Did The Disciples Steal Jesus' Body?

In this series we’ve been looking at alternate explanations for the Resurrection of Jesus.  We started the series by looking at the 12 minimal facts of the resurrection.  These are facts that are agreed upon by the majority of new testament scholars.  These same scholars may not necessarily believe the resurrection actually occurred.  They do however concede that our list of facts actually occurred.  We’re now looking at how skeptics try to explain away the facts of the resurrection.  So far, we have looked at The Swoon Theory, The Twin Theory, The Wrong Tomb Theory, The Legend Theory and the Hallucination Theory.  In this post we’ll look at theory that the Disciples stole the body of Jesus.   

What Does The Theory Entail?

Doubting Thomas

The Disciples stealing Jesus body has long been considered a plausible explanation for the events of the resurrection.  The idea is that the Disciples really wanted Jesus’ message to continue to be spread. So instead of letting both Him and His ideas die out, they conspired to steal his body from the tomb.  Once the body was found to be missing they could proclaim him risen and go on to form the early church.    

Just The Facts Ma’am

As with all out theories, we test them against the agreed upon facts.  For review, here are the 12 facts we are working with.  These facts were assembled by Dr. Craig Hazen from Biola University.  

The facts:

  1. Jesus died by Roman Crucifixion.
  2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea
  3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent having lost hope.
  4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his burial
  5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
  6. Due to these experiences, the disciple’s lives were thoroughly transformed, to the point of being willing to die for this belief. 
  7. The resurrection message was the center of preaching in the early church.
  8. This message was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
  9. As a result of this preaching, the church was born and grew.
  10. Sunday became the primary day of worship.
  11. James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he believed he saw the resurrected Jesus.
  12. A few years later, Paul became a Christian believer due to an experience which he believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus. 

What Does This Theory Explain?

So which of the facts does this theory explain?  The idea that the disciples stole the body of Jesus would explain all of facts with the exception of numbers 5, 6, 11 and 12.  The burial of Jesus and the Disciples being discouraged and bereaved would be explained.  It would explain the empty tomb and the Disciples spreading the message of His resurrection. 

While this explanation does cover quite a few of the facts, it doesn’t explain them all. Whatever theory we decide on must account for all of our 12 facts. So which puzzle pieces does this alternate explanation leave out?  

What Facts Are Not Accounted For?

If the Disciples did in fact steal the body from the tomb, they would in fact know the truth about Jesus’ death.  It’s popular to think that doing so would bring these men great fame and fortune.  That’s not what happened.  Moreover, it was completely foreseeable that to proclaim Jesus risen would not have made the Disciples popular.  The Jewish leadership had already crucified Jesus for spreading his message.  It would be ludicrous for the Disciples to believe that they would not also receive the same treatment.

Does The Twin Theory Explain The Resurrection?

So what did the Disciples get for proclaiming the risen Jesus?  They were tortured, beaten and in some cases killed.  Not exactly motivation to stick to a fake story.  But haven’t other religious zealots gone to their deaths for a false message? Think of the 911 terrorists for example.  They all were willing to die for a message.  Here is the key difference between the 911 terrorists and the Disciples.  The Disciples were in a position to know whether or not their claim was true. The 911 terrorist were not in a position to know that the message they were following was true or not. 

This theory also does not account for the conversion of Paul and James.  Neither of these men would be persuaded to change their view simply because there was a missing body.  Their conversions make no sense unless they had some experience of the risen Jesus.  

On To The Final Explanation

It’s safe to say that the disciples stealing the body of Jesus would not adequately explain the facts of the resurrection.  This is the last alternate explanation we will discuss in this series.  While there are other alternate explanations, most of them fall into one of the theories we have already covered.  In our last post in this series, we’ll look at the Christian explanation for the resurrection and see how it fits our list of facts. We’ll also talk about the flaw that this theory has.  See you next time!

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