Plausibility of Theft FAQ
By Richard Carrier
This page presents answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Richard Carrier's chapter "The Plausibility of Theft," in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, pp. 349-68, edited by Jeff Lowder and Robert Price (Prometheus Books: 2005). Launched in October of 2005, this FAQ will be updated continually. It is assumed you have already read the original chapter in its entirety. You may submit new questions to Richard Carrier.
QUESTION: Have you responded to published critiques of your work in The Empty Tomb?
QUESTION: Even if the body was stolen, how would that explain the Christians' claim to have seen the risen Jesus?
QUESTION: Do you really think the relocation hypothesis "has even greater merit than the possibility of theft" (p. 370)?
QUESTION: Isn't it contradictory to argue for your theory when you believe Jesus didn't really exist after all?
QUESTION: Since there is no direct evidence for the elements of any theft hypothesis, isn't theft just as speculative as proposing, say, that "space aliens healed Jesus"?
QUESTION: You propose that some among the disciples might have removed the body to give the appearance of God's vindication of the message of Jesus. But wouldn't they believe this was "bearing false witness" or even "blasphemy," which would result in their own damnation?
QUESTION: You argue that a theft may even have occurred and been found out, since this would not dissuade fanatics (pp. 355-57), but wouldn't a publicly exposed theft make it impossible for the Christians to convince anyone else to join their movement?
QUESTION: If a theft was indeed exposed, wouldn't we have a record of that today?
QUESTION: You propose that a possible candidate for thieves was sorcerers or those who supplied sorcerers with corpse materials. But were there sorcerers in Judaea in the first century?
QUESTION: Couldn't sorcerers just hack off parts and make away with those, instead of stealing the whole body?
QUESTION: Is it true that spells involving corpses did not require the corpse to be removed from the grave?
QUESTION: Wouldn't sorcerers steal bodies in places where it was easier to get away with it, like in rural graveyards?
QUESTION: But since Jesus was a condemned criminal, how could he be considered a holy man by sorcerers interested in body parts from holy men?
QUESTION: Much of the evidence for sorcerous practices is literary and fictional, so how can we trust that evidence?
QUESTION: How could corpse parts, especially organs and blood, have been preserved in an age without refrigeration?
QUESTION: I've heard it argued that bodies might have been stolen by ancient doctors for anatomical research. Is that plausible?
QUESTION: You argue that "most Jews would be in no position to know whether there were guards, so a denial" of there being guards "would be risky, and unfruitful" (p. 359), but wouldn't a Christian "invention" of guards be just as risky? Indeed, wouldn't the Jewish assumption that the guards were asleep also be just as risky?
QUESTION: You point out that Matthew does not have the Jews posting a guard until many hours after the burial, leaving a large window of opportunity for thieves (p. 358), but don't you think the Jews would have posted some temporary guard before getting an official one from Pilate, or that the guards would have looked inside before they sealed the tomb?
QUESTION: Weren't the tombs of criminals always guarded to prevent illegal mourning?
QUESTION: In response to the proposal that the guards left before the women arrived, you note that "on this theory there could then be no source for Matthew's account," for "since the guards lied and the women weren't there" no one could have reported seeing "the angel descend and the guards become like dead men" (p. 359). But couldn't one of the guards, or one of the Priests or Sanhedrin who bribed them (Matthew 28:11-12), have confessed the truth and thus become the source of that information?
QUESTION: Regarding the grave clothes reported in John (and a disputed passage in Luke), you argue "since Mark and Matthew do not mention such cloths, and their presence is clearly a dramatic element in Luke and John, it is not likely a genuine detail" (p. 353). Is that a valid argument from silence?
QUESTION: Arguing that Matthew invented the guards, you claim "the other three Gospel accounts entail their absence." How so?
Q: Have you responded to published critiques of your work in The Empty Tomb?
A: Yes. See my answer to this question in my Burial of Jesus FAQ.
Q: Even if the body was stolen, how would that explain the Christians' claim to have seen the risen Jesus?
A: See my answer to this question in my Burial of Jesus FAQ.
Q: Do you really think the relocation hypothesis "has even greater merit than the possibility of theft" (p. 370)?
A: No longer. See my answer to this question in my Burial of Jesus FAQ.
Q: Isn't it contradictory to argue for your theory when you believe Jesus didn't really exist after all?
A: I don't actually argue for theft. I argue for a very different theory, in my chapter "The Spiritual Body of Christ" (pp. 105-232) which is what I believe most likely happened (p. 349). I only present "The Plausibility of Theft" as another defensible possibility that is consistent with the evidence available. Anyone who is convinced there was a real Jesus will have to contend with the case I lay out there, especially if they are not persuaded by the theory I actually think is more likely (which is compatible with there being no historical Jesus: see my answer to this same question in my Spiritual Body FAQ). On the relevant idea of ranking theories by relative probability see the Conclusion of my reply to Davis.
Q: Since there is no direct evidence for the elements of any theft hypothesis, isn't theft just as speculative as proposing, say, that "space aliens healed Jesus"?
A: No. Theft may have a low probability, but nowhere near that low.
