your idea that the dead came back to life?”

Even if it is at odds with the evidence, if there is that slim chance that it might be possible, that is the answer, no matter how vague it may be. Let’s work with the absolute best possible scenario this theory could be given. Let’s remove the guards at the tomb (considering skeptics often claim that Matthew invented the guards) and allow for the existence of one deviant Jew who practised necromancy. Actually, let’s go with that one group of deviant Jews, considering the stone would have been much too heavy for one person to move. With this awfully generous scenario, does the argument still run into immovable problems? As sure as the sun rises.

The body of Jesus wouldn’t have been a particularly easy target to get to. Even without guards, there was still the problem of the one-ton stone and the fact that it was located in a high-density urban area during a festival. In that case, they would need to carry some tools with them, along with the corpse. Wouldn’t the thieves choose to raid a more secluded, shallow grave of a peasant at a more appropriate time? What would make them want Jesus’ body specifically?

Perhaps the thieves wanted the body of a “holy man”? The problem here is that Jesus’ shameful death and burial would have stripped Him of His status as a “holy man” in the public eye (see link 2 below). He was worse than a peasant, He was a shamed and disgraced man.

There is also the problem of the empty tomb account itself. The tomb was found completely empty. Critics have to assume the thief took the entire body, but they offer no reason or evidence to believe this would, or even could, be the case. All evidence we have of necromancers suggests that they either 1. conducted their rituals in the tomb itself, leaving the body in the tomb when they were finished or 2. cut off a specific part of the body, leaving the rest behind. They wouldn’t have unwrapped the entire corpse and run off with it through the streets, leaving behind a ghastly smell! Moving the body from the tomb was unnecessary if they could perform their rituals inside it with far greater secrecy and little risk of being discovered. If they could move the stone away they could move it right back and if there were no guards at the tomb why would they need to hurry or move the body at all? (see how skeptics only end up shooting their own toes?)

In the end, if tombs were raided, the most likely reason would have been for treasure, not a body, since tombs were owned by the wealthy. Even in the best possible scenario, using “the one” tactic, the theory has no explanatory power. Critics need to offer a legitimate reason for them to steal the body. Merely pointing to the impossibility of the Resurrection is not an argument, nor is closing the book with a “we don’t know” a suitable conclusion when we do know what the historical data suggests. We are not suggesting the Resurrection theory on this one piece of data alone, but everything we’ve been looking at begins right at the divine claims of Jesus.

The Gardener.

This one is more obscure than the necromancer theory, but we’ll briefly address it anyway. The argument is, of course, that the gardener stole Jesus’ body. This was first brought to attention in Tertillian’s De Spectaculis, a writing that dates 175 years after the Gospels. That’s 175 years too late. The argument amounts to nothing more than a rationalization well after the fact. There is no evidence to support this.

More To Come.

Thus far into our look at the empty tomb, we have stayed well within the realm of The Minimal Facts approach. However, let’s not be caught up in defence for too long. If critics can suggest such outlandish theories as a group of necromancers, we can just as well suggest something more of our own. We have not added anything outside of the tomb itself, which is why we have not relied on Matthew’s guards in our defence. But if there were guards present, it would dismantle every form of the theft theory one could come across.

Link 1 on the shame of the burial

Link 2 on the Wrong Tomb Theory