Here we go into what is probably the best secular explanation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the idea that the disciples stole Jesus' body, and then spread the lie that Jesus had risen. We'll go into where this theory comes from, why it's probably the best secular explanation available, and then we'll look at the flaws the theory falls prey to.
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Did the Disciples Steal Jesus’ Body?
Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions Podcast. I’m Jon Topping. For the past couple of episodes we went into the missing body arguments that try to discredit the resurrection. These are theories like that the women might have gone to the wrong tomb, or that the Jews or Roman authorities may have moved Jesus’ body, or that some unknown person may have stolen the corpse. These types of arguments are a secular attempt to explain why Jesus’ tomb was empty. First we went through the problems that all of these theories have in common, and then we went through each argument specifically to see all the problems that come up. However, we still haven’t gone into the best missing body argument available, which is the idea that maybe the disciples stole the body of Jesus.
Stolen Body Hypothesis
In my opinion, this is the best argument against the resurrection of Jesus Christ, out of all the arguments available. The reason I say that is because this is the way the earliest opponents of Christianity argued. There were different people that absolutely hated Christianity, for example the very religious leaders that got Jesus killed, and the way they responded to the resurrection claims was they said the disciples stole the body. If there was a better argument available, you can rest assured that they would have used it.
One of the problems we face, being two thousand years removed from the events, is that oftentimes we forget about the context of that day, or we just don’t know all the things they knew, or we didn’t personally experience what the people then did. Because of this, we might get some absolutely ridiculous ideas, and not realize just how ridiculous they are. For example, the idea that Jesus could have survived crucifixion, which we’ve gone through before, just wasn’t a plausible explanation for people during that time, because they knew far better what crucifixion was like. So, if we want to know what the best possible counters are, it would make sense to look at how the earliest critics responded to the resurrection. We can find at least three very early references to critics saying the disciples stole the body. The first is of course found in the Gospel of Matthew 28:12-13. Here it says that the elders and chief priests got together for a meeting to decide how to handle the claims of Jesus’ resurrection. They agreed to pay the guards who were guarding Jesus’ tomb some money, so that they would tell everyone that the disciples came in the night while they were sleeping, and stole Jesus away. It also says that this argument was spread among the Jews, and was still present during the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written. There’s debate about the dating of Matthew, but at the very least this means that this was the primary way critics argued against Christianity right near the beginning, and that it was still popular a few decades later.
We then also find this response in Justin Martyr’s work Dialogue with Trypho 108, which was written about 155ad, where he comments on the fact that the Jews spread lies about the disciples stealing the body of Jesus during the night. We also find another reference to this argument in Tertullian’s work De Spectaculis 30, which was written about 200ad. In this work Tertullian wrote in a mocking way against those that insulted Christianity. He refers to the arguments given by the enemies of the Christian faith, and mentions that people said that the disciples secretly stole Jesus away so that they could claim He had risen. Then he also mentions that some people claimed the gardener had removed Jesus’ body, so that the crowds coming to Jesus’ tomb wouldn’t destroy his lettuces.
These three very early references to this argument show us a couple of things. First of all, it shows us that this was almost certainly the main way critics of the faith argued against the resurrection in the first hundred years after Jesus. This would then mean it’s probably the best argument, and that other arguments probably don’t work that well, because the earliest critics didn’t use them. Secondly, it shows that the earliest critics of Christianity were willing to admit the tomb was empty. Even the very people who crucified Jesus were admitting the empty tomb. They then had to give a reason why the tomb was empty. This indirect admission ends up being a case of enemy attestation, which gives us very good evidence in favor for the fact of the empty tomb. We even read from former Oxford University church historian William Wand who wrote, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.” We’ve gone into the evidence for the empty tomb before, but this point about the earliest critics’ arguments gives us yet another reason for this fact.
Problems with the Stolen Body Hypothesis
So now that we’ve seen the history behind the view, and recognized that this is probably the best argument for the skeptic to take, what are the problems with thinking the disciples might have stolen the body of Jesus? First of all, there’s actually a rather funny reason why this argument is a bit ridiculous. You’ll remember that the soldiers told everyone that the disciples stole the body of Jesus during the night, while they were sleeping. This kind of makes sense, because, how else could a bunch of regular guys get past armed Roman guards? They had to be asleep! The problem is, they’re saying the disciples came and stole the body, while they were asleep… so, how exactly do they know the disciples did this, if they were asleep? If the guards really did fall asleep, then they would be admitting that they don’t actually know what happened, because they wouldn’t have seen anything, because they were asleep! Because of this massive flaw in the argument, it really does look like this was a hurried counter, where the Jewish leadership were doing damage control immediately after the events of the resurrection. They needed to give some kind of answer to everyone who was asking what happened. They quickly gave this response, without thinking too long about it, because they needed a quick fix. Only afterwards would it be obvious what a horrible problem it creates for their story, but at that point they would need to stick with what they had said, or else reveal to everyone that they had been lying.