First, a hypothesis like "space aliens healed Jesus" requires credible evidence to believe that there were space aliens here, and not only that, but who had the means and motive to accomplish such a thing. No such evidence exists. "God performed a miracle" is in the same category: we have no credible evidence confirming that there was a God around here with the means and motive to raise Jesus (see next paragraph). In contrast, we have credible evidence to believe that there were several parties in that time and place with the means and the motive to steal the body, as I demonstrate in the book. That establishes the plausibility of theft, which is all that chapter aims to do, and all we can do (again, as I explain there). We certainly cannot conclude with any confidence that the body was stolen, but we also cannot conclude with any confidence that it wasn't stolen, and therefore theft remains an uneliminated possibility, which entails that we are not in a position to be confident that any miracle occurred, even if we believe one could have (see The Problem with Miracles).
Of course, "God performed a miracle" is even less plausible than "Space aliens healed Jesus," because we do have credible evidence to believe that there could be space aliens with the means and the motive to heal Jesus: the existence of a spacefaring species is well attested in at least one case: us; the technology to travel through interstellar space and restore life to a corpse is within the realm of known physics (faster-than-light travel would not be necessary for a species that has conquered death); etc. Yet we do not have the same quality of evidence to believe that there could be a supernatural disembodied mind with magical powers capable of reversing the known laws of physics. Though we could have that evidence, we don't. Instead, for every proposed piece of evidence one might care to offer for the existence of a God with the required means and motive, we can offer more evidence, of at least the same quality, for the potential existence of aliens with the required means and motive.
Therefore, if the hypothesis that "space aliens healed Jesus" is not credible, the hypothesis that "God performed a miracle" is even less credible. In other words, if we are allowed to grant that such a being existed and cared and acted in this case, we would be just as warranted in granting that those aliens existed, too. But if we think the latter absurd, we must also conclude the former is absurd. For more on this point, see my discussion of method in Why I Am Not a Christian (2005) and General Case for Insufficiency (2004). This should not be mistaken for arguing that any evidence a God could have provided (but didn't in this case) would produce the same conclusion (see Richard Carrier, On the Deceptions of David Wood, 2005).
Q: If theft only created the impression of an "ascension to heaven" how did that change so quickly into proclaiming a "resurrection"?
A: First, since everyone believed Jesus had died, he could not ascend bodily into heaven unless his body had been resurrected first. Therefore, had his body vanished, then a resurrection would have been preached from the very start, precisely because he was believed to have bodily ascended. Second, the theft hypothesis need not stand alone but can be adjoined to an appearance hypothesis, the former being a causal factor in producing the latter, which would itself explain the assertion of a resurrection (see my discussion of this point in my Burial of Jesus FAQ). Third, I defend a theory of legendary development, from an ascended body to a body of flesh stepping out of the grave, in my chapter on the "Spiritual Body" (described on pp. 165-67, but consult that whole chapter for support), and that development is just as possible if the body was stolen.
Q: You propose that some among the disciples might have removed the body to give the appearance of God's vindication of the message of Jesus. But wouldn't they believe this was "bearing false witness" or even "blasphemy," which would result in their own damnation?
First of all, I did not limit the pool of candidates to "the disciples" but in fact said, quite correctly, a disciple "or any other follower or admirer" (p. 351), even without the knowledge of any of the disciples. In fact, "from among what may have been over seventy people in Jesus' entourage" (p. 352) I said the odds are not bad that at least one could have contemplated such an act, simply as a matter of statistics. Pick at random any seventy devout Christians today, and the odds are good at least one of them would consider lying or stealing for a greater good. I already know many devout Christians who engage in all manner of deceit, thinking it quite justified in defense of what they hold dear. I also know of devout Christians who have threatened, attacked, even killed their "enemies" instead of forgiving them and turning the other cheek, despite the fact that such behavior supposedly ensures their damnation (Mt. 6:14-15, 18:21-35; Mk. 11:25-26). Even if we suppose paramoral persons were uncommon, in any large number you are going to find at least one of them. And seventy is large. Indeed, according to Acts 1:15, the pool of candidates actually numbered 120 people. And if we include admirers who did not agree with or join Peter's group, the pool could run into the thousands, if we trust the Gospel reports at all regarding the size of Jesus' popularity. We simply don't know. And that is the problem for anyone who wants to insist that there was no such person. Statistically, there probably was.
Second, sociologists have found that people often support religious leaders and movements because they approve of their moral mission to reform society, and that those who believe that such a mission will produce a better society are often willing to die fighting to promote it, and will consider any threat to its success as a threat to society as a whole. Someone in this mindset might not consider it wrong to steal a body in order to convince society that the moral mission of Jesus was approved by God, for they could easily persuade themselves it was the right thing to do precisely because they believe the moral mission of Jesus was approved by God, and therefore society ought to be persuaded of this, too. I have personally encountered numerous creationists and antiabortionists who have no qualms about deliberately fabricating and misrepresenting information in support of their cause, precisely because they believe this is what God wants. On the psychology involved here, especially in the special context of ancient culture, see discussion and sources in Who Would Want to be Persecuted? and Would Groupthinkers Never Switch Groups?
