Now, this lie, the chief priests’ story that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb — is the only alternative to the resurrection put forth at the time by any of Jesus’ enemies. Is it true? Was the body stolen from the grave? Would the disciples do such a thing? Would the chief priests — honorable men — tell such a lie? Would professional soldiers of Caesar’s army take a bribe and tell such a lie? Let us see for ourselves. Let some of those involved tell their story. Listen to Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph of Arimathea: “Looking back these 20 years since that day, I shudder to realize how close I came to letting the Kingdom of God pass me by, as it did so many of my fellow Pharisees. My situation then was quite different than it is now! I am still, as you would say, wealthy, but back then I was a man to be envied; a member of the 70, the Sanhedrin. But when I was asked to serve on the committee to investigate this young teacher named Jesus, my life was changed.
I was there at the start of our investigation, on that day when they tore up the roof of the house in Capernaum and lowered the man down to be healed — and forgiven. I was there when he fed the multitudes, opened blind eyes, straightened crippled limbs. I thought, back then, that it was simply that I had the time and freedom to devote to the investigation, to follow this man around … now I know that God was dealing with me. In those days I was still sorting through just who Jesus was. His death forced me to take a public stand for Him. I did not attend the midnight trial of Jesus where they all voted to condemn him; but I spoke against it the next morning when we met at sunrise and voted to take Him to Pilate. I was filled with outrage and shame as I watched Him die, and decided that I should at least be man enough to see that He got a decent burial. I have always felt uneasy when the Brethren praise me for giving my tomb to Jesus. I did it more out of guilt and frustration than for any other reason. So I prepared myself for the insults of the Sanhedrin, and went to Pilate and begged for the body. To put Him in my recently finished tomb was the least I could do.
Pilate: “You want his body? Why? Never mind — you’re sure he’s dead? Didn’t even have to break his legs, eh? Well, give the body of this King of the Jews to his subject here! Maybe we’ll hear no more of this whole business!”
Joseph of Arimathea: “I gathered up a few tools, a ladder and a hammer, and went to take Jesus down from the cross. The women and the disciple John were still there. One of my fellow Sanhedrin members came, too, a man named Nicodemus; he and I had often talked quietly about the depth of the teaching and magnetic personality of Jesus, and I sent a message to him to join me in this task if he were bold enough. He came bringing about a hundred pounds of spices to wrap within the linen burial strips. My new tomb was only a couple hundred yards away, but it was still a lonely, sorrowful business as we carried the limp body of Jesus to the grave, the women trailing after us. We hurriedly wrapped the body with the spices, laid it on the limestone slab, and managed to roll the heavy wheel of rock in its trench over in front of the door. Then we left. It was all we could do.
The Chief Priests: “Your highness. We dislike very much to disturb you but a matter has come to our attention which demands your wisdom. You will remember the rabble-rouser who was crucified yesterday? Yes, Jesus of Nazareth. What’s that? Joseph of Arimathea, you say? No matter. He claimed, while He was yet alive, that He would rise from the grave after three days — ridiculous, we know — but could you, would you assign a guard to the grave until the third day is past, just to be sure that this imposter’s followers do not steal his body? Surely, to have the city believe he rose from the dead would be a bigger mess than the delusion that he was the Messiah! Thank you, sir, thank you! You’ll not regret this!”
And so it was that on Saturday a troop of soldiers came marching into Joseph’s garden. They first “sealed” the tomb by stretching a rope across the stone blocking the entrance, then they fastened each end of the rope to the rock wall with clay, and stamped on the moist clay the seal of the procurator of Judea. Tampering would be obvious. Then they sat down to watch, and wait. It was on the next day, the first day of the week, early in the morning, that the chief priests were told a group of soldiers begged to have an audience with them.
Guards: “We are sorry to barge in unexpectedly like this, sir, but somebody needs to know what has happened at the tomb we are guarding — the tomb of the man crucified three days ago!”
Caiaphas: “Well, speak up, man! What are you talking about? What are you doing here at this hour? Where is the rest of the guard? What happened?”
Guards: “By all the gods of Rome, I never saw anything like it, sir. And I shall tell you everything — everything just as it happened. About an hour and a half ago, just before dawn, there was the earthquake — surely you felt it here? Then an angel appeared; it was as if we were not there — he paid us no attention. Rolling the stone away was but a moment’s task, and then he sat down on it — as if waiting for something to happen! But sir — and I swear I speak the truth — my senses left me, and I lay there as one dead, as did the others. When we awoke, we saw no angel but the tomb was empty. We looked inside, and there were only the graveclothes, neatly folded and laid aside. I speak the truth, by all the gods! That man left that tomb!”
Caiaphas: “Quiet, quiet! Let me think. What sayest thou, Annas? Yes, yes. That is the best way. And Pilate does not want more commotion over this man any more than we do. My good men — no doubt your imaginations have been running wild … obviously, graveyard duty is not your strong suit! Perhaps we can ease this situation. Regardless of what you saw — or think you saw — it is not wise to let the rumor spread that this man was raised from the dead. Yet, He is not there. Perhaps 300 pieces of silver would clarify your memory, and you could admit that you fell asleep, and His followers came and stole his body? Would 500 pieces be even better? Don’t worry about Pilate hearing about your falling asleep; we will take care of that. Go now, tell those who ask exactly what happened!”