There are also a few reasons to think it’s unbelievable that the guards were asleep at all. If a Roman military man was found sleeping on the job, there would have been severe consequences, and possibly even death for him. The guards would have had shifts for sleeping, like any normal operation like this. Based on the wording in Matthew 28, it seems there had to be a minimum of four guards, and there could have easily have been more. There’s no way all of the guards would have been asleep at the same time, and that they would have remained asleep long enough, and soundly enough, for the disciples to come and roll away the massive boulder blocking the entrance of the tomb.
Another problem with the idea of the sleeping guards is that they knew that if they were caught sleeping on the job, then there would be severe consequences, so there’s no way that they would gladly start spreading it around that they fell asleep on the job, unless of course, they were ordered to. This is why we also find in Matthew 28 that the Jewish leadership plotting this whole thing told the guards that, if the governor finds out about this, that they would make sure the guards remained safe. It just doesn’t make sense that the guards would all be asleep, and even if they were, it doesn’t make sense that they would gladly tell everyone about it. So the idea that the guards were sleeping is clearly false, which shows us that from the very beginning there must have been some kind of coverup plot going on here.
The next problem with this counter of the disciples stealing the body is to ask how the disciples could have overcome the armed Roman guard. If the guards weren’t sleeping, then the disciples would have had to do something to get passed them, in order to take the body of Jesus. Even if we grant that the disciples all gathered together, and all of them managed to get weapons, and even armor, and we grant that they were able to overcome the guards, we still have a massive problem on our hands. If the guards were overcome, then the proper response would be to arrest the disciples for attacking the guards. If the disciples attacked the guards, and overcame them, then the guards would have at least sustained injuries, and if you attack the military or police, the government crushes you. Also, if this is what happened, why lie about them being asleep? Why not just say the guards were overcome by larger numbers? There would be no reason to invent the sleeping guards story. Even if we grant a strange situation like the disciples somehow drugged the guards’ water, and they all passed out, you’d still expect the government to respond by arresting the disciples. So why didn’t they? They couldn’t arrest the disciples for stealing the body, because they knew it wasn’t true. If they made all of this public, and brought it to trial, then the evidence would all come to light, and everyone would be made aware of the alibies the disciples had, the fact that the body was still missing for some reason, and questions would start to arise as to why the guards weren’t being punished for failing at their duties. Overall, it just creates a very convoluted conspiracy theory that seems quite obviously false, once everything is examined.
What’s the Motivation of the Disciples?
There’s an even greater problem with the idea that the disciples stole the body. This problem shows us that the whole story just isn’t possible. It all comes down to the motivation of the disciples. Why would the disciples steal the body of Jesus? They wouldn’t get rich, nor was there any feasible possibility of getting rich. They wouldn’t become powerful, in fact they would be taking deliberate actions against both the Jewish and Roman powers, which would put the disciples in a terrible position. Jesus had been tortured and killed, and if they stole the body and started lying about a resurrection, they could be assured a similar fate. In fact, all of them did in fact get oppressed in some way, most of them finally being killed. The only real possibility for a motivation to steal Jesus’ body would be so that they could try to keep the ministry of Jesus alive. However, this doesn’t really make too much sense. Jesus’ message, in and of itself, would still be good. They could easily have proclaimed the teachings of Jesus without stealing His body and inventing a resurrection story. Again, stealing the body of Jesus doesn’t seem to bring any real benefit to the disciples, or the message of Jesus, so what’s the motivation?