Third, stealing the body would not constitute "bearing false witness" or "blasphemy" under Jewish law, whether oral or written. "Blasphemy" (literally, "speaking hurtfully") required a verbal act, speaking contemptuously of God (blasphêmeô means "speak profanely of sacred things," "utter imprecations against," "speak ill or to the prejudice of one, slander," and "speak impiously or irreverently of God"), and communicating what you honestly think God wants would not qualify. Indeed, the law held that a man commits blasphemy "only when he will have fully pronounced the divine name" (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7.5a), which obviously would not apply here. Likewise, the Torah only prohibits "bearing false witness against your neighbor" (Ex. 20:16, 23:1; Dt. 5:20, 19:18; Prov. 25:18), in other words, in court against someone charged with a crime, while Proverbs only frowns on uttering lies (Prov. 6:19, 12:17, 14:5, 19:5, 19:9). Simply stealing a body and keeping quiet about it would not qualify as either. It wouldn't even violate the rule against not coming forward when called to testify (Lev. 5:1), since there was no call to testify. Instead, the Bible presents uttering lies and engaging in deliberate acts of deception as sometimes exactly what God wants (Gen. 27), leaving ample precedent for a pious thief to imagine his act as of the very same kind.
Fourth, pious thieves would have regarded the corpse of Jesus to be the unjustly-buried body of a righteous man, for whom honor and dignity required a proper burial away from the Graveyard of the Condemned (see pp. 380-82 of my chapter on the "Burial of Jesus"). So a sense of righteous purpose could actually motivate a theft (if Jesus was buried where the law required). There were several ways a thief could persuade himself that he was doing good and not in fact committing a crime (to which one can add my remarks on pp. 352-53). Even Jesus himself said "every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven" except speaking contemptuously of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31-32; Mk. 3:28-29; cf. Lk. 12:10). If his followers believed such statements really were God's voice speaking through a living prophet, as they do appear to have believed, then his followers would not have "feared damnation" for any sin like stealing a body in order to persuade society of what they already believed was true: that Jesus spoke the will of God, which if obeyed would improve the world. Even if they thought it was wrong (and there is no reason to be sure they would have), they still would not have regarded themselves as damned for doing it.
Q: You argue that a theft may even have occurred and been found out, since this would not dissuade fanatics (pp. 355-57), but wouldn't a publicly exposed theft make it impossible for the Christians to convince anyone else to join their movement?
A: No. There would still be no evidence available to the public except the word of the Pharisees and their lackeys. Hence anyone who already believed the Pharisees had procured false witnesses against an innocent Jesus (Mt. 26:59-60; Mk. 14:56-57), would also believe they had procured false witnesses to a theft. Conversely, anyone who believed Jesus was convicted on honest and true testimony could not have been persuaded to join the Christians no matter what they did or said. As a result, the Christian message for every prospective convert would have come down to the same decision: Whom do you believe? The corrupt, arrogant elite, who seem to have had a record of faking charges (e.g. Acts 6:13) or the humble, charitable Christians? Of course, this might ultimately have come down to nothing more than an assessment of which group seemed to be preaching godly values, and which seemed to be serving their own selfish interests at the expense of the poor. The question of which group was lying would then follow as a matter of course.
It is also true that the Christian mission was notoriously ineffective in Palestine. Christian exaggerations to the contrary find little support in external evidence. It appears the movement only started to see major growth when it started preaching outside Palestine, which may well be because those closer to the facts were more likely to distrust what the Christians were claiming. On all the points made above, see the many relevant chapters in my collection Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False (2005).
Q: If a theft was indeed exposed, wouldn't we have a record of that today?
A: We do have a record of it today (p. 255). So the question must be: Wouldn't we have more records of it? Probably not, as I explain on pages 177-79 of my chapter on the "Spiritual Body" theory, to which can be added all the findings and conclusions in Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?, and Would the Facts Be Checked?, and Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?
Q: You propose that a possible candidate for thieves was sorcerers or those who supplied sorcerers with corpse materials. But were there sorcerers in Judaea in the first century?
A: There is no reason to believe otherwise. The evidence for sorcery is all over the mediterranean in that time, especially Egypt, whose sands have preserved for us copious amounts of spells (many of which I cite in the book), and the Bible itself attests to people from Egypt sojourning in Jerusalem at that very time (Acts 2:10; and from practically everywhere else: Acts 2:6-12), including Alexandrians (Acts 6:9). Simon of Cyrene was said to come from a province on the other side of Egypt (Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26; Matthew 27:32), and of course "the magi" who came to Herod, and to worship Jesus, were, by that very name, sorcerers (Matthew 2:1, 2:7, 2:16).
From the Old Testament it is clear, as the Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (2001) concludes, that "sorcerers, magicians and necromancers abounded in Israelite and Judahite society" (p. 308; e.g. Jer. 27:9; Mal. 3:5-8), and there is no reason to think this changed under centuries of pagan rule--indeed, pagan-dominated centers within Judaea (such as at Tiberias, Tyre, and Gaza) would have provided a haven and a market for pagan magic, and pagan sorcerers in Palestine would not be subject to Jewish laws against the practice (Roman laws against sorcery were more limited). The Bible even attests to the existence of sorcerers in Judaea in the time of Jesus, for Simon Magus "practiced sorcery" in Samaria (Acts 8:9-11), right in the middle of Palestine. And archaeologists have uncovered amulets (s.v. "amulet," Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, 1996: pp. 32-33) and other evidence of magical practices there in the same general period, even specific examples of necromantic magic (such as a find near Tiberias: see Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark, eds., Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome 1999: p. 188).