And so the soldiers left to perpetuate the biggest lie a human being ever spread: the lie that Jesus did not rise from the grave! Apparently some of the guards were so shaken they could not even come tell the chief priests what had happened. Yet those who did tell the priests what happened in the garden told all they saw, says Matthew. My, to have been there to hear their testimony! I cannot help wondering how much money is enough to convince a man to lie about the raising of a man from the dead? And the soldiers were told not to worry about Pilate punishing them — though death was the customary punishment for sleeping on duty. Perhaps the priests could take care of Pilate; but what, or who, could keep them from worrying to the end of their days about what they had seen, and the lie they had told about it! I can hear them now.
Guards: “Yes, for years I have pondered what I saw in the grey dawn of that morning. I know what I saw. Perhaps I do not know all that it means, but what I saw, I saw! And we soldiers were not the fools the priests thought we were! Did they really think all 16 of us would be asleep at the same time? And to think that the followers of this Jesus; common, ordinary, fearful men, could do all this while we slept! Listen, it’s noisy work, moving that stone! And they would surely have been hurrying to get the body and get out of there — so why unwrap the body — yet I tell you I saw the graveclothes neatly folded and left behind on the stone slab where the body lay. I was no fool when Caiaphas paid us to lie about what we saw, although I have often wondered since, if perhaps I have been a fool not to talk with some of His followers about Him.”
There is one aspect of this meeting of the soldiers with Caiaphas and Annas that shows, the mercy and grace of God. Just as Jesus continued to try to win Judas right up to the end, perhaps God was yet trying to get through to the religious leaders of Judaism, even after the murder of the Son of God. Notice the Scripture tells us rather deliberately that the women went to tell the disciples that Christ had risen, while the soldiers went to tell the chief priests “all they had seen.” Did God send these soldiers so that Caiaphas might have one more chance to accept the working of God in Jesus? Now they hear from an unprejudiced witness that the sign of Jonah has been given! Did it have the effect of plagues on Pharaoh — simply hardening an already hard heart? And what about those disciples? Disciples: “By the time we heard the rumor that we had stolen the body of Jesus, we had already met Him again, alive, praise God!” Indeed, we found it almost amusing, this rumor of our robbing a grave. Think about it for a moment. First, the rumor gave us credit for more boldness than we had shown when Jesus was alive! After all, we fled the garden when He was arrested, we were absent from the cross — and now you think us bold enough after His death to defy a squad of 16 soldiers and steal His body? Do you think we would be more faithful to His dead body than we were to Him when He was alive? Not only did we have no stomach for it, but in the second place, we had no motive, no reason to steal the body. We had the body in our possession after it was taken down from the cross, we could have done with it whatever we wished. Why would we steal it from a grave? Joseph’s tomb was finer than any we could offer Jesus, for sure. And to be caught with the half-buried body of our leader would certainly be fatal to our faith, and fatal to our lives!
But the third thought we had about the rumor was this, why would anyone get up as our brother Peter is doing these days, and preach the resurrection of a dead man, Jesus, if it didn’t happen — and especially preach that doctrine within 500 yards of where they buried Jesus? All we can say is that we have seen the Master, talked with Him, eaten with Him — after we saw Him dead and buried! We know He lives!”
Let us sum up the chief priests’ story and its obvious lie by just stating some thoughts, realizing of course that the priests are of concern to us 20 centuries later only as their story relates to our belief in Jesus’s resurrection.
First, the priests didn’t doubt the guards’ story of the raising of Jesus. The priests do not seem for a moment to have doubted the guards. Perhaps it was something in the terrified looks and manner and words of the guards. Second, the priests themselves didn’t believe the story they concocted! They never tried to prove the story they made up of the disciples stealing the body, or to seize the stolen body and display it, even though that would have been the quickest way to destroy Christianity.
Third, there are just too many resurrection proofs for such a false story as that of the priests to survive. (1) There is the testimony of those who saw Jesus after His resurrection. Paul, for example, gives a marvelous list in
(3) There is the unanswered empty tomb. Unanswered, that is, except for this preposterous rumor, and the Gospel account of the resurrection! (4) There is the existence of the Early Church. There is no explanation for the emergence of the church, for the 120 praying at Pentecost, for the boldness of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost, for the spirit of love and sharing that characterized the first Christians — no explanation based on a dead body! But if Jesus did rise from the grave …
Yet the importance of Easter is not found in the proofs for the resurrection of Jesus. The importance of Easter is not that it assures us that we, too, shall rise from the grave — that was already a common Jewish belief. The importance of Jesus’ resurrection is that it means God is victorious over the Evil One. If the chief priests’ story had been true, the devil would still have this world in his grip, and you and I would have no hope of enjoying the fellowship of Jesus or living in the presence of God. The resurrection of Jesus means God is victorious over evil and that the life-giving, life-changing power of Jesus Christ is turned loose in this world. And can be turned loose in your life!