Their friend and leader had been publicly mocked, tortured, and killed. The whole movement had been squashed, and now they had nothing. Why would they deliberately steal Jesus’ body, and start lying to everyone, telling people that Jesus had actually risen, when, as we’ve looked at in the past episodes, a resurrection here and now wouldn’t make sense to the Jewish people? Now, in one sense, this account does help make sense of the situation for the secular skeptic. This explains why the tomb was empty, and it explains the appearances of Jesus, since every account of an appearance would simply be a lie to coverup the theft of Jesus’ body, and continue this idea that Jesus had risen. But again, why would they do this if there was no benefit, and it brought them persecution? Also, if all the appearances were actually lies to defend the conspiracy, then there were literally hundreds of people in on it, and none of them ever admitted to lying, and they all gained absolutely nothing for it, which seems entirely unbelievable. So either we have hundreds of people in on a conspiracy with no apparent benefit, and not a single one of them ever recanted, or we have a smaller conspiracy, still with no apparent benefit, and the claimed appearances cannot be accounted for. Either way, this theory is starting to have a lot of holes.
Another point to consider, as I mentioned earlier, the idea of a physical resurrection in this lifetime didn’t even make sense to first century Jews, so stealing the body in order to invent a resurrection story wouldn’t have even been a coherent goal in their minds. It’s not the sort of thing that would even occur to them, and even if it did, it wouldn’t have been a sensible thing to invent, because the people during that time wouldn’t have known how to make sense of it. For us today, we’re so used to the idea of Jesus being resurrected that we forget how foreign the idea would have been to a first century Jew. The idea that the disciples would invent a story that would be so incoherent to their audience, for no apparent reason, seems quite unreasonable. Again, what is the motivation for stealing the body of Jesus and then creating this whole conspiracy?
Keeping the Secret
Not only that, but how in the world could they keep this secret? We have absolutely zero records of anyone ever renouncing the resurrection, or admitting to the theft of Jesus’ body, or even admitting the appearances weren’t real. When evaluating the tight lips of those involved in the conspiracy, I think we can evaluate it by looking at two groups of people; those that stole Jesus’ body, and those that believed in the resurrection. For the first group, the people who stole the body could not possibly believe in the resurrection, because they are the ones starting the lie. In this case, if the disciples stole the body, they know the claims of resurrection are false, because they’re in on the lie and conspiracy. These same disciples were then imprisoned, tortured, and eventually killed, and all of them never denied the claims of the resurrection. If they knew it was a lie, they would have no reason to continue the lie once they realized they were going to be severely punished.
For the second group, they sincerely believed in Jesus’ resurrection, because they were not in on the conspiracy. They were the ones believing the lie. However, this also means they could not have actually witnessed the risen Christ, because the whole thing is just a lie perpetrated by the disciples. So when hundreds of people started claiming they had seen the risen Christ, they were technically lying. These people were also imprisoned, tortured, and often killed, all for the claims that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, when they had in fact not. This was all for something they claimed to have witnessed, but on this secular theory, they only strongly believed it. At the very least, this group could have easily admitted that they hadn’t actually seen the risen Jesus, and instead only had a strong belief. They could hold onto these beliefs in the resurrection, and there was nothing stopping them from admitting that they didn’t personally see it. So in this case, why would they deliberately lie about seeing the risen Jesus, to their extreme detriment? They didn’t need to lie about it, they weren’t being told to lie about it, and it brought no benefit to anyone or anything, and it did bring extreme harm to them. So again, where is the motivation? How come not a single person ever renounced their claims? How did these secrets and conspiracies survive all the persecution? Why were people so passionate about keeping secrets that did them no benefit?
A good example to show how this level of secret keeping just isn’t possible, we can look to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. In case you’re unfamiliar with this incident, there was a massive conspiracy and coverup involving the top levels of the US government, including the president at the time, who was president Richard Nixon. Charles Colson was one of the key players in this conspiracy. He ended up going to prison for his involvement, however, before he was incarcerated, he became a Christian. While there’s a lot of interesting elements to his personal story, what I want to focus on is his own personal reflections on how the conspirators ceased to backup their lies and coverups the moment pressure was put on them. Colson wrote the following on how his experience relates to the disciples of Jesus:
“Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up, perpetuated by the closest aides to the President of the United States – the most powerful men in America, who were intensely loyal to their president. But one of them, John Dean, turned state’s evidence, that is, testified against Nixon, as he put it, ‘to save his own skin’ – and he did so only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on – two weeks! The real cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks, and then everybody else jumped ship in order to save themselves. Now, the fact is that all that those around the President were facing was embarrassment, maybe prison. Nobody’s life was at stake. But what about the disciples? Twelve powerless men, peasants really, were facing not just embarrassment or political disgrace, but beatings, stonings, execution. Every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead. Don’t you think that one of those apostles would have cracked before being beheaded or stoned? That one of them would have made a deal with the authorities? None did.”