Finally, it cannot be maintained that sorcery was not practiced there simply because it was a capital crime. Judaea was not a paradise of unbroken laws. Many Jews took to a life of crime, committing murder and adultery and robbery and undertaking all manner of criminal enterprises, as countless cases in the Talmud attest--even the Bible claims two thieves were executed along with Jesus (Mark 15:27) and that a convicted murderer was in custody (15:7). If Jews could break these laws, they could break any others. And that the Jews had laws against sorcery, and even thought it plausible to accuse Jesus of being a sorcerer, implies that people were engaging in the practice. After all, it would be contrary to human nature to suppose that Judaea was somehow "free" of just this one kind of criminal activity which is attested everywhere else.
And sources confirm cases of Jews or foreigners in Palestine being convicted of sorcery (e.g. Ben Stada of Lydda: b.Talmud, Sanhedrin 67a; likewise, Mishnah, Sanhedrin 6.4.l-m mentions a mass execution of witches in 1st century B.C. Ashkelon, and Sanhedrin 7.11 and b.Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b mention debates about circumstances that imply cases were still being tried in the 1st century B.C. and A.D.). The Bible itself testifies that Elymas the Jew practiced sorcery (Acts 13:6), and though this was outside Palestine, it was still a violation of Jewish law, yet he undertook the profession as a Jew all the same. Thus, it cannot be maintained that no other Jews in Palestine were undertaking the same career, as Simon did (for another example of a traveling Jewish sorcerer in Palestine, see Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark, eds., Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome 1999: p. 202).
For more on the existence of sorcerers in Palestine, see: Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi (1985): pp. 26-28; J. M. Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Tradition (1974); Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978); Ann Jeffers, Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria (1996).
Q: Couldn't sorcerers just hack off parts and make away with those, instead of stealing the whole body?
A: That is always possible, but not necessarily the case--hence my chapter argues for plausibility, not certainty. But even if we suppose dismemberment, theft remains a relevant theory. For example, removal of the head would be the most valuable act (as papyri attest to the value of the skulls of persons worth questioning), which would, of course, destroy any hope of identifying the body as that of Jesus (Jewish law rejected identifications based on anything other than an intact face: see pp. 158-59 of my chapter on the "Spiritual Body" theory). But hands, feet, blood, and heart are also key ingredients attested in the papyri, and there were many other body parts that had valuable uses. So it would still be safer and more efficient to make off with the whole body, and dissect it at liesure later, to maximize the booty. This would especially be the case for acquiring the heart, and it would be essential for anyone who wanted to acquire as much blood as could be extracted from a corpse, since an ingredient used in some magical inks was "blood from someone who has died by violence" (Papyri Graecae Magicae IV.2208-09 = The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, p. 77). See also next question.
Q: Is it true that spells involving corpses did not require the corpse to be removed from the grave?
A: Yes. I note this fact myself (p. 350), but as I also demonstrate there (pp. 350-51), we still have evidence that bodies and parts were nevertheless removed from graves, and we have reason to expect this happened quite a lot. First, removal would be particularly important for traveling sorcerers who intended to use or reuse the various parts in various spells. Second, suppliers who intended to carve up and sell such booty to sorcerers on the black market would have to remove that booty (see also my answer to the question above). Third, the uniquely Jewish practice of secondary burial would make discovery and disturbance of an enchanted corpse inevitable, and therefore to ensure anything done to a corpse remained permanent, the body simply had to be stolen (and subsequently buried in secret). Fourth, many spells required that the sorcerer work his magic in the presence of the corpse or body part, which would also be impossible unless the sorcerer took it to a safe place where the time and commotion required would not risk capture. Hence for the same reason, a sorcerer who wanted to work the same spell on several occasions would need to keep the needed parts with him.
In support of the above, sorcerers probably carried body parts with them to repeatedly cast spells from them (Papyri Graecae Magicae IV.1950, 2080-85 = The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, pp. 72, 74); skulls were especially put to such use (PGM IV.1995-96, 2008-10, 2125-30 = GMPT, pp. 73, 75); for example, one could insert written questions into the mouth and receive a spiritual answer, which obviously requires transporting the skull for continued use (PGM IV.2140-44 = GMPT, p. 76); and in other cases a written spell had to remain attached to the body or inserted into its wounds in order to remain in effect (PGM IV.2164-69, 2215-16 = GMPT, p. 77). Similarly, besides human gall and blood, which had many uses in magic, "ulcers marked around with a human bone do not spread," "the hand of a person carried off by premature death cures by a touch," and the "tooth taken from an unburied corpse" operates as a curative amulet, thus these parts would have continual uses, and plants and soil grown "from a skull" have magical powers (yet another reason to keep skulls around), and there were other spells that required "bones from the head of a criminal," or "the tooth of a man killed by violence," or "the skull of a crucified man," or "a nail taken from a cross," and so on (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 28.2, 28.7-8, 28.11).
