The crucifixion of Jesus was especially well documented and accepted as fact. The crucial question then becomes, “Did Jesus rise from the dead, proving His claim to be God incarnate? Or did something else happen with His body? Or was He never dead at all?”
A key to this issue is the extreme local importance placed on handling this execution. Jesus’ powerful, insightful speaking and many miracles had led the populace to request that He become king. This began to threaten the local political stability of the Romans and the religious power of the Jewish whom Jesus openly criticized. Both the absolute death of Jesus and the protection against a hoax were critical, since Jesus had claimed He would overcome death. Furthermore, He had already raised other people from the dead. As a result, all precautions were taken to secure His corpse (Matthew 27:62-66).
The Bible implies the cause of Jesus’ death was cardiac arrest, indicated by blood and water from a spear thrust (medical experts confirm this).
To secure the body, a Roman guard was placed outside the tomb. Such a guard would have consisted of 16 soldiers, with a disciplined rotation for sleeping at night (every four hours, four would switch). The guards all faced the rigid Roman penalty of crucifixion if they slept outside of the assigned shift or deserted their post. The idea that all guards were asleep, considering the death penalty, is especially unreasonable.
To further ensure safekeeping, a two-ton stone was rolled in front of the tomb with Pontius Pilate’s seal on it. Breaking the seal without the official Roman guard’s approval meant crucifixion upside down.
The central issue — unexplainable by Jewish leaders, especially in light of the many precautions — is:
What Happened To Jesus Corpse If He Did Not Rise From The Dead As Indicated In the Gospel Accounts?
The official explanation is that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep (with the priests protecting the guards from the governor). This story was necessary only because no one could produce a dead body of Jesus, which would have stopped the resurrection story forever. Is a theft of Jesus body even remotely possible given that:
- All 16 guards would have had to risk the penalty of crucifixion by sleeping while on duty or deserting. Surely at least one guard would be awake.
- The disciples were in a state of shock, fear, and disarray, having seen their Master crucified. Is it reasonable to think they quickly created a brilliant plan and flawlessly executed it on the Sabbath day of rest?
- What possible motive could the disciples have? If Jesus was not the Son of God as He claimed, stealing the body would create a lie with no apparent benefit, and death for no purpose for the disciples.
Analysis of Other Explanations
Was Jesus really dead? Crucifixion was more routine and was a longer, more visibly excruciating death than the electric chair is today. Is it likely that such professional executioners would not know death? The final spear thrust to the heart area was to ensure death. For such a political threat, they would be certain. If Jesus was not dead, what are the chances that a barely living person could move a two-ton rock from the inside of a tomb and escape a full Roman guard unnoticed?
Was the body stolen at night? Recognizing that no flashlights nor infrared sensors were available then, is it likely that a band of scared disciples carrying torches could bypass a full Roman guard, move a two-ton rock, and not be noticed? Furthermore, the Sabbath greatly limited movement. And again, for what motive?
Eyewitnesses to the Truth Died to Tell the Story
Martyrdom for a belief is not unique. But what kind of person would die for a known lie? Someone insane? Would all the disciples face hardship and death for a known lie? The disciples were with Jesus constantly for three years. They would certainly know the truth of the resurrection. Lying would serve no purpose since Jesus’ ministry would then be moot. Yet historical record and reports about the disciples indicated they all died cruel deaths for their beliefs (except John). James was stoned, Peter was crucified upside down, Paul was beheaded, Thaddaeus was killed with arrows, Matthew and James (Zebedee) faced sword deaths and other believers were crucified.
The Testimony of the Catacombs
Underneath Rome lie some 900 miles of carved caves where over seven million Christians, executed for their beliefs, were buried. Other believers hid and worshiped in these caves during the height of Christian persecution. The earliest known inscriptions in the walls were dated A.D. 70. Some early occupants probably communicated directly with eyewitnesses of Jesus. Since about A.D. 400, the Catacombs were buried and “forgotten” for over 1000 years. In 1578 they were rediscovered by accident. Today they can be seen as silent memorials to many who died rather than curse Jesus or bow down to an emperor’s statue. Christian martyrs differed greatly from other world martyrs in that historical facts were the foundation of their beliefs — facts verifiable at the time — not just ideas.
Hostile Witnesses Turn Christian
Paul, a leading executor of Christians, gave up wealth, power, and comfort upon seeing the resurrected Christ, then wrote most of the New Testament. Two Sanhedrin members (not present when the Sanhedrin sentenced Jesus to death) were secret disciples. Unbelieving natural brothers of Jesus later became believers after the resurrection.
Indirect Archaeological Evidence
Evidence that the people in Jesus’ time believed in the resurrection is found on caskets of bones (ossuaries) discovered in a sealed tomb outside Jerusalem in 1945. Coins minted in about A.D. 50 were found inside the caskets, dating the burial within about 20 years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Markings are clearly legible, including several statements reflecting knowledge of Jesus’ ability to overcome death.
Examples of writings (in Greek) of hope for deceased loved ones include: “Jesus, Help” and “Jesus, Let Him Arise.” The caskets also contain several crosses, clearly marked in charcoal. This is powerful evidence that early Christians believed in Jesus’ ability to triumph over death. It also ties the idea of victory over death to the cross.
Prior to the resurrection, “grave robbing” was not considered a serious offense. The resurrection changed that. An inscription found on a tomb in Nazareth warns that anyone found stealing from the tombs would receive the death penalty. Scholars believe the inscription was written as early as Tiberius (circa 37 B.C) or as late as Claudius (A.D. 41-54). In the latter case, it would have been shortly after the crucifixion. Naturally, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth would be an obvious city of “interest” to officials.