In every scandal or conspiracy like this, the people involved would sooner tell the truth than go to jail, or worse, be tortured and killed. In the case of Watergate, the conspirators only went to jail for a very short time, and received very minor fines. Escalate that to torture, and even death, and no one in their right mind would keep a lie if it meant a torturous death. The only possible reason is if they had something massive to gain (even though they’ll be dead afterwards), if they kept the secret. For example, someone might be willing to be tortured to death if they knew it would save the lives of their family members. They also might be willing if they knew it meant protecting their country in some way. However, the disciples gained absolutely nothing, and yet they were gladly tortured and killed for their claims. We have no accounts of any of them ever recanting. Why? It’s because they were telling the truth! People are not willing to suffer for the sake of something they know is a lie, especially when they have nothing to gain from it.
A very common response given by secular people is that we have plenty of examples of people who were willing to die for something false. They then point to terrorist suicide bombers who are willing to face severe consequences, all because they have been deluded into believing a false ideology. However, there’s a very big difference between the example of suicide bombers and the disciples of Jesus. The suicide bombers merely believe in their cause, and are not in a position to know for certain whether it is true or false, because they were not eye witnesses of the things they believe in. However, if we grant that the disciples stole the body, then they were in a position to know for certain that their cause was false, and that Christ did not rise. If they stole the body, then they could not possibly believe in the resurrection. The ones starting the conspiracy cannot also be the ones being fooled by the conspiracy. This is the big difference between a suicide bomber and a disciple of Jesus; the terrorists are not in a position to know for a fact whether their religion is true or false, and the disciples were in a position to know for a fact whether their cause was true or false. If they knew it was false, they wouldn’t be willing to die for it. The fact that they were willing to die for it proves they strongly believed in the cause, which means they could not possibly have stolen the body. The strong belief of the disciples does not get explained on the stolen body hypothesis, and instead, it becomes a fatal flaw in the theory.
I think Gary Habermas said it very well when he wrote, “The point is that their sincerity to the point of martyrdom indicates that they were not intentionally lying.” In other words, their devotion to the point of death proves, at the very least, that they didn’t steal the body.
Nearly all historians admit that the evidence points to the fact that the disciples really did strongly believe that Jesus had been resurrected. This doesn’t then necessarily mean that Jesus did in fact rise, it only means they are willing to admit that the disciples very strongly believed Jesus did rise. As we’ve seen, there’s very good reasons to think the disciples were quite passionate in their belief in the resurrection. So, if they strongly believed Jesus rose, then there’s no way the disciples could have stolen the body. Again, the ones starting the conspiracy cannot also be the ones being fooled by the conspiracy.
Common Problems are Still Problems
The strong beliefs of the disciples are one of the problems that all of the missing body theories share. When we look at the theory that maybe the disciples stole the body, not only does it fall prey to the strong beliefs problem, but the other issues are still relevant as well. Similar to the strong belief point is the fact that many people were claiming to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus. These appearances of Christ after the resurrection need to be explained somehow, and the stolen body hypothesis mostly ignores them. Now, to be fair, some of the appearances can be explained, because if the disciples stole the body, then whoever it was stealing the body could then lie about the resurrection, saying they saw Jesus alive again. After all, this seems to be the whole point behind stealing the body; to trick people into thinking Jesus rose. So if we follow this line of reasoning, at least a handful of the supposed experiences would be deliberate lies. However, all of the other eyewitness testimonies of the risen Christ still wouldn’t be accounted for. We have quite a few people mentioned by name, and apparently there were hundreds of people in total, who saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion. That doesn’t make any sense if the disciples stole the body, and it requires some kind of additional theory to explain all the data. As I mentioned before, when you start multiplying your theories to fill in all the evidential holes, you also start multiplying the unlikelihood, and what you have is a conspiracy theory.
Another problem that remains is that even after being told about the resurrection, no one believed it, and instead they still required some kind of supernatural evidence like angels or meeting Jesus in order to believe. This creates another problem, where the testimony of the resurrection, and even the empty tomb itself, was never enough for people to believe Jesus had risen. Everyone but John required additional proof, and that makes perfect sense, considering how strange the idea would have been to the people. Even if the disciples stole Jesus’ body, these points are still very problematic, and need some kind of explanation.