Q: Wouldn't sorcerers steal bodies in places where it was easier to get away with it, like in rural graveyards?
A: No doubt. But they would also be robbing graveyards with a greater prospect of valuable grave goods, which means near urban centers, especially major urban centers. It would also be easier to remain anonymous and disappear in crowded cosmopolitan streets than in rural areas (just as it is easier today for thieves to case and rob homes and cars in cities than in small towns). But more importantly, as I show in the book, necromancy entailed a particular interest in corpse materials from convicted criminals, which required robbing the Graveyards of the Court (which I discuss on pp. 380-82 of my chapter on the "Burial of Jesus"), which would have made major urban areas a particular target, where buried criminals would be found in greater abundance, in graveyards large enough to case without being seen or suspected.
In addition, it was far easier to rob tombs than graves--graves require the considerable time and labor of digging, whereas a tomb can be accessed in a matter of seconds by simply levering aside or knocking over a doorstone (see How Could He Get Out of the Tomb?, to which we must add that, unlike Jesus, thieves would have levers and other tools), which usually provided instant access to numerous burials all at once. Tombs would also be more abundant than graves, and larger (i.e. containing more bodies behind any given door), near major urban centers. Finally, the particular value for necromancers of body materials from holy men would also suggest attention was paid to their centers of activity, where their bodies would be more likely to end up, and Jerusalem was the ultimate magnet for holy men.
Q: But since Jesus was a condemned criminal, how could he be considered a holy man by sorcerers interested in body parts from holy men?
A: All early accounts represent Jesus as an innocent man railroaded by a kangaroo court, with the elite arranging his unjust execution even as many among the people were still inclined to regard him as holy (see Who Would Follow an Executed Criminal?). The exact same state of affairs held for John the Baptist, who was executed by the state, yet still regarded as a preeminent holy man. Certainly, if it was indeed publicly known that Jesus had worked miracles (even if only things we would today consider mundane, such as healing, exorcism, and prophecy), as the Gospels and Acts claim it was, and if Jesus had indeed convinced a large number that he was a holy man (according to Acts 1:15, over a hundred), then necromancers and their suppliers would sooner distrust the corrupt elite and conclude that Jesus probably was a holy man, a martyr, for the odds of this would be good enough. And even if not, corpse materials from convicted criminals and those killed by violence were also of use.
[For example, a corpse of one who suffered a biothanatou, "violent death": Papyri Graecae Magicae IV.1950, also IV.2208-09 = The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, pp. 72, 77; katadikô sphragenti, "a man slain by legal execution": PGM IV.2164-65; and one "untimely dead": IV.2215-16 = GMPT, pp. 76, 77.]
Q: Much of the evidence for sorcerous practices is literary and fictional, so how can we trust that evidence?
A: Literary and fictional evidence attests to what people know about their culture and time, and in fact such texts provide historians with a wealth of data about social assumptions and practices. Even though we accept these stories as exaggerated and not completely well-informed, we also accept that they still reflect a core element of what was really going on. And that is why it is important to back up such claims, whenever possible, with hard evidence, such as I do: legal texts and extant magical papyri present solid documentary evidence of what was indeed going on, and in fact they allow us to identify what elements of fictional accounts are exaggerated or misinformed, and which elements are based on an authentic kernel of truth. Certainly, we cannot trust fictional accounts in every detail, but we cannot ignore them, either. We can usually trust them to reflect certain social realities, especially when we can confirm those realities in other evidence, as we can in this case.
Q: How could corpse parts, especially organs and blood, have been preserved in an age without refrigeration?
A: Sorcerers have long been hacking up animal bodies and preserving their parts (bones, tissues, organs) and fluids (blood, gall, urine) for "magical" uses and still do, the same old ways as ever. Ever walk into a hardcore Santaria shop? Humans are, after all, just animals. Leather is leather. Bone is bone. Jerky is jerky. If you can pickle a pig's feet, you can pickle human feet. Blood can be stewed, or bottled with wine or vinegar, or prepared like an ink or paint. Inks and paints (even creams and lotions) often included biological ingredients, like egg, blood, placenta, or gall. Ancient spells usually involved bones, of course, which can easily be treated to last almost forever. But spells often called for using or even eating other parts, which could be jerked or cooked or pickled for the purpose, or even dried and stuffed. The most infamous example of such treatment today is the shrunken head. The most familiar now is the rabbit's foot. Biological elements were often employed not only as inks but as ingredients in potions, hence tissues could be dried and powdered, or fluids preserved in various long-lasting drinkable or paintable concoctions, while organs like eyes or hearts could be jerked, dried, smoked, boiled, or pickled. The need for such operations, in fact, was probably one of the leading reasons bodies had to be stolen (since, as already noted in reponse to questions above, bodies could not safely be used or dismembered in situ).
Q: I've heard it argued that bodies might have been stolen by ancient doctors for anatomical research. Is that plausible?
A: This is remotely conceivable but not in evidence, and on both counts is far less likely than theft for magical uses or a pious agenda. Sadly, ancient society was ten parts superstition and only one part rationality, hence the magical demand for bodies always far outweighed any demand that could have been created by scientists. And though there were some scientists who had an interest in performing anatomical research on human bodies (and we know this was in fact done under the Ptolemies before the time of Christ), there are two major reasons to discount them as potential thieves in the case of Jesus:
First, such persons were extraordinarily rare, and generally congregated to areas where there was already a significant medical research community (e.g. Alexandria), and Jerusalem did not qualify. Thus, it would be extremely unlikely that any such person would even be in the area--unlike sorcerers, who were so much in demand as to be found everywhere. Second, though dissection of human bodies was illegal at the time (hence doctors were frustrated in their research by having to "make do" with substitutes, like ape bodies, which Galen recommended and used in his own research and teaching), thus producing a possible motive for secretly obsconding with bodies, there is no actual evidence of serious doctors (like Galen) being so unscrupulous--and quacks and healers, though far more abundant, would have had little interest in serious anatomical study.
Q: You argue that "most Jews would be in no position to know whether there were guards, so a denial" of there being guards "would be risky, and unfruitful" (p. 359), but wouldn't a Christian "invention" of guards be just as risky? Indeed, wouldn't the Jewish assumption that the guards were asleep also be just as risky?
It is inherently more difficult--in fact, often impossible--to prove a negative. Therefore, arguing that something "wasn't" there is always riskier because one can simply insist it was there and the argument is over. It also risks being faced with solid evidence that the claimed thing was indeed there, whereas there rarely comes a point when evidence of something "not" being there will be sufficient to convince everyone it wasn't. And that means inventing a positive claim about a distant event will always be more effective and less risky, precisely because it is almost impossible to prove it isn't true, at least for someone miles and decades away from any relevant evidence there might be. That's why rebutting the Christian claim that there were guards with the equally positive claim that the guards were asleep stymies the Christian by beating him at his own game. For he cannot actually prove the guards weren't asleep--even if there had been guards! No one sat there and watched them every minute to confirm that they never slept, much less swore to this in a preserved affidavit.
It is easy to see why some Christians would be inspired to invent the story of there being guards in order to challenge the natural assumption that the body could simply have been stolen. Decades later it would be impossible for any Jew to refute that claim, and simply doubting it gets them nowhere in the arena of public discourse. But if they assert that the guards were "probably asleep" or that "even if there were guards, that doesn't mean they were awake the whole time," then not only do they put the Christian in the same vice, forcing them to invent yet another positive claim, this time of bribery and conspiracy--instead of lamely denying the guards were asleep--but they marshal on their side the power of common knowledge: just as it is common sense to infer that when something goes missing it was stolen, so it is common sense to infer that guards tasked with watching something for a whole day and night would probably fall asleep. Such an appeal to common sense works more magic on an audience than merely gainsaying your opponent. That is why the Christian response to the accusation that the guards were sleeping was not a mere "No they weren't!" but "They were bribed by the corrupt elite!" This was a better argument, since it was common knowledge that the elite were corrupt and the entire government was awash with bribery and graft.
Q: You point out that Matthew does not have the Jews posting a guard until many hours after the burial, leaving a large window of opportunity for thieves (p. 358), but don't you think the Jews would have posted some temporary guard before getting an official one from Pilate, or that the guards would have looked inside before they sealed the tomb?
A: The idea of unmentioned "temporary guards" has no support and makes little sense. If the Jews could post their own guard, they would not need to ask Pilate for permission to post another guard. And surely if Matthew knew of their request to Pilate, he would have known about any prior arrangements and reported them as well. More importantly, if there was some unknown reason for a more "official" guard, the Jews would have requested it from Pilate on Friday. There is no plausible explanation for why they would only assemble to make this request on Saturday--unless it had not occurred to them until then (or Matthew is deliberately depicting them as sinners, as I think is the actual case: pp. 362-63). So if Matthew's account is at all historical, the only plausible reconstruction of events is that someone among the Pharisees remembered what Jesus had said only later that Friday night and then discussed it with their colleagues and only then did they work out the possibility of a planned theft and then try to take what action they could against it (Matthew 27:62-66).
As for "looking inside" it is certainly possible they would do that, but it remains peculiar that Matthew never mentions it, and since he doesn't, we cannot assume it happened. We can certainly hypothesize that it happened, even reason from what we would do if we were those guards, but in doing so we have no more evidence for that hypothesis than for the contrary hypothesis that they merely placed a seal on the closed tomb, exactly as Matthew says they did. In other words, even taking everything into consideration, the evidence confirms either hypothesis. Therefore, it is not possible to assert one over the other (assuming the story is even true, which I make a strong case against). And that is exactly what is wrong with arguments for a "miraculous" resurrection: possibility, even plausibility, is simply insufficient to warrant belief. That is why my chapter is entitled "The Plausibility of Theft" and why I twice take pains to emphasize what that means (on pp. 349 and 364).