To continue, the conversions and martyrdom of James and Paul still wouldn’t be explained, even if we grant that the disciples stole the body. Both James and Paul had very strong motivations to be skeptical about the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, they both not only converted, but they ended up being in the top leadership positions of the Early Church, and were tortured and killed for their belief that Jesus had risen. Again, that makes absolutely no sense if the disciples stole the body, so this theory doesn’t explain all the historical data, in multiple ways, so it’s just not good enough.
What if the Consequences were Unknown?
One final little point that skeptics bring up at times, which is worth dealing with, is a counter to what I’ve said so far. The major point against the disciples stealing the body is that they were persecuted and even killed for proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. If they were lying, they wouldn’t be willing to suffer and die for the sake of a lie that didn’t benefit them at all. However, skeptics sometimes offer the possibility that perhaps the disciples didn’t realize they would be persecuted and killed. The way skeptics try to rationalize this is they will say it’s possible that once the disciples started proclaiming the risen Christ, they were all simply killed, without being given an opportunity to recant. The skeptic will then claim that, if the disciples were given the opportunity to recant, and deny Christ, they would have, but the Romans simply didn’t give them that option.
There are quite a few problems with this idea that the disciples didn’t realize the consequences of their actions, and were denied an opportunity to renounce the resurrection of Jesus. First, it seems just plain false, because there were different disciples, most notably Paul, who were arrested and tortured many times, and were not merely snatched up and quickly killed. The authorities tried to shut them up before killing them, and when they realized their threats and torture weren’t working, then they killed them. Also, Paul specifically was brought before different courts, and never renounced his faith.
A second problem is that, even if we grant the disciples weren’t given an opportunity to deny the resurrection, and even if we grant that they didn’t realize the severe consequences, it still doesn’t give them a motivation to steal the body. There wasn’t any money in it, they wouldn’t have gained any power, in fact they would be pitting themselves against the Roman and Jewish authorities, so why would they do it? This is especially true in the cases of James and Paul, which remains a problem even on this view, because they were skeptics, with everything to lose and nothing to gain, so why would they convert, even if the disciples weren’t given an opportunity the recant?
A third problem is that it seems quite obvious that the disciples would have been well aware that there would be severe repercussions. After all, Jesus had just been publicly tortured and crucified. If the Jews and Romans were willing to do that to Jesus, why not those that attempt to continue Jesus’ ministry? It seems obvious that it would be a dangerous task.
Then a last problem, even if we grant everything about the skeptic’s point here, the only ones that could have thought there would be no repercussions would be the first wave of disciples killed. Once the first few disciples were killed, the rest of the Christians would have obviously been aware of the severe threat there was in preaching the resurrection of Christ. So, once again, we’re left with the question, why would they continue to tell everyone Jesus had risen, if they knew they would die for it? The only way to make sense of it is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, and all the disciples were passionate enough to die for it, because it was true.
In my opinion, the disciples stealing the body of Jesus is the best secular explanation available, and it’s so full of holes that it can’t possibly be true. It does explain the empty tomb, but it doesn’t explain the rest of the historical data, like the passionate belief of the disciples, the appearance claims, or the conversions and martyrdoms of James and Paul. This theory is also very problematic because there’s no motivation for the disciples to steal the body. They would have gained literally nothing. This problem becomes exacerbated by the fact that the disciples were willing to suffer and die for the claim of the resurrection, because if they stole the body then they know the resurrection is false, so why die for something you know is a lie? Again, their martyrdom is proof that they were not intentionally lying, so they could not have stolen the body. The stolen body theory may save the secularist’s theory, but they completely lack evidence in their favor, which makes it an ad hoc explanation. These are obvious examples of conspiracy theories. Overall, even if you hold to one of these theories, it doesn’t explain all the data, so the secularist needs to add an additional explanation in order to make sense of the all the facts. Adding another theory ends up multiplying the unlikelihood of the scenario, which makes it even more of a conspiracy theory, and even less likely to be true.
In the last episode I had mentioned hallucinations as one of these additional theories that the secular person throws in. This is quite a common explanation given by those trying to discredit the resurrection. This is because both the appearances of Jesus, and the passion of the disciples, needs to be explained in order to account for all the data. If they were hallucinating, that would seem to fix both those problems. The hallucination theory is definitely worth going into more detail, so that’s what we’ll be doing in the next episode. So I hope you’ll join me next time as we begin our investigation into the possibility of the disciples hallucinating the appearances of Jesus, here on the Ultimate Questions Podcast, with Jon Topping.