The bottom line is that I do not claim to know that the body of Jesus was stolen, or even whether it is probable. All I claim to know is that it cannot be ruled out--in other words, its probability may be low, but it is still a lot higher than I can honestly assign to "Aliens healed Jesus" or even "God healed Jesus" (see my answer to the related question above), because the evidence supporting theft, both direct and indirect, specific and general, establishes reasonable doubt, and though the evidence "for" theft is not strong enough to warrant the conviction that the body was stolen, the evidence "against" theft is substantially weaker in comparison. We are thus left with ignorance: we simply do not know for sure what happened, and anyone who claims to know for sure is stepping beyond the bounds of evidence and logic.
Q: Weren't the tombs of criminals always guarded to prevent illegal mourning?
A: No ancient source says so, and no author of any Gospel was aware of it, and all their narratives entail there was none (even Matthew's narrative only makes sense if a guard was needed and therefore not already present: see above). As for mourning, the law only said the family of convicts "did not go into mourning, but observe a private grief, for grief is only in the heart" (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.6d-e, cf. b.Talmud Sanhedrin 47b). It says nothing about stationing guards to ensure compliance, nor would posting a guard at the tomb even guarantee compliance, since "public mourning" for the dead could be performed anywhere. As the Jewish Encyclopedia confirms, almost all public acts of mourning occurred in the home and before the general public, not at the gravesite (e.g. Semahot 2.7-9 & 10.3 says the mourning meal was prohibited, but that was eaten at home, not the grave). So posting guards at a tomb to prevent mourning would be like posting guards at a bus stop to prevent someone from driving to work.
Q: In response to the proposal that the guards left before the women arrived, you note that "on this theory there could then be no source for Matthew's account," for "since the guards lied and the women weren't there" no one could have reported seeing "the angel descend and the guards become like dead men" (p. 359). But couldn't one of the guards, or one of the Priests or Sanhedrin who bribed them (Matthew 28:11-12), have confessed the truth and thus become the source of that information?
A: This is certainly possible, but not at all probable. For had that happened, then we would expect Matthew's story to be substantially different. Since this would then mean Matthew was trying to dispel a lie by revealing the truth, if Matthew knew one of the guards had actually recanted, that would be one of the most decisive arguments against the authenticity of the popular claim that the Christians stole the body (28:15), and against the trustworthiness of the Sanhedrin (thus discrediting anything else they said against the Christians), and for the truth of the Christian religion (since such a confession would all but entail their claims were true). For all three reasons such a fact would entail a coup for the Christians of priceless proportions. For that very reason, Matthew would surely have made a point of it. Instead, he says only that the guards dutifully spread the lie (28:15), with no idea of any of them ever doing otherwise.
The same conclusion follows if a member of the Sanhedrin had exposed the bribery of their colleagues and confessed the whole truth. Could there possibly be any greater an authority for the truth of the Christian religion than an actual member of the Sanhedrin who tried to suppress it, but then came forward and admitted it was all true? Thus, had such a thing happened, Matthew would not fail to mention it--if his purpose was indeed to defeat the lie, as this theory would entail it was. Instead, the existence of converts among the Sanhedrin is doubtful. John alone claims there were any disciples among the Sanhedrin (though only one: Nicodemus), and we can only hypothesize from information uncritically added up from all the Gospels that Joseph of Arimathea was both a disciple and of the Sanhedrin. But both claims are very dubious (see Note 25 in Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?).
Moreover, neither are said to have been present at the bribing of the guards. Matthew shows no awareness of Joseph even being a member of the Sanhedrin (he is merely "a rich man" and isn't even from Jerusalem: 27:57), and he shows no awareness at all of any Nicodemus. Matthew's ignorance of Joseph even being on the Sanhedrin entails that he could not have been Matthew's source for something only known to the Sanhedrin, and Matthew's silence on the existence of Nicodemus implies the same. That Joseph was a member of some council is reported by Mark, but Mark does not mention him being a member of the Jerusalem council--he instead implies that Joseph is of the Arimathean council (since he came "from Arimathea," 15:43).
Luke adds the remark that Joseph didn't agree with the Sanhedrin's conviction of Jesus, but this may be Luke's own assumption, and at any rate this still does not entail Joseph was actually a member of that same council (23:50-51). Neither Mark nor Luke state that Joseph was a disciple, either, despite Mark being our earliest source, and Luke the only source claiming to be historically accurate and thorough (1:1-3). Luke's silence entails that if Luke's "careful" research turned up no Nicodemus, there either was none, or Luke found the claim of his conversion to be untrustworthy. Likewise, if Luke's "careful" research turned up no evidence of Joseph being a disciple, that also must weigh against his being one.
John alone claims Joseph was a "secret" disciple, yet he still does not mention him belonging to any council, much less the Sanhedrin. Finally, John alone so much as mentions Nicodemus (19:38-39; w. 3:1-10, 7:50). Yet despite knowing all that information, John knows nothing whatever of Matthew's account of which Joseph and Nicodemus are supposed to have been the source. Instead, John reports a completely different story that contains no knowledge of guards or a descending angel (see next question). That strongly implies that neither Joseph nor Nicodemus could have reported such things (for if they had, then surely John would have known of it, and reported it accordingly).
Q: Regarding the grave clothes reported in John (and a disputed passage in Luke), you argue "since Mark and Matthew do not mention such cloths, and their presence is clearly a dramatic element in Luke and John, it is not likely a genuine detail" (p. 353). Is that a valid argument from silence?
A: As I explained in a preceding chapter (p. 178), a strong argument from silence follows when "the writer certainly would have known about it had it been a fact" and "he would have certainly made mention of it," but a weaker argument from silence still follows in proportion to the degree that these two conditions are met. Every Gospel reports all alleged witnesses to the empty tomb looking into that tomb and seeing where the body had lain (Mark 16:5-6; Matthew 28:6; Luke 24:3, 24:12; John 20:3-12), therefore every Gospel's alleged source would certainly have known of the cloths had they been there. The probability that none of these witnesses would mention this fact to anyone except the author of John (and perhaps Luke, although as I add in the relevant endnote, scholars suspect the passage in Luke is an interpolation from John), is low. Therefore, the probability that the author of either Mark or Matthew would know of it is high. And though they would not certainly have mentioned the fact had they known it, it is likely at least one of them would, hence it is likely the detail is a fabrication. Combine this further with the fact that the detail has an obvious dramatic function in John and Luke (as I explain on p. 353) and fabrication becomes even likelier. Yet even if the detail is genuine, it is still irrelevant (as I explain on p. 353).
Q: Arguing that Matthew invented the guards, you claim "the other three Gospel accounts entail their absence." How so?
A: I already cover this in the book (pp. 358-59). To that I shall add that even from the start, it is inherently improbable that none of the other three authors knew anything at all about these guards or the seal on the tomb or the story that the Jews were supposedly telling "to this day," not even Luke, who alone claims to have "traced the course of all things accurately from the first" (1:3). Indeed, Luke's assertion of historical aim and accuracy (1:1-3) implies that what he left out he chose to leave out because he found it untrue, or he uncovered no such story, and either way Luke's silence weighs heavily against Matthew.
One can invent fanciful and elaborate reconstructions that try to harmonize the many contradictory details among the four versions of the empty tomb story (Mark 16, Matthew 28, Luke 24, and John 20). But there is simply no way to make plausible sense of the fact that Matthew tells us the guards are paralized at the sight of the angel, and then the angel says to the women not to be afraid. At no point do the guards flee before the women arrive. In contrast, Luke and Mark both agree that the women walked into the tomb without encountering any angel or any guards, and there is no angel sitting on the tomb door as Matthew claims there was.
Moreover, Luke says they went in on their own and were "perplexed" as to why the body was missing, which entails that no guards were present for them to question and, most importantly, no angel had yet appeared to tell them--yet Matthew says the angel appeared to open the tomb and told them. Matthew doesn't say the angel appeared, opened the tomb, then hid somewhere until the guards left, then came out of hiding only after the women found the body missing. Nor would such a comical sequence of events be at all plausible. Of course, Luke and John make it two "angels" rather than one, and only inside the tomb, not outside on the tomb door, and who only appear after the women are perplexed. Where are these two angels in Matthew's account? Indeed, John's account contradicts almost every detail in Matthew: the angels tell Mary nothing and she does not learn what happened to the body except from Jesus, who looks like an ordinary stranger and not someone whose "countenance was like lightning and his raiment white as snow," as Matthew claims.
Those are not the only contradictory details, but they are the most blatant. We need only imagine a comparable scenario today:
A police officer arrives at the scene of a bank robbery and finds an empty vault, and four employees, Mary, Mindy, Sandy, and Martha. He separates them and asks each privately what happened. Mary says they all went to get some money and found the vault empty, but there was a man inside in a white suit who said "Don't worry! We took it for a good cause!" and then they all ran to call the police. Mindy, however, says they actually went inside the vault and found it empty and they were all perplexed by that, when suddenly two men in white suits appeared inside the vault with them, seemingly out of nowhere, and said "Don't worry! We took it for a good cause!" and then they all ran to call the police. The police officer thinks there is certainly some confusion here, but the stories at least agree in outline.
So he goes next to Sandy. She says she alone went inside and found the vault empty and was perplexed by that, so she went and told some male colleagues, and they returned with her and confirmed the vault was empty and were perplexed by that, and while the men left to call the police, Sandy stood outside. Then she looked in and saw two men in clown suits inside who asked her "What did you expect!?" and, startled by that, Sandy spun around and then saw some stranger behind her, whom she assumed was the janitor. So she asked this "janitor" where the money was and he said "Don't worry! We took it for a good cause!" This story does not jibe with the others at all, so the officer knows by now that he's not getting the whole truth.
Exasperated by all these conflicting stories, the officer then asks the fourth witness, Martha. She says they all went to the vault, but then a robot with a jet pack descended from the sky, paralyzed two United States marines who were guarding the vault, then single-handedly pulled open the vault, revealing that it was already empty, and then this flying robot sat on top of the vault door and said to all of them, "Don't worry! We took it for a good cause!"
Now be honest. Whose story would you consider true? Would you really try to invent some wild hypothesis to reconcile all four stories? Or would you just arrive at the obvious conclusion that Martha is full of sh*t